I wrote last fall that the New York Times was finally starting to get the web, and I think the Washington Post is in the same category of taking the web a lot more seriously than it did a few years ago. But although the biggest newspapers are now taking the challenge seriously, they still have work to do. Case in point: the Washington, DC, area had a big storm a while back, and Scott Karp went to the Washington Post website expecting (reasonably enough) to find information about it. Unfortunately, despite being a DC-based publication, the Post's home page had very little information about the storm. Indeed, the home page wouldn't have mentioned it at all if there didn't happen to be a story on the most-read articles list. Unfortunately it was a formulaic story from the print edition that was great for a non-Washingtonian who doesn't know anything about the storm, but it's not terribly useful to a Washingtonian who can see the storm happening outside his window. What locals need is detailed, real-time information. After seeing nothing relevant on the WaPo's website, he went over to Google, typed in "power outages in northern virginia," and the first hit was a page from Dominion Electric showing power outages around its service region. Karp went back to the Post's website, and after more searching finally found a blog focusing on DC area weather—precisely the sort of thing that the Post ought to be making more prominently displayed during major weather events.
I think there are a couple of lessons to be learned from this. First, as Mike has said before, good content is often less important than useful services like organizing and filtering information. The Post had the content Karp wanted -- an up-to-date blog and links to useful resources -- but because its website was poorly organized, he wasn't able to find it easily. Some newspapers claim that Google lives parasitically off of other content producers, but I think this is a good illustration of why that's not true; there was plenty of content out there, but without Google, Karp might not have been able to find it. The other problem is that for all of the Post's progress it still seems to regard itself largely as a newspaper that happens to publish its articles on the web, rather than a general media company that happens to publish a paper edition. Sometimes a traditional newspaper article is the best way to cover a story, but often (as in this case) it's not. The Post, like a lot newspaper outlets, still seems to put too much emphasis on its print content, even in circumstances were a shorter, timelier, and more densely-linked story would be more useful to readers.