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David Beard on leaving Boston for National Journal: “I just didn’t want to live my life managing decline”

Sad news for The Boston Globe today — but great news for the ever-expanding National Journal. David Beard, Boston.com’s editor for the past four years, is joining the National Journal Group as deputy editor-in-chief and online editor. He’ll start October 18.

Beard will be joining — and in many cases overseeing — a staff with an impressive, even daunting, journalistic resume. There’s Marc Ambinder from The Atlantic, Michael Hirsch from Newsweek, Matt Cooper from…tons of outlets, Major Garrett from Fox, and many, many more — all overseen, of course, by Ron Fournier, the former head of the AP’s Washington bureau. The term “Dream Team” comes to mind.

That stellar staff was part of the appeal of the move, Beard told me this morning. But another aspect of it was being part of an organization that, with its digital-first approach to news reporting, will focus on innovation. “It’s the hoariest of journalistic cliches to say, but I want to make a difference in my career and in my life,” Beard says. In America, “we’re talking about declining reporting capabilities on institutions and watchdog efforts.” A move to Washington is an attempt to be part of the solution.

The specifics are still being worked out — but one big aspect of Beard’s role at the Journal will be “in translation”: to facilitate dialogue between NationalJournal.com, the open web site, and the members-only, mobile-focused version of its product. He and his staff will focus on a live-blog model of news reporting, with an emphasis on social media — essentially, Beard says, “to take these enormous resources and get more of it out there in real time.”

One particularly nice resource: the Journal’s partnership with its fellow Atlantic Media-owned outlet, The Atlantic. “So if we see an Andrew Sullivan piece we like, we’ll put it on our site,” Beard points out. “And [Atlantic.com editor] Bob Cohn will put our stuff on his site.”

Community engagement, both direct and indirect, will be a big part of that. “Every community has its own personality,” Beard notes — “and you have to listen as well as lead.” At the Globe, “we’ve really tried to develop the sense that if you want to know Boston, you want to connect on Boston.com — because we speak the language,” he says. The site, he says, tried to explore the reasons “to live in a place with such crummy weather and high rents. We’d try to come up with a reason every day.”

He’ll try to apply that same reason-focused logic to the Journal, only with a narrower focus: politics. While, at the Globe, “we’ve been all things to all people,” the new gig will require, for the most part, being all-things-politics to politics junkies. Or, as Beard puts it: “It’s sort of like running a Benetton, not the whole department store.”

At Boston.com, Beard has been known for fostering young talent in the digital world — Amalie Benjamin, for example, with her Red Sox coverage, and Meredith Goldstein with her relationship-advice column — and he’s looking to continue that trend down in Washington. The focus, though, will be digital engagement, saying he’ll reward someone with top-notch social media skills “just as heavily as somebody who’s just going to trade on their thirty years of experience.”

As Beard sees it, the move to DC will represent something of a back-to-the-future move in his relationship with journalism. “In many ways, this was a dream job for me,” he notes. “It’s almost like being an editor 50 years ago” — one with the resources to make a difference and change journalism for the better. He read The Trust, Alex Jones’s book on the early days of the NYT “and I thought about the first Times owner…and how much he really dreamed up new ideas and thought like an entrepreneur — as opposed to a manager of an extant company,” Beard says. “I didn’t want to live my life managing decline.”

Still, “I’ve loved my four years on the job,” Beard says — “particularly the last two years, with the emphasis on building socially: building our audience ourselves, and responding to them.” And, having worked with Marty Baron for nine years, it’s a great thing, Beard says, to “come to work knowing that there’s a person who cares as deeply about the product as you do.” With Baron, “you knew every minute, every hour of the day that he cared.”

But in a time of tumult, the Journal is an organization whose relatively vast resources will, presumably, help it to be a voice of accountability during a time when watchdog journalism is challenged. It’s an outlet “with 100 sets of feet on the street,” Beard says, “covering government, policy — not just the horserace. It can give an answer to the question: ‘What’s government for?’”

                                   
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Justin Ellis    April 15, 2014
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