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Nov. 19, 2014, 10:49 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Jennifer Preston on leaving The New York Times, joining the Knight Foundation, and spurring innovation in newsrooms

“I think most media companies large and small have embraced change. So it’s not as if we’re all starting in the smoke-filled press room.”

Jennifer_Preston_2009Jennifer Preston has plenty of experience in the journalism business: “I’ve worked as a city hall bureau chief, a circulation marketing manager, a deputy metro editor, a senior newsroom manager. I ran news administration for the office of the executive editor,” she told me.

Preston was a political reporter, editor, and manager at The New York Times, but she might be best known as the paper’s first social media editor, a role she began in 2009 to help get the Times up to speed in how it used Twitter and Facebook in all facets of its reporting. It was unfamiliar territory, but the goals for using emerging social platforms were relatively straightforward: “The reason why it worked was I focused on why and how social media was relevant to the journalism — how it was relevant to reporting,” she said.

Now after almost 20 years at the Times, Preston is moving on to a different challenge as the new vice president for journalism at the Knight Foundation. Preston will lead a team tasked with finding ways to encourage newsrooms to experiment with new tools and new forms for storytelling. (Full disclosure: Knight Foundation is a funder of Nieman Lab.)

I spoke to Preston about what she learned during her years at the Times, what reporters can do to help foster a sense of experimentation, and her thoughts on the impact of the Times innovation report. Here’s a condensed version of our interview.

On how she wound up at Knight:

So at this beautiful wedding in Flushing, Queens, [Knight CEO Alberto Ibargüen] had asked me about my twins. And I said they’re graduated from college, and this is the first time in a long time I’m thinking, “Gee, I would love to do something new.” And because he has been at the forefront of change on the media landscape, I asked him, my old boss — he was of course one of our fearless leaders at New York Newsday — what ideas he might have, and he said “I think you should have dinner with me in Miami.” So that’s exactly what I did.

Knight, obviously, has been the leader in the news industry for bringing about digital change. That’s an area that’s been very dear to me and important to me, even before I became the social media editor.

So that’s how the conversation began. And, honestly the opportunity to be part of a team where the focus is working with newsrooms across the country to bring about change in our industry at this point in my career is just incredibly exciting.

On how her experience prepares her for her new role:

As the first social media editor, part of my job was finding the value of social media for Times journalism. And it was pretty clear to me right from the start that there was value for reporting, for realtime publishing, for curation, for engaging with users and building community and audience. And then, of course, data visualization and creating users.

The most valuable lesson I learned as the first social media editor working in a big newsroom like the Times was showing journalist how these tools were relevant to the journalism. So I think that is a lesson that I will bring to this new role. How can we make our journalism stronger and faster using the incredible tools that we now have to play with?

In addition, I think my background as a reporter, as an editor, as well as my background working with the business side will be enormously helpful because I have an understanding of all of the issues confronting our industry. I have what they call the view from the balcony: You understand how all the pieces work together.

On where Knight can be of help to media companies:

I think that one of the things that Knight has done over the recent years is just encourage this mindset of experimentation and innovation, not only in the news industry and in journalism schools, but at libraries and in civic tech.

While Knight of course has helped support and finance all this innovation and a whole new set of tools, what it’s also done is it has created this incredible community of digital innovators around the country and around the world. And, at the end of the day, to me, helping expand and build and nourish that community will be a key to our success. Because at the end of the day, it’s the people, not the tools, who are going to help us speed up the much needed digital transformation of our industry.

On how to encourage experimentation in newsrooms:

First off, I think most media companies large and small have embraced change. So it’s not as if we’re all starting in the smoke-filled press room. But what I do hope Knight can do is help accelerate that change, and part of that, of course, involves helping fuel the change of culture, working with newsroom leaders to consider new approaches such as design thinking.

I mean, at 10 in the morning at the Online News Association — 10 in the morning on a Saturday — the room was packed at the Knight panel on design thinking, with Heather Chaplin and Justin Ferrell and Shazna Nessa, our journalism director, talking about design thinking and putting the user experience first. So I think there are a lot of opportunities for us, working with John Bracken and Shazna, that we can help accelerate the change.

You asked what else might help in my role. Well, having taught journalism since 2007 or 2008 at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism has given me a window on our incredibly talented next generation of journalists.

And one of the things that Knight has done for journalism schools, with Eric Newton’s leadership, is to place an emphasis on the teaching hospital approach to teaching. And I think that has yielded a lot of tremendous results and helped prepare the next generation of journalists to bring about that change in the newsrooms that they join.

On approaching stories in new ways:

I think journalists want to tell good stories, and journalists want to tell good stories in interesting ways. That was one of the things that made working on the Lede blog so much fun for me in the last couple of years. We were able to take a look at all of the rich user-generated content being created on social platforms and figure out how to surface it, verify it, and present it in a narrative form combined with original reporting. That produced some pretty strong visual storytelling for breaking and developing news stories.

For journalists, it’s all about the story at the end of the day, right? They want a good story and they want to engage with users, the audience, because there are now tools to do that in ways that were not possible seven, eight years ago.

On the Times’ innovation report and its impact:

I thought it was fantastic that someone was saying out loud what so many of us knew needed to be said.

Honestly, there was nothing surprising in the report to those of us who have been pushing forward on innovation for the last several years. What I think many of us who have been at the forefront there were grateful that it laid out some — but not all — of the challenges.

The report of course didn’t focus on all of the challenges we face, but it spelled them out clearly, and it has created a real path for success at The New York Times. I’m really excited about the direction that we’re going in now at the Times.

There wasn’t anything new in there to anyone who had been in the sandbox trying to get things done. But what was fantastic about it is that it was said out loud. And that the response to that innovation report was to do something about it. So that to me was the power of the innovation report.

Now, I gotta tell you, I think Arthur Gregg Sulzberger is fantastic. And I think the whole generation of young, digital leaders in The New York Times newsroom — I just think they’re fantastic.

And one of the reasons why I was excited about this new role is, in many ways, I think that I can do more to help young digital journalists and young digital media leaders in this new role than if I had stayed at the Times.

POSTED     Nov. 19, 2014, 10:49 a.m.
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