Photo by Kellen Hazelip, Ball State University
The Washington Post’s relationship with owner Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon, enters its third year this October with Marty Baron leading as executive editor. Under both tenures, the paper has made strides in expanding its audience and competing neck-and-neck with The New York Times in web traffic numbers. It’s created the Washington Post Talent Network, now a 2000-strong network of freelance journalists all over the country, revolutionizing the company’s ability to tap into breaking news nationwide and abroad. Fast Company called The Washington Post the most innovative company of 2015.
Baron spoke to editors at the annual News Leaders Conference in Philadelphia. Here are some lessons learned he shared about transforming one of the nation’s most historic newsrooms and how the Post’s success provides examples for the industry.
Don’t be boring
Great journalism doesn’t have to be stiff and stuffy.
Baron and the Post have found that producing great journalism that affects change or provides value to culture can be done doesn’t mean a newsroom has to take itself so seriously.
“We can be contemporary and even fun in the style of our storytelling while remaining faithful to our traditions and our values and our mission.”
The Post has won two Pulitzers during the three years that Bezos has owned the Post.
The internet has given us some gifts
The internet made it possible to cut across geographic distribution and reduce the cost of reaching readers, which has threatened the news industry’s security, but there is a silver lining.
“If we were hurt because the internet had taken so much from us, why shouldn’t we seize the benefits of the internet that the internet had to offer?” he said. “Why shouldn’t we capitalize on the opportunity for wide distribution?”
Move quickly and experiment
When Bezos first acquired the Post, he focused the paper’s efforts immediately on the need to experiment and try a lot of different things, providing runway, in the way of capital, and time to let experiments percolate, Baron said.
A major game changer for the Post’s news operations occurred when they began aggregating other news organization’s reporting.
“Rather than mandating that all reporting needed be carried out by our own reporters,” Baron said. “This meant that we could write stories more quickly. Also, of course, it required us to be especially careful because we could only rely on publications that had a history of reliability and high standards.”
It’s not click bait. It’s just good headline writing.
Part of the Post’s new strategy in writing plain and simple covers writing the best headlines possible. Accurate headlines that drive readers to content.
“Of course [the headline] had to be accurate and responsible, but they had to be written in plain and snappy and alluring language,” he said. “They need to succeed in the world of social media. Let me say this, this is not click bait. It’s just good headline writing. Headlines that get people to read stories.”
The email newsletter has seen a resurgence as a driver of traffic to websites and content. The Post has revamped its email newsletters regarding the curation, design and times they’re sent, Baron said.
“They can be a major source of traffic,” he said. “And, by the way, they circumvent intermediaries like Facebook and Twitter and Google and allow us to reach readers directly.”
If this industry follows, it will be left behind
Working hard to innovate and engage readers isn’t enough anymore, Baron said.
“Now, we have to work smart and technology is absolutely key. If we don’t lead on technology, we will be forced to follow,” he said. “And, we have been following for too long. If this industry follows, it will left behind. We can’t let that happen.”
The need to lead and not be left behind has led to the Post change into a tech and newspaper company.
“At the most basic level, as our CTO likes to point out, it means technologists are first-class citizens in our new organizations,” he said. “They are not there to merely provide support to journalists or the ad department. Our engineers serve as a creative force that drives work.”
The internet constitutes an entirely new medium
It’s been long enough. The internet is its own medium and it should be treated as such, he said.
“Today, I think we should recognize, once and for all, that the internet constitutes an entirely new medium,” Baron said. This new medium calls for its own form of storytelling just as radio has its own, just as television has its own.”
What’s more, the emergence of mobile as a major platform for content presents the possibility of it becoming its own medium.
“It may turn out that mobile represents a new medium of its own with new forms of storytelling that are distinct from what you encounter while browsing the internet on a desktop or a laptop,” he said.
Mourning must come to an end at some point
To Baron, journalism’s future is clear and that it’s time to move on from what’s been lost and that adapting to change isn’t enough.
“I went through my own period of mourning, of what I thought was being lost amid all the change. It was hard not to,” he said. “Mourning must come to an end at some point… The truth is that it is futile and counter-productive to resist the inevitable changes in our profession. We can’t just adapt to this dramatic change, we have to embrace it. Even as we do that, we also have to remember what doesn’t change and that is our mission.”