The Big Move

Ideas, thoughts and signals shaping the world of media.

Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, gave a speech at UC Riverside in April 2015 titled “Journalism’s Big Move: What to Discard, Keep, and Acquire in Moving From Print to Web.” The Big Move requires more an evolution of mindset than a checklist of functional capabilities and digital products:

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.

He cites the rise of Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and SnapChat in the past decade as proof of a fundamental transformation in the industry, which will only increase its pace. Martin identifies a number of conversations that are past their time, which are bogging down traditional media organizations and proving how unfit they are for this new territory. These include the argument that “we’re becoming a digital society.” Martin contends that “we ALREADY ARE a digital society. And even that statement is behind the times.” He provides a list of lingering ideas that must be discarded without delay:

  • “…paper will remain for long a big part of what we do”
  • “…what’s on the front page is more important, has greater value, carries greater prestige than what we disseminate on the web”
  • “…the newsroom can labor in isolation from the business operations – from circulation and advertising”
  • “…traditional forms [of storytelling] are hands-down superior to alternatives emerging on digital platforms”
  • “…staffing and structure must remain the same”

These notions are all impediments to the vigorous debate that is necessary if traditional publications are to survive. Martin recounts how the industry has responded reluctantly to change in the past, such as the introduction of computers, designers, and color printing. Newspapers eventually made these transitions, but this reinforced their proclivity for reactivity over proactivity. The industry will have to rid itself of this habit for navel-gazing, but this is made all the more difficult by the fact that the value of journalism will always depend upon self-awareness regarding reputation, quality, and public duty.

A sense of journalistic duty underpins Martins list of things that the industry must hold onto through this Big Move:

  • “…original, on-the-scene reporting. We must go places, see things, interview people.”
  • “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.
  • “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 honourable.”

Preserving these age-old principles is just as important as acquiring technological skills and an entrepreneurial, evolutionary mindset. Sacrificing one for the other is a fruitless compromise. Martin discusses The Washington Post’s role in Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing as being motivated by this sense of duty to the public interest, which is necessary in order to overcome the commercial and security risks of the story. These journalistic capabilities are hard won—they are developed in dialog with the community rather than acquired strictly through hiring and training. Therefore, they are more difficult to replicate than the technological capabilities of industry newcomers. Martin’s frustration is palpable, but so is his confidence—this tension characterizes the giants of traditional print media, and justifies his thesis that survival depends on shifting mindsets and attitudes..

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