In the “Spotlight” with Marty Baron

Jeffrey Herbst and Marty Baron

Jeffrey Herbst, Newseum president and CEO, interviews Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron.

The Newseum recently returned from a stint at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, where program hosts Gene Policinski and Sonya Gavankar spent three days interviewing more than 50 thought leaders in technology, media and privacy about matters of free expression and the First Amendment.

On the third day of the festival, Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron joined Newseum CEO Jeffrey Herbst to discuss the future of news. The lively conversation, held on the porch of the WeDC House at the heart of the festival – covered everything from advertising to evolving technology to the continued need for investigative reporting.

“There is a tremendous amount of choice” in media outlets today, Baron noted, and a wider distribution base thanks to social media channels like Facebook. That means more people are seeing Washington Post content – “The Post got as high as 76 million unique visitors in the month of December … obviously the print newspaper never had that many readers” – but those readers have a more casual relationship to the paper.

The effects of this evolving readership are evident to Baron. “We’re trying to write in a way that is suitable for the web,” he said. “We’re writing in a more casual style, more conversational, more accessible, (and) deploying all the tools that are available to us.” This shift in producing content also coincides with adapting to a younger generation of consumers, who increasingly get their news on mobile devices through social channels. “If we don’t cultivate a younger readership, we’re not going to have a readership in the long run,” Baron said.

Herbst noted that while it’s easier now more than ever to access good journalism, the sheer volume of news options allows for the possibility of an overall decline in quality journalism, and expressed concern that this shift could deplete the quality of the average American’s news consumption.

“(It’s concerning that people) live in a virtual reality of false facts,” Baron agreed. “It used to be we would agree on the facts, we would disagree on the interpretation, we would disagree on the analysis. … Now we’re in an environment where people don’t even agree on the basic facts. How do we have a democracy in a media environment like that?”

Baron knows well the value of quality journalism: he was the top editor at The Boston Globe when the paper’s Spotlight team brought him an investigation into a decades-long coverup of sexual abuse by Boston-area Catholic priests. Baron and the Globe were awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for public service for breaking the scandal, and their story is portrayed in “Spotlight,” this year’s Best Picture honoree at the Academy Awards. (Liev Schreiber plays Baron in the film.)

Despite current challenges, Baron sees promise in the future of journalism. If a 22-year-old came to him asking for advice about starting a journalism career, Baron said he would encourage it. “Go for it. Absolutely. There are a lot of new (media) opportunities being created,” he said. “Young people who have all the right skills … can do extremely well in this environment.”

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