Friday, January 22, 2010
An interview with Martin Baron
Between layoffs, pay cuts, and the threat of closure, the The Boston Globe had a painful year last year, but Martin Baron, the paper’s editor since 2001, sounds like he’s looking forward to the challenges ahead. He sat down in his office with CommonWealth magazine editor Bruce Mohl (a former Globe reporter) to talk about the paper’s digital transition, its market opportunities, and the tough financial decisions ahead. The interview, only slighted edited, will appear in two parts.
Mohl: How long have you been overseeing the Globe’s editorial coverage in print and on the web?
Baron: I think it’s been about three years, maybe a little more. The history of Boston.com was that it was an entirely separate operation. It wasn’t even in this facility. It was on Congress Street. So they were run independently, and three or four years ago the decision was made to entirely integrate the operations. All of Boston.com was moved into this building. At that stage, I was put in charge of all the editorial operations of Boston.com.
Mohl: Are the Web and print cultures merging?
Baron: In any culture there are subcultures. But I think we’re creating one culture and that is the culture that we produce journalism and information for all different kinds of media on all different kinds of platforms. I think that has not just seeped into but consumed all of us for quite some time now. I think everybody is working very well together. In fact, we don’t have a Boston.com pod or separate section in the newsroom any more. The home page people are sitting right next to the front page people. They’re right outside my door. Bennie Dinardo, who’s our multimedia editor, is sitting right next to me. The business producers are in the Business Section. The sports producers are in the Sports Section. We’re all working, I hope, seamlessly together. Certainly, that’s the goal. People who are on the traditional Boston Globe staff are producing updates during the course of the day for the website. Reporters and photographers also are producing video for the site, working very closely with producers and videographers. We want to create one seamless whole. That’s the objective.
Mohl: So reporters are really morphing into multimedia outputs?
Baron: It’s becoming more commonplace. There are some reporters who are early adopters and they very quickly decided to start taking video. We encouraged them. We helped train them. The reporters are typically working with little flip video cameras for which they take a one-minute or two-minute video clip, which can be posted right away. Photographers have been trained to do more sophisticated video and they have more advanced equipment. We will have, if we don’t have them already, one camera that does both video and still photography. Then we have a couple of videographers and they’re doing almost documentary-style video, as are some of the photographers. The intention is to keep doing video and to do more of it and to make it part of our portfolio.
Mohl: Does this multimedia approach get in the way of researching good stories?
Baron: Any change in the business can be difficult for people, but I have to say that I don’t think there are terribly many tradeoffs in doing this. Journalism has changed. It used to be I’d hear reporters say that I have to spend all this time doing graphics – that’s going to take away from the time we have to do stories. Prior to the graphics thing, people would say, “You mean I have to work with a photographer at the same time I’m working on the assignment?” Of course, papers became much more visual as society became more visual. And then the same was true of designers, when they became part of the staff of newsrooms, going beyond traditional layout people. People started to say, “You mean we have to deal with all these aesthetics?” In fact, it was about conveying the information in the most effective possible way. It wasn’t just a matter of prettying up the newspaper.
Now we’re in a digital age and we’re producing not just for the newspaper but for the website, for mobile devices, and we’re producing video. Yes, we do have to think of more things, but that’s just the way of the world. I don’t know that we make a huge sacrifice in having a reporter take a video clip that lasts a few minutes or having a photographer, while they’re taking still photographs, also think of video. I don’t think that means that we’re going to have stories that suffer. And I’ve seen no evidence of it, by the way.
Mohl: Have you had any trouble convincing your dinosaur reporters to adapt to this new environment?
Baron: We don’t have that many old dinosaur types, to be honest with you. Many of them grew up in an era where they started working for wire services. They were doing write-throughs of their stories all through the day. For them, updating a story is second nature. With video, we’re not shoving it down people’s throats. We’re working with the people who are most interested in it, who understand that it’s going to be a big part of the future for journalists. Most people on our staff understand that for the success of their own careers over the long run, whether they happen to be veterans or people who have gotten into journalism more recently, they understand that they have to be trained and be skilled in all of the new tools of the profession.
Mohl: A lot of people are worried about the future of the Globe. How worried are you?
Baron: I’m worried, too, but I can’t sit here and just fret. That’s not productive. You have to systematically say, “What can we do to be successful?” I’m not being a Polyanna here by any stretch. I understand the challenges we face, but I also know we have tremendous resources here. We have the largest news-gathering staff in this region by far. That’s a huge asset. That is our primary asset, the people who work here and the talent they have. No other news outlet in this area comes anywhere close. None of them can do the kind of work we do. We can certainly do the work they do. In the area of television, for example, we can do video. We can do what television does, in fact, and we do some of it. We even do documentary video and we do news video. We can do more of that. But they can’t do what we do.
Mohl: So it sounds like you want to expand the Globe’s brand?
Baron: What people have forgotten, with all the focus on newspapers, is that the troubles in television are at least as severe as those in newspapers and they may even be greater. And there are troubles in radio as well. This is an issue for all mass media and media of all types. It’s not just newspapers. If you look at what’s happening to networks, the reasons underlying the sale of NBC to Comcast, and the cutbacks made in local TV stations and radio stations that have news operations, you would realize that what’s happening in the newspaper field is just a piece of the picture.
Mohl: The news coverage at many local TV and radio outlets wasn’t that strong before.
Baron: There wasn’t much and there’s even less today. I’m not suggesting that other people don’t do good work. They do. But in terms of the scope of the work, the depth of the work, the consistency of the work, we do more than anybody by far.
Mohl: Does the erosion of TV news present opportunities for The Globe?
Baron: Very few people watch appointment television anymore and there’s a lot that goes along with local news reports -- sort of a whole shtick -- that may be unnecessary these days. So many people are watching entertainment shows or news shows on Hulu.com or watching things on Youtube. We can do a lot of video, a lot of news video, audio. You don’t need a broadcast signal to do this. You just need an Internet connection.
Mohl: So the Globe is becoming more than just a newspaper with an Internet site.
Baron: We will change, as will all other news organizations. Look, I can watch CNN on my iPhone. I can watch video on my iPhone. I can listen to NPR broacasts. This is a changed world. We need to factor that into our thinking in a very big way and not waste any time in adjusting to that, and take advantage of the new tools that are now available to us. What people don’t often appreciate is that we now have a larger audience than we ever had for our journalism. It used to be that if you wanted to read the Boston Globe you had to be in the Boston area or be in New England. That’s not true anymore. We have people all around the world who are reading the Boston Globe. When we were doing our investigation of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church I guarantee you the Vatican was reading the Boston Globe. Red Sox fans and Patriots fans are all over the world and they keep up with those teams and the Celtics by going to Boston.com. Some of them watch Globe 10.0 with Bob Ryan on the Internet with no broadcast signal.
Mohl: If I understand correctly, Ryan’s show, which appears Monday through Friday and features him and a colleague talking briefly about a sports topic of the day, is a preview of the future.
Baron: You can watch whichever short segment you’d like to watch whenever you’d like to watch it. We have tools available to us that were never previously available to us. We have storytelling capabilities available to us that were never previously available to us. We should not have these tools made available to us and not take full advantage of them. We should and we will take full advantage of the tools available to us.
Tomorrow: The Globe’s financial problems, the shift to the Internet, and whether Internet news should be free.