By: David S. Hirschman
Speaking at the Online News Association’s annual convention in Washington, D.C., Friday, Washington Post editor Len Downie looked back on the changes in newsgathering and production over the past decade, and listed some of what he thought would be the biggest challenges for news organizations in the near future.
Downie said that when it first became apparent that the Internet would change the news business, executives and editors worried that its influence would erode the quality of journalism, increase competition, and become a distraction for the reporters and editors working on the print edition of the paper. But he said instead that the increased focus on the Web has “improved journalism a lot, way more than we could have expected.”
He said that the 24/7 news cycle has changed his newsroom for the better, with reporters always tuned in to what’s happening and constantly trying to find stories to report for the Web site — and that reporters could add more detail because the Web had “unlimited newshole.”
“I was known for writing long as a reporter, I edit long, and now there’s a place to put it all,” he said.
Reporters love newsroom blogs, said Downie, because they put writers in better touch with their readers: “Everyone in our newsroom wants to be a blogger.”
And the blogs that pick apart every article that the Post produces are a good thing, said Downie, because they “keep the paper honest” and, even if their commentary isn’t positive, bring people to the site.
“Blogs are not competitors and not problems,” he said. “Instead we have a very interesting symbiotic relationship. Our largest driver of traffic is Matt Drudge.”
While it’s true that competition for print media has increased tremendously due to the Web, the Washington Post’s overall audience has now become huge compared to what it once was, Downie added. And instead of weakening the paper’s brand, as he said it was feared, it has strengthened it and made the Washington Post well known around the world.
Listing some main challenges for the future, Downie worried that as people’s attention spans become shorter due to the Web and more readers access news from mobile plaforms on the go, the “contemplative” features of journalism would suffer; he wondered whether online ads would eventually make up the difference from lost print revenue, and whether the results would pay for the kind of professional journalism that people expect; he asked whether edited and verifiable content — and branded content in general — would continue to be important.
Downie speculated that perhaps in the future content sharing between old media and new media would be less of a one-way street, with print media taking cues and integrating ideas from multimedia integration and blogs.