Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, delivered the 2015 Hays Press-Enterprise lecture at the University of California, Riverside Tuesday night. His speech titled “Journalism’s Big Move: What to Discard, Keep, and Acquire in Moving From Print to Web” is available below.
Thank you for inviting me to be at UC Riverside.
You’ve allowed me a return to Southern California where I spent so many years as a journalist. In my 17 years at The Los Angeles Times, far longer than I have worked anywhere, I was able to learn from some of the world’s best journalists – and to make friends for life, many of whom were kind to come tonight.
It’s a particular honor to speak in this lecture series. Tim Hays built the Riverside Press-Enterprise into a newspaper admired for its vigorous local journalism. We very much need that. And he was a fierce combatant for First Amendment rights, winning two landmark Supreme Court cases on press access.
Tim was, as Don Graham of The Washington Post said in 1997, “one of the great principled editors of his generation.” All of us are in Tim’s debt.
So much has happened in this field since Tim ran the Press-Enterprise. 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.
Let me give you an example that captures the thrill and the threat. It dates to my days at The Boston Globe and the investigation we launched that in 2002 exposed a decades-long cover-up of sexual abuse by priests in the Archdiocese of Boston and the Catholic Church.
Some background first: Our work started with an investigation of one priest who had been accused of molesting as many as 80 children, and the question we sought to answer was whether the Cardinal himself knew of this priest’s abuse and yet reassigned him to other parishes despite consistently strong evidence of serial abuse of children. We also wanted to know if concealing abuse and reassigning priests was common practice: Did the Church place abusers into parishes where their history of abuse was unknown — and where they abused again?
The answer to those questions came from investigative work by The Boston Globe’s reporters and its motion to unseal documents kept secret for decades by the Archdiocese. And the answer to those questions was an unequivocal “yes.”
Yes, the Cardinal knew of this priest’s abuse, and yet he repeatedly reassigned him to other parishes. And, yes, this was emblematic of a pattern, in the Boston Archdiocese and in the Church worldwide.
So, back to my point about our profession:
In 2010, eight years after those first investigative stories in the Globe, Clay Shirky, a professor at NYU and an astute thinker about media, was at Harvard participating in a panel about the impact of that Catholic Church investigation in the Internet era.
He made a number of points that highlighted the opportunity for the Globe in a connected world:
No. 1: That investigation of the Church had the largest reach, most global impact, of anything that had ever come out of The Boston Globe. The number of people who read it was many times larger than the paper’s circulation. Until then, the Globe’s audience had been local because it was primarily a print publication. But in 2002, when the first investigative stories were published, the audience was worldwide.
Suddenly, as Shirky observed, the Globe acquired “super-distribution” of its journalism.
No. 2: Small protest groups were able to distribute these stories quickly with the message “Join us.” One group, Voice of the Faithful, had initially perhaps 30 members. But sharing Globe stories over the Internet allowed it to sign on many thousands of new members.
“That ability,” Shirky noted, “for people to coordinate themselves when they hear the news, not just to be outraged in isolation but to be outraged together, which is the kind of thing that produces action, is new.”
No. 3: Catholics could now organize across geographic and language boundaries to participate in Church life – and could circumvent Church hierarchy.
And No. 4: The Church had always been able to respond to incidents of abuse by feigning shock, suggesting those incidents were isolated. But the Internet allowed individuals to do their own research and learn otherwise. Power shifted to the information consumer.
If you think all that is terrific, as I do, it came with an ironic twist. Here’s Shirky again:
“The ability of an organization like the Globe … to put information out in a way that spreads worldwide and remains persistent has been phenomenal and transformative. I think this is, along with Teapot Dome and Watergate, … (on) the list of one of those world-changing investigative stories.
“The irony is that it is coming at a time when the very medium that enables this kind of subsequent super-distribution and coordination of social value is also destroying the economic model that the Globe used to support the work in the first place … It is wrecking the advertising side of the house even as it makes good investigative journalism much more resonant much more quickly to many more people on a global scale.”
Shirky was right, of course. And we’re dealing here with nothing less than forces of nature in a modern economy.
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.
I like to remind people what has happened in only the last decade because it’s easy to forget:
• High-speed broadband became pervasive only in 2004, 2005, making possible the communications we take for granted today. It allowed photos to load fast and instant viewing of videos — and it allows mobile connection to the web.
• Google didn’t go public until 2004. Today, there are more than 3 billion searches a day on Google.
• Facebook was founded in 2004. Now it has more than 1.3 billion monthly active users.
• YouTube was founded in 2005. More than 1 billion people now visit YouTube each month.
• Twitter was founded in 2006. A half-billion tweets are sent every day.
• Kindle was introduced in 2007. Three in 10 Americans now read an e-book.
• Apple introduced the iPhone in June, 2007. Today 2 billion people worldwide use smartphones.
• Instagram was founded in 2009.
• Whatsapp was founded in 2009 and last year was sold for $19 billion to Facebook.
• The iPad was introduced in January, 2010.
• Snapchat wasn’t launched until 2011. It’s now valued at $10 billion or more.
If this pace of change unnerves you, there is no consolation. Things will only get faster. And for those who resist the change rather than embrace it, there will be no forbearance or forgiveness. Their destiny is to be pushed aside and forgotten. That is the brutal truth.
So journalism’s Big Move from print to digital comes with discomfort for those, like me, who grew up in this field well before the 21st Century. We just have to get over it.
We are moving from one habitat to another, from one world to another. We are leaving a home where we felt settled. Now we encounter behaviors that are unfamiliar. Our new neighbors are younger, more agile. They suffer none of our anxieties. They often speak a different language. They regard with disinterest, or disdain, where we came from, what we did before. We’re the immigrants. They’re the natives. They know this new place of ours well. We’re just learning it.
Welcome to the neighborhood!
As we make this move, the question is the same as we confront in any other move. What do we discard? What will we have to acquire and learn? What do we keep?
We can have a good argument about all that. In truth, we should.
I have some ideas.
Let’s start with what we need to discard.
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.
The newspaper remains, as of today, a predominant source of revenue for organizations like ours. But the revenue it produces is declining sharply. Advertisers are leaving. Most readers prefer to get their information from digital sources.
Those trends are accelerating.
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.
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.
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.
Let’s also abandon the idea that the newsroom can labor in isolation from the business operations – from circulation and advertising. It cannot.
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.
At The Washington Post, innovation is now front and center. We were very proud this year to be named by Fast Company magazine as the Number One most innovative media company in the world.
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.
The biggest collaboration for us this past year was the introduction of a new app for the Kindle Fire, one that came preloaded and that offered a novel, highly visual experience. We are now rolling that experience out to mobile devices and the web.
Also to be left behind in our Big Move to digital are some ideas about storytelling – primarily the idea that traditional forms are hands-down superior to alternatives emerging on digital platforms.
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.
It’s also worth remembering that storytelling, even in print, has changed plenty over time. You only need to look at newspapers over the decades. Narrative writing, for one, was not a big thing 50 years ago.
At The Post, where we have hired more than 100 people in the last year for a net addition of about 70 positions — we have recruited journalists who intuitively understand the web. Their careers were built on it. They recognize its primacy in today’s communications. They know how to use powerful tools the web makes possible.
These journalists write and edit with an ear for what resonates with digital readers. They are not romantics about a previous era.
We’ve hired these journalists for our overnight team that produces something called Morning Mix, posted by 5 a.m. We’ve done it with our breaking-news team, with graphics that stand alone as storytelling devices, and with new blogs on everything from military affairs to Internet culture to sports stats. We’ve done the same with what we call PostEverything, a venue for essays and analysis that draws on the vast universe of people who have interesting things to say at the moment.
Let’s also let go of the idea that staffing and structure must remain the same. They will not. They cannot. The web has different attributes from print, and it will call for a different approach. That will require rethinking how we deploy resources and how many we deploy where.
The Internet is a different environment, and what will happen to media is what we see happen when any organism finds itself in different habitat. It mutates. It acquires characteristics that allow it to survive. And those mutations are passed from one generation to the next. They become the norm.
The tricky part is how we make the transition. We must remain committed to quality wherever we publish. We cannot make a hash out of what we do in print. Our reputation cannot be squandered. Our paying, and very loyal, subscribers deserve our best.
As we discard some things, there are others we must acquire – and embrace. I’ve already mentioned new storytelling techniques. We need to adopt them, and develop them. But the list is longer.
Above all, we will need comfort with change. I’ve been around long enough to appreciate how often change has met with resistance.
Newsrooms grumbled about having to learn to use computers instead of typewriters. When designers were first hired, people complained that we were emphasizing aesthetics over substance. I recall colleagues grumbling that a new emphasis on graphics was just “dumbing down” the paper. When color was introduced, people argued it would have a frivolous effect. Every change took more time than it should have.
We got away with delay because no one at the time directly threatened our business model.
But then came a reluctant adaptation to the Internet, even as advertisers and readers were siphoned away. Because we delayed, we got eaten alive.
While we can – and should – vigorously debate the smartest path forward, anyone living in the real world can see what human communications has become.
Cynicism and pessimism cannot rule the day. We need confidence and enthusiasm, a focus on possibilities.
We need to be optimistic. Those who feel they work in vain do not succeed. Success goes to those who believe they can achieve it.
Similarly, we will need to acquire a spirit of entrepreneurship.
Journalists will be creating entirely new companies. Or they will work in entrepreneurial ventures. They will have to become entrepreneurs within larger organizations, 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.
The digital era also means that we have to become a technology business. We can no longer be trailing far behind those at the cutting edge. By the time we catch up, others will be on to something better.
So, as we make The Big Move to digital, we have to acquire more technologists for our organizations. In our newsrooms, we have to hire people who are savvy about technology, and we must train everyone in our newsrooms in technologies that are unfamiliar to them.
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.
For so long, in print, we only needed to assume that lots of people read our stories. Who could contradict us? There was no way to measure it. But metrics now are plentiful. They are also necessary. To expand our online readership, we need them.
Metrics won’t be our only guide about how we go about our work – nor should they be — but they will be one guide. We will have to pay attention.
In this Big Move of ours from print to digital, if there is much to leave behind and much to acquire, there is also much we must keep.
This is a subject that has received scant attention. And yet it goes to the heart of who we are. This is sometimes called our brand. It is more fittingly described as our soul, our spirit or our identity. It is what defines us, sets us apart. It is ultimately our compass.
Number one, we need original, on-the-scene reporting. We must go places, see things, interview people.
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.
Last year, internally in our newsroom, we set two goals. We said it would be a year of digital transformation. But we also said it would be a year of ambition, in our journalism.
We believe we achieved that goal. We revealed persistent, unsettling weaknesses and blunders in the Secret Service’s protection of the president. We disclosed massive nationwide abuses in a federal asset forfeiture program that allowed state and local police to seize people’s cash without evidence they had done anything wrong. Because of our reporting, Rolling Stone’s story of a shocking gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity was documented to be untrue.
The best journalism involves discovery. It involves surprise and wonder and excitement – and new knowledge.
Number two on the list of what to keep: We must excel at the craft of writing – more broadly, at the craft of storytelling, whether in words or images or some combination. We must engage readers so that they are drawn into a world apart from their own. So that they see things in a fresh light.
There is no substitute for the work of reporters like Eli Saslow at The Washington Post, who in 2014 won a Pulitzer for explanatory reporting because of the human face he put on poverty, dependency and food stamps. This is journalism that bypasses tired punditry. This is journalism that embraces nuance. It requires spending time with real people.
I also think of Stephanie McCrummen who last year at The Post explored the difficult, sensitive subject of mental illness: Spending time with the man whose mentally ill son attacked him with a knife before committing suicide, leaving him wondering what he might have done differently. Spending time with a family where a father sinks into mental illness and they are left only to hope – hope that he either gets better, or that he gets far worse so he can be involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution.
Stories like these are a triumph in any media environment. Because they succeed in helping us understand our fellow human beings.
What else must we hold on to?
As much as we need great writing, we also need great editing. That means we need structure and staff that bring rigor 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 honorable.
Every day, the best editors provide guidance that brings coherence and completeness and conscience to our work. The best reporters I know will tell you emphatically that they do not work alone – that their work is made infinitely better by a collaboration with good editors.
After Eugene Meyer bought The Washington Post in 1933, he published a set of principles. They appear on a wall at the entrance to the offices of The Washington Post, as a reminder.
They begin like this: “The first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained.”
There is no assumption of perfection in that sentence – because we are not perfect. There is no assumption that we will always get to the truth – because we know the truth can be elusive. But there is an assumption that we will be strivers – that we will strive to get things as right as humanly possible.
It also assumes we will be wholeheartedly committed to ascertaining the truth.
This is especially true when it comes to powerful institutions and individuals. There may be no higher purpose in journalism than holding them accountable.
Where I work, the soaring journalistic achievement captured in one word – Watergate – still serves as an inspiration and a call to duty. We cannot let investigative muscles atrophy in our profession.
Especially now, when the power of government is growing. When the power of the wealthiest has expanded beyond all imagined limits. When the dark arts of image manipulation have been perfected. Especially now when those who should be watched assume we in the press have lost strength and will to be watchdogs.
If we as journalists abandon that mission — because we say we can’t afford it, because we claim it’s not cost-effective, or because risks seem too great — we will betray the foundational principle of a free press. It would be the most irresponsible thing we could do.
Two years ago, we had occasion at The Post to think hard about risks. We found ourselves reporting one of the most sensitive national security stories ever.
An unidentified individual had sent journalist Bart Gellman, a longtime former Post staffer – then a freelance writer — an encryption key and instructions to create an account on an anonymous computer server.
The two began an almost daily encrypted conversation. And ultimately the source would transmit documents containing some of the government’s most closely held national security secrets.
The source, of course, was Edward Snowden.
Gellman’s proposed stories involved huge risks. Legal risks. Reputational risks. To each journalist involved. To our company.
The government asserted an even greater risk: An overwhelming risk to the security of the country.
The Director of National Intelligence later suggested, chillingly, that journalists who revealed the contents of those documents were Snowden’s “accomplices.” When The Washington Post and the Guardian newspaper last year won Pulitzer Prizes in public service for this coverage, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee said we should have been prosecuted instead.
We published because we saw in those documents a public interest. They revealed a policy of dramatically expanding surveillance – at the expense of privacy.
The scope of National Security Agency surveillance was breathtaking. The agency had gained access to vast Internet communications. It was even breaking into the main links that connect data centers worldwide.
Many in this country argue that our decision to publish carried unacceptable risks to a nation under threat of terror. And yet many others are grateful that we exposed government activities they would never have approved and that could be horribly abused.
The coverage, at minimum, opened a debate that the U.S. 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.
Three years ago, in a speech in Boston, I said this – and I still believe it: The greatest threat to a vigorous press comes from ourselves.
The press is routinely disparaged and demonized. That leaves many news organizations fearful — fearful that we will be accused of bias, or that we will lose customers, or that we will offend someone.
The late Anthony Lewis, longtime columnist for the New York Times, wrote in his book “Freedom for the Thought We Hate” of a dissent in 1927 by Supreme Court Justice Brandeis that has endured as one of the most eloquent statements on behalf of freedom of expression.
Those who won our independence, Brandeis wrote, “believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty.” And that became the transcendent theme of Tony’s book. “The American press,” he wrote, “has been given extraordinary freedom by the Supreme Court’s interpretations of the First Amendment. In return, it owes society courage.”
Today, our profession feels shaken. But fear cannot be our guide. If there is one thing that must remain unshakable, this is it: That we will publish the truth when we find it and when the public deserves to know.
That is the spirit of the First Amendment, and the spirit that animated Tim Hays.
The lessons for us from today’s digital challenge seem small by comparison with the lessons of 1791 when the Bill of Rights was ratified.
The freedoms granted to the press — and all citizens — hold so much promise. But it is up to us to assure that the promise is fulfilled. That does not change.