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Dec. 3, 2015, 9:31 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Newsonomics: Marty Baron shines a new Spotlight on journalism

“We have to communicate to the public that we are essential. We have to do that through our work, not just through writing columns saying, ‘Boy, you know, you’re going to miss us if we’re not around.'”

Is Marty Baron Oscar-worthy? The Washington Post editor has already collected a shelf full of Pulitzers for his work at The Boston Globe and the Post. Now, owing to the unlikely critical and popular acclaim accorded to Spotlight, the film depicting his Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church coverup of widespread child abuse, Baron just might find himself at Hollywood’s Dolby Theater come Feb. 28. If he’s seated next to Liev Schreiber, the actor who did a dead-on portrayal of Baron in Spotlight, viewers may do a double take — though Schreiber portrayed the Baron of 2003, 10 years younger, and Hollywood square-jawed. (In this photo, Schreiber’s on the far right, and Baron alongside.)

For now, Baron can reflect on the highest-profile year of his editing life.

Hired to head the Post newsroom just six months before Jeff Bezos bought the paper from the Graham family in mid-2013, he’s enjoyed an editorship unique in U.S. publishing. Bezos provided runway, and that meant that Baron could hire 70 journalists, bringing the current total to 700, maintaining the Post as the third-largest newspaper-based force in the country, after The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Just as important has been the digitally oriented teams Bezos has funded around and within the Post newsroom.

The Post, an early leader in digital news back in the 1990s, had lost its some of its digital mojo. Bezos’ investments in technology, audience development, and content have propelled the Post forward, quickly.

The paper now boasts the largest digital audience of any U.S. newspaper company, as its October monthly unique visitor count surpassed that of the Times for the first time. That’s a march I’ve described over the months. Its October win is now celebrated with Post ads claiming to be the “publication of record” in the U.S. (That’s as much hyperbole as truth, but a sign of the confidence at the paper, as I write about today at Politico.)

Where does the new Post fit into news reading these days? I think that’s still an open question. I subscribed to the Post for the first time through Amazon Prime after I wrote about the program’s introduction. I now browse it daily, finding its new iPhone app attractive and engaging. Yet I can’t yet define what makes for a Post story.

We can hope that in our nation of 321 million people, enough paying readers can be found to support at least two excellent general news sources. While the Post has focused on lower digital pricing than the Times, both will need substantial reader revenue to support those large newsrooms.

That “publication of record” position aside, it’s undeniable that the Post under Marty Baron has reclaimed a national position in America’s news landscape, a position that ebbed after the last great U.S. investigative journalism movie to inspire a generation, the 1976 Post-centric All the President’s Men. But today’s news landscape bears little resemblance to that one of 40 years ago. I wanted to know what Baron values now, what drives the new Post and what value he thinks may be wrung out of Spotlight‘s success. Here are some highlights from our conversation, lightly edited and condensed.

Spotlight and the investigative imperative

Spotlight is generating lots of Oscar buzz, as did truth-teller movies of earlier eras, including Silkwood, Erin Brockovich and, of course, that Woodward-and-Bernstein (Redford-and-Hoffman) buddy act.

Ken Doctor: I read an interview with Liev Schreiber where he talked about meeting you to research the role. It was a two-hour lunch?

Marty Baron: It wasn’t a lunch, and it was probably a little less than two hours too. I think he looked at some YouTube videos as well.

I realized fairly quickly that it was not really an interview. It was an observation session. It was like talking to a shrink, but it’s not necessarily private. It’s going to be revealed to the entire world. Whatever the observations are will then be manifested to the entire world.

Doctor: I’m wondering about the implications of Spotlight for our business. Journalism is at such a low ebb — not at the Post, and not at the Times and a few other places — but daily local journalism is at such a low ebb, almost spiritually at this point. I’m wondering whether there’s a way to use Spotlight to re-energize both young people’s interest and the public’s understanding of what investigative journalism is about. Do you have any sense of whether Spotlight could have those kind of legs?

Baron: I hope it has a beneficial effect on journalism in a variety of ways. The response so far from critics, from the audiences, has been tremendous. The reports I’m getting from friends all over the country when they go to the theater is that people applaud at the end.

They sit quietly in their seats afterwards contemplating what the whole thing is about, and they’re kind of stunned by it.

I would hope that it would have several effects at least. One is that it would cause editors and owners to rededicate themselves to investigative journalism and recognize that it’s absolutely core to our mission and cannot be abandoned. Number two, that it would cause the public to reflect on the necessity of investigative journalism and have an adequate appreciation for what’s required in order to do it — an understanding of how difficult it is, but also what the consequences are if it isn’t done.

I think it’s also a reminder, just generally to all of us in society, that it’s really important to listen to the voices of people who have been marginalized and whose voices haven’t been heard. They may have something very powerful to say. That was the case in this instance. I think that’s just a reminder for society in general, that there are a lot of voices we have to listen to, and we definitely have to listen to people who have been pushed to the margins in society.

I do hope it sends a signal to the people getting into the field that it’s absolutely critical that we do this kind of work, and that there don’t have to be investigations to the magnitude of this particular one, but that it would be holding powerful individuals and powerful entities accountable — and that someone has to do that, and if we don’t do it, quite honestly, nobody will.

Baron uses the word “work” a lot. He sees a straight line between journalists doing the best of the work they’ve long done, and the future business success of the industry as it goes digital.

I’ve thought a lot about that relationship recently. After speaking to, and with, top newspaper editors at the fall annual conference of the American Society of News Editors in Palo Alto, I had a moment of clarity. So many newspaper conferences focus on the “how” of the digital transformation. It seems increasingly clear to me that we should first be asking the question of each other, as editors: What do we believe? What do we believe is the role of editors and news media in our society? Answer that question first, and then the “how” should become clearer.

I asked Baron about reader reaction to investigative work.

Doctor: How do you know that you’re making a difference?

Baron: When we do that kind of work…I would get emails from people saying, “Thank God you did this. If you hadn’t been there, nobody would have done it.” I’m talking about: If the Globe weren’t there, nobody would have done it. “This is why we need newspapers. This is why I subscribe to your newspaper.”

That’s incredibly validating. It reminds me that we do have to differentiate ourselves. We do have to say: What is special about us? Why are we needed? Why are we absolutely essential? We have to communicate to the public that we are essential. We have to do that through our work, not just through writing columns saying, “Boy, you know, you’re going to miss us if we’re not around.” We actually have to routinely produce work that people see as being of enormous value to society.

I was asked: How do we get the public to appreciate this kind of work? My answer, I said — this seems kind of naive, but this is the answer — you have to do the work. The work is going to have to speak for itself, and it has to be done regularly. It can’t be done once a year. It needs to be done regularly. People need to know that if it weren’t for us, this work would not be done.

Any time you do investigative journalism, it’s going to piss certain people off, and that’s okay, because we need to demonstrate that this sort of work needs to be done, and it needs to be done right. That’s what’s really critically important. It can’t be done wrong. It needs to be done carefully. It needs to be done with responsibility and care, all of that. It has to be nailed down and airtight, because if it isn’t, then you have the opposite effect. You undermine people’s confidence rather than help establish it.

The soul of a new machine

What’s been lost, and what’s been gained in the digital news revolution? The pace of change has been dizzying, but building brand new structures on bedrock seems to be today’s task. I asked Baron what he sees preserving, and building and anew.

Doctor: We have no quantifiable sense of how much of local reporting we’ve lost in 10 years, but we’ve lost a huge amount of it.

Baron: We’re so inundated with metrics. There are certain intangibles that are very difficult to measure, but are incredibly important to our business.

We’re different from a lot of businesses, because we have distinct relationships with our communities, the public, and they are intangible in nature. It’s just one of the intangibles. It’s not just a matter of credibility that people try to measure, but it’s a matter of this confidence that we have some sort of distinct role in society and that it’s worth preserving.

We have to remind people. We tell ourselves that we do, and we’re absolutely convinced that we do, but we need to persuade the public that we do, and we need to do that regularly.

Doctor: I think that’s exactly right. I’ve had this conversation now three times in the last three weeks. It keeps popping up, and reminds me of a column I wrote for the Lab two years ago that got an unexpectedly big reaction on the need to have “outrageous confidence” if leaders were to reshape the the news business. In talking with two editors in recent weeks, they both used the word “conviction.” They said they wanted to lead with conviction, and wanted their staffs to be similarly convinced about the value of their work.

Baron: I’ve used the word soul. I think that people talk about brand, but I talk about our soul. I think it’s really important.

Soul certainly speaks to why the best journalists — and publishers — understand that their enterprise is a unique kind of business. If soul drives the mind, it is the new machinery supporting the soul that deserves equal billing. I asked Baron how the new newsroom has morphed.

Doctor: While the mission may be the same as the print days, what are the most important differences in the new newsroom?

Baron: We now have reporters producing their own stories for the web — embedding videos and photos, including interstitial links to improve recirculation to other Post stories. They workshop headlines with others on staff so that they have some social mojo.

We in the newsroom have a close working relationship with the engineers at the Post. That has been key to being more innovative, introducing new products faster, developing more engaging interactive experiences and, importantly, speeding up page load times.

I like to use the line, not invented by me, that we put a man on the moon before we put wheels on luggage. But wheels on luggage more quickly changed people’s lives, saved their backs and hips and knees, caused people to go out and buy new luggage, and transformed an industry. In our business, we’ve had the habit of constantly trying for moon shots when what I think we really need is more ideas that are in the spirit of wheels on luggage. It’s not fancy or jaw-dropping, but it gets the job done and can be transformational.

I should also mention that we have an effective audience team, which The New York Times has seen fit to poach.

What does “publication of record” mean?

The Post’s promotion around passing the Times in monthly unique visitors makes a big point of an old term, publication of record. In the old, pre-Wikipedia days, that often meant an official, if dry, account of what happened where and on what day. I wanted to know how the editor of the news organization now adopting that term considered it. His answer is more web-like, and succinct, than some might expect

Doctor: Congratulations on the Post passing the Times in unique visitors in October. I see the Post is running ads calling itself “The New Publication of Record.” What’s that mean to you as editor?

Baron: My view is that it’s a record of the most interesting stories…I would say that what we’re trying to do when we’re covering the country is to find the most interesting stories. That’s basically it. We are trying to find the most interesting stories, and we’re not trying to be dutiful. We’re not endeavoring to be comprehensive. We’re endeavoring to focus on the most interesting stories out there.

How investigative reporting works at the Post

The world is now familiar with the Globe’s Spotlight team, but how has Baron organized investigative reporting at the Post?

Doctor: How do you describe how you’re approaching investigative reporting at the Post these days? Separate? Integrated? What kind of resources you put into investigative work?

Baron: Both. That’s the way I think it should be. We have a separate team that’s dedicated to investigative reporting. They report up to an investigations editor. It’s a small team that, six or seven people.

My view is that every reporter should be an investigative reporter. When you come across something that deserves to be investigated, you need to investigate it. That’s true of a sports reporter, an education reporter, a clinical reporter, an environmental reporter, anybody. That’s what we should be doing, and I think that’s how we approach it, that every reporter has an obligation to investigate, and we have some beat reporters who do that.

When we did our [Pulitzer Prize-winning] Secret Service investigation, we saw certain things happening, and we said we need to go deeper on this. That’s how I think it should be done, and that’s what we’ve done in any number of instances.

We did a couple stories on lead poisoning this past year. It started with a news story and somebody looked a little deeper, and then they looked deeper, and then they looked deeper. That’s how you do it. People talk about pulling on the thread and seeing what unravels.

It’s not a matter of having a team that sort of comes up with their project for the year. You could do good things that way, definitely. Even with our investigations team, they’ve been heavily integrated into the rest of the newsroom. We’ve developed a database on police shootings that the FBI director said: “Why is it we have to rely on The Washington Post and The Guardian,” which also did one.

Journalism with a capital J

Baron makes the point that the Post isn’t just a paper centered in the nation’s capital. Washington D.C. is a world capital, the globe’s most powerful. That means the Post has doubled down on its home turf: national politics and policy, an area that upstart Politico had eroded since its 2007 founding.

The strategy: concentrate on the Post’s strength and package it in the National Digital Edition, while maintaining local coverage and higher local subscription pricing.

Under president Steve Hills (who leaves the company at year’s end) and, more recently, new publisher Fred Ryan, the Post has invested greatly in promoting, distributing, and trial-pricing that edition. In 2015, we saw rapid-fire brand extension through Amazon’s Kindle Fire, Amazon’s Prime program, and by distributing most of the Post via Facebook Instant Articles.

The Post publishes a lot of content daily — about 390 staff and freelance stories — but Baron doesn’t like the word. He told me how many stories the Post produces, but then went on what might be called a Marty Baron rant — though he barely raised his voice, true to Liev Schreiber’s depiction.

Baron: I hate the word content, which has infiltrated our profession. You have people who are called chief content officers and things like that. I don’t like the word content. To me, it’s like saying the word “stuff.” It has no meaning, whereas journalism actually does have meaning.

It’s more than content. It’s more than stuff that fills in between the ads or fills in between the commercials. It has certain qualities to it — the why or where it’s going. What’s the story behind this, or who are these people and what difference does it make? That’s not content — that’s journalism. There’s a big difference.

I don’t think we should run from the term “journalism,” which I think people in our profession — for a long time, they didn’t even want to hear the word journalism. I think we should embrace the word journalism and understand what it actually means. There’s a level of depth to the work that goes well beyond what is suggested by the word “content.”

Photo of Baron on the red carpet at the Boston-area premiere of Spotlight by AP/Steven Senne.

POSTED     Dec. 3, 2015, 9:31 a.m.
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