Washington Post editor to newspaper luddites: ‘Get over it’

Washington Post editor to newspaper luddites: ‘Get over it’

To newspaper journalists who continue to balk at the digital revolution, the top editor at the Washington Post offers this unvarnished message: Get over it.

Back in February, you may have read a post on this blog titled “10 ways the Internet is killing journalism.” The post, by freelancer Martin Cohen, took a decidedly dim view of how the web is transforming the way newspapers and other media outlets deliver the news.

Two months later, Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, has given us an optimistic, yet no less blunt view of newspapers’ transition from print to web.

Baron maintains that the Internet isn’t killing newspaper journalism — it’s transforming it.

“This transformation is going to happen no matter what,” Baron said in a lecture April 8 at the University of California, Riverside. “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.”

Baron then ticked off a litany of tech innovations that have occurred within only the past 10 years or so, including the debuts of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, the iPhone and the iPad.

“If this pace of change unnerves you, there is no consolation. Things will only get faster,” Baron said. “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.”

Baron dubbed this journalism’s “Big Move,” a switch that he acknowledges will be unnerving for some folks, like himself, who entered the newspaper business before the advent of the 21st century.

“We just have to get over it,” he said.

Addressing the divide between non-digital natives and digital natives — you know, the ones who might never have even gotten their hands stained by newspaper ink — Baron said: “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.”

He added: “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.”

And as non-digital natives settle into this new place, Barron warned that newspaper veterans — those who didn’t grow up with a smartphone at the ready — must ditch some old-school thinking, such as:

The print product will never die.

Baron suggested that against the backdrop of plummeting print revenue, newspaper folks must discard “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.”

Front-page news is king.

“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,” Baron said.

We’re becoming a digital society.

“We already are a digital society. And even that statement is behind the times,” Baron said. “We’re a mobile society. Eighty percent of adults on earth are expected to have a smartphone by 2020.”

Newspapers must maintain separation of church and state.

For decades, there’s been a “wall” between the newsroom and the business side — advertising and circulation — at newspapers. Baron said newspapers must tear down that wall.

The divide between the newsroom and the business side has “fostered ignorance,” he said.

“Newsroom staff never really understood how we made money — and, in all honesty, didn’t really care. That’s because we made so much,” he said. “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, he argued, it does matter.

“Advertisers are looking for innovative, measurable and successful ways to connect with potential customers,” Baron said. “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.”

The inverted pyramid is here to stay.

What was taught 20 years in journalism school about storytelling is old news, according to Baron. Digital delivery of news demands a fresh approach to storytelling by incorporating video, audio, interactive graphics and other tools.

“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,” he said. “It’s just that old, traditional forms don’t seem to work as naturally, or as often, on the web.”

The traditional newsroom is not dead.

“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,” Baron said.

He added: “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.”

John Egan is editor in chief at SpareFoot, an Austin, Texas-based startup that operates the country’s largest online marketplace for self-storage units.

Photo: Newspapers folded via Shutterstock

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