Open Letter to Washington Post: Keep the Frontier Open

I normally try to avoid giving public advice to my former employers. But, with it having little chance of helping or hurting any of my former colleagues at this late point in the decision process, I’m going to fire away.

Dear Washington Post Deciders,

You need to merge the print and online newsrooms immediately. There is no time to spare. Oh, and you need to keep them separate.

When I first came to work at washingtonpost.com in 1997, it was an unholy land where I worked in a closet. That I shared with someone.

The smells of dead fish sometimes emanated from the executive editor’s office. There were completely unfounded rumors of people expensing porn and lattes — at the same time — on overnight shifts.

We didn’t get civilized visitors from the newspaper very often. This is how I first met Don Graham: I walked in to the lobby after a run to Taco Bell for a MexiMelt and Chilito. A stranger held the elevator for me. I got on. “Hello, I’m Don Graham,” he said. “Hello, I’m Ryan Thornburg,” I said.

I don’t know if this is the kind of place Bob Kaiser envisioned on his flight from Japan in 1992, but this is the kind of place it was.

Then people started paying attention to what we were doing over there in Rosslyn. Newspaper reporters began breaking news online. The “PM Edition” was started.

I left for a while, came back, and even more people were paying attention. On “The West Wing” a fictional Post reporter threatened to post a story online within hours if he didn’t get a confirmation from the White House. The “Continuous News Desk” was started.

The fish smell was gone. There was gold in them thar hills! Newspaper reporters and editors saw good career prospects at the Web site. … even if the Web site staff had little chance of landing a job on the print side.

So, you see, a merging of the two operations is inevitable — and probably long overdue. Over the last 10 years, more and more effort on both sides of the Potomac has gone to posting stories on the Web more quickly and more often. More newspaper reporters are blogging. Some are shooting video. It has been a literal and figurative westward expansion. Religion and fashion have arrived, and history has shown us that this is only natural.

But here’s where The Post can learn from history. It should not make the same mistake the Census Bureau made in 1890. It should not declare the frontier closed entirely.

While more and more of the Post’s daily efforts are going in to the Web site, journalism remains in desperate need of innovation — a place that both fosters and requires “that coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness; that practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things… that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism,” as Frederick Jackson Turner described the American frontier.

Now, can newspaper natives — Easterners — promote a mindset of innovation. Absolutely. After all, newspaper people conceived of the idea of the Post’s Web site. And some newspaper people are among the most innovative journalists I’ve ever met.

But in order to put this innovation in to action, there must be a safe place to experiment — a place where failure can be both quick and low-impact on the core brand. The best thing about the history of washingtonpost.com was that it was a place where people with very unusual ideas about journalism — often young, inexperienced people like me — could do really dumb things and get away with it because nobody took them too seriously. I often wonder how many times one of my print colleagues must have muttered to a source, “Oh, what? That’s the Web site. We don’t have any control over what they do over there.”

If Post reporters lose the ability to say that, the Post will lose a good measure of its ability to take risks. The Post has an important and trustworthy brand to uphold. It does incredible journalism because of its high standards. It is not a place where, in the day-to-day pursuit of accountability journalism, mistakes and failure are acceptable. And it shouldn’t become the kind of place where they are.

So, please, merge the newsrooms. Put the homepage editor and the section editors and whoever else you want in a direct reporting line to Marcus Brauchli.

But don’t close the frontier. Keep open a small patch of land where people can do weird things that may or may not eventually improve the journalism of one of the world’s best news organizations. You can make the frontier whatever size you can afford in today’s rotten economy — Utah, San Francisco, Key West … Carrboro … whatever. Just be sure to put a pioneer in charge of it — someone who makes you uncomfortable, someone who doesn’t get invited to parties. Probably not someone who puts porn and lattes on the company tab, but you get the idea.

So, whatdya say? Sing with me now …

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