Is The Post innovating too fast?

One of the things that surprised and heartened me when I came to The Post 10 months ago was the tremendous amount of innovation going on.

Hardly a week goes by without the Web site or newspaper launching some feature, or a venture to attract more revenue, or a blog, or a social media innovation. Just since I have been here, The Post has redesigned its Web site; installed a new content management system; pioneered the Facebook social reader, which tracks and announces what your Facebook friends are reading; added a team of policy bloggers to Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog; revised its comment system for readers; added a ton more news videos online; started The Root DC, a site aimed at African American readers; and probably about 10 other things I can’t remember.

This week brought two innovations. The new “She the People” blog, a collection of female voices writing about politics and culture, and the @mentionmachine, a pop-up feature on the PostPolitics Web page that tracks Twitter and media mentions of the presidential candidates.

She the People, led by longtime political reporter Melinda Henneberger, did extremely well, climbing to the No. 1 position among Post blogs in its first three days after launch, according to Raju Narisetti, managing editor for online. It also attracted skeptics to the ombudsman mail box, with readers saying they love the title, but that the blog idea seems dated, so 1990s.

One reader, naming several of The Post’s excellent female opinion writers and news reporters, said sharply, “Why not just revert to the quaint ‘Women’s section’ of the last century newspapers? The girls also could share recipes, cut out dress patterns and discuss debutantes, just like their great-grandmothers.”

The @mentionmachine pops up automatically at the bottom of the Web site after you read a couple of political stories. I can learn from it that Ron Paul garnered 321,000 Twitter mentions in the past week, more than twice the 121,000 for Mitt Romney. But Paul still came in third in the Iowa caucuses, so I’m not sure how reliable a measure it is. More telling perhaps is the machine’s finding that Ron Paul had 5,200 media mentions to Mitt Romney’s 7,300.

The @mentionmachine is fun, graphically interesting and ultimately all about “buzz,” that most ephemeral of media preoccupations.

Now, innovation is important, even necessary, in this new media environment, and I’m glad that The Post is leading in trying new things. Some will be successful, some won’t.

But I’m wondering, and readers are too, whether there’s just a bit too much innovation, too fast. I received two e-mails this week whose subject lines read like this:

“The Post is making my head hurt.”

“The Washington Post Web site is exhausting.”

A paraphrase of one longer letter about @mentionmachine amounts to this: “oh great, one more thing to clutter a Web site that already takes forever to download.” Another, citing recent spelling mistakes, grammatical mishaps and factual errors, asked, Why do all the new gewgaws, bells, whistles and features when The Post can’t even get the basics right.

They have a point. And I know from talking to folks in the newsroom that all the change may be exhausting the staff, too. Many of these innovations require considerable staff time, as well as more time from editors and reporters to monitor them. Staffers point out that The Post has 108 blogs; the New York Times has only 62 but with a much larger staff to fill them.

Staffers say that sometimes they feel as if the innovations are just tossed against a wall to see what sticks, without careful thought as to which of them will enhance and shore up The Post’s reputation and brand.

I want The Post to continue to innovate. It’s important for the publication’s survival. Many of these changes are working. Narisetti points to Web usage data that show that the “number of pages read, number of readers, number of times they are visiting, and the amount of time spent on our site” are at “all-time-high records.”

But there’s a time to press on the accelerator, and a time to ease off. Substance, clarity and direction will be more important in the long run than buzz. Take a breather lap, Post.

This column was originally published in The Washington Post on Jan. 6, 2012.

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