A few weeks ago, I did a phone interview with Northwestern University’s Media Management Center for a report that is planned to be released publicly a little later this week.
The report (which is now available for download as a PDF) is called “Running While the Earth Shakes: Creating an Innovation Strategy to Win in the Digital Age.” It’s kind of billed as a study on innovation in the news media.
It’s about 50 pages long and includes interviews with 36 executives from both old and new media companies, including several folks from The Washington Post Company, like my boss, Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive CEO Caroline Little.
I was told the audience for this report is essentially mainstream media executives.
I thought since I haven’t blogged in a while, I would post my quotes from the report, which were sent to me via e-mail after they were transcribed.
One of the quotes is from a section about the importance of company leaders keeping in close touch with folks who are trying to do new things. After being at The Washington Post for about a year now, I can tell you that Don Graham is the living embodiment of that.
Mr. Graham — which if he reads this, I’m going to be in trouble because he hates it when people call him that — rolls in much more impressive circles than I do. I mean, how many newspaper publishers can call Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg friends and advisors?
And what’s really cool is that Don isn’t one of those people who might try to have friends like that for prestige’s sake. He really listens to these people. But you don’t have to be the “Oracle of Omaha” or the brains behind Facebook for Don to want to listen to you.
This is a guy who takes things in from almost everyone whom he finds to have a good point or fresh perspective. When I was in Lawrence, Dolph Simons had that exact same quality.
Anyway, that’s the point I was trying to make when I said:
“Though I report to the CEO of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, I have this very cool relationship with Don Graham, our company’s chairman. He calls me a lot, he e-mails me a lot and we have lots of great conversations. He’s always very interested in what our team is working on and he’s even helped us cut through the bureaucracy on problems that seem a little beneath him, like getting information from a local school district.
“What’s been really fun is to see how many cool things we’ve worked on that actually begin with Don. The Washington Post was the first major media company to build a Facebook app this summer, and it was his idea. …
“But the coolest thing I ever saw Don do was have lunch with our team’s summer interns and write down three pages of notes from his discussions with them. The guy always wants to learn and isn’t above learning from the interns. You might have the leader of another company have lunch with interns, but how many are going to take notes?”
Then there is this long, rambling quote from me that ends the report. I can’t believe I would have said all of this at once in the phone interview, so it must have been pieced together.
Of course, if it’s a morning where I’ve had a couple of Red Bulls and a Mountain Dew, I’m very capable of running off like this without a breath.
Here goes …
“Our team works outside the typical boundaries of washingtonpost.com, and that has its good points and its bad points. In fact, unlike most of those who work at our offices, we’re not really washingtonpost.com employees. Technically, we are a new products team for all of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, which means we can be asked to build content, applications and sites for anything that our company owns, including Newsweek, Slate magazine, Budget Travel (and) even our company’s television stations around the country.
“Most of us (his team) have been together forever. Everyone else thinks of us as online journalists, but we think of ourselves as new media journalists, and to us that means we need to be thinking about a whole lot more than just how do we get our newspaper on the Internet — it means building things for mobile phones, mp3 players, widgets, Facebook, everything.
“What’s the next big thing? What’s around the corner? How does an information company present its content any place that people want it? I often joke that we would beam our content to people’s butts if we could figure out how to do it. …
“Our team has its own dedicated programmer; he’s been working with us for a long time so he knows how programming relates to journalism. This is a guy who practices his journalism with code instead of with sentences. We have a full-time dedicated senior designer who’s also a motion graphics animator and a Flash developer. Then we have two multimedia journalists — one in an editor’s role and one in a producer’s role, but both can do just about everything. They can write very well-written news stories, they can produce daily audio podcasts, they can shoot and edit video. You throw something at them and they can probably do it, or they’re going to figure out how to do it. They’re kind of jack-of-all-trades when it comes to storytelling.
“Then the fifth member of our team is this really smart guy who has the strangest role on our team. In fact, we had to make up a whole new title for him and that’s ‘Journalism Technology Specialist.’ He’s a weird guy because he’s a dang fine journalist; he can really write well and understands new media journalism really well, but he can also code a little bit, he can write CSS. Basically, this guy sits between the journalism and the technology. So once all the code has been written, all the sites have been designed, all the Flash animations have been built, all the stories have been written, all the virtual reality photos have been taken, he’s the guy who assembles all of that. And that makes him a pretty useful guy to have around.
(By contrast), “washingtonpost.com is massive — almost 300 people if you add up all of the different editorial, technical, advertising and marketing departments. I’ve never seen an online operation so dang big for a newspaper.
“They’re all working their backsides off, but with a site this dang big, sometimes you need that many people just to keep the trains running on time. But, man, is it big to a kid from Kansas. … All the different divisions of washingtonpost.com are on different floors or in different areas of our building so if they want to build something new or different, they have to ask for programming and engineering to come up from the 9th floor, they’ve got to ask for the design team to come over here; they may have to ask for the multimedia team to come over, and they’ve got to have the journalists and editors come over. So every time they do anything, they have to coordinate with several departments. Meetings are a huge part of life at washingtonpost.com.
“That’s what makes our team so unique at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. We’re small and nimble. Our team doesn’t have to coordinate like that in order to get a project off the ground. We’re pretty much a self-contained unit; we have all of those skillsets right there and all together. As soon as we get the go-ahead to do something, we can start working on it immediately. We don’t do a lot of meetings.
“I would say 80 to 90% of our ideas are internal … well, kind of. It’s all very informal — no spec sheets, no white papers, no research or user-group testing. In a lot of ways, we just like to build things that we’d like to have ourselves. I guess it kind of drives some people in our organization a little nuts, but it works great for us and I wouldn’t want to change a thing.
“Besides, if you ask a group of readers what they want, they’ll tell you based upon what they know. They won’t tell you about what they’ve always wished they could have but had no idea they would love having until you finally give it to them. That’s what we try to build — things people never knew they wanted.
“I get asked all of the time how our team comes up with the ideas behind the things we build. I’d love to tell you we have found the secret sauce, but it’s not like that at all. We might go out to lunch as a whole group, once or twice a month. We just talk about things we’ve seen, things we like. A lot of ideas come from those lunches, but that’s not how it works on a daily basis. A lot of our things happen more like this: I’ll get an e-mail from someone on our team at three in the morning saying, ‘Have you seen this on this site? Wouldn’t it be cool if we borrowed this idea and made it work like this for what we’re trying to build?’
“Nearly all of those ideas are from non-newspaper sites. They’re from other websites that had a kernel of an idea that they had used on their website that this person on our team recognized as being something that, if modified and used in the news industry, might work really well.
“So these people (the members of his team) are of the Internet. It is in their DNA. That’s what makes a lot of these newspaper sites completely suck is because so many of them are run by people who don’t have the Internet in their DNA.”
Why do I get the feeling that last paragraph is going to land me in the principal’s office?