The Tale of Two Papers

Converting to digital media is proving harder and more uncertain for publications such as The Washington Post and The Oregonian.Readers of The Oregonian are watching the at-times-painful process of the daily newspaper's digital conversion, as are the readers of The Washington Post. Both look like running backs zigging and zagging on a football field looking for an opening to break downfield.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post a year ago, raising expectations about its digital conversion. But Jeff Abbruzzese, writing for Mashable, says a grand design hasn't surfaced. The biggest development is the exit of rising star Ezra Klein, who wrote Wonkblog, a primer on public policy debates in the nation's capital that was the newspaper's most read blog.

The absence of visible change at the 137-year-old DC fixture may reflect uncertainty about what digital direction makes the most sense. It also may reflect the lull before the storm. One Washington Post official said recently the newspaper staff is being prepared to "stomach the chaos that comes with digital."

The most tangible change, according to Mashable, is a software program called PageBuilder, which the Post's director of software engineering says will allow content to be shaped differently than traditional newspaper formats to "create user experiences that we haven't yet dreamt of."

The skunkworks for PageBuilder and other digital innovations at the Post are in an office in New York. The staff doesn't include any journalists, Abbruzzese says. 

Post Executive Editor Martin Baron, a veteran newsman, says, “I think that what Jeff Bezos has brought is a lot of questions about how we do our business, go about our business. He's brought ideas about what we might do, and then he's brought capital, so he's given us this capacity to experiment in a variety of ways."

What's happening at The Washington Post is also occurring at The Oregonian, though with perhaps less national interest and more local consternation. The Post remains a national newspaper offering outstanding political coverage, while The Oregonian seems to have retreated to the posture of more of a local publication. On Mondays and Tuesdays, The Oregonian print edition sold on newsstands resembles a college newspaper in its size and scope.

While the Post's online edition serves as an inviting platter for a wide range of news, The Oregonian's cloned website and its awkward digital edition stir more grumbling than grading compliments. 

But it is The Oregonian's decision to limit home delivery of its print edition to four days a week that has created the most confusion and irritation. Truncated articles, missing enterprise journalism and Friday night high school sports stories appearing on Sunday are taking their toll.  The Oregonian seems like a rider on a horse stuck in the middle of fast-moving stream.

It is hard to fault anyone at either the Post or Oregonian for not knowing the exact pathway to a satisfying digital future, with loyal readers unwilling to give up newsprint at breakfast and younger people looking for brand content experiences as much as news of the day.

Newspapers are out on a withered limb. All of us, not just the publishers and news staffs, should hope they find a healthy branch and avoid falling to the ground below.