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Don't blame Jill Abramson for the NYT's slow web adoption

Chris Keane

On Monday I wrote about the challenges faced by newspapers like the New York Times as they struggle to make a transition to the web. A point that's implicit in that post but is worth making explicitly is that newspapers' struggles to adapt to the web are not necessarily the fault of the people running the newspapers.

In internet journalism circles, it's customary to portray legacy media executives as blinkered and reactionary. And of course there are some executives that fit that description. But newspapers have also had extremely smart and far-thinking leaders, and none of them has discovered the magic formula for transforming a print news organization into a web-savvy digital news organization.

Today's newspaper executives have to balance two conflicting objectives. They have to keep the print product healthy enough to keep the lights in the short term while simultaneously growing the digital side of the business quickly enough to pick up the slack as print revenues fall. In practice, these objectives are in direct conflict with each other. If papers move too quickly to a digital-first model, they'll undermine the health of the print business before the digital product is ready to stand on its own. If they move too slowly, there won't be a successful digital business to fall back on when print revenues plummet.

There's no guarantee that it's even possible for newspapers to manage this transition successfully. I suspect that the precipitous decline of mid-market dailies like the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Paul Pioneer Press was inevitable. It was just too hard for these smaller papers to build websites large enough to replace declining print revenues.

The largest papers — the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post — benefit from the media version of the "superstar effect." As the news business has become increasingly national, the most famous brands have been able to attract a lot of new readers outside their home markets. That has given the leaders of these papers a some extra breathing room.

But it's been a wrenching transition even for the largest newspapers. And there no reason to think better leadership in recent years could have avoided the pain. It's a genuinely hard problem, and if anything newspaper executives like Jill Abramson deserve credit for managing the transition as well as they have.