City Desk

WaPo Working with Roger Black

The Washington Post is undergoing a remarkable shrinking act, with some sections folding and others taking on more complicated identities. Making it all happen will require some tweaks to the paper's design. The paper's Web site, washingtonpost.com, has long had layout problems of its own—a crowded homepage that poses something of a gantlet for users in search of their favorite blogs and articles.

That's where Roger Black comes in. The paper has contracted with this renowned New York design guru to redo its newspaper and Web site. In recent weeks, Black has been meeting with staffers to get their ideas on freshening the look of the Post brand.

Like all deliberative processes at the Post, this one won't spawn a revolution. "Instead of a redesign, it'll be much more of a cleaning up of visually contrasting elements," says a Post source, referring to "typefaces changing from section to section," among other minor design problems.

In a Wednesday meeting with a group of newsroom leaders, Black pushed his audience to think expansively about what the paper needs and what it can eliminate. One attendee says Black will be focusing on how to fit the Post's journalism in an ever-shrinking news hole, as well as coming up with "strategies for helping stories pop off the page more."

Black certainly can't complain that he isn't getting enough help. To generate recommendations on the redesign, the Post has assembled 14 committees, each with reps from both the print and online sides of the operation. The best committee name is "The Crown Jewels," a panel that is presumably working on preserving and enhancing the greatest assets of the product. Other panel jurisdictions include the Sunday paper, agate and listings, and breaking news.

There's no telling where all the committees and the contract design talent will push the paper's Web site, which recently bumped its "washingtonpost.com" banner in favor of the iconic, bold-letter "The Washington Post." Top Post officials have declined comment on where the site's design is headed. The best we could get was this statement from a Washington Post spokesperson: "Roger Black is providing design consulting services to The Washington Post and our redesign effort will look at both the newspaper and the Web site."

In May 2008, Black completed an overhaul of the Washington Times site, an operation that resulted in a largely black homepage with a rotating box, or "cube," showcasing the moment's top news stories. The content "innovations" of the site may have been a bit ahead of their time, including "400,000 horizontal entry points, or 'news themes,'" integrated into the site, as well as this feature: "Communities built around topics and hosted by 'mayors' who moderate the debate each day, with related sub-communities called neighborhoods into the web site."

Black is a celebrated talent who has engineered the look of many "content-based media" sites, including MSNBC.com, Discovery.com, and @Home. On his site, Black conveys the thinking behind his work: "Media design is not just window-dressing. A redesign is not a 'face lift.' Design is the structural link between the customers and the product."

One observer has a less philosophical view of how Black appeals to his clients: "He designs newspaper sites that look like newspapers."

Black is the second high-flying, New York-based designer to take a whack at the Post site in as many years. In late 2007, executives at washingtonpost.com commissioned the Wonderfactory, a design shop that counts the Huffington Post, WebMD, and the Food Network among its clients, to make sense of the mishmash of links and images that clutter the homepage. Jim Brady, then executive editor of washingtonpost.com, expressed hope that the Wonderfactory look would hit the site by the November 2008 elections.

That never happened. Though the site has incorporated Wonderfactory's vision for a rejiggered Going Out Guide, most other parts of the firm's project have been abandoned. In the process, a whole lot of mock-ups were kicked to the curb. According to Wonderfactory Creative Director Joe McCambley, the Post paid for a user needs analysis, a user interface design, a "mood board exercise"—designed to help ferret out the company's design aesthetic—as well as redesign work on the homepage, article pages, and various section headers. The work cost the Post upwards of $200,000, according to an informed source. "They were an amazing client," says McCambley.

When asked about bagging the mock-ups, a Post spokesperson replied: "Some work done by Wonderfactory has already been used on our site—Going Out Guide, for example—and we will be using more. It was never an all or nothing approach."

Wonderfactory's work product reportedly didn't wow the Post's new guard, including Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli and Publisher Katharine Weymouth. When pressed on this matter, however, Brauchli went generic, writing in an e-mail that the paper was in the "planning phase, so nothing to add."

This whole planning phase isn't working out too well for the people at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive (WPNI), the Arlington-based Post Co. subsidiary that has run the Post's Web site for more than a decade. Founded as an entity independent of the mother ship, WPNI was supposed to incubate Web publishing innovations away from the retrograde tugs of the newsroom's old guard. Over the years, the two sides have fought over everything from food to politics to personnel.

The accession of Weymouth as Post publisher in February 2008 marked the beginning of the end of the Post's separate-but-pretty-much-equal divide between paper and Web offices. Cross-river rivalries and personnel duplication, goes the Weymouth-era thinking, are no longer sustainable, and so the operations must merge.

Though the dot-com workers in Arlington have yet to move en masse to the main Post building at 15th and L Streets NW, one of the most painful aspects of the merger has already gone down. That would be the elimination of managerial redundancy. In a combined online-print newsroom, you can't have two publishers, two executive editors, and so on. In the end, there can be only one—that's an eerie theme of the 1986 fantasy-action flick Highlander that just so happens to apply to the modern-day Washington Post.

Getting down to one has repeatedly entailed the departure of top brass at WPNI. Publisher Caroline Little left last year, as did politics editor Russ Walker. Executive Editor Brady left his post at the end of January, followed by Tom Kennedy, washingtonpost.com's top multimedia manager. The only top WPNI personality to make it into the new management at the Post is former Web site Editor Liz Spayd, a longtime Postie who has deeper ties to the main newsroom than to the Web. Spayd is now one of Brauchli's co-managing editors; the other is Raju Narisetti, who lords over the Web operation, among other things.

The departures have left rank-and-file WPNIers feeling a touch exposed as the office merger looms. Little, Brady, et al. went to the mat repeatedly over the years to stick up for the Web site's autonomy and managed to push the newsroom on all kinds of Web innovations, including the embrace of blogging and comments from the public on articles. There's no telling whether the new structure will endow the company's Webby types with the sort of power necessary to strong-arm the newsroom as the Internet continues to develop.

According to sources, Brady decided to leave the company after learning that he wouldn't be appointed as a managing editor and that Web producers in the combined newsroom would likely be reporting to the paper's section editors, and not to a Web authority. Such org-chart dynamics matter greatly to the Post's digital future. If Web producers end up answering to section editors at the paper, they'll inevitably end up doing more work for the dead-tree product and less for washingtonpost.com. Increasingly strapped for resources, Post editors will find nice ways of hijacking this labor pool: Hey, Ms. Web Producer, we hear you have some excellent copy-editing skills!

Top Posties won't come close to discussing the lines of authority in the merged newsroom: "We know and value the tremendous creative talent in The Post's digital newsroom. Our plans recognize that strength and will enhance it," writes Brauchli via e-mail.

If so, Brauchli should brush up on his memo-writing skills. Dot-com personnel were scandalized to read his electronic missive on the change to a bold-letter banner on the Web site. It read, in part: "This recognizes what we all have long known: washingtonpost.com is very much part of The Washington Post, complementary and in some ways distinct, but an absolutely central part of who we are." The "complementary and in some ways distinct" part didn't go down too well in Arlington.

The patronizing tone of Brauchli's words conveys the current reality of the Washington Post—that the newsroom is swallowing the Web site, for better or worse. Says Brady: "They've wanted to control it forever and now they have their chance–and I hope it works out for the best. I think they'll find it's not as easy as it looks from the outside."

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  • http://push.cx Peter Harkins

    Thanks for an excellent article. Today is my last day at WPNI, and you've exactly captured the feel of what it's been like to work here over the last 18 months. (This is also the first I've heard of Roger Black. There have been all-WPNI emails about the re-redesign, but they never mentioned him.)

    I think the only thing you didn't mention was the drumbeat of departures; nearly every week there's a goodbye email from someone who's been here for years. I know you focus on news, but other depts are the same.

  • Skepticus

    Why do DC area media groups feel the seemingly unrelenting pressure to turn to NY design "gurus" (cringe). The Atlantic went with some hot young thing, and virtually destroyed their print product (bold, 24 point type faces are good for Wired- not for the Atlantic). Now the Post? Ooops...perhaps, Now the Post- AGAIN?

    By the way- if one toodles over to His Majesty's Web site, you'll see that he needs to get a better grip on CSS. Not sayin', just sayin'!

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