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Jan. 14, 2009, 11:57 a.m.

The benefits (and drawbacks) of keeping web and print separate

The New York Times’ Derek Willis left a critical comment on our Washington Post post that’s worth a look. An excerpt:

…the fact that WPNI was setup separate from the Post did yield many benefits for washingtonpost.com. Having worked at both places, I know and respect the leaders of both. But there is no way — zero chance — that washingtonpost.com would have been permitted to try many of the things it did (some of which failed) had it been run by the editors of the paper. That freedom, which in my experience Don Graham did quite a bit to guard, was essential in the ability to attract talented people and allow them to do innovative things. To simply state that the arrangement “has never served the Post well” may accurately reflect the opinion of some of my former colleagues at the paper, but it does not accurately reflect reality.

He also points to this post by Ryan Thornburg echoing some of the same ideas. I certainly take his point, which makes a lot of sense. There’s a good reason companies seeking innovation often use a skunk works model to segregate some of its people.

But I think what we talk about when we talk about “merging” print and online newsrooms covers a lot of ground: geography (where the offices are located), culture (the web side’s identity as a separate entity), resources (the duplication of effort created by having some jobs done on both sides of the river), command-and-control (who gets to direct or coordinate all those resources), and more.

As an outside observer — and as someone who used to work for a newspaper that has vacillated back and forth between separate and united arrangements for web and print — it seems to me you have to judge whether the benefits you get on the culture end outweigh the drawbacks from the other areas. I suspect that, were I working there, I’d value the former more. I’m not sure, though, that’s the same conclusion one would reach if one were (a) on the print side, (b) in management, or (c) a stockholder in WPO.

Management profs far wiser than I have written a lot about the benefits and risks of skunk works. And one of the risks is that, no matter what great work may be done in that separate entity, the separation can make it harder to transfer that work back to the rest of the organization.

Yes, I’m sure there were projects that were only possible because the washingtonpost.com people were separate from the newsroom. But I’d also bet there would have serious benefits to having them in the newsroom — like infecting print people with some of the culture the web people had developed. In Dallas, where I worked, the web people were stationed for years in a separate building several blocks away. We never, ever saw them. And that made it easier, I think, to view what they were doing as part of a mission separate from our own. We didn’t think webby thoughts as often as we would have if they’d been a few desks away instead of a few blocks. It created a low level of hostility between the two sides, neither of which saw as much value in the other as they could have, and it set them up as competitors for resources, for management love, and so on.

I know a lot of web people who view their print brethren as hopelessly backwards, as horse-and-buggy types circa 1920. And in many cases, they’re right. But one could argue one of the responsibilities of the web side these past few years has been to prevent that — to be part of the modernizing process of the print side. And I’d argue that keeping web and print separate created artificial roadblocks for that process — even if it did make it easier for great work and experimentation to be done in the web side.

In any event, thanks to Derek for presenting the countering point of view and for giving me an excuse to write something about this — he’s got an important perspective that you should hear. Even if the Post and other newspapers are moving toward unity, he’s definitely right — the old arrangement was not without advantages.

POSTED     Jan. 14, 2009, 11:57 a.m.
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