Can newspapers innovate too fast? Is that what went wrong?

Can you innovate too fast? That’s what the Washington Post’s ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton wants to know:

One of the things that surprised and heartened me when I came to The Post 10 months ago was the tremendous amount of innovation going on.

Hardly a week goes by without the Web site or newspaper launching some feature, or a venture to attract more revenue, or a blog, or a social media innovation. Just since I have been here, The Post has redesigned its Web site; installed a new content management system; pioneered the Facebook social reader, which tracks and announces what your Facebook friends are reading; added a team of policy bloggers to Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog; revised its comment system for readers; added a ton more news videos online; started The Root DC, a site aimed at African American readers; and probably about 10 other things I can’t remember.

The answer to innovating too fast really depends on your position as a company. If you’re a dominate company, racking in profits, perhaps spending too much time and money on new stuff would be a mistake. Targeted R&D in the Apple mold produces better results than the spaghetti-on-the-wall R&D of Google. But there isn’t a newspaper company that is an Apple or a Google.

If you are a company in a besieged industry that is rapidly disappearing, I don’t think it’s possible to innovate too fast. Does anyone really think that the newspaper industry is in the situation it is in today because it innovated too fast?

But it is important to draw a distinction between new initiatives and innovation. Thus the proper questions are, “Are the new initiatives we are trying the correct ones? Are we spending our time wisely? Do we have the proper setup to ensure innovation?”

The Washington Post and many other news organizations are certainly trying a lot of new things. I wouldn’t call that innovation. New initiatives that resonate with users, drive traffic and ultimately help a news organization make money (and thus employ staffers) should be considered innovation. New initiatives that push journalism forward should be considered innovation and ultimately encouraged.

By this measure, I would say the Post and other news organizations need a lot more innovation. Particularly missing right now is innovation on the business model front. While The New York Times has been experimenting with different ways to make money, most notably its pay meter, I don’t recall any serious initiatives from the Post when it comes to business models. That’s innovation that the Post could sorely use.

Pexton does cite that several Post users complain that is becoming cluttered. I think that’s a fair point. I find Washington Post story pages to be distracting and hard to read (almost built for Instapaper and Reader to declutter them). This isn’t due to too much innovation, but rather far too little restraint.

This is an issue afflicting most legacy news organizations. The experience of focusing on and enjoying an individual story is rapidly disappearing beneath an avalanche of chrome: social media widgets, ads that are far too distracting and rarely relevant, polls that are unrelated to the story at hand, links to unrelated content on the site, newsletter signups, etc, etc.

My guess is that Pexton, and the employees at the Post agreeing with him, haven’t thought too deeply about what innovation at a news organization looks like. I’d suggest they check out the new tech news site The Verge. They have real innovation like story streams that allow them to create micro-blogs for big, ongoing stories. Their reviews feature layout and typography that makes them feel more like an interactive magazine spread, complete with very high-caliber video reviews and charts.

While the Post may have rolled out a new content management system and design (the site doesn’t look or feel much different to me, the end user), you can tell The Verge has a CMS unlike what traditional news outlets have. The site looks and feels different to end users. It’s what innovation feels like.

Perhaps Pexton should ask his colleagues why the Post’s website doesn’t look and feel nearly as a good as The Verge. There is no good reason it doesn’t.