Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and digital media innovator Marty Baron discussed the future of media on March 31 during the latest installment of Northeastern’s “The Future of…” presidential speaker series. Here is a transcript of Baron’s opening remarks.
Thank you very much. That was a really cool introduction. Can I have that for all future introductions? That was really fabulous. It’s copyrighted? Okay. [laughs]
Anyway, thanks for having me back to Boston and here at Northeastern. This is a great university and I think you all know that, and I’ve been able to observe it quite closely over the years. What I’ve observed is that Northeastern has put no limits on its ambition and it has demonstrated that innovation is possible and can succeed, even for old institutions in the oldest fields. There’s a lesson there for all of us in media and I’m going to get to that idea in just a bit.
But let me start from a different point. In talking about the future of media, I want to start with something that needs to actually stay constant in this era of endless change. I’ll begin with a story from my old alma mater, Lehigh University, something that happened two months ago. Lehigh hosted a screening of the movie Spotlight and I was there to do a Q&A afterward. Shortly after the questions began, an elderly gentleman rose to speak. “It was a very hard movie for me to watch,” he said. “I tried to see it a couple of times. I only got to the parking lot and turned around. I’m 80-plus years old. I was sexually abused by a priest in 1947. I was 11. I lived with it every day. I was fatherless; I didn’t know if anybody would believe me. I never spoke about it. My wife passed away many years ago; she never knew about it. It was in 1947 he molested me and he was ordained in 1947. Not a day goes by that I don’t have to live with this.” And in concluding, he said simply, “I want to thank you very much. Thank you.”
It was not the first time since the movie’s release that I had heard words like this, nor was it the first time since The Boston Globe pursued its investigation into the cover up of abuse within the Boston archdioceses that I had heard expressions of gratitude for that work.
They are words that remind me of what must stay the same in our field. We are in a period of upheaval. Much is changing. More will have to, but not everything should. One thing that should stay the same is our mission. It’s a mission that challenges all of us at The Washington Post every day as we walk into our newsroom. It is articulated in the set of principles that were established in the 1930s by a new owner for the Post, Eugene Meyer, whose family went on to publish the Post for 80 years and the principles begin like this: The first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth, as nearly as the truth may be ascertained. The public expects that of us. If we fail to pursue the truth and to tell it unflinchingly because we’re fearful that we’ll be unpopular or because powerful interests will oppose us, the public will not forgive us. Nor should they.
It’s worth keeping in mind what one of the world’s greatest innovators once said—now that individual also happens to be my boss, the Post’s current owner, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon. “I strongly believe,” Jeff said, “that missionaries make better products. They care more. For a missionary, it’s not just about the business. There has to be a business and the business has to make sense, but that’s not why you do it. You do it because you have something meaningful that motivates you.”
So no matter how murky our future, let’s not forget that we have something meaningful to do. Remaining faithful to that purpose will keep us on the proper path as we make the trickiest business decisions.
OK, now that we’ve established that, let me give you a sense of what has happened in this field of ours, because it’s remarkably easy to forget how fast the media universe has been transformed. So here’s a list, a bit of a list.
Google did not go public until 2004. Today there are three-and-a-half billion searches a day on Google. Facebook was founded in 2004. Now it has more than one-and-a-half billion monthly active users. YouTube was founded in 2005. More than a billion people now visit YouTube each month. Twitter founded in 2006. A half-billion tweets are sent every day. Kindle was introduced in 2007. Three in 10 Americans now read an e-book. Apple introduced the iPhone in June 2007. Today, two billion people worldwide use smartphones. Instagram was launched in 2010. Snapchat was launched in 2011. In short, almost all the signature developments in the contemporary media field have taken place within the last dozen years. If you’re a college student today, you take all this for granted. If you’re a veteran in the media business, this has shaken long-standing assumptions about who reads what, how people get information, and how we should go about our work. There is perhaps only one thing we can be sure of—there will be change and change will come faster than ever, and the question is, what lies ahead?
So let me outline for you some broad themes that I believe will define that future.
Number one: We are a mobile society. We have been a digital society for awhile, and today it’s not enough to only say that. Today, we are a mobile society. Eighty percent of adults on Earth are expected to have a smartphone by 2020, four years from today. People already expect to get any information they want, any time they want it, wherever they are, and do it on a device they can slip into a pocket or wear on their wrist. Media outlets will have to be single-mindedly focused on the mobile experience.
Number two: People do not see it as their duty to seek news and information, nor do they think it is necessary. They expect relevant news and information to find them through their social media networks. These networks are where people are talking to each other, so we in media must have an intimate understanding of them. They will be essential to getting our stories disseminated to millions of people. They are also vital to an activity we in media need to get better at: listening. If we wish to know what concerns people the most, we will have to listen better and listen more frequently, and if you want to listen, go to where people are talking.
Number three: The identity of the dominant media brands is not a settled matter. Dominance is up for grabs. With the right idea and smart execution, new companies can establish themselves quickly in our field. BuzzFeed was founded as recently as 2006. Huffington Post in 2005. Today they stand at the top of the charts for monthly digital users. Venture capital has poured in to fund other competitors, and that is betting money. Those are bets that newcomers can topple veteran brands. And some of the old brands are posing challenges of their own, and I would proudly put The Washington Post of today in that category. Last October, we surpassed The New York Times in monthly unique visitors to all digital platforms, and we got there with monthly growth rates as high as 70 percent year-over-year. We now run neck-and-neck with the Times in the United States. So yes, it is possible for a legacy institution to innovate its way to success while remaining faithful to its core purpose, just as Northeastern University has done in education.
Number four: The Web is not just a new venue for our work, it is fundamentally a different medium and we need to face up to that. When technology advances, the way we communicate with each other inevitably undergoes a revolution. That has now happened yet again as it has for centuries. A certain style and structure took hold for stories in print newspapers; radio brought its own form of storytelling, then came television with its own. Radio scripts were not the same as newspaper stories; television scripts were not the same as radio scripts. The Web is its own medium and it invites its own means of communication—more conversational, more accessible, one that incorporates other tools available to us such as video, audio, social media, interactive graphics, presentation of original documents, at times annotated. With this new medium, the voice and personality of the writer is often more evident. Readers want that connection to the writer; it is more authentic. Communicating online and on mobile only, as we did in print or on radio or on television, will not cut it.
Number five: Advanced technology is essential to our success. We can no longer lag behind. We have to be leaders. If we do not lead, we will follow, and if we follow, we will be left behind, and being left behind technologically means failure. Media outlets will need to have top-notch technology staff in house; we will have to respond nimbly to changes; we will have to create engaging new products for readers and advertisers, and do it quickly. At the Post, we have fostered a tight working relationship between the newsroom and the engineering department. Dozens of engineers sit in our newsroom working closely with our journalists. They help us tell stories in new ways using the Web’s capacity for interactivity. They work to assure that stories you might want to read find their way to your eyeballs automatically, with recommendations generated by algorithms developed by in-house big data specialists. They have designed tools that will allow us to test multiple headlines and presentations. When one works best, it automatically becomes the approach that reaches the vast majority of our readers. All of us in this field are working harder. Now we have to work smarter, and technology is key. Unless you are in possession of the right technology skills, unless you apply adequate resources to technology and allocate them correctly, success will not be possible.
Number six: Traffic gains alone will not deliver success. If we hope to make money, and we do, innovation and creativity on the revenue side will have to match what we’re seeing in newsrooms. For example, native advertising, properly identified by its affiliation with an advertiser, of course, will have to get more creative. Highly-skilled designers, graphics artists, videographers, and writers will have to work as teams to deliver presentations as alluring as anything the newsroom itself might produce.
So those are some broad themes. But the future of media also involves perils, and we should talk about the most worrisome of them all. We are in an era when information consumers have almost unlimited choice, and choice is good. But in choosing, many have been drawn to media outlets that only affirm their preexisting point of view and never challenge it. Most concerning though, is this: many of these outlets deliver their readers, listeners, and viewers purported facts that are in actuality falsehoods. You know, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to like to say, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion. But not to his own facts.” Now people have their own facts, or what they believe to be facts, which align neatly with their worldview and mainstream media are seen as hiding these “facts.” Ideological outlets have propagated the notion that someone other than Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida was responsible for the attacks of 9/11—perhaps the U.S. government, or Jews and Israelis. They maintain that the president was not born in the United States, even though all evidence shows he was born in Hawaii. One-fifth of Americans believe he was born outside the country, and 29 percent that he is Muslim, even though he is Christian. These media outlets spread the notion that last year’s military training exercise—Operation Jade Helm—was an administration plan to crack down on civil liberties and a prelude to a military takeover, even though of course, it was not. One radio host, also the operative of a popular Internet site, has spread the notion that some mass shootings were a hoax. That the 2012 killing of 20 children and seven adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, was a hoax—a hoax designed to boost public support for gun control. And the same, he claims, is true for the San Bernardino shooting last December that left 15 people dead. These are alternative realities—parallel information universes—and when segments of the public occupy nonintersecting information universes, finding common ground becomes impossible. Fact checking by mainstream media outlets, which are objects of suspicion, has little to no effect. It is met with resistance and outright rejection, and to make matters worse, politicians exploit these fabrications to advance their agendas. Some repeat the lies, and the cowardly silence of others serves as a tacit endorsement.
The result? People believe a lot that is plainly untrue. Many people. And it is having a corrosive effect. How can we have a strong civil society when we can’t agree on basic facts? How can we have a functioning democracy when people accept lies as facts? Columnist Anne Applebaum wrote about this recently in The Washington Post and she described the stakes with bracing directness, “In countries—and there are more than you think—where reputable, fact-checked, independent media doesn’t function (because it’s too expensive, because the Internet destroyed the advertising market, because illiberal governments put pressure on the media), then the possibility of civilized conversation disappears, too. If different versions of the truth appear in different online iterations; if no one can agree upon what actually happened yesterday; if fake, manipulated, or mendacious news websites are backed up by mobs of Internet trolls, then conspiracy theories, whether of the far left or far right, will soon have the same weight as reality. Politicians who lie will be backed by a claque of supporters.” This is a particular threat to the weakest democracies, but as Applebaum noted, it is fast becoming a problem for rich and presumably strong democracies like ours. It is now possible, Applebaum noted, to live in a virtual reality where lies are claimed as the hidden truth.
So this is the greatest challenge we face in media today, far more serious than all the others. It could well define the future of media, overwhelming everything else that now consumes our attention. We need to acknowledge this challenge; we need to confront it; we need to find answers. And if this hasn’t been unsettling enough, I’ll end with this thought. We do not have much time.
Thank you for having me.