March 2, 2007 in Interviews
Editor’s Note: Rob Curley is the vice president of product development for Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive (full resume here) and a leader in innovative thinking for newspaper companies. The most recent project he helped develop is onBeing, the new Washington Post video series. I interviewed Curley by instant messaging on Thursday, March 1. This is an edited transcript of that interview. Be sure and read the last question, as it pertains to all of us in college media.
ICM: First question: How do you encourage innovation where you work? #
Curley: I try to hire smart people and protect them from the bureaucracy, and then let them run wild. When you let smart people have freedom, they will almost always build something cooler than you had originally hoped for. And lots of free Mountain Dew. And we just hang out and talk a lot. There aren’t a lot of formal meetings. It’s mostly just people who love the Web building the things that they wish their local newspaper Web site had. #
It’s a very, very informal atmosphere. #
ICM: You talked earlier about mindset being more important than skillset. How do you identify people who have the right mindset? #
Curley: I can tell about 10 seconds into my first conversation with them. I’m not trying to sound like it’s some special radar built in my nose or anything like that. You can just tell. You can see and hear their excitement. Or you can tell that what they did was done out of passion, not assignment. It’s one of those things that you can sense. #
I hate to use this completely overused phrase, but you can tell when someone “gets it.” I try like crazy to only hire those who “get it.” #
I think mindset can be taught. For me, for journalism in 2007, mindset means a reporter who is more concerned about the journalism and not the medium that it will appear in. I guess it’s harder for me to explain than I thought it might be. #
ICM: Let me follow up on that, then. how can advisers help students catch the mindset. How can advisers learn the mindset? #
Curley: I think that if a student in a newspaper journalism program is only taught about print, then that student will likely think the only “real” newspaper journalism is print, or is never taught about other ways of telling stories and reaching readers, then that student will have that mindset. #
That’s why I always loved this one particular converged class at the University of Kansas that I think was required for all J-School students that taught storytelling in multiple platforms in multiple ways. I don’t really think it’s a mandatory skill for student to know how to edit video. But I do think learning that skill helps with mindset. #
I think J-school professors should be showing lots of examples of recent stories published on different sites that show great storytelling that doesn’t just use words and pictures. Show the students lots of examples of these types of multimedia stories. And don’t just do it on the day that is lined up for the standard multimedia lecture. Do it all the time. #
ICM: What lessons have you learned “the hard way” about managing in the midst of change or resistance? Lessons that might be helpful for college media advisers and student journalists like editors? #
Curley: When people are being brought in to be — and boy is this a terrible term — a “change agent” then the people already in that organization aren’t typically going to react by saying, “Isn’t this great.” The more typical reaction will be that people will be a little mean. Maybe even really mean. #
The key is to stay completely focused on the things you believe in and do that while trying to be the glass-half-full guy. I smile a lot. I say hello to everyone. But it’s also dang hard to talk me out of something that I know is right. I think almost everyone who meets me says that I’m an optimistic person and that my enthusiasm is contagious. #
Staying true to what I believe in and trying to do it in a confident way – and explaining things to as many people who will listen as often as it takes – seems to work for me. #
And I don’t mean to make it sound easy, because it’s not. There are times when the resistance to change completely bums me out and my friends have to talk me off the virtual ledge. But I just try to keep my head up and keep building cool shit. #
ICM: Let’s talk about a hypothetical college newspaper that is just now getting online, or one that’s been shoveling stories onto the internet for a while. If this paper was just starting to figure out new media, and they were able to call you up and say, “Rob, how do we go about this? What do we do first?” What advice would you give them? #
Curley: This is a tough question because I’m not sure how I can answer it and not tick off a bunch of people.
First let’s start with organization and staffing. What does the leadership of the student newspaper look like? If there is a top editor, what responsibilities does that top editor have for new-media publishing? #
From the outside looking in, it doesn’t appear that most editors at student newspapers have much oversight — or at least care — for their publication’s Web site, outside of it just being where they shovel over what they ran in the print edition, and maybe post a breaking news story or two. #
I know there have to be exceptions to this, I just don’t know of them at this time. I’m not a specialist in college media. #
I think to do it right, the student newspaper’s editor has to really care about the new-media strategy, not just give it lip service. #
From there on out, I’m not sure that what would be needed would be a whole lot different than what might be needed at any other news organization trying to do new media well. #
And I’m not going to get into the revenue portion of this at all. This is more of a rough sketch for the editorial side of the operation. #
There needs to be a real new-media editor. Not someone who just makes sure that things get posted to the site. Someone who knows when stories need to be posted early, when stories need some sort of multimedia, when stories need a live chat with a key source, when a story would be better by scanning in some supporting documents, when a database would be hugely important in helping to tell a story, etc. Not to mention all of the other things that go along with being a real new-media editor, such as alternate delivery, the technologies used, etc. #
Underneath this new-media editor needs to be a small, but nimble staff. A dedicated programmer of some sort. A video producer. A killer graphics artist who can do motion graphics and Flash. #
Secondly, I think you need a publishing system that really works the way the Internet works. Though I have nothing to do with this particular CMS any more, I’m still a huge fan of the software that the Lawrence Journal-World produced under Adrian Holovaty, Simon Willison and Jacob Kaplan-Moss — Ellington. #
We used it in Naples, as well as throughout the Scripps chain, and we’re about to being using it on specialty sites here at The Washington Post. #
Now that you have a staff and a CMS, you now need a strategy. I’ve always believed that there is no cookie-cutter strategy. #
But I listed some bullet points in my recent e-mail interview with an Italian newspaper. Here are those bullet points: #
- Own breaking news. Donâ€™t let any other media in your community ever beat you on a developing local news story. As soon as we know something, we need to have it on our Web sites, on our mobile-phone editions, and in the e-mail box of every subscriber who wants it. We have to train our readers that they should want to turn to us several times a day, and absolutely turn to us when they know something big has just happened. Regardless of what some traditional print reporters think, you canâ€™t scoop yourself by posting something early on your own newspaperâ€™s Web site. Get over it. That sort of thinking will kill us in this new era.
- Hyper-local content. The Internet may be a global medium, but itâ€™s local content that sets most newspaper sites apart. And getting granular with everything from local kidsâ€™ sports stories to neighborhood politics is how newspapers will win. National and international news is a commodity that every site can have. For most local newspaper sites, local news produced by its newsroom is how our industry will win on the Internet.
- Embrace databases. Calendars. Restaurants. Churches, Taxes. Home sales. Traffic tickets. Crime. Anything that can be searched like that should be on your site. People want that sort of information, and we should want to make sure that they know the newspaper can give it to them.
- Multimedia. Using video, audio, Flash animations, etcâ€¦, should be a key part of a â€œnewâ€ newspaperâ€™s toolbelt. Youtube.com and iTunes are successful for a reason â€” multimedia is now a hugely important part of the Internet. If your publisher hasnâ€™t heard of youtube or iTunes, get your resume ready.
- Evergreen content. Evergreen content is content that you build once that can last forever on your site. Sometimes amazing evergreen content appears in our print edition, and all we need to do is compile it and make it easy to find on our Web sites â€“ things like local guides, etcâ€¦ But sometimes evergreen content needs to be built or collected just for the Web site. Evergreen content can be anything â€” the history of your city, all of the information you can gather about someone famous from your city, maybe an overview of your local sports eamâ€™s greatest season, etcâ€¦
- Make sure your content can work on any device imaginable. Web. E-mail. RSS. iPods. Mobile phones. Other mobile devices. Sony PSPs. Right now, I really think newspapers should be focusing in on content for mobile phones.
- Make sure your newspaper isnâ€™t a monologue, but a dialogue with your audience. Can readersâ€™ post comments on stories? Can they easily contact reporters and editors from each story? Are public-produced blogs on your site? Can readers easily post their own photos, video and text on your site, etcâ€¦?