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A Post-mortem with Raju Narisetti: “I would have actually tried to move faster”

The outgoing Post’s managing editor on his critics, the challenges ahead for 2012, and his return to The Wall Street Journal.

Raju Narisetti

Raju Narisetti does not seem like the kind of guy who settles. “I’m a big believer in newsrooms being in a permanent beta stage,” he told me recently. His Twitter bio hits inspirational notes (“Everything seems impossible until it is done”), but until a few days ago, it also included a sentence inspired by the French Revolution: “So follow me if I advance, kill me if I retreat, avenge me if I die advancing.”

Others can parse whether his most recent move — from managing editor of The Washington Post to managing editor of the WSJ Digital Network — counts as an advance, a retreat, or something else entirely. Narisetti, 45, is a Wall Street Journal alum and will help fill a void created with Kevin Delaney’s departure to The Atlantic.

Narisetti arrived at the Post three years ago to integrate its digital and print teams, which were literally separated by the Potomac River. “It was fairly traumatic, not in a bad way, but we changed our entire publishing system for print and online, we redesigned the website, we redesigned the newspaper, we physically emptied the newsroom and redid it and put everybody back in,” Narisetti told me. “We changed the overall structure of the newsroom. In all this we ended up reducing our workforce by close to 200+ people.”

He was hired three years ago to integrate the digital and print teams, which were literally separated by the Potomac River.

“So yeah, we put the Washington Post through a lot of change. And to be where we are now, where we had a record for the year in digital, an all-time record, entering a presidential election year, makes me feel good that it has gone well.”

Narisetti has said his singular goal was to bring Post journalism to as many readers as possible. With that came a “culture of measurement,” he says, gauging success by pageviews and time on site. Maybe not something a lot of print journalists want to hear — and probably one of the reasons Narisetti found some naysayers inside the Post and many outside (his words). The paper’s ombudsman went so far as to suggest Narisetti’s digital team was “innovating too fast.” And a disgruntled Post staffer came out of the woodwork — anonymously — to complain to Jim Romenesko:

He may have had great ideas, but you have to judge him by the end results: a desktop web site that loads too damn slow, has video that doesn’t work on an iPad and can’t present a mobile version of a story to a mobile device; a mobile site that lacks an article-search function and won’t display story comments; a series of mobile apps that function like packaged versions of the mobile site; the Godawful mess that is [content-management system] Methode that caused some of these issues.

Narsietti also wants to be judged by the end results, he said: “A single newsroom serving audiences across multiple platforms and breaking all-time records in page views, unique visitors, visits to the site and time spent on site is what the Washington Post newsroom is today—all measurable, all audience-focused data points not just some anecdotal talking points is what the Post is today.”

In 2011, the Post’s website saw a record number of pageviews, 26 percent more monthly unique visitors year-over-year, more video plays, more stickiness, more repeat visits, and, with the launch of iPhone and Android apps, 70 percent more mobile visits over 2010, according to internal Omniture data. He acknowledged, however, that the Post missed some goals, including growing its local audience, by a considerable margin.

Narisetti wrote in an email:

I am happy to take ownership of both success and problems, both of which we have plenty and always will. [...] Like many traditional media companies, the Post is also finally recognizing that the future will play out at the intersection of Post journalism and technology, in creating great “experiences” for readers. And its journey of not treating technology as a service function but as a strategic partner to news, something I have flagged for a while, has just begun and will succeed. Finally, I would have actually tried to move faster than we have. Big established newsroom cultures can get into trouble when we focus on the rear-view mirror and only talk of how far we have come.

“He was not afraid of hurting people’s feelings and that’s a good thing,” publisher Katharine Weymouth told a Post reporter. “He’s a change agent.”

In January 2009, Post Editor Marcus Brauchli created a system of dual managing editors: Narisetti ran the editing staff, producers, photo desk, social media people, and graphics and design teams, while his counterpart Liz Spayd ran the reporters. The dividing line between their jobs was job function, not medium.

Narisetti assigned “innovation editors” to the desks — sports, opinion, politics, the investigative team — for day-to-day and medium-term projects. Over the last few months, Narisetti has assembled a small, centralized team of digital project managers who focus on bigger-picture, sitewide projects. That team’s first product was the @MentionMachine, which gulps data from the Twitter fire hose and the Post’s own Trove APIs to track which candidates are talked about most in a week. The goal, he said, is for replicable innovation, code that can be re-used for other stories, not one-off projects.

The most aggressively digital-focused people might criticize a structure that includes distinctive digital editors instead of integrating digital into all jobs in the newsroom. Narisetti acknowledged that, but called it a transition. “At the beginning of our evolution to become a single newsroom, we did specifically need innovation catalysts in each of the groups because the groups that are print-focused are probably not digitally focused. So they needed somebody who understood what digital can do for their piece of content.”

Narisetti said he is leaving the Post amicably and sees the Wall Street Journal gig as a new challenge. There he’ll be responsible for WSJ.com, SmartMoney.com, MarketWatch, and foreign-language editions of WSJ.com.

“To talk about print and online integration now feels a little bit like Web 1.0, I think, been there, done that in some ways. It has become a baseline rather than actually the goal,” he said. “To me the biggest challenge going forward this year and beyond is, How do you integrate technology and content? Because I think that’s going to be the defining characteristic of successful media companies. Can you create engaging news experiences that create loyalty and engagement?”

                                   
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