Named executive editor of washingtonpost.com in late 2004, Jim Brady presided over a near-doubling in Web traffic and saw the site win numerous awards during his four-year tenure. After the Post announced plans to integrate its print and online operations, Brady stepped down earlier this year. He is now serving as a consultant to Guardian America, a Web site published by the liberal British newspaper that is geared toward American audiences.
Brady spoke Friday with CJR assistant editor Greg Marx about building a Web-friendly culture, the revenue potential of mobile applications, and what he sees as a fallow year for online innovation. An edited transcript appears below.
Greg Marx: So you’re running www.washingtonpost.com for a number of years, you leave right around the start of this year, I imagine you’re looking for new challenges. Why Guardian America?
Jim Brady: Well, the Guardian has been one of those places that those of us in the States who have been working on the Web looked to for a long time and said, they clearly get it. They had the kind of culture that a lot of us were trying to emulate when we got our jobs in the States, to innovate and really build a newsroom that viewed the Web as not this annoying add-on but a central part of its future. So when I decided to leave the Post, [an opportunity presented itself] and I decided to be consulting editor over here and just take a chunk of time and try to figure out how to get the Guardian better integrated into the U.S. Web ecosystem.
GM: So you’ve been there a few months now. What do you feel like you’ve been able to accomplish so far, and what steps are you hoping to take?
JB: The Guardian has built a pretty good U.S. audience without ever really having a stated, dedicated focus on the U.S. There’s a U.S. page on the Web site, there’s a Guardian America front that has information that would be of interest to U.S. audiences, but there hasn’t been a really, really aggressive push to build that audience. So now we’re looking at how do you tap into social media, how do you tap into relationship-building with bloggers, how do you build in technology strategies to help surface content that’s interesting to American readers.
There’s a partnership piece to it—what partnerships could happen in the U.S. where the Guardian might be able to find a larger audience through collaborations with entities here? So it’s been a little bit on all those different fronts—some of it’s technology, some of it’s partnerships, some of it is just trying to follow some of the things that I did at the Post to help us build audience. There isn’t one silver bullet to building Web audience.
GM: You talked at the outset about how the Guardian has always had a more Web-oriented culture. Can you talk more specifically about what that means for you in terms of getting buy-in for an enterprise, or how long it takes to implement an idea? Have you noticed any differences in those situations?
JB: Absolutely. There’s a whole layer of evangelizing that is not really required at the Guardian. Even at the Post where I felt like a lot of the newsroom was engaged in what the Web was doing, and a lot of the newsroom was willing to do what the Web asked, there was still a group of people who you had to take out to lunch or have three or four meetings with to sell them on a concept. Sometimes the process of getting somebody to buy in to something could take a couple of months. At the Guardian, you don’t really ever get pushback when you come up with a good idea for the Web. It’s got to be put on a list of projects that also include print projects, but that’s fine—you don’t have to sell the idea itself…. You’re not selling the medium. The medium is already sold there…. So that just enables you to move faster when you can remove that entire part of the process.
A lot of this starts from [editor] Alan [Rusbridger], who’s on Twitter, who’s on Facebook, who’s active in social media, who’s very much a fan of the Web and technology and gadgets. He believes in it, he makes it clear he believes in it, and that obviously helps.
GM: The Guardian comes out of the British press tradition, in which it’s OK for a news organization to have an avowed political perspective. Does that make a difference in terms of reaching out to a Web audience?
JB: Yeah, I think it does. I’m not necessarily advocating that for U.S. papers, but I do think it’s an advantage for the Guardian, in that it gets pick-up from a lot of blogs who share that ideology. I think a lot of bloggers look at them as a natural place to look first thing in the morning for journalism that will be of interest because they know that there’s a general side from which the Guardian comes, which they’re unapologetic about. It may make it harder to get pick-up in areas that are to the other side of the political spectrum, but to be honest I haven’t seen that so much in practice, because the beauty is when you’re on one side people will often link to you because they want to point out how much they disagree with what you’re saying. And I think it certainly is helpful in terms of building relationships with people—you can see it already with how often they get linked on HuffPo and a lot of places, there’s an affinity for the Guardian.
But one of the great things about the Guardian is, even the people who don’t share the ideology respect it as a news organization, and I think that says a lot about them. In the couple months I’ve been doing this, there isn’t a single person I can think of on either side of the political spectrum who, when you tell them you’re working for the Guardian, doesn’t go ‘Wow, that’s great.’
GM: In terms of getting the Guardian integrated into the U.S. web ecosystem, the broader ecosystem—certainly the blog world—tends to allow partisanship or ideology to be out there, so there does seem to be a natural fit.
JB: I think in the world of the Web, you have to pick some spots to go after and go hard after them, while leaving some other ones completely unexplored. So what we’ve been looking at is, what are the content areas where there’s clearly interest in the US where the Guardian produces quality journalism? Obviously politics is one of them, but so is culture, and soccer, and the environment, and media. I think part of the strategy is, instead of just saying there’s 200 pieces in the Guardian today, let’s spend a lot of time trying to get all of them seeded, there’s probably ten that are going to stand above the rest in terms their appeal to a U.S. audience. So how do we build relationships with the bloggers who drive the most traffic in those niches, while maintaining relationships with the broader aggregators?
GM: Switching gears, you tweeted about Clay Shirky’s recent speech, and in particular you flagged the remark that readers are “not interested in single omnibus publications.” Leave aside crosswords and comics and horoscopes and classifieds and everything else that used to fill newspapers, and that all us journalists sadly realized half the people were buying the paper for anyway. Are readers still interested in a publication that brings together sports, and politics, and business, and entertainment coverage—“news” broadly defined—as many outlets, including the Guardian, still do?
JB: I think it’s a real problem. I’m relatively hard on the newspaper industry about the pace of change and innovation, but I’ve also said that this isn’t all their fault. They produced these wonderful, valuable general-interest publications and then showed up on the Web with them, and found out the Web is niche. You take most newspapers in the U.S., there are a couple things they’re really, really good at, better at probably than anybody else. And then there are a long list of things they’re just no better at—especially if you look at soft sections, there’s still a lot of newspapers producing home sections, travel sections, food sections. Probably not a single one of those sections, maybe with the exception of some of The New York Times feature sections, can hold a candle to one of the top five or six Web sites about that particular topic. I do think it’s a struggle, and it’s why you have to focus on why you’re really good at.
You can certainly build traffic through your areas of expertise. But I don’t think that producing a paper that’s great at 30 percent of the subjects it covers and OK at the other 70 percent really has much of a future on the Web, because it’s just too hard to compete. We’re in this social media world now where if I’m on Twitter or I’m on Facebook and someone sends me an article, three pieces of information come with that: what friend of mine sent me the article, what the headline says, and who produced the article. And I would argue that who produced the article is by far the least important of the three. If the first two things click, I don’t care if it’s produced by The New York Times, the Guardian, or the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I think that’s what a lot of media companies are struggling with right now, which is the brand name itself, while certainly relevant still, does not carry the weight it did fifteen years ago.
GM: In an interview in early 2008, you said: “The key is matching enough journalists working to the readers to take advantage of all the information out there. Once we figure out the sticky question of revenue models for the web, hopefully there’ll be a building back up of newsrooms, as well as for the investigative staff, that have suffered in past 5 years.” So that was a year and a half ago. Have we made any progress answering that “sticky question”?
JB: I don’t think the answers have clearly been solved yet on that front. I’m bullish that the real answer down the road is there, and that it’s going to be a combination of multiple revenue streams. It’s going to have to be largely display ad driven for awhile, I think you can supplement it with some premium stuff, and I think the one opportunity that newspapers and media companies really need to be doing stuff with the next couple years is mobile.
You look at a mobile phone, you have a built-in payment system. You have people who are willing to spend $2.99 to get a ten-second snippet of a song as a ringtone; they can buy the whole song for two dollars less on iTunes. People are willing to spend on phones, and it’s easy to do so. Especially with GPS location-type stuff coming up there’s a lot of opportunities for local newspapers to build local services people will pay for. So I think mobile will open up a lot of doors. Will it solve the whole problem? No, but I think media companies need to get out of this idea that there’s one huge revenue stream out there. There is no one silver bullet—it’s going to be shrapnel; it’s going to be a lot of pieces of a bullet. But I’m still confident that we’ll be looking back in 15 years thinking, ‘Isn’t it funny, we thought this would never come back together again?’ I’m confident that it will, although it will be a very different world.
GM: Setting aside the revenue question, what are the biggest remaining challenges for newspapers in terms of continuing to make the transition editorially to the Web and developing the culture that’s needed to do that?
JB: I think that’s the problem, developing the culture. What the recession has done in the last year is to force people to put their eye back on the print side of the operation, because it is still throwing off a lot more money than the Web. My own fear is that in the last year I’ve seen a lot less innovation journalistically on the Web than we saw the previous couple of years. I felt like we’d turned the corner. The Times had launched their R&D unit, they were doing all this really cool stuff—which they still are. But a lot of other organizations were starting to hire people, more videographers, more database developers, and were putting more emphasis on getting the journalists who were at the newspaper doing stuff for the Web site. I feel like that’s taken a step back with the financial tsunami that’s hit in the last year. It seems like there’s less innovation going on across the board in newsrooms right now. That’s probably the biggest concern, is that the recession set the transition to the Web back.
And my issue with the Post specifically was not that they merged newsrooms, it was that they merged them in a way that gave the Web very little ability to innovate and to push into new areas. The line I keep using is that in any newsroom structure, the Web has to be positioned in a way that it can do things that will make the print side uncomfortable. It’s got to have enough autonomy that it can push into technologies in new areas and make the newsroom go, ‘Do we really want to be on Twitter?’ You’ve got to take some risks, you’ve got to play on some new playgrounds. And when you have to run all those questions through a print structure, often the answer is no, or it takes a really long time to get to an answer.
And I guess that’s the other thing I’m starting to see across the industry right now, is that the Web side collectively at news sites seems to have a lot less freedom than it did two or three years ago, largely because it’s a victim of its own success. Web sites grew, revenue at the Web sites grew, it became increasingly clear that the Web was the future, and I think at that point there was a decision made at a lot of newspaper companies that the newspaper has to run this thing, it’s just gotten too important. And I’m not sure that was good for innovation.
GM: So actually be separated institutionally was beneficial, in terms of fostering innovation?
JB: To me it’s less about separation than it is about autonomy. The Web site, even under one editor who runs the whole newsroom, needs to be given enough freedom to aggressively try some new things, and I think that’s what’s been lost. It’s less of a separation of the newsroom, because I think that comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. But once you bring the Web into the newsroom, it needs to be separate enough within that single structure to innovate.
It’s very hard to innovate when you’ve given the keys to the castle to people who just haven’t spent any time thinking about how journalism’s different on the Web. I always say that if The Washington Post went and bought a TV station tomorrow, it would never suggest that the newspaper management team should run the TV station, right? It would just assume that’s a different thing. I think the Web suffers a little bit because enough of it’s similar that there’s a perception that people who run print sides can easily run the Web side. And it’s a very different medium, a very different relationship with readers. The technology allows you to target readers much more directly than you can with a general-interest publication; storytelling is different via multimedia. It’s not as different as TV, but it’s not as similar as people think.
GM: Last question. Can you talk about one or two things you’ve seen newspapers put out on the Web in the last year or so that have really impressed you?
JB: The body of work the Times has done this year has been pretty impressive. Some of the work they’ve done building the Represent tool, the Debate Tracker tool, the Document Reader, which makes it very easy to take source documents and put them up on the Web. These are all things that are not necessarily single stories, but they’re underpinnings of a whole new way of being able to communicate information with readers.
The LA Times has had a good year in terms of building traffic, and they’ve done some really strong stuff around entertainment. You know who actually does some really interesting stuff on the Web, though they’re not a newspaper, is the Center for Public Integrity. They’ve done a couple really good special reports on tobacco and on the financial crisis, very heavy on investigative, database-driven stuff. And ProPublica’s ChangeTracker thing—somewhere down the road, that tool is going to help break something big.
So I think there’s a lot of good stuff going on. It’s just that two years ago I saw a wave washing up, it looked like this was the wave that’s going to finally be the game-changer, and it seems like it’s receded back a little bit.