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.
MUNICH – When a local radio station in Charlotte, North Carolina started a podcasting competition in its community, it was prepared for many contingencies, except one: that the response would overwhelm the station’s server. The initiative was aimed at increasing on-air diversity, and tens of thousands of people wanted in. Groups and individuals from all walks of life submitted more than 370 ideas for podcasts, and 33,000 listeners logged on to vote for them. What started as a one-time experiment will now be a regular feature.
Journalism has always suffered from a lack of diversity. Demographically uniform newsrooms have been producing uniformly homogeneous content for decades. And while editors around the world have increasingly recognized that this is a problem, too little has been done to address it.
One reason, ironically, is a preoccupation with digital change. “There has been so much focus on digital transformation in recent years, the question of diversity has had to stand aside,” explains Olle Zachrison of the Swedish public broadcaster Sveriges Radio, in a study comparing diversity efforts in the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Germany. And yet, as the newsroom in Charlotte discovered, diversity is not just an added bonus; it is at the very core of audience engagement today.
In explaining the business ethos of the digital age, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has argued that it is all about “customer obsession as opposed to competitor obsession.” For the media, then, the guiding principle should be “audience first.” And that means using data to understand and cater better to it.
Not long ago, editorial choices were guided mostly by gut feelings and assumptions, whereas now they are often informed by analytical metrics and revealed truths about audience behavior. Some of these revelations are uncomfortable. Editors can no longer fool themselves about their journalism’s real-world impact. They now know that even the best stories tend to reach just a fraction of their hoped-for audience.
Complicating matters further, newsrooms have discovered that demand can peak at times when they have no new offerings, or when what they’re serving is not what consumers are seeking. In surveys like the Digital News Report, respondents often complain that the media offer too much negativity and volume, and too little explanation and relevant coverage.
Before digitalization, journalists didn’t have to think about their audiences as much as they do now. Newspapers were money-printing machines – the advertising dollars poured in regardless of what would now be called “content.” Likewise, public-service media faced almost no competition. But now that digital information is a commodity, with a few major platforms controlling its distribution, audience loyalty has become a matter of survival.
Many newsrooms were entirely unprepared for this new reality. They don’t even know who their potential new customers are, let alone how to reach them and win their trust. The problem is not just that newsroom homogeneity results in an incomplete view of the world and of the reading/listening public. It is that even when “outsiders” do land a job in this kind of environment, they tend to adapt to the dominant culture rather than challenge it. As a result, newsrooms remain ill equipped to reach out to new audiences.
The lack of diversity in the media has actually worsened in recent decades. Back in the heyday of local news, newsrooms were no less white or male, but being a journalist at least didn’t require a university degree – only a willingness to dive in and chase leads. Yet as the industry became concentrated more in big cities and employment prospects elsewhere diminished, education became yet another entry barrier. While the better-educated candidates moved up to higher-profile jobs, many others left the profession altogether.
In keeping with the industrial society of the time, the occupational model that followed from these changes was hierarchical. As with teachers and their pupils, preachers and their congregations, and experts and the lay public, education conferred status and authority upon journalists. The public was a passive recipient of information, not an engaged participant in a broader conversation.
Clinging to this hierarchical structure is now a recipe for failure. The digital world of information is one of choice and abundance, but also of considerable confusion about what is true and false. Trust is a news organization’s most valuable asset, and the task for journalists is both to challenge and inspire their audience, and to invite conversations among them.
That can’t happen unless journalism represents the society in which it is operating. Unfortunately, a recent global survey of media leaders finds that while editors see progress toward gender diversity, much more must be done to achieve racial and political diversity, as well as a balance between “urban” and “rural” backgrounds. The most likely reason for this failure is that industry leaders continue to regard the digital transformation as a matter of technology and process, rather than of talent and human capital.
Fortunately, the digital transformation represents an opportunity. As Jeff Jarvis of the City University of New York explains, industry leaders should “Try listening to, valuing, and serving the people and communities who were long ignored and left unserved by our old industry, mass media.” All news organizations should take Jarvis’s advice – and not just because it is the right thing to do. Their own survival depends on it.
This commentary was published in ten languages by Project Syndicate on June 25, 2020