by Jessica Goldings, Research Assistant - Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2007 IRE Conference
To many newspaper editors and television producers, the web represents a bit of a paradox. How do traditional media survive in the face of an ever-growing, constantly updated medium that continues to snatch away circulation and zap ad dollars? To Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of the Washington Post, and Rhonda Schwartz, senior producer of the Brian Ross Investigative Unit at NBC News, the web actually enhances the capabilities of traditional media, particularly in the area of investigative journalism.At the 2007 Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) conference in Phoenix June 7-10, Downie and Schwartz spoke about how the traditional media leverages the web for investigations. Downie explained that when the Washington Post first went online in 1996, the website was a separate business with its own staff and office building.
“We wanted the web operation to be a part of the web world,” Downie said. But over time, he continued, that model wasn’t good for business — traditional media just can’t compete with instant news updates provided by the web. “We’re going to lose readership to the web, but that’s O.K.,” he said. “We’re going to lose it anyway, so we might as well capture it on washingtonpost.com and not lose it to monster.com.” Despite the circulation decline in its print edition, the Post’s website compensates for the loss by attracting an even wider and more diverse readership, Downie said.“What we gain is a huge national and international audience that we couldn’t have before,” he said. “It’s grown to quite large and advanced increasingly rapidly.”
Breaking stories on the web makes an even bigger impact on traditional media, Downie added. Schwartz agrees, citing that breaking stories on their website, “The Blotter,” drives more people to the evening news. However, the decision whether to break the story online during the day or to wait until the evening news is hotly contested.
“The evening news producers are concerned that if we break the story on the web, people are not going to watch the evening news,” she said. “There’s always this constant debate on whether to break a story on television or the web first.”
For ongoing investigative pieces the web remains a useful tool, especially since the number of people reading breaking stories peaks between noon to 3 p.m.—before the evening news—according to Schwartz.
For example, when the Blotter broke the Mark Foley/White House page scandal on Sept. 28 around 3 p.m., it attracted a record number of 38 million page views. As the first news outlet to break the scandal, the Blotter’s coverage sparked the investigation that led to Foley’s resignation. It also earned the investigative team an IRE online certificate award at the conference.
Schwartz added that the web has greatly expanded the scope of her team’s reporting by allowing team members to post additional text, video, audio and slideshows.“Something that makes the internet such an opportunity is that there’s always so much you can add…it’s a multimedia operation that we are running,” she said.
Similarly, Downie views the web as a venue for expanding news coverage, particularly investigative journalism. A 27-part series on the lobbyist Gerald Cassidy, for example, attracted a small, but targeted audience, according to Downie. Washingtonpost.com ran the complete series, while the print edition ran only the first and last stories because of space issues.
When asked if there would be more investigative journalism five years from now, Schwartz seemed positive.
“I’m very optimistic about investigative reporting on the web,” she said. “I think it’s a good thing, and there will be more of it.” Schwartz likened the Blotter’s work to internet journalist Matt Drudge’s Drudge Report, which attracted national attention when it was the first to break the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Like Drudge, the Blotter solicits readers’ news tips and updates investigative stories throughout the day.
“Why should Drudge have all the fun?” she asked. “We decided we’d like to do our own Drudge Report.” Despite the apparent compatibility between traditional and new media, that doesn’t stop “senior turf-conscious managers” on both the newspaper and web sides from needing to learn to work together better, according to Downie. “There’s still a lot of conflict, but we make sure it’s resolved,” he said. “We’re at a paradox; we want to be separate, but also to work together.”
The challenge, Downie said, is viewing the Washington Post as a combined newspaper and web business. From his experience, that’s the best way to maximize profit and increase quality.