Great minds think

Marty Baron

Editor, The Boston Globe

Q: How are commercial forces, market forces impacting journalism and newspapers?

Obviously there are huge commercial pressures on the industry these days. The fundamentals of the business model have changed dramatically. This is not the business it was 15 years ago or certainly 20, 25 years ago. That's putting a lot of pressure on the journalism, which is at the core of the newspaper business. Revenues have declined dramatically. There are fewer resources available to actually conduct journalism. The kind of journalism that can be financed is under pressure. You're having to make some very tough choices about what kind of journalism to practice, and how much journalism can be practiced. We're in a different world. It affects newspapers and magazines, and also broadcast journalism.

At the same time, there is an entrepreneurial sector in journalism that is taking hold. And there is real journalism being practiced there. And some good journalism being practiced there. We're still in the experimental phase to see if that model proves to be successful or not. It's turning out to be somewhat of a hybrid model where there's a print component and an online component.

Q: How would you assess the quality of the “entrepreneurial” new journalism being done?

It's like talking about cable television. There are so many different channels of such varying quality dealing with such a variety of subject matter. Some of it is really good. Some of it is really bad.

The business model is still being worked out for traditional forms of journalism, meaning, journalism thoroughly reported by professionals. It's hard to figure out how to pay for that kind of journalism.

The quality of the work at online places - some of it is outstanding. ProPublica is one, although it is primarily investigative in nature. There are new entrants into the market like Politico. There are ideologically-driven sites like Talking Points Memo. There are traditional news organizations like ours, like The New York Times, like The Wall Street Journal, that are doing very creative things on the Web - with video, with interactive graphics, with blogs. We're finding new ways to tell stories and to convey information. And we're actually able to provide people a greater depth of information than we were able to deliver before.

When The New York Times does stories about Wikileaks, you can provide all of the documents that Wikileaks is referring to and people can do their own independent research. We do the same thing on our investigative stories. Other publications do, as well. It's more thorough. In some ways, you can argue it's more credible. We're actually providing more primary source information. There are some spectacular things happening on the Web.

Q: How would you describe the evolution in your thinking about the Web, blogs, video, digital, etc?

Eight years ago I was in a period of despair. I was pessimistic. Today, I'm more optimistic than pessimistic.

Over some period of time we were coming under such incredible pressure, and it looked like the volume of journalism was shrinking and the quality of journalism was diminishing at a very rapid rate. But what I've seen over the last several years is that, even though these have been terribly difficult years financially, we've become more creative. We've come to understand the technology better, and what its potential is. We know better how to deploy that technology in storytelling.

When I look around at who's setting the agenda in local communities, inevitably it's a newspaper that has a substantial website with a lot of visitors and a lot of traffic, that's continuing to do superb journalism, investigative journalism, which holds public officials accountable, and other powerful interests accountable. That's what we're supposed to do.

What we've done over the last six to eight years is make difficult choices about what our mission should be. We've also had to get our costs down, which has been painful. Difficult to observe and difficult to execute, at a very human level. But, it has been necessary, and we've made some tremendous progress in getting our financial house in order. In the process, we've learned how to use the powerful tools that are available to us in a much more effective way.

Q: Approaches, strategies you're excited about?

I don't know what's going to succeed. I'm not a forecaster. But I am encouraged that people are willing to pay for information they receive in digital form. Not in all instances, but in some - and that's promising.

I'm encouraged that all sorts of new journalistic efforts are being financed.

We're in a period of experimentation. By readers/viewers/users, who are trying all sorts of different things. By advertisers who are trying all sorts of new ways to reach customers. And by news and information organizations that are navigating those changes driven by consumers and advertisers.

Everybody's experimenting. I'm not sure where it's going to end up. But to some extent - while the experimentation is unnerving and, at times, frustrating - it's also exhilarating.

I don't really know how journalism is going to unfold in the future. I know we're all trying everything, and I know there are many interesting possibilities. Obviously, what you can do on an iPad and similar devices is extraordinary and exciting. I take advantage of that every single day. It changes the way I do things. What that portends for journalism's economic model I don't know.

Over time, there will be a lot of organizations that don't make it. But over time, there will be a lot that succeed wildly. Some of the organizations that succeed will be relatively new to the market place. Others will be traditional news organizations that have figured out a way to adapt. And not just adapt, but exploit the significant advantages they have today. They have substantial news staffs that cover their communities in a way that no other organization in their community does. That's a huge advantage.

Q: What is your read on the fact that in a number of communities where the newspaper has been imperiled, such as yours, local community groups have risen up in support?

People - some people - have taken for granted what newspapers do. People have not understood how much investment is required to cover a community. Not understood what the cost is. And not reflected on what the benefits are. They do it when they think the newspaper might be gone. They realize that there is no organization that is going to fill that gap. And they see what the gap is.

It is largely the only vehicle for a conversation that involves the entire community. That's not accomplished through radio, which has almost no journalists. It's not accomplished through local television, which has almost no journalists. It's not even accomplished at a local level by National Public Radio or even local affiliates of public television, because they have very few journalists.

People have information they want the community to know about. Other things happen in a community and they need to be known. There is only one vehicle for telling those stories and that is a newspaper. And so far, no online operation in any community that I'm aware of has arisen to take the place of a newspaper's role in that community. They might take the place of a part of a newspaper, but they don't take the place of the entire role of a newspaper.

Q: How much of the trauma in the newspaper industry self-inflicted?

Some of it is self-inflicted, sure. But look, we're not the only industry that has been affected by disruptive change. Take a look at the record industry. Take a look at companies like Blockbuster. The travel industry. There are a whole range of industries dramatically affected by changing technology. We are hardly the only ones and we shouldn't think of ourselves as the only ones.

I'm not sure we could have fully anticipated what those technologies would be, but we could have anticipated some of it.

Where we as an industry failed ourselves was, first and foremost, not investing in research and development. The industry had its fat, happy days and it wanted to maintain its fat, happy days. The benefits of its profitability went to the shareholders, and not enough money was invested in research and development to ensure a profitable future. Too much attention was focused on short term profitability.

Could that have been different? I guess so.

When I look at the signature innovations in the media environment of the last 10 years, not a single one of them grew out of a traditional media company. Not Google. Not Flickr. Not YouTube. Not FourSquare. Not Facebook. Just run down the list of the most interesting new players in the media environment in the last 10, 12 years - and not one of them came from a traditional media organization. That, to me, is quite a statement. The industry should reflect on why that is.

The other thing we did is we tried to protect the status quo. In the face of disruptive change, instead of embracing it ourselves, we tried to hold it off, to hold onto an economic model that had served us so well for such a long period of time. We needed to recognize change was going to happen whether we like it or not. That change was going to be disruptive whether we were ready for it or not. We should have led the change rather than merely reacted to it.

Q: Biggest concern or fear?

The biggest fear is we won't find an economic model. Actually, the biggest fear of all, is there is no model that will support substantive, impactful, important journalism any longer. That sources for financing that kind of journalism no longer exist.

If you can't pay for it, it won't be done.

Q: Reflections on the role of blogs, social media, citizen journalists?

Whatever the benefits the Web gives in spreading a story, many stories cannot be reported and told by any blogger, or person using Twitter, or someone who isn't paid to do it. It takes a tremendous amount of time to do investigative work. It takes a tremendous amount of money. It takes a news organization with credibility and power.

That is not to say there isn't power in social media. There is tremendous power in social media. We see that play out in the political landscape of the United States everyday. And we see it play out in other countries, including in autocratic and dictatorial regimes around the world. That is a great thing.

But, there's a role for professional journalists. And I believe - I certainly hope - there will be a way to finance it.

Spring 2011

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