Washington Post editor-in-chief Marty Baron isn’t exactly a raging digital-first zealot as far as newspaper executives go, so it’s refreshing to see just how blunt he was in his assessment of the industry in a recent speech he gave at the University of California. Some might argue — as my friend Chris Anderson, a CUNY journalism professor, did in a tweet — that much of what Baron is saying amounts to time-worn clichés and things that everyone should know by now. And I think there’s some truth to that. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of people who need to hear them anyway.
One of the most crucial points is that the forces of change that have been disrupting and transforming the media industry for the past decade or so aren’t something that can be argued with, or reasoned with, or held at bay through the powers of persuasion. They are like a fast-moving glacier or global climate change — a force of nature that you can either figure out how to adapt to or be swept under by. Trying to hold it at arms length is like King Canute commanding the tide to stop.
“As we make this move, the first casualty is sentiment. The forces at work don’t care about how we prefer to do our jobs, how easily we adjust to change, how much we have to learn. They don’t care about any extra workload. This transformation is going to happen no matter what. And there is only one realistic choice available: We can do what we must to adapt and – ideally – thrive. Or not — in which case we are choosing to fail. If this pace of change unnerves you, there is no consolation. Things will only get faster. And for those who resist the change rather than embrace it, there will be no forbearance or forgiveness. Their destiny is to be pushed aside and forgotten.”
Part of the sentiment that needs to be done away with, Baron says, is around the permanence of print. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, many newspaper executives continue to see their print operations as the jewel in the crown — despite the fact that they are making less money all the time, and have fewer readers. Although print still makes up a substantial proportion of a newspaper’s assets, Baron says, publishers have to disabuse themselves of the notion that print will always exist.
“We can start by discarding the lingering notion that paper will remain for long a big part of what we do. It will not. For a while, yes. But it will not last. Let’s also abandon the idea, still common in newsrooms, that what’s on the front page is more important, has greater value, carries greater prestige than what we disseminate on the web. It isn’t more important. It is a statement of our values, a defining and tangible representation of what we see in the world. We want to be smart about the front page. We want to be careful. It is important, just not more important than what’s on the web.”
Baron goes on to talk about how newspapers need to lower the barriers — both physical and psychological — between the business side of their companies and the editorial side, since all parts of the business need to co-operate in order to survive. Newsrooms must “participate in creating products that appeal to advertisers, boost readership, and deliver satisfying results for both,” he says, without abandoning the principles of independent and honest coverage. And newspapers have to think differently about how they tell stories as well, he says — instead of thinking instinctively that traditional forms are inherently superior to new digital alternatives.
Is any of this revolutionary or even surprising? Not really. Not to anyone who has been paying attention over the past few years, or to anyone who has seen a newspaper balance sheet. But I don’t think the Washington Post editor was talking to those people. He was talking to the vast middle layer of newsroom managers who think that if they nod towards the web and talk about “engagement” or pageviews now and then, their job is done. It isn’t, of course. Whether they feel it or not, the glacier is in motion, and they will be swept under unless someone convinces them to pay attention. It’s not clear to me that even speeches by people like Marty Baron will accomplish this, but it’s worth a shot.