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rob curley

Before becoming vice president for product development at The Washington Post, Curley gained wide acclaim for his work developing the Web sites of the Lawrence Journal-World and the Naples Daily News, where he introduced a daily video podcast. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Dec. 13, 2006.

[What got you into the Web?]

I was a young reporter at The Topeka Capital-Journal and very interested in the Web long before I got to the Capital-Journal. At that time, the two newspaper sites that I turned to the most were The Philadelphia Inquirer site, Philly.com, and The Kansas City Star site. I just thought they were brilliant, and so did the rest of the industry. If you go back and look in time, those sites were winning all the awards. They were doing brilliant stuff.

I remember one day I was on Philly.com and saw the Blackhawk Down series, and I remember seeing how it was organized in a way I'd never seen a story being told. It had a cast of characters where you could click on the people in the story's name and get their bios or information on them. There was audio. There was video from the government related to all this. There were chats with the reporter. And I remember thinking: "Man, I want to tell stories like that. I want to have those tools in my tool belt."

Today we call it making it transparent, make it so that the readers know how we came to write this story by giving them access to the information that we requested from the government or letting them listen to our interviews. But this was really groundbreaking at the time, and I remember thinking that that's how I want to tell my stories. … To me, it's journalism with a capital J. It's really telling the story in ways we've never been able to tell the story before.

Give me a résumé of where you started in the news business, the names of the newspapers and where you've wound up.

The first newspaper I ever worked at was The Ottawa Herald in Ottawa, Kansas. It was a very small newspaper, daily. I was an education reporter there, and also they asked me to work on their Web site, so that was the first newspaper Web site I worked on. ...

Then I went from there to The Topeka Capital-Journal, which had been like, to me when I was kid, that was the newspaper I always wanted to go to. ... I started experimenting more with Web storytelling while I was in Topeka and was asked to move over to be the Web editor while in Topeka. We had a certain degree of success with some of the stuff we were doing on the Web at that time, and the parent company that owned The Topeka Capital-Journal asked if I would do that for our entire chain. ...

“As long as we understand that the most important part of the word 'newspaper' is 'news' and not 'paper,' we're going to be fine.”

I actually got homesick for Kansas and went back to Kansas to be just the new media director in Topeka for a couple of years. From there I went from The Topeka Capital-Journal to the Lawrence Journal-World, which is an even smaller newspaper -- it's a 19,000-, 20,000-circ daily, somewhere around in there -- and spent three years. It was the best, the most rewarding part of my career so far. ...

From there went to Naples, Fla., because kind of got the itch to try -- will these ideas work when you're not in a college town with huge broadband penetration and a young audience? And there's nothing that's more polar opposite to Lawrence, Kan., than Naples, Fla.

It's an old-age community in some ways.

Yeah. It's a high-income retirement community, and the polar opposite. If The Washington Post hadn't asked me to come here, I would still be in Naples. I loved working there, too.

Your career is opposite of what your career arc might be if you were going into print, because the print world is shrinking.

I'm not an expert on the business. Yeah, I guess it is.

You know enough that you're in demand.

I know enough that a lot of people come asking me questions, and I just try to answer them the most honestly I can.

... Why do you work for a newspaper? Why don't you just go out and start your own operation, your own Web site?

I love newspapers. In the middle of the dot-com explosion I had so many friends who were coming to me and saying: "Well, why are you rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic? Come over here with us." It never felt right to me, you know? It's going to sound silly, but this is not about starting my own business or along those things.

I believe in the institution of newspapers, and I believe in what they stand for. And right now, that's what I want to do. I want do this for the industry that I love.

The industry is in trouble.

Yes.

You were telling me that a number of years ago, three years ago, you would get visited by new media people from different news organizations, and then that changed. Explain what was going on.

Yes. When we were in Lawrence, we were having visitors from all over the country and the world from the biggest newspapers you've ever heard of and the biggest news organizations you've ever heard of. It was an honor that they were coming. We were a little 19,000-circ newspaper in Kansas. But when you looked at their business card, it was like they were always the head of the new media department or something related to new media. ...

Then about a year ago or a little less, right around in there, it all changed. Those same newspapers and same organizations were coming to see us when we were in Naples, but it was no longer the new media people; it was the executive editor and the publisher, and it was the people in the corner offices or in the glass offices worrying about how all this was changing. It became obvious to me that the decision makers were no longer giving this lip service. The decision makers were seeking answers.

Because?

Enough had changed in the industry to capture their attention. ... I think the breakup from Knight Ridder meant a lot to a lot of print journalists. Newsrooms keep getting smaller and smaller. With the circulation going down at many newspapers and print revenue holding steady or falling off -- and couple that with online revenue increasing and online audiences increasing -- it no longer felt like this was something we didn't have to worry about anymore. It felt like this is important stuff.

You mean the dissolution of the second-largest newspaper chain in the country, Knight Ridder, sent a shock wave through the industry?

I think it did, yeah.

And since the Tribune Company has been in trouble or on the block, have they come to see you?

There have been members of Tribune [who have] come to see us, yeah, from the L.A. Times and such, [who] came to visit us in Naples.

Can you tell us what you told them?

We don't act like consultants or anything like that when people come to see us. We just show them what we do and how we do it and why we thought we should do it this way. It's more like just coming to see how the virtual sausage is made.

We've interviewed two former editors of the Los Angeles Times, the current publisher as well as major investors in the Tribune Company. They all talk about the Web and the Internet and the future as if they aren't really there. They aren't really doing what, let's say, you are doing. Is that true that people are behind the curve?

I think that for a very long time, a lot of traditional media organizations were building Web sites the way that they thought the Web should work instead of the way the Internet really worked. ...

So I think that if they're meaning that these people are now embracing the idea that we're going to use some of the same technological sensibilities that Yahoo! and Google and pure dot-coms [use], yeah, I think that they weren't truly embracing those things.

It's really hard when you have this legacy organization that's been so successful at what it does and has to change to fit into this new opportunity.

You say that they were not thinking in the way the Internet works. What do you mean, exactly?

... Most people who use the Internet don't want to pay to visit sites. Most people who use the Internet don't want to have to give lots and lots of registration data. People who use the Internet feel like if they know a story ran in this publication 10 years ago, they should be able to find it now.

What's interesting to me is when you look at how some of the competitors to the newspaper industry are handling the news, what they're really doing is just pulling together what we do really well and linking to us. It's not like they have a fleet of reporters out there. I mean, I use Google News. Do I think it's a news agency? No. But do I think that if there's something that I want to know and I can find it? Yes. They're going to search every newspaper on the planet, with the exception of some in Europe, to find me the stories that are the most important to me about that.

So I think that yeah, we have to start thinking more like the Googles and the Yahoo!s do about customer service and using the Internet the way it really works. ...

We interviewed John Carroll, who was the editor of the Los Angeles Times, who had left a couple of years ago. He said: "I estimate that roughly 85 percent of the original reporting that gets done in America gets done by newspapers. It's very evident that the new media, the media that are coming along with the Web, are investing almost nothing in original reporting." Is that right?

I wouldn't know. That's why I just stuck with the newspaper industry. It was the chasing of the story and having those reporting resources that was the big adrenaline rush for me. It was never repurposing what other people had found out. So that could be true. ...

Is Mr. Carroll missing the point when it comes to Web sites for newspapers, that you're basically gathering information? You're doing reporting on the Web?

For, like, a newspaper Web site?

Yeah.

A newspaper Web site to me is just another way of leveraging this amazing resource of reporters that a news organization has and making sure that it's serving its audience any way that it wants to be served.

If they want to have a paper thrown on their driveway, then we want to make sure they get it from us. But if they want to get an audio podcast, let's make sure they're getting it from us. If they want to get video news, let's make sure they're getting it from us. If they want to have scores sent to their cell phones, let's make sure they're getting it. We have the biggest reporting staff in every town. The newspaper almost always has the largest reporting staff. So for me, it's just taking the power of our news reporting skills and leveraging it every way we can.

If the news organizations are in trouble because maybe the circulation is down or something, then we should be trying to figure out what we do best. I can tell you what we do best, and it's not paper; it's news. As long as we understand that the most important part of the word "newspaper" is "news" and not "paper," we're going to be fine.

You've said that, "I think newspapers lost their way and started focusing on big investigative stuff and forgot to cover the prom or 10-year-olds playing baseball."

I think it's hugely important that someone has to be the Fourth Estate. Somebody has to be looking under the table and taking care of our communities and being the watchdog. That being said, I believe in my heart that if you went into a newsroom and said, "OK, who would like to do this big investigative piece, and who would like to cover the prom?," justifiably so, I think everybody in the room would raise their hand for the big investigative piece instead of the covering the prom. I don't blame them, but at some point, we also have to serve those needs as well.

I don't think it's an either/or thing. I think we have to do big-J journalism and little-J journalism. My point in that quote is that I think that maybe we've forgotten how to do little-J journalism. Not all of us -- I just came from a 19,000-circ newspaper that knows how to do little-J journalism as well as the big, investigative, local-enterprise things. But I don't think we should underestimate the power of that, you know?

Connecting to --

Connecting to the readers. If [there are] things that they think are important, we should think [they] are important, too. Does that mean we cover every prom? No, but we should acknowledge that's an important part of someone's life. It's a hard thing to balance, and I would be the last person in the world to say that I knew the answer to what the right balance is. I just try to lead by example, and we try to do both big J and little J on the sites that we build.

Did a publisher at Lawrence or Naples come to you at any point and say, "We're making as much money or more money on our Web site and its advertising now than [in] the paper itself"?

No, no. I've never worked at a Web site where they said that the Web site was making more money than the print product.

But the projections are by everybody from [Berkshire Hathaway chair and billionaire investor] Warren Buffett to almost every investment adviser in the country that newspaper revenues are in decline; circulation is in decline. They all say to us when we interview them basically the Internet is the future. Hyperlocal Internet, Web-based - that's the future, because that's where profits are. Do you think they're going to rise fast enough to save the rest of the newsroom?

I'm not an economist, so you'll have to ask people smarter than me.

But that's the gamble people are making.

And I appreciate it because it's what my core beliefs are. I believe that the future is multiplatform publishing that's at the local level, so please keep investing in that. Please keep gambling on that.

Why did The Washington Post want you?

You would have to ask The Washington Post that. ... I think that what's being done is the commitment from the highest level of the company, is that we want to be serious about this, and the best way to invest is in people. So I hope that they thought that maybe my ideas might help.

Here's what [Washington Post Executive Editor] Len Downie told us: "The Washington Post is already making a profit and has the largest audience of any of the company's various platforms." That's the washingtonpost.com. Why do you think it's so popular?

I think washingtonpost.com -- and this is me speaking more as an outsider than an insider, because I've only been in the company for two months -- it's very successful because at its core, The Washington Post is a local newspaper.

If you open The Washington Post on Saturday morning, there's going to be all these box scores from all the local high schools and photos from the local high schools. Of course we do the Redskins, and we cover sports very local. Then you open our Metro section, and we have a great local Metro section.

But our hometown is also the hometown of the president, so our hometown news has national interest. So we have this amazing asset that's right in our lap. ... We have great bureaus across the world, and we have an amazing group of journalists covering the White House and everything happening in Capitol Hill. I think that's why it's so successful. It works on a lot of levels, and because of that, success is maybe easier to have.

When we were at the Los Angeles Times, where we spent quite a bit of time, the staff was basically saying they don't have the right people or the right resources to do the Web. There wasn't a conscious decision to develop their Web site and be, if you will, hyperlocal. Do you think that may be their future? It appears they're going to go in that direction.

I think that they will. I've spoken with friends who work at the L.A. Times, and they certainly want to try to experiment with that. ... Though they want to cover the serious news very, very well for Southern California, they also know that their international brand isn't the White House; it's Hollywood. So I think that you might see them leverage that as well, but I don't know. This is all speculation. ...

I don't think they know their game plan yet. They're for sale.

Maybe that's why they haven't called me and told me what the game plan is.

The plan here at The Washington Post is to go hyperlocal, to try and do some of things that you did in Naples and Lawrence, Kan. The Washington Post really isn't known for being that much of a local newspaper, so that's a change, right? That's a management change.

... You know, hyperlocal is not -- we're not just saying that's our only game plan. There's several things that [the] washingtonpost.com Web site will be doing along with hyperlocal. You see the huge investment in multimedia, in video -- and really high-end video. We did a lot of video when I was in Lawrence. We did a lot of video when our team was in Naples.

When I got here, people were always asking, "So are you going to do video at the Post?" And my standard response was: "These guys just won a national Emmy. There's nothing they can learn from me." I mean, they're telling amazing video journalism stories; they get it. So there's commitment on the video side. There's a commitment to multiplatform publishing. There's a commitment to niche publishing. There's a commitment to spinning off different brands.

There's a lot going on to try to make sure this works. We don't have to have every one of them work in order to have success.

I was up at The New York Times. There they say that they are also going to go hyperlocal in New York City, so this is the wave of the future.

So it seems like a lot of people are throwing the phrase around.

And all of a sudden, right?

It seems pretty sudden to me.

Is it possible this is just another dot-com bubble?

Yeah, it very well could be. But I don't know. I'm not a futurist; I'm not an economist. I just try to build things that will help [people] live their lives better.

I'll run something by you from [Google CEO] Eric Schmidt. He said that with all of this self-publishing that's going on on the Web that we're having total information overload, and so they're developing artificial intelligence there to sift through all of this information, and to more in an in-depth way sort out what's reliable and what's not reliable. That's not a problem for you at The Washington Post or any of these newspapers because you generate your own content, right?

Yes. But I also think that the dialogue that's happening under all of it is really important. We need to be cognizant to the idea that it's no longer a monologue; it's a dialogue, and we should be cognizant of when bloggers are talking about stories that we've written or making comments on it. That was one of the things that impressed me the most when I got to washingtonpost.com, was the integration of a company called Technorati.com that tracks what bloggers are writing about.

It's like a search engine for blogs. We have integration of Technorati on every story, so you can see when bloggers are blogging about this very story. That's fascinating to see that acknowledgement that people are turning to our journalism to have discussions. And it's not just standing on the top of Capitol Hill and us telling you what's important; it's us setting the discussion and letting people talk about it and encouraging that.

But almost everyone we've spoken to has said that while the Web may in many ways save news organizations, the nature of the Web, the nature of the material that you put up, isn't that friendly to 15,000-word series in a newspaper. ...

All I know is that when there's a subject that I can't get enough of, I don't think twice of going to Google and doing more research. So I've never had a problem with more info. Just go to when we were in Lawrence. We covered the Kansas Jayhawks basketball team with almost fervent overkill, and I can tell you even the most minute details were read. If we wrote long stories with long audio, it was all getting read or listened to. If you're interested in something, you'll read a 15,000-word story on the Internet.

Online?

Oh, yeah. Yeah. In the computer? I think that that's not a stretch at all. ...

But when you design stuff for the Web, when you think of programs that you're going to put up on the Web, you're doing it basically for ease of access, right?

You know, my philosophies on publishing to the Web have been very different. I remember when I would sit in on journalism classes talking about writing for the Web, it always cracked me up, because as a journalist, I didn't know why we would write any differently for the Web than we would for print. These professors were always saying it needs to be shorter, it needs to be -- and to me, the reason why you do short stories on the Web for breaking news is because this just happened five minutes ago, and this is all we know. That's why we're only giving you three paragraphs.

To me, what's great about the Internet is, unlike in print, where we throw it on your driveway and if you don't want to see this picture, it's too bad; we've put it on our front page. Well, on the Internet, it's all opt-in. ... You can read as much or as little as you want. So in that environment, why wouldn't you opt to go long?

We don't have to worry about if we can afford newsprint or extra pages in the paper. We have an infinite news hole, so I don't think we should be afraid to take that for a test drive every once in a while.

Scott Moore, [head of news and information] at Yahoo!, said that he learned when he was the publisher of Slate that they wouldn't be successful until you could read the magazine on the toilet.

That goes counter to some of my beliefs. You embrace your medium for what it is.

I know, but it's not like a newspaper. You can't take it to bed with you.

To me, I've never thought a publication was not real because I couldn't take it with me to the bathroom. I see the point he was trying to make, but I don't know that I agree with it. You don't judge the success of a radio station by the same metrics that you judge the success of a newspaper. You don't judge the success of a television station by the same metrics as a newspaper. Why would you judge the success of a new medium the way you would an old medium?

We should embrace the Internet for how it really works instead of what it's not. Do I think that we'll have tablets that are wireless? Yes, I do think we'll have tablets that are wireless, so if you really feel like you have to read a publication while you're going to the bathroom, just hang on, because it's coming. But I don't think that's what makes something real.

I think what he was trying to say was there's a certain utility to a newspaper. There's a certain way you read it; there's a certain way you handle it. And the barrier still is you can't make news on the Web as tactile or as controllable as you can with an actual, physical piece of paper.

Yeah, sure.

That's true?

Yeah. I would agree totally with that. But I think that publishing to the Web has its own strengths -- for breaking news, for delivering to multiplatforms, to being able to augment with more sources. It's an apples/oranges sort of thing.

... There's talk that the Associated Press may rebel against the use of its content on Google. Its members are getting a little uptight.

If you're going to publish on the Internet, you have to play by the rules of the Internet. But I don't think that that's bad.

At washingtonpost.com, we make more money if we have more page views. That's the way it works. Our advertisers pay for how many eyeballs we can get in. So to me, the idea that Google would link to our stories and give us more traffic, I want to thank them, not shut them down. For me, that's just how the Internet works. That to me seems like you would really want Google to link to you. You wouldn't be angry that they were linking to you.

But if you create the content, as in the case of The Washington Post, and people are using it and tracing it in some fashion, don't you want to get paid for that?

If Google sends traffic to me?

No, if they use your headlines, your lead paragraphs -- Google News.

I don't have a problem with that at all. But on the other hand, I should note I'm not a newspaper owner either.

Is what's going on convergence? Is that an adequate word to use?

It gets used a lot. I think there is a really good battle right now between which buzz term gets more use, "hyperlocal" or "convergence." To me, "convergence" means something different than what it meant three or four years ago. It used to be defined as multiple media -- a newspaper and a television station and a radio station and a Web site working together to best tell a story.

Now "convergence" means a lot of things. My definition of it would be that it means layering all sorts of different storytelling elements together and publish[ing] them either separately or together in multiple platforms. I don't think that was a part of the equation before.

To me it's much more about serving the audience however the audience wants to be served, so that they can have our content whenever they want it and however they want it.

So before it was simply using the different media to tell a story, and now they're integrated.

And if you look at the early, what was called "convergence" before, it was really just cross-promotion: This television station was doing a story, and this newspaper was doing a story, and the television station told its viewers that you could read more about this in tomorrow's paper, and the newspaper would tell its readers you can get more on this story by watching the 6:00 news on Channel 4. To me, that was more cross-promotion -- it wasn't convergence. But it was convergence for that time. ...

I'm listening to you talk about newspapers, news gathering, servicing the community. You're excited about it.

I'm telling you with all the honesty that I can muster and tell you that there's no other point in the newspaper business that I would rather be in it. This is the best time because there are so many challenges. To me, it's exciting. It's not like I wish I was at The Washington Post during the Watergate era. I love that I'm here right now.

I love that this is where we get to make our might, make our mark, is when there was huge conflict on how to do all this stuff. I love the idea that we're trying to hit a moving target. I love it.

And the moving target is?

How to serve the audience. I mean, we don't know. We're trying to develop things for products that don't even exist yet, and that's great.

John Carroll says there's a crisis in the soul of newspapers in the United States. Dean Baquet, his successor at the L.A. Times, who got fired recently, says, "Newspaper editors in the United States have to start pushing back against cuts in the newsroom." So are they the dinosaurs? Are they holding things back?

The people who want to make sure that our newsrooms don't get smaller?

And the people who say that there is a crisis going on, that the Web is challenging the traditional newsroom.

I don't think the Web is challenging the traditional newsroom. I think that the economics of Wall Street are challenging the newsroom of 2006. I don't think that the people who are arguing that our newsrooms should quit shrinking are dinosaurs. Give me their names and numbers; I'm going to call them and thank them right now. I know that I agree totally. ...

To me, technology isn't an excuse to make newsrooms smaller. Our view on the technology, our responsibility on the new media journalism side, is to best use these resources, not figure out how we can have fewer of them. ...

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