Optimism is underrated – What will remain when Marty Baron leaves the Washington Post

Even on the European side of the Atlantic, Marty Baron may be a household name to some outside the journalistic microcosm. The reason is “Spotlight.” In the movie, which won an Oscar in 2015, a young, new editor-in-chief drives an investigative team at the Boston Globe newspaper to top performance. The reporters finally succeed in uncovering a huge abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. The editor-in-chief’s real name is Martin Baron, and the actor Liev Schreiber, who played him, actually looked a lot like him in the film. By that time, however, Baron had already buzzed off to the Washington Post (WaPo), where he became editor-in-chief in 2013, shortly before Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bought the paper. There, @PostBaron, as he calls himself on Twitter, has now had enough. 66 years old, he announced he would be leaving his post at the end of February 2021.

In many a newsroom, reporters might have wrangled over who gets to pay tribute to Baron on his farewell. Of course, lots of journos are in awe of such a seasoned colleague, who during his time as editor-in-chief expanded the editorial team from 500 to 1,000 people, won ten Pulitzer Prizes with them and still managed to do a first-class job with digital transformation. “Democracy dies in darkness” – the WaPo’s claim will hardly be missing from any article. And if you like it funnier, you can integrate the expression “swashbuckling” into your English vocabulary. Jeff Bezos used it to say goodbye to his business partner: “You are swashbuckling and careful, you are disciplined and empathetic.” Never mind Baron could also be quite exhausting, Bezos admitted.

You can say a lot about this Marty, who was well aware of his importance. However, he was not so aware that he did not repeatedly tell young and experienced journalists about his work, as he regularly did at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, where he sits on the advisory board. He was happy to do so, also in the hope that a few of his messages would find their way back across the Atlantic. Only when he said something publicly did his newsroom take it from him that he was serious, he once said. He was obviously serious about one thing, because he repeated it, and it stuck: “I only hire optimists.” A flair for those colleagues* who push things forward with tenacity and a belief in success, whether investigative research or product development, may have been part of his recipe for success in digital transformation (the other’s first name was Jeff).

As a pragmatic, confident optimist, one can only agree. How nice it is, even as a boss, to share everyday life and offices with colleagues who take a deep breath at every minor and major crisis and then assure you with a desperate yet hopeful smile: “We’ll get it right.” How do you appreciate them, the ones who keep experimenting, digging in, doing the math and ultimately turning the corner with the message, “It’ll work out.”

In the media industry in general though optimism as a concept is not very popular. On the one hand, this is due to the less than encouraging balance sheets and the crumbling business models. On the other hand, it also reflects the self-image of a profession that often succumbs to the reflex of attaching the word crisis to every problem, thus making it seem a little more insoluble – think of the Corona crisis, the refugee crisis, the climate crisis, the vaccine crisis and, yes, the media crisis. Optimism in this reading is often misunderstood as whitewashing. Journalists, after all, are supposed to be critical and uncover messes. To bathe the world in optimism, that’s what PR is supposed to do. For this reason, journalism that calls itself constructive or solution-oriented sometimes has a hard time, at least communication-wise.

The audience, however, is increasingly annoyed by this. More than a third of users find journalism too negative and therefore switch off, as can be read in the Digital News Report year after year. Not necessarily because they no longer want to hear bad news, but because many perceive the world around them very differently – at least when there isn’t a pandemic going on. They often have quite positive experiences with colleagues, friends, neighbors, even complete strangers in the supermarket or at the train station. Therefore they feel that they can achieve something if they get together and tackle problems rather than going into hiding. Challenges have to be overcome, nothing helps.

And that is indeed the core of optimism: not a rosy view of the world, a denial of the facts, a euphoria-soaked jumping on every trend. But the confidence that with proper use of brain cells, diligence and cooperation, one will somehow make progress on the path to a better future, no matter how far away the goal may be. Things don’t always turn out well for everyone; many a generation carries burdens that are almost impossible to shoulder. But anyone who follows Max Roser’s long-term data series in Ourworldindata.org knows that progress is reality, not fiction.

Now it would be wrong to claim that progress is built by optimists alone. In every team there must be doubters who see details and nuances, point out risks and dangers and do not let themselves be silenced by bosses who divide the world into “trouble shooters and trouble makers”. Many a misfortune could have been prevented, many a danger averted, if the worriers had been listened to in good time. But the power is in optimism, the belief that something good can come of it if only worries and doubts are taken seriously enough.

They certainly weighed on Marty Baron, the great investigative journalist, when he met with Jeff Bezos eight years ago to talk about the future of the WaPo. Would the newsroom be able to remain independent under the eye of a man for whom the paper seemed more toy than vocation, and whose corporate empire earned far fewer stars in the humanity department than in the “customer obsession” category? In any case, the editor-in-chief was happy with the owner, he emphasized this one time after another. Possibly Marty Baron would have even hired himself.

This post appeared for the Digital Journalism Fellowship newsletter on January 28 on the Hamburg Media School blog. It was translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version) and then edited by the author.