News Is Really Continuous at washingtonpost.com

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By: Steve Outing

Updated at 10 a.m. ET, Jan. 16

In the season premiere of NBC’s The West Wing last September, there was a great scene where fictional Washington Post correspondent Danny Concannon pressures White House press secretary C.J. Cregg to comment on information he’s confirmed about the clandestine assassination of a Qumari terrorist leader by the U.S. government. When she feigns ignorance, Danny blurts out, “You’ve got two hours to find out before we post it online.”

I had to smile when I watched that scene, because it represents the idea that the printed newspaper is no longer king — even in the upper echelons of the newspaper industry. Getting out hot news before everyone else trumps the scheduled print press run, even at The Washington Post.

Is that just fiction? Nope. That’s really the way it is at the Post these days.

The Post is one of the leaders in this movement to become less paper and more news. You can spot it elsewhere among leading newspapers — The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Financial Times. Each of these papers will periodically break stories off the print cycle, on the Web because they want to beat their Internet and broadcast competitors.

But I’ll put the Post at the head of the pack thanks to its “Continuous News Desk,” which was set up last year and now has grown to employ five experienced news editors and writers (who work for the newspaper, not for washingtonpost.com). That small department, which sits smack dab in the middle of the Post newsroom (you can see their desks on CNN when Post reporters do regular on-air interviews), is fast rewriting some old rules about how the venerable Washington Post operates.

The Second Coming (of Gibbs)

To understand the significance of the Continuous News Desk, we only need to look back to last week when a HUGE story hit: the return of three-time Super Bowl winning coach Joe Gibbs to the Washington Redskins. To the D.C. market, this story was as big as a presidential impeachment.

The Gibbs news broke at around 9 a.m. on Wednesday, and the Continuous News Desk quickly sprung into action. Through the day, the desk worked with Post reporters and washingtonpost.com in:

* Writing and updating a main story through the day, as events unfolded — reported and written by newspaper sports writers Mark Maske and Leonard Shapiro, in concert with Continuous News Desk editors.

* Facilitating a Washingtonpost.com audio interview with Maske, on his cell phone in his car, about the news.

* Facilitating the scheduling of a “Live Online” audience discussion (AKA live chat) with former Post sports editor George Solomon to talk about the Gibbs news. Washingtonpost.com staffers also lined up Live Onlines with sportscaster and former Hall of Fame linebacker Sam Huff and Post staff writer Gene Wang — and produced the chats.

* Producing a video presentation of fan reactions.

In addition, the Web staff, led by Online Sports Editor Bill Grant, put together an interactive graphic about Gibbs’ career; a photo gallery; a Redskins/Gibbs timeline; and an online survey of Redskins fans about the biggest obstacle Gibbs will face as the new coach.

As Steve Klein, online journalism coordinator at George Mason University and a D.C.-area resident, put it, the scope of the Post’s online coverage of Gibbs’ return made sure that the Washington Post brand owned the story all day on Wednesday — even though its printing presses wouldn’t roll with the news until late Wednesday night.

An important phone call

Mark Stencel, one of two senior editors for continuous news at the Post, says he got in the office last Wednesday at about 9 a.m., just as Redskins beat writer Maske was calling in from his cell phone with the news about Gibbs. Maske gave the desk editors the information he had, then continued calling in through the morning as he learned new information — and desk editors updated the main story.

Maske also called in from his cell phone to do an audio interview that would be added to washingtonpost.com’s Gibbs coverage package.

Remember, Maske is a print-side sports reporter covering NFL football. And what was his first instinct? Call the Continuous News Desk so that the news could get on washingtonpost.com as quickly as possible. And beyond that initial call, he stuck with it through the day and called in new details, plus did a Web audio piece.

That, I think it’s fair to say, indicates that a significant cultural shift indeed has taken place in the Washington Post newsroom.

Many if not most print-side reporters now want their significant, breaking stories to be published online right away, says Bob McCartney, assistant managing editor for continuous news. While none are required to assist the Continuous News Desk, it’s now commonplace that they do take the time to do so. The newsroom culture has adapted to the idea that washingtonpost.com is as important a venue to publish important, timely news as the print edition.

From two to five

The Continuous News Desk truly came into its own in August, when McCartney started work as assistant managing editor. That’s a department-head title at the Post. Before that, the desk was simply part of the main newsroom and employed only Stencel and a second Continuous News Desk editor, Lexie Verdon, who served as liaison between the D.C. print newsroom and the washingtonpost.com newsroom across the Potomac in Arlington, Va.

McCartney is an experienced Post editor who’s been with the company since 1982. An illustrious career has seen him work as an editor and correspondent for the foreign desk, metro desk, national desk and business section. He took a brief Post respite in 2001 as managing editor of the International Herald Tribune in Paris, but then left when The New York Times Co. took over the newspaper, becoming a Post correspondent in Paris. In April he was asked about coming back to the States for the Continuous News Desk assignment.

Stencel and Verdon are also experienced Post journalists. Stencel has spent 10 years at the Post, including a stint as a vice president and other titles at washingtonpost.com. Verdon has worked print-side, on the foreign, metro and news desks, and as health editor.

The first thing that McCartney did on starting the new job was to hire two additional writer/editors for the Continuous News Desk: William Branigin, an experienced foreign and combat correspondent who’s done work during the Iraq war and for metro; and Fred Barbash, who’s been national editor, metro editor, Supreme Court reporter, worked in the London bureau, and is the author of several books.

Keen competition for two jobs

McCartney bubbles with enthusiasm as he talks about the candidates — all internal — who applied for the writer/editor jobs ultimately filled by Branigin and Barbash. “I’ve never had such attractive choices for any jobs before,” he says. “There was so much interest in these positions.” Indeed, outside candidates didn’t have much of a chance, because in-house candidates were so strong.

The level of candidates for the writer/editor jobs at Continuous News indicate the esteem that the new operation holds in the minds of Post staffers, it would seem. McCartney says that even journalists at the paper with lots of experience found the jobs appealing. He lists a few key reasons for that:

* These writers are always working on the hottest stories of the day — the ones that lead or are high on the home page of washingtonpost.com. (On Monday, Barbash wrote on “Supreme Court Allows Secrecy on Detainees“; Branigin wrote on “Consumers Log $2T of Debt.” Both of those stories led the home page. Their work also appears in the print edition periodically.)

* “It’s a rush.” The work is fast-paced, you’re constantly working with interesting topics and tight deadlines, and you get instant gratification when your work is published right away. “A lot of journalists like that.”

* The hours are fairly attractive — typically Monday-Friday. One of the shifts even starts at 5 a.m. and ends at 2 p.m., but McCartney says his fears that those hours would put off potential candidates proved unfounded.

‘Get me Web rewrite!’

The writer/editor jobs held by Barbash and Branigin indeed are interesting. In part, they serve like classic “rewrite men” from newspaper days of yore. Post reporters with significant news that can’t hold till the print edition often call in with material to be crafted into a Web deadline story. Sometimes print-side writers have the time to write a Web story on their own — as well as the usual print piece — but more often they’ll work with Barbash or Branigan to produce a co-bylined story. A common drill is for one of them to take notes talking to a reporter, then perhaps do some additional reporting on their own and draft a story for the Web.

The two Continuous News writers also do pure original reporting on some stories — working no differently than a print-side reporter, except that their work is published as soon as it’s completed and edited. Depending on the shape of the news on any given day, Barbash and Branigin might be sitting at their desks doing rewrite or hitting the streets.

Their reporting does make it to the print edition fairly regularly. The typical scenario for that is when no print-side reporter has covered a story, but the Continuous News reporters have. Dual-byline stories also make the print edition sometimes.

Getting those two writers added to the desk has made a huge difference, notes McCartney. For one thing, Post reporters now know that they can get their news onto the Web site during the day even if they personally don’t have time to write a story. Increasingly, that’s important to reporters, who hate getting scooped by TV or other Internet competitors.

Word from above

Post writers’ interest in getting published online before the presses roll has increased significantly since last summer, when McCartney and Managing Editor Steve Coll went around to each news department and held meetings discussing the importance of the Continuous News Desk and how to go about working with the desk’s editors to produce a Web story. That the managing editor said this is important. “That got people’s attention,” says McCartney.

While such cooperation is voluntary, there is potential money involved for print reporters. The Post has formalized a merit-raise policy, and doing outstanding work for the Continuous News Desk increases the chance of getting a merit raise. McCartney regularly makes recommendations to Coll and the Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. about who should be recognized for their Web work.

Will getting news online in advance of the print edition become mandatory for print reporters? McCartney says the paper probably isn’t ready to go down that road yet, especially now that the voluntary program is working out nicely — “and besides, that’s above my pay grade” to make such decisions, he says.

What is likely to happen in the near future (though it’s not yet approved and budgeted) is that an overnight editor will be added to the desk — someone to work the midnight-till-morning shift and make the Continuous News Desk a 24-hour operation, or at least closer to that. Weekends may continue to have desk staffers on call for big breaking news, as they are now. (When Saddam Hussein was captured and news broke on a Sunday morning, the Continuous News staff headed to the office. For lesser weekend developments, they sometimes just work and publish from home.)

Stencel, whose time on the desk pre-dates McCartney’s arrival, says that by now the operation is fairly automatic. That is, when big news breaks, they’ve gone through the drill enough times to know what to do: Get a write-through story up that’ll update through the day; schedule Live Online Web audience-discussion guests; research and assign interactive graphics and Flash slide shows; etc.

When the Iraq war broke out, Stencel and Verdon handled it themselves — having to work hard at getting information out of field reporters in the region. Sometimes reporters couldn’t free enough time to get them a story, and they had to rely on wire services. “Now, we’re less dependent” on reporters and the wires, with a staff of five. Especially helpful is having someone like Branigin call a Post correspondent in Iraq. They know him well and are more likely to do what it takes to cooperate as a result.

Your future?

So, there you have a glimpse at the future of most large daily newspapers — where the Web is as prominent a vehicle for disseminating news as the print edition. Sound crazy? Well, it’s probably true that most papers won’t have the resources to copy the Post’s strategy.

But George Mason University’s Klein says all newspapers should be thinking about redeploying their resources for reporting the news online. Rather than taking the big bite that The Washington Post has done, at least figure out how to deploy special effort on selected big stories — to produce Joe-Gibbs’-Second-Coming-like coverage on the really huge news events in your community.

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Letters

Here’s an addition to my list of “Christmas wishes” from online-news luminaries (my previous column here). IHT.com Editor Meredith Artley wrote in “with a few expectations and wishes jumbled together”:

“I wish to continue to expand the international audience of IHT.com in Europe and Asia and to be increasingly seen as a site that provides readers with a global perspective on the news.

“I wish for IHT.com and other sites to not be beholden to the template — to use a wide variety of photo and headline placements and sizes to give readers an immediate and visual signal that suits the news. It’s a cue to take from our print counterparts.

“I expect that IHT.com and other organizations will take advantage of the Web’s global nature by taking a closer look at non-English language publications as an opportunity to gain perspective on news and culture, and not a barrier.

“I expect/hope that more experimentation will be done with home pages and navigation. Just because the home page is the most-read page on a site does not mean that it should be overstuffed, and there are many ways to get readers inside a site — it would be exciting to see more sites trying new ways to get readers to dig in.

“After being on the other side of the Atlantic for a year, I wish for other sites, especially those with aspirations of global readership, to realize who is awake in the world and when.

“As Google continues to expand its empire, I expect to see more of a focus on unleashing the power of the search.

“And I expect (or more politely, hope) to see more comments from women in the 2005 online media wish list.”

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Schedule Change for This Column

Please note that I am now writing this “Stop The Presses!” column only once a month, reduced from a twice-monthly schedule in 2003. The best way to keep track of when I publish a new column is to sign up for e-mail delivery here.

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