Jim Brady, former executive editor of WashingtonPost.com, came to ASU’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication on April 2nd to talk about online/digital/multimedia, and his experience at the online Post. Below are notes from a lunch meeting.

“One of the import figures of the last decade, who has done pretty spectacular work with the web and digital media in general.”- Introduction by Dan Gillmor.

“I’m in the middle of a cross-county trip, swinging through Phoenix- blogging, tweeting, taking video. It’s a “web-blitz” with two nearly untrainable dogs and, what my wife might say, one untrainable husband.”

Brady had a long history with  washingtonpost.com, starting as a sports writer in ’87 when he was a sophomore.

“I’ve always been an online geek. Loved the idea of getting info live, how the Mets are doing right now. I loved getting [information] how I wanted it when I wanted it.”

“It was hard to get the newspaper [version of Washington Post] to engage with the website at all- ’96 to ’98 and on. Could only get them focused on the web when things [in the journalism/newspaper business] started to go south more quickly, and when they had kids that used the web a lot.”

It wasn’t until ’04 when Brady saw the online newsroom starting to get the attention it should have been getting from the beginning. This blogger finds that shocking- and wonders proverbially if quicker acceptance would have lead to a drastically different situation for newsrooms than we find ourselves in now.

The Washington Post website and newspaper have always been totally separate, in both building and structure. While there’s difficulties in this type of division, a side benefit grew out of that structure: “it allowed us to grow our own culture, and could operate in our own sphere.”

Beginning in ‘o4, Brady tried to convince the editors and owners of the Washington Post that web is medium in its own right- and that in the realm of journalism, it can build relationships with readers that are completely new and different than what newspapers had been able to do before.

Specifically, he brought up four areas this can be accomplished:

1. Multimedia story telling- reporters don’t have to write something to make a story.

2. engaging readers

3. database journalism

4. distribution and mobilization

Brady also pushed a lot to use just video for some stories: “You don’t need to write ten inches if you have a great piece of video” [that assumably tells the story].

As for content models, he found that appointment viewing, a story in a series becoming available at a certain time every week (such as “On Being“), works.

“We also tried to come up with ways to jam it all, video and print, into one experience. The idea is to read, stop reading to watch the video, go back and read, stop, and watch. [Some say] it’s jarring, but why not [do it]? If done properly it’s not jarring.

While the Washington Post employs video journalist great Travis Fox, a full 160 journos there are also fully trained to shoot and edit video.

“Not all reporters are [Fox], but they figure out how to juggle it all. Videos add to the story, even if there not going to win award for it.”

The hardest battle for Brady at the Washington Post was the issue of whether or not to allow comments on articles. In ’05, no big U.S. news site had comments. He described the fight as such: “the online world was saying, I want to add comments on articles because it’s new and no one else has done that. The newspaper side was saying, ‘if its such a great idea, why haven’t other news sites added comments?’ We ended up being the first large news site in the U.S. to add comments to our articles. Now, we’re finding tips, comments, local interest and revelations on comments as well.”

An interesting point made by Brady was that 80% of what’s in the Washington Post, or the New York Times, or any other newspaper is commoditized.

“The big stories are everywhere: you don’t have to go to WashingtonPost.com to read about Obama’s speech. BUT, if you build a conversation around topics, blogs and comments, those are the people that will stay with washingtonpost.com. Frequent commenters have conversations with each other–  they can’t go anywhere else to have that conversation.”

Then came the conversation about eyeballs.

“We wanted to build return customers, where the business models were calling for unique visitors. You can waste a lot of time and energy chasing uniques that you aren’t going to get back next week or next year.”

Gillmor: “There’s interactive, and there’s getting down deeper with the community and the audience that practically no one is doing in newspapers.”

Brady: “The goal is to start using Wiki technology so the community can create more of the content. Revenue is still higher on print than for online. But it’s also where all the cost is- about 85%. Many local advertisers haven’t moved their advertising to the web, such as local auto dealers.

The best theory I’ve ever heard on this was by a media economist: that newspapers have always been a good business. For the most part, it was a crappy business to be in. I took that theory another step: the worst thing that ever happened was the editors/owners were able to sit back and make money w/o having to do anything. Web came along at end of era where they never had to do anything differently for 25 years and were making tons of money. Those that solicit advertising for the Washington Post’s local edition from those that advertising with the print edition. People don’t want to give away anything in print. But, it’s debatable if the Washington Post in print will be around in 15 years, let alone any other newspaper.”

This blogger asked what advice he had for graduate journalism students, looking upon a fast-approaching graduation and trying to learn as many multimedia and digital skills as possible.

“You need to understand how media habits change. If I were interviewing someone to hire and they couldn’t answer how media habits have changed in the last five years and where they’re going in the next five, then I didn’t necessarily want to hire them even if their resume was technology heavy with Flash, CSS, shooting and editing video, shooting and editing pictures.

Skills are not a substitute for understanding the revolution in media right now.”

Just goes to show, don’t lose sight of the forest through the trees.

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