Rieder: Quality journalism in a digital world – USA TODAY
It’s a speech well worth reading for people who care about where journalism is heading.
It has a double-barreled message, and both components are equally important.
And its significance is heightened by the background of the person who gave it.
Last week, Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, delivered the 2015 Hays Press-Enterprise lecture at the University of California-Riverside. His subject: Journalism’s painful transition from print to digital.
The first part of the address made a number of important points about where things are heading. But Baron’s overarching message was directed to die-hard print enthusiasts, and it was basically: Get over yourselves.
“We can start by discarding the lingering notion that paper will remain for long a big part of what we do,” Baron said, “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.”
Baron also voiced an opinion about page one that not so long ago would have been unthinkable. “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,” he said. “It isn’t more important.”
This from the top editor at the iconic Washington Post of Watergate fame, the paper that starred in All The President’s Men, one of the very best newspaper movies ever made. This from a guy with a long, distinguished career at many of the nation’s top newspapers: Before joining the Post, Baron held editing positions at The New York Times, The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and the Miami Herald.
So this is not a digital enthusiast dancing on the grave of print; it’s the clear-sighted appraisal of a print guy.
And clear vision is crucial to survival. For people who cover change for a living, newspaper people have traditionally been a change-averse group. They are very romantic about what they do and the way they do it. Baron references the grumbling and foot-dragging that accompanied everything from computers replacing typewriters to the advent of graphics and color photographs. As a result, he points out, each move took too long.
But that’s not a luxury available in an industry whose economic model has been blown up by the digital revolution. As Baron says, in the move into the digital future, “The first casualty is sentiment.”
It’s clear that an innovation culture is essential for news organizations to survive and thrive in the new world. Baron, of course, is fortunate that the newspaper he heads is owned by Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who bought the Post so he could give it enough “runway” to figure out a future without obsessing over the minute-by-minute profit and loss numbers. While other newspapers, USA TODAY among them, continue to reduce the size of their staffs, the Post newsroom has hired 100 people in the past year, for a net gain of 70 positions.
But in all of this innovating, it’s also crucial to keep in mind the real value of news organizations. And that was the other critical part of Baron’s message: Don’t forget what we need to keep.
And that would be having reporters in place when and where news happens. That would be firsthand, ambitious, enterprising reporting on important subjects. It’s not enough to settle for commodity news and aggregating the work of others.
As the Post editor puts it, “The world cannot be covered without leaving the office.”
And this part of the equation — the need to marry digital chops with quality journalism — gets far too little attention.
So, yes, it’s unlikely that print journalism, at least as we know it, will be with us for a very long time. It’s not going away tomorrow. So many predictions of its imminent disappearance have fallen by the wayside. But the long-term prognosis is not good. Clearly the future is digital.
But while the platform may change, the need for first-rate journalism is more important than ever.