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Marty Baron’s remarks to the freshmen class

Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron was on campus this past September to receive the school’s Carr Van Anda award. While in Athens, Baron also spoke on the "Future of Media" to the journalism freshmen. His remarks are below.

Baron and Scripps freshman James Cable pose for a photo after the lecture.

It’s good to be speaking with all of you today. You are the ones who will decide what journalism looks like and how well it serves the public in coming decades.

Long after I’ve taken retirement, which isn’t that many years off, you’ll still be in the early stages of your careers.

I’d like to speak with you now about what how I feel our profession is evolving, how I feel you can prepare for what’s to come, what I see as your opportunity, and what I see as your responsibility. I’ll try not to sound preachy.

I’m eager to see whether your generation can deliver what the public needs from us as journalists and whether you can build a sustainable model of journalism that engages and informs your generation.

I think you can. As you’ll hear, I’m hopeful. But it’s going to be challenging. I hope you’re up for a good challenge. I think it’s worth it.

First, let me say that there is much you can learn here at Ohio University from your professors. I have spent four decades in this field. I profited greatly from the wisdom and dedication of my own journalism professors.

After I graduated, they switched from being my professors to being my friends and advisers. And when they passed away, I attended their memorial services because I knew that they had shaped my career, that they had shaped me in profound and enduring ways.

Their spirit animated me in the early stages of my career, and it still does today. Any time I’ve confronted an issue of standards or ethics or journalistic rigor, I hear their voices. I know that many of you will feel the same about your professors. I certainly hope so. Essential to a successful future in this field is a strong foundation. This is the place and this is the time to build it.

I also happen to know that you sometimes wonder whether you are being trained for a profession that will no longer exist, at least in any meaningful or fulfilling form. Your parents might be wondering, too.

As you surely know, there are many in our field who openly doubt the wisdom of training people for a profession that supposedly suffers from diminishing job openings.

As a profession, you know, we can be famously gloomy. After the movie Spotlight came out, I asked a good journalist friend of mine whether his kids one in college, one recently graduated had seen it.

"No," he said. I asked why not.

"I’m afraid," he said, "they might be inspired to go into journalism."

I am not among the pessimists. I’ve said that on many occasions, well before I knew I’d be speaking in front of all of you here at Ohio University. I am optimistic. I am hopeful about our profession.

Here’s why:

  • New forms of storytelling are proving particularly effective at connecting with readers.

  • The use of video, social media, interactive graphics, original documents. All of that can make storytelling more vivid, more visceral. And even more credible because it means we can show, not just tell.

  • The pressures on our industry are forcing us to pay keen attention to our customers readers, viewers, listeners. That is a good thing, and probably overdue.

  • Self-indulgence is no longer possible. Our work must connect with a public that is impatient and easily bored.

That doesn’t mean only short stories. It doesn’t mean click-bait. Long stories can grab readers and hold them. But they need to be written compellingly and presented in formats that take into account the way people consume information today.

I am also encouraged by what I see in your generation of journalists. You come with the skills required, and with the right sensibilities. Many of you think well, and write well. The candidates who apply to us and those I saw at The Boston Globe previously are bright. They’re energetic. They’re enthusiastic. They love what journalism can do. They understand its vital role in society. And they appreciate that there are new, highly effective ways to tell stories that draw upon all the new, powerful tools available to us.

They are determined to make journalism work for people of their generation. For that, I couldn’t be more grateful.

I’m also encouraged by the experimentation I see in our industry. News organizations are experimenting furiously, trying out different business models.

No one, as far as I know, can claim to have found a miracle cure for all that afflicts us. But all the experimentation, I believe, is likely to deliver some strong clues about the path forward.

Contrary to what many assume, much of this experimentation is taking place within traditional news organizations. I am proud that The Washington Post has been a leader on this front.

We were pleased last year when Fast Company positioned The Post at No. 1 on its list of the most innovative media companies in the world. And then later in the year, Digiday declared The Post the most innovative publisher of 2015.

A great deal of the innovation in our field is coming out of new, young companies funded by venture capital. That presents encouraging job opportunities for you. They may not be the sorts of jobs that your professors and I first held. But they are jobs that will be at the forefront of a rapidly changing field.

Anyone who knows me also knows that I am not a Pollyanna. I know as well as anyone how difficult things have been, how tough they remain, and that nothing will get easier in the future. But difficult does not equal impossible. And we do ourselves no favors if we are so dismayed by the obstacles that we lose sight of the opportunities.

You do need to know this: You will have to enter the field with no sense of entitlement. You will be given nothing. You will have to earn everything. You will have to rely on their own hard work and ingenuity. You will need a spirit of possibility.

You will need some basics, of course:

No. 1: How to report well fairly, honestly, and accurately, digging beneath the surface for the real story.

No. 2: How to write, how to string words together so that ideas are clear and, ideally, so that they leave readers engaged, enthralled, and excited. At best, they will draw people deep into a world apart from their own, so that they see things in a fresh light.

No. 3: You will need to be curious about the world around you, more impressed by what you dont know than by what you do know.

No. 4: You’ll need to learn contemporary skills of video, audio, perhaps some basic coding, data collection and analysis, how to make your own charts, things of that sort. These are now required tools of the profession.

No. 5: You will have to master new forms of storytelling that have emerged that draw upon data visualization and video and interactive graphics and links and supplemental material for readers who wish to know more. This includes writing in a different style more conversational, more accessible, with a stronger voice and more personality.

No. 6: You will need to be comfortable with the contemporary ways people receive and process information be expert in social media, how to use it as a reporting tool and how to use it to promote stories because promoting stories is now the journalists own responsibility.

No. 7: You will need to be comfortable with metrics. How your work performs in the digital arena will be measured. There’s no doubt about that. Overall, you’ll need to be comfortable with the idea you have a role in assuring that the place you work is a commercial success, even as you adhere to ethical and professional standards. Journalists of my generation didn’t have to think that way. In fact, we rejected the idea, were repulsed by it.

Those days are over. Ultimately, you will have to enter the profession recognizing that the web is a different medium, that it calls for an approach that is distinct from newspapers and broadcast radio and television. You probably will have to approach mobile as a medium of its own, too.

Beyond those basics is something that’s not often said: Our field will require a different kind of person. We will require more than just employees. That’s what we needed in the past. Now we will need entrepreneurs.

Journalists will have to be entrepreneurs. You will be creating entirely new companies. Or you will be working in entrepreneurial ventures that will constantly expect inspired and innovative ideas. You will have to become an entrepreneur within larger organizations, too because they need to compete with start-ups and smaller, more nimble outfits and because they will be asked to transform organizations that have stood strong for decades but now worry about making it through tomorrow.

All of this is good news for savvy, skilled journalists who are new to the profession: It used to be that newcomers to the field had to wait in the back of the line for an amazingly good job. Now they can move with astonishing speed to the front, leapfrogging veterans who are unable or unwilling to learn what they should.

It used to be we would hire people who could learn from us. Now we hire people who can teach us something we don’t know.

Let me talk about something that almost never gets mentioned in a discussion of the future of journalism. It happens to be something that remains the same. And it is this:

Nothing is more important than having a good idea. Even more important than the fancy tools you use will be the thinking you do. More important than the mechanics of our business is always the journalist’s own mind.

You cannot deliver a good story without a good idea for one and good ideas about how to construct that story. You cannot have a successful new product if it is not rooted in a smart idea.

Metrics can tell you how you did. But they will not tell you what to work on. Imagination, creativity, resourcefulness, and insight still matter. They are intangibles, yes, but they are surpassingly important.

Finally, the journalists of tomorrow will have to come to work with a strong sense of mission. If we really want to succeed, we have to recognize that the business is unlikely to succeed if we don’t come to work every day determined to pursue a mission. The mission and the business are inseparable, interdependent.

You know, there’s a quote from our owner, Jeff Bezos, on one of the glass partitions in our new DC offices. I was heartened to see it there when we moved in. Because it makes clear that we do ourselves no favors if we only think about business and forget about mission.

Jeff’s quote goes like this:

I strongly believe 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.

All true journalists have something meaningful that motivates them. It goes to the heart of who we are. This is sometimes called our brand. It is more fittingly described as our soul. And it is our compass. If we lose it, we lose ourselves.

It begins with informing our communities and our country because trustworthy information is essential to civil society and to a healthy democracy. At the center of our mission, in my view, is holding powerful institutions and powerful individuals accountable.

That is why I am so glad that the movie Spotlight, against all odds, was made and, against all odds, won the Oscar for best picture. I hope it reminds the public that, despite its flaws, the press is necessary. I hope it helps people understand why investigative reporting is so necessary and whats required to do it right. I hope it causes our profession - no matter the tumultuous change, no matter the financial challenges to rededicate itself to investigative reporting. And I hope that the movie Spotlight inspires a new generation of journalists to see that as this sort of work is essential, a fulfillment of our highest purpose.

The Boston Globe investigation that inspired the movie exposed a decades-long cover-up of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church and led, ultimately, to similar revelations about the Church worldwide. The result was a public good. A powerful institution and powerful individuals were forced to answer for grave wrongdoing. They continue to be, and rightly so.

The rewards of that work defy easy description. They came well before there was any idea for a movie. And they matter more to me than whatever attention I now receive because Spotlight was made and won an Oscar for best picture.

Let me give you a sense of it.

Well, after the Globe’s first story was published in January, 2002, I received a letter from Father Thomas P. Doyle. He had waged a long and lonely battle within the Church on behalf of abuse victims.

He wrote this: This nightmare would have gone and on were it not for you and the Globe staff. As one who has been deeply involved in fighting for justice for the victims and survivors for many years, I thank you with every part of my being.

I assure you, he wrote, that what you and the Globe have done for the victims, the church and society cannot be adequately measured. It is momentous and its good effects will reverberate for decades.

I kept Father Doyle’s letter on my desk in Boston until the day, three and a half years ago, that I left to join The Washington Post. It served as a reminder of what brought me to journalism and what kept me in it.

I hope you can someday receive a letter like that. You will know that you chose well when you chose a career in journalism.

If you watched the movie, and I hope you did, you know that an important theme is whether the Globe could have gotten to this story earlier.

A few months ago, I addressed this issue in a keynote speech to the members of a group called Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

There is a reference to the group in Spotlight. Phil Saviano, the abuse survivor who first meets with the Globe reporters, mentions his participation. He describes it as a group that has xx members.

The convention I attended in Chicago had 300 attendees. Many were there for the first time, motivated by the movie to finally speak openly about their abuse and to agitate for accountability for the Church.

I thought I owed those individuals a discussion about why the journalism profession doesn’t always live up to its highest ideals, why we miss stories, why we did not look as deeply as we should have into this one for so long.

This, after all, turned out to be a scandal that was massive in scale and shocking in its depravity, a scandal that represented a betrayal of everything the Church purported to stand for. It was perpetrated against the most vulnerable to protect the powerful.

Let me be clear: It wasn’t just the Globe that could have done more sooner. I doubt there is a major newspaper in the country that did not have similar scandals in its territory that had not heard at least some evidence of similar wrongdoing that might have ignited more curiosity and ultimately a more thorough investigation.

As I told the abuse survivors in Chicago, I think it is fair to ask why our profession didn’t act sooner.

I imagine there are many reasons:

The power of the Church in so many communities. A skittishness about offending so many readers. Fear of being labeled anti-Catholic, a charge routinely leveled by the Church against journalists whose work met with disapproval from bishops and cardinals.

The list of possible reasons goes on: The huge effort required to document a scandal of this magnitude. Disbelief that an institution of such high purpose could engage in such reprehensible behavior. Skepticism that individual cases of abuse were representative of a widespread pattern. The seeming inability (until the Globe proved otherwise) to gain access to internal Church documents.

And there are surely other reasons, too.

That journalists are always busy with other things and always have more on their plate than they can reasonably handle. That journalists are routinely approached by individuals alleging huge scandals, so few of which turn out to be scandals at all. That the people who make scandal allegations can at times seem overly obsessed and somewhat unhinged.

As my former colleague and Spotlight team member Sacha Pfeiffer has put it: We must sort through who is really crazy and who has been driven crazy by what they’ve had to endure.

It always amuses journalists and sometimes dismays us when people who are seeking a newsrooms attention see conspiracy in what we choose to do and in what we don’t do.

I’ve never witnessed a newsroom conspiracy of any sort. I have witnessed a fair amount of chaos.

A newsrooms barely controlled chaos the decentralized, often on-the-spot decision-making so often explains the stories we pursue and the many we miss.

I firmly believe that ours is a necessary profession, essential to a civil society. But it is also a flawed profession profoundly imperfect.

Journalists often admire swagger in their colleagues. Confidence, of course, can be an asset. But humility is a quality that we need as well. Because our missteps are many. And our missed stories are many, too.

There’s a scene in Spotlight, as The Boston Globe is about to publish the first story in its investigation. Suddenly, in my office, the Spotlight team finds itself in an awkward, tense exchange on whether it could have had the story sooner and why it didn’t.

That scene did not actually occur in real life. My dialogue in it was heavily drawn from an email I sent Josh Singer, the films co-writer after he inquired about why I felt the Globe had not gotten to the story sooner. In the movie, my character says this:

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that we spend most of our time stumbling around in the dark. Suddenly the lights turned on, and there’s a fair share of blame to go around.

Many journalists have told me in recent months that that scene captures so well how they often feel about their work. Stumbling around in the dark. There is so much to cover. The resources are limited. Its hard to judge how best to spend your time, given all the pressures. And were working with fragments of information and sources whose credibility is unclear.

Often it’s hard to know what to make of what we have. Does it signal something big, or will it add up to almost nothing? It can take a lot of reporting to find out. And there is not always time.

And yet, I do think one lesson from this particular line of coverage: the high-level, decades-long cover-up of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church does point to how our profession can, and must, improve.

We need to be better listeners.

As journalists, we are supposed to be good at this. But we are not always.

I’ve been consumed lately by this idea of listening. That’s because I’ve become dismayed by how much of media today is all about talking. Shouting, actually, when it comes to television and to radio and to some ideologically-driven Internet sites.

And as we talk, we have raised the volume to a level where we can scarcely hear each other. A lower volume would allow us to not just hear better but to really listen.

A few weeks ago, I completed reading a book by Krista Tippett. She is the host of NPR’s On Being.

Her book is entitled Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.

Tippett is an accomplished interviewer. So it is notable that, as an interviewer who is tasked with asking questions, the first sentence of her book begins like this: I’m a person who listens for a living.

Tippett goes on to say, listening is an everyday social art, but its an art we have neglected and must learn anew.

And she points to a phrase used by Rachel Naomi Remen, a physican, author, and reformer in the field of medicine. Dr. Remen tells young physicians that they should practice what she calls generous listening.

Generous listening, NPR’s Tippett says, involves a kind of vulnerability a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity. The listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other, and patiently summons ones own best self and ones own best words and questions. Generous listening in fact yields better questions.

No doubt my profession could have listened more generously to the individuals who sought our attention to the abuse they suffered. We might have exposed the breadth and depth of this horrible scandal far sooner.

To me, there is no point in assessing blame. But there is every reason to learn something from the experience. It should allow us to do better the next time we are told of grave wrongdoing.

The movie Spotlight has many messages that I hope will be received by the public and the media itself, including its owners, top executives, and editors. Among them, of course, is the need to rededicate ourselves to investigative reporting.

If we don’t hold powerful institutions and powerful individuals accountable, who will?

But the movie and the story behind it, I believe, hold another lesson for every one of us in the press. We need to listen better.

  • To listen more generously to those who have fallen to the margins of society, or been pushed there.

  • To listen more generously to people who lack power.

  • To listen more generously to the vulnerable whose voices may be faint but whose words carry a message that must not be ignored.

Those voices may reveal a truth that others are seeking suppress As journalist, its our job to excavate that truth and then to tell the world.

Thank you for having me.

(Athens, Ohio/September 20, 2016)

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Link directly to this Scripps Note
Posted by Bob Stewart on 11.11.2016 @ 00:00:00