September 8, 2011

Imagining the future of journalism

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by Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

Just imagine if the victims at the World Trade Center or on the planes on 9/11 had been able to send video from their cell phones to YouTube, post statuses on Facebook, or tweet to their loved ones as the towers came down. What kind of horrific images and anguish from that day would be floating around the Internet?

computer keyboard

Photo by Ian Britton

But none of those technologies or websites existed that sunny September day 10 years ago. That’s how fast technology is changing for those of us in journalism, Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth reminded us at a conference Wednesday at the Newseum in Washington honoring innovations in journalism.

You can’t get more “legacy media” than Weymouth, who has the title once held by her grandfather Philip Graham, her grandmother Katharine Graham and her uncle Donald Graham, who is currently the newspaper’s CEO and chairman of the board. If there’s anything that protects the legacy business bought by Weymouth’s great-grandfather Eugene Meyer in the Depression, it is that the family still runs the show at the public company.

Legacy media takes a lot of abuse these days, but Weymouth rightly points out that the old news organizations still have more boots on the ground than the others. And she correctly notes that the Post was an early adopter of online news, making heavy technology investments. She also points out studies that show that most news still comes from links to legacy sites.

The Post has integrated its print and online news operations while downsizing its staff in recent years.

“We have to adapt,” she said. “Competition is coming at us from all sides,” whether it’s craigslist offering free classifieds (“They’re not going to come back” to the print newspaper, she said) or bloggers and citizen journalists stealing the news audience.

The Post is giving up the leases on some of its local news bureaus to save on rent. “We have to cut our costs like everybody else, except Bloomberg,” Weymouth said. (The Baltimore Sun closed its bureaus a couple years ago when Tribune Co. bankruptcy allowed it to break long-term leases.)

“Our local coverage is as important as it’s ever been,” Weymouth insisted. But while the Post has dozens of local reporters in the counties that ring the Washington Beltway, the Metro section of the Post is thinner than it’s ever been, and would barely exist some days if not for obituaries.

Weymouth is most proud of the Post’s “regular daily beat reporting,” but if you relied just on the print edition and failed to read the staff-written blogs and columns online, you’d be missing half of the paper’s metropolitan coverage.

For instance, in our daily Roundup on Tuesday we almost linked to the same Post story on U.S. Senate candidate Dan Bongino that had run online since Thursday — five days before it showed up in print (though perhaps that was a mistake).

Weymouth wouldn’t predict what the print edition might look like 10 years from now. She said the paper is still a good read on Sundays, but the future is “up to our consumers.”

Weymouth was the keynote speaker at a conference bestowing the Knight-Batten Awards for Innovation in Journalism run by the J-Lab at American University. The top prize of $10,000 went to the creators of Storify, a social media publishing platform that lets users create visual stories from social network posts on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube.

Bloomberg Government won $1,000 for its new D.C. operation that meshes interactive data, analytics, white papers and traditional reporting with a paywall – just $5,700 a year to subscribe. They donated their award check to the Committee of Concerned Journalists. (“Wouldn’t it be nice to have so much money that you could give your $1,000 back?” Weymouth joked.)

The about 200 folks who attended the conference were congratulated for embracing the future of journalism, but it’s more like we are swimming ahead of the storm surge.

Is the future of journalism a paywall? Or the nonprofit model like MarylandReporter.com and public radio? Or the commercial model of the Post? The hyperlocal version of Patch.com?

Who knows? We’re all just trying to keep our heads above the waves. Got a better idea? Come on in. The water’s fine.

Here’s a video of Weymouth’s speech.