Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, recently gave the 2015 Hays Press-Enterprise lecture at the University of California on journalism’s move from print to digital.Angelique Lu delivers 14 highlights from the speech.
1. Journalism’s reinvention is the cause of great excitement and anxiety
“This has been my profession for 39 years, and never have I seen a moment of so much excitement and yet so much anxiety.
Excitement because journalism is being thoroughly reimagined. Anxiety because … journalism is being thoroughly reimagined — because our traditional economic model is disintegrating.”
2. Technological advancements mean that journalists must adapt or be left behind
“Waves of technology are eroding our foundation. They threaten our traditional journalistic home. Survival dictates we move. And we have to move quickly.
This is what I’ll call the Big Move. As we make this move, the first casualty is sentiment.
The forces at work don’t care about how we prefer to do our jobs, how easily we adjust to change, how much we have to learn. They don’t care about any extra workload.
This transformation is going to happen no matter what. And there is only one realistic choice available: We can do what we must to adapt and – ideally – thrive. Or not — in which case we are choosing to fail.”
3. Newspapers will soon be a thing of the past
“We can start by discarding the lingering notion that paper will remain for long a big part of what we do. It will not. For a while, yes. But it will not last.”
4. Mobile is the future
“It’s wrong to say we’re becoming a digital society. We ALREADY ARE a digital society. And even that statement is behind the times. We’re a mobile society. Eighty percent of adults on earth are expected to have a smartphone by 2020.”
5. The concept of the front page is gone
“Let’s also abandon the idea, still common in newsrooms, that what’s on the front page is more important, has greater value, carries greater prestige than what we disseminate on the web. It isn’t more important.
To be clear, it’s not unimportant.
It is a statement of our values, a defining and tangible representation of what we see in the world. We want to be smart about the front page. We want to be careful. We want to be creative. It is important, just not more important than what’s on the web.”
6. The internet brings a bigger audience
“Today, The Washington Post draws nearly 50 million visitors a month to its website and apps. Nearly half of those come via a mobile device. Year-over-year traffic gains have been running at 50-100%, making us one of the fastest growing major media sites in the country. That’s far more than will ever see our front page.
A single online story can draw more readers than the entire print newspaper.”
7. Journalists need to understand how media companies make money
“For decades, we talked of a wall between the newsroom and the so-called business side.
The purpose of that was understandable, even meritorious. Advertisers should not influence how we cover them, any more than politicians should. Coverage should be independent. Our credibility is at stake. Credibility is our currency.
But distance between the newsroom and the business side fostered ignorance. Newsroom staff never really understood how we made money – and, in all honesty, didn’t really care. That’s because we made so much. And the business side, I should add, didn’t really understand the newsroom. Because of our dominant position among readers and advertisers, it didn’t seem to matter.
Today, it matters. We need to know how the bills get paid – more pointedly, how the coverage is funded.
Advertisers are looking for innovative, measurable, and successful ways to connect with potential customers.
Without abandoning our principles of independent and honest coverage, newsrooms must participate in creating products that appeal to advertisers, boost readership, and deliver satisfying results for both.”
8. Engineers are now an essential feature for newsrooms
“We have fostered a tight working relationship with our engineering department, with 47 engineers working with our journalists. Four years ago, we had only four engineers in newsroom. When we move into a new office within a year, all 47 engineers will be embedded in our newsroom, working side by side with our journalists.
A symbiotic relationship between engineers and journalists is essential for innovation.”
9. Stories need to be tailored to the digital experience
“We now see new forms of storytelling connect effectively with readers who prefer a digital experience. It’s not that old forms don’t work on the web. They can, they do, often very well. Hard news, deep investigations, artful narratives – they hold a revered place in our portfolio.
It’s just that old, traditional forms don’t seem to work as naturally, or as often, on the web.
This should not be surprising. The web, after all, is a different medium.
Remember that radio brought its own form of storytelling. Television brought its own form of storytelling.
So the web invites its own means of communication – more conversational, more accessible, one that incorporates other tools available to us such as video, audio, social media, and interactive graphics. And mobile surely requires its own distinct approach.”
10. Journalists need to be more entrepreneurial
“Journalists will be creating entirely new companies. Or they will work in entrepreneurial ventures. They will have to become entrepreneurs within larger organisations, too, called upon to remake them. This means that everyone, regardless of position, must be a leader. With ideas and initiative.
It used to be, in companies like ours, that we hired people who could learn from us. Now we aim to hire people who can teach us what we need to know.”
11. Journalists need to be comfortable with analytics
Technology, of course, gives us the power to measure everything we do. How our stories are doing. How much time people spend with each story. How deep into a story they read. Whether they read one more story after the first one, whether they return to us, where they come from, where they go when they leave us, and what their interests are.
This can be discomfiting for many. We will have to get comfortable.
12. Journalists still need to be creating original content
We must be eyewitnesses to the events of our community, our nation, and our world. The world cannot be covered without leaving the office.
We can often draw on the work of others, but we cannot only draw on the work of others. What most distinguishes organizations like The Washington Post is ambitious, pioneering, original work. Often, it sets the agenda for civic debate and public policy.
Because we uncovered it, because we brought a perspective that was not previously available, because we learned new facts, listened to more people, examined more evidence, because we dug deeper. Because we aimed for true understanding and genuine revelations rather than for just clicks.
13. Sub-editing is as important as ever
“As much as we need great writing, we also need great editing. That means we need structure and staff that bring rigour to our work. That mandate we question ourselves before we publish. That demand fairness. That demand we do everything possible to assure accuracy. That assure we are honest and honourable.”
14. The Washington Post’s work in the Snowden files revealed the surveillance landscape that journalists are now operating in.
“The coverage, at minimum, opened a debate that the US government had denied its citizens — about the proper balance between security and privacy.
And that coverage gives definition to what, in my view, we must surely keep as our profession transitions into something jarringly different from what we once knew.
We must keep our values. The first among them is a determination to do what we feel is right and in the public interest – even when there is commercial risk, even when the risks exceed that.
Note: Martin Baron will be speaking at the World News Media Congress in Washington DC this June.
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