Reasonable Words: WaPo editor Marty Baron, the future is now

Color printing comes to the front page of the New York Times: 1997. A little more than a century after the three-color printing process was developed in 1893.

Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron’s speech on the changes in print journalism is timely and provocative (to use a journalistic cliché) if not exactly a news flash.

A few bits:

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

His points aren’t surprising to me (I’ve been working on the web for 20 years, and tried to make the point about different forms of storytelling a decade back) I’ve also worked at a legacy electronic media company which has had its own struggles with loss of relevance, prestige, and a busted funding model.

But one thing I don’t see candor so often is that it was so damn easy to make $$$ in the newspaper business, at least for the big boys, for so long. Even during my few years as a Post/staffer and stringer, the amount of money the place made was bountiful beyond belief. And as Baron says, for reasons good and bad, the idea of the paper as a business seldom really impinged on the ethos of the 5th floor where the newsroom was. Editorial types came to journalism with a mix of motives, but there are (or at least were) a fair number of public-service minded or wonky types, who had no interest in, or real facility with things like “innovative business models” and didn’t even like to talk money per se.  They wanted to change the world, bring down a corrupt president, “tell the people” or be a foreign correspondent, maybe someday turn out a thumb-sucky book that influenced policy, and then be put out to pasture running a small liberal arts college somewhere. Turns out the publishers may not have been any great shakes at the whole biz model thing either: their task was to steer big elegant ships through monopolistic mass media waters with no actual competitive threats, certainly not in DC at least. Looked at it from that end of the telescope–not a completely fair perspective, granted, what’s amazing is not that the newspaper biz is crumbling cookie-wise as Jack Lemmon would say, it’s amazing that it stayed intact this long.

Another personal observation: as somebody who speaks newspaperman (having been raised by two) but who is also nerdy enough to at least have “advanced beginner” tech-speak skills, I do know these two languages offer abundant opportunities to epically misunderstand other.  It starts with a a software developer (not a ‘technologist,’ Marty!) referring to “content” which which a writer will feel dissed by, and a writer in turn going , “why can’t it just work that way when I press a button?” about some tech feature. It goes down hill from there, and ends with mutual “they just don’t get it.”

The image of “embedding engineers” in a newsroom is a a particular laugh. About the only thing that could be successfully embedded in any of the newsrooms I’ve ever worked in or seen is a bar. Maybe the best innovation is a touch screen app for reporters that brings Diet Coke, cigarettes, booze and coffee directly to their desk, and uses the voice of Hildy Johnson.

The whole Baron thing is worth reading.

When I got a thank you gift from Amazon in 1998, it was a coffee mug with this quote on it.

“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” –John Cage. The enclosed message from Jeff Bezos (now owner of the Post), pointed out that Cage’s quote was one of his favorites.




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