American Society of New Editors
Oct. 18, 2015
Palo Alto, Calif.
Thank you so much for having me here today. And what an honor it is to be introduced by Jennifer Preston, someone I have long admired and considered a bit of a mentor. She is proof of the long game that so many of us play when it comes to both our journalism and our relationships within – she had no reason to call back a student at Rutgers University – but she always always did. And here we are today, 20 years later…
This is my second ASNE conference. I joined you last year in Chicago – which happened to be the last time I saw my friend Dori Maynard, a pioneer in so many of the things you are talking about here this weekend. She was a disruptive force before that ever became a thing in Silicon Valley. It was at last year’s awards luncheon that Dori and I sat together and had our last conversation. I was so depressed over the recent newsroom diversity numbers that I didn’t get a chance to dwell on some real victories that digital has not just enabled for newsrooms but forced upon us. I will talk more about that later but I do want to acknowledge Dori, her role in this movement and just how much I miss her today.
But the real reason I was with you last year in Chicago was to speak about how to create an innovative culture. Back then I was the executive editor at Quartz – and I am going to tell you the truth: Last year, I felt very much an outsider among you. I was a “digital native,” which is such an odd term, especially for someone like me who is Indian and usually so sensitive about the term “native.” But I suspect it’s a lot of the divide that a lot of you feel when people from Vox and Quartz and Buzzfeed and other outlets are brought in to educate us on how to fix this industry.
Yup, I said us. Because as of six months ago, I made the jump back to the future to join most of you here in this room who work for outlets defined by a print product, who as much as you try to push your newsrooms to be digital first, still have to race against a clock to get sports scores in, the right spelling of a victim’s name, and the weather. Oh the weather. And then you get a report the next morning about the trucks and there’s emails from people who say the paper came late. The paper didn’t come at all. The paper. The paper. The paper.
And let me keep digging myself into a hole and tell you that when I was here last year, feeling like an outsider, I also felt smug. Because I didn’t have to deal with all of that. I didn’t have all those 5 p.m. deadlines imposed on me so it was easy to convince a newsroom to publish early, when we were at peak audience. I didn’t have to convince a newsroom that metrics mattered. Chartbeat was on screens everywhere. I didn’t have to embark on marketing studies to prove an audience. I didn’t have to communicate better with developers and ad sales. They all sat next to me.
So why did I leave? Why didn’t I stay native? Why didn’t I stay in the future?
There’s a few reasons. One night when I was an editor at Quartz, I was sitting with a prominent advertiser (I do not consider it unethical for someone like me to lay out editorial plans and campaigns to advertisers) and I was talking about a story we had written that had gone viral. “Oh traffic numbers,” the client said. “I don’t even really care about that.”
“You don’t?” I was incredulous because I had been losing sleep over driving clicks to this particular promotion.
“Nope. Only two things I care about: Who are my customers? And influence.”
I thought about that and the trajectory that a lot of digital natives are set up for – when you start with an audience of zero every morning, you have to drive traffic. It’s the only way. When venture capitalists are funding you, you talk about scale and more scale. It’s the only way. And when you are a scrappy startup in a crowded media landscape, you have to pick your hits.
Chasing traffic makes it an easy decision to chase stories that are trending. Breaking news is a real luxury. Packaging news became a digital specialty. Among the digitally native, I want you to think about one that is a site of record, a destination for you to actually get your news.
A few weeks after this client meeting and my epiphany, I happened to get a call from LA Times editor in chief Davan Maharaj. I ducked into a Dunkin Donuts on the Upper West Side to get out of the cold. “I think you can help us,” he said. Then he told me it was 75 in LA and that the Thai food was better. I flew out three days later.
The day I arrived in LA was election day. Voter turnout has been falling steadily in Los Angeles and this time was no different. The next day, at the morning meeting I attended, a metro editor reported that it was an abysmal 8.6%. Davan suggested we send out our iconic, beloved columnist Steve Lopez with a video crew to find someone who had voted. Here’s what he came back with:
That night I looked up some other demographic data on Los Angeles. You’ve read those trend stories about everyone moving to LA now. It’s kind of true. The number of college educated youth in Los Angeles surged 30% between 2000 and 2012.
So I considered these trends: The population of Los Angeles is getting more educated. But they are voting less. I kept going down the google tunnel. Voter turnout across the country, especially in local elections, is plummeting, by as much as 5 percentage points between 2001 and 2011, according to the University of Wisconsin. “Low-turnout elections typically aren’t representative of the electorate as a whole, dominated by whiter, more-affluent and older voters. …such elections contribute to poorer outcomes for minorities, including uneven prioritization of public spending.”
Sound familiar? And I was working in digital? And I had to think: Is nice-to-read going to serve as the pillar of democracy?
I cannot describe to you the urgency I felt with that realization – and the urgency that I feel today. To be relevant, to be vigilant.
Now this is not a message of despair. Because many of us in this room, amid declining ad revenue and falling circulation, have something that is more powerful than clicks. We have regular readers.
Now it is incumbent upon us to serve those readers better. And I think this conference pretty much nails it on the trifecta of how:
A lot of people a few years ago were going around saying The homepage is dead. Remember that?
The homepage is not dead, people. Especially for us.
We need to care for those customers most. Look at the metrics on how much likelier a reader is to stay on your site, click on another story, hang with you. The care and feeding of this customer is very important. Especially for us to continue to be media outlets of record.
That being said, social also matters more than ever. One, it can force a rethinking in your newsroom of how to make our stories relevant, relatable, identifiable, and thus shareable. Unlike ever-changing algorithms in SEO and other traffic drivers, a share (literally the act of sharing) forces a human – not robots – to judge your content. That is powerful. That is redeeming. We should embrace it.
Finally, on digital — don’t forget the online-offline integration. There are events and panel discussions and forums, yes. But don’t forget to lighten up too. During the recent debates, we’ve been holding watch parties. They are standing room only in a theater with a bar attached and attract all ages. We play debate Bingo (with categories like “camera lingers on a person of color in the audience” to “climate change is denied”) and people hold up thumbs-up-thumbs down placards. They drink and hoot and holler with as much satisfaction as a retweet.
Diversity. I’m on a panel about this later but I really want to dwell front and center on how this cannot be relegated. If there are only brown people in my panel at 3 pm, I am not going to be happy. This is not my issue, not my problem, not my agenda. It has to be all of ours.
The good news is that digital journalism is forcing and allowing for more diverse models. Yes, it took mainstream media a few days to fly out to Ferguson, Missouri, last year. But had the outrage (and images of Michael Brown’s body) not been tweeted and retweeted, would it even have become the story it did? A part of our desire at the LA Times to be closer to the ground prompted us earlier this year to hire someone to cover Black Twitter and communities online.
Some ways you can help on the diversity front:
- Don’t let anyone be the only one talking about diversity in hiring. Bring it up. All the time. The industry has spent the last few years copying Buzzfeed’s headlines. Maybe we should look to its instructions on hiring too. Ben Smith tells his staff: “The final interview round should never just be several straight white men.”
- Women and minorities actually run the internet. Let’s break it together. Some of this is the nature of identifying with and sharing content – women understand shareability and emotional resonance of content more than any other group I have worked with. Much of the internet is a tribal place and that imperative we had once upon a time – to tell stories from the inside out is the only way.
- Use metrics. In a highly fractured media landscape, strong, deeply engaged niche audiences hold unique social power — they cause virality, they spark movements. Diverse teams help us us tap into those ideas before they hit the masses. It is the only way we can be competitive. When it works, celebrate the newsroom and those victories on Chartbeat. Show who is showing up.
Disruption. I think the biggest thing to disrupt might be our distance from the reader. We need to show them we are real-live humans who care about our communities as much as they do. There is a place for cat videos, but let’s also trust our readers to want to better understand city council meetings, and homelessness and actually feel like a fly on the wall inside their kid’s schools.
We have a lot going for us – the trustworthiness index on media put out by Pew ranks legacy outlets all at the top. Actual journalism was committed to bring you our work.
That is not something to take lightly. Our challenge is to look to the other players for inspiration but to trust that we know our unique markets best.
I don’t know that the digitally native outlets magically offer us the prescription to survive. I was talking to an editor of a regional paper the other day and she told me they had tried to adopt Quartz’s obsession model – which is great and has informed a lot of the way I think about areas of coverage. But for her particular newsroom, it wasn’t working for crime reporters.
“It just doesn’t neatly fit into any of our obsessions,” she said.
“Oh my dear. That is because if a man walks into a bar and shoot someone, that is not an obsession. That is news. And you gotta own it. What we can control is how we tell that story.”
Thanks so much for hearing me out today.