Narisetti: ‘I am glad I am seen as having created friction’ at the Post

Raju Narisetti, who resigned as managing editor of The Washington Post last week, starts his new job at The Wall Street Journal on Feb. 15. He’s at Davos 2012 this week, but he answered some questions via email about his tenure at the Post and his decision to leave.

Mallary Tenore: Why did you decide to leave the Post?

Raju Narisetti: I wasn’t looking to leave the Post as my work here would never have been done and there is never a good time to leave a largely hand-picked and talented team of digital colleagues. But when the opportunity to do what I have done at the Post — get more people to consume more Post journalism than ever before — but now to do it across multiple brands/websites on a global scale at a company that has made profound bets on digital growth came about, it felt like an interesting new challenge to take on.

Also, despite some naysayers — a few inside and many outside the company — I leave very hopeful that the Post will continue to build on what has been an amazing performance these past couple of years in bringing record number of readers to Post journalism.

When you look back on what you accomplished at the Post, what are you most proud of?

We now have a single newsroom serving audiences across multiple platforms and breaking all-time records in page views, unique visitors, visits to the site and time spent on site — all measurable, all audience-focused and all replicable results, not just some anecdotal talking points. And, along the way, the newsroom has picked up five Pulitzer Prizes in the past couple of years.

I would like to think of myself as a fact-based leader who has tried to build a culture of measurement at the Post, one that begins with our readers. And I tried, with mixed results, to drive home one simple lesson: Big established newsroom cultures can get into trouble when we focus on the rear-view mirror and only talk of how far we have come. I wanted my team, and others willing to listen, to focus the Post on how far it needed to go and how quickly we need to get there.

What do you wish you had done more of, or done differently?

As with any job, in hindsight you should always want to do some things differently. I was happy to take ownership of both success and problems, both of which we had plenty of and always will if we have the courage to change. Personally, I would have actually tried to move faster than we have on every front.

Like many traditional media companies, the Post is also finally recognizing that its future will play out at the intersection of Post journalism and technology, in creating great “experiences” for readers so they are engaged and loyal. And the Post’s journey of not treating technology as a mere service function but as a strategic partner to content, something I have flagged and pushed for quite a while, has just begun and in retrospect I wish I had pushed even harder on the front.

The Post’s story about you leaving said: “Narisetti’s style and
philosophy sometimes created friction in the newsroom over standards and priorities, and over business strategy. In addition, the new computer system has been cumbersome, some say. On occasion, he offended people with Twitter comments.” What’s your response to the notion that your style and philosophy occasionally created friction?

I am afraid it is difficult to respond to anonymous complainers with unspecific issues. As for the specifics, my Twitter record is public and speaks for itself. I willingly took “ownership” of a multi-year, multi-million changeover to a new publishing system and that shift, while successfully accomplished, remains a work-in-progress in terms of its stability.

But I came to Post from a newsroom (Mint) that has successfully used the same publishing system for years and am headed to a newsroom (WSJ) that is also using the same publishing system so this isn’t a problem with the actual technology. And I am confident that the new Post CIO Shailesh Prakash and his team will make sure the publishing system delivers to its full capabilities in coming months.

As for any broader brand business issues, I served as a managing editor with a very specific, strategic mandate at the pleasure of its executive editor, and by default the Post’s publisher, and felt I lived up to their expectations.

And I am glad I am seen as having created friction — friction based around a clear view of what the Post’s future should be is actually good. Perhaps I should rephrase the issue in terms of a question that Post journalists and those who follow its journalism can easily understand and answer: Amid the inevitable and relentless need to reduce costs in a tough reduced revenue business, is the Post newsroom better off today — with the largest audience for its journalism in 134 years — than it was four years ago?

Every four years, the Post newsroom has the great opportunity to show, in its coverage of the U.S. presidential election, that it can go toe-to-toe against anyone else out there in delivering on its “For and About Washington” promise to readers. This year, the newsroom will be doing so with an engaged and loyal record audience already in place. So the focus should be all about executing well and building on the audience growth and engagement of these past few years.

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