The 60-second interview: Marty Baron, editor, The Washington Post
CAPITAL: Looking at some of the new hires that the Post has made over the last several months, we've noticed that some of them have come from more digital, less traditional-journalism backgrounds. And a lot have come from New York. Have you sort of expanded the playing field for prospective hires?
BARON: Well, we've said all along with these initiatives that we have this year that the goals have been digital growth and digital transformation. In order to achieve those goals, we think we need to hire people who are fundamentally digital. They've sort of grown up in the digital world, they've written primarily for digital platforms, and that's what we've been looking for. Our view is that the web is a different medium, and it calls for a different form of storytelling. These are all people who are experienced in that form of storytelling, and in many instances it's second-nature for them, and that's their primary form of expression. We need more of that, we want more of that. We've been on the hunt for people with that kind of background and that's largely who we've brought in as part of these initiatives.
CAPITAL: So is it no longer a requirement to have local news reporting experience? You know, that traditional path and way up from a small paper to a place like the Post?
BARON: I would say that that model passed a long time ago. It's not that people can't move up that way. They do move up that way. We're about to announce some hires where people have worked at smaller organizations, smaller papers, and we will hire and have hired people who've come up that way. But you know when you're looking for people for sort of particular roles in the newsroom, as we have in this instance, then you look for people who have the background that would be suitable for that. So we've started a number of blogs that focus on specialized subjects. They're digital; they're entirely digital. They call for a digital form of expression, and we want to hire people who are both steeped in the subject matter but also steeped in the medium. And that's what we've looked for there. But, you know, there's certainly no bar on hiring people who've come up the traditional way. As I said, we have hired people that way, we continue to hire people that way. But for a lot of these new initiatives that are at their heart digital, we have wanted to hire people whose backgrounds and whose experience and whose inclinations are digital.
CAPITAL: You've probably seen reports recently that The New York Times is paring back its blog roll a bit. The Post seems to be going in sort of the other direction by launching a few new blogs in the past few months. So does the Post still see blogs as a good medium for news and commentary?
BARON: Obviously we do. We've launched a bunch. We've launched a personal health one. We've got others that are about to be launched. We've added to things like The Fix and to Wonkblog and to The Switch and GovBeat and Capital Weather Gang, a whole range of things that we have, and new ones that we're adding. They've worked for us. I'm not privy to the Times' thinking, but for us it's been an opportunity for us to specialize in certain subject areas that we think are of broad national interest, and to bring in people who can take ownership of those subjects, and who can write about them in a very digital way.
CAPITAL: Washington Post content today includes traditional reporting—local news, national news, international news—explainers and a lot of online-only content. Some of that content is maybe intended to be less-serious and hard-hitting, more fun, and perhaps a little silly at times. I’ve seen the same critique now several times when you get a particularly playful item. Basically, “What’s that stuff doing in the newspaper of Woodward and Bernstein?” Do you think that’s fair?
BARON: First of all, on explainers, we've had that for quite a long time. We've had Wonkblog—we've had that for over four years now. And you know, there's been a fair amount of attention to some of the new things that are out there right now—The Upshot, Vox, things like that. And FiveThirtyEight. But we've had Wonkblog for more than four years, and in many ways I think that we've been the model for what's happened elsewhere. And so that's been part of our DNA for quite some time—is doing those kinds of pieces—and they work for us, so we've tried to expand on that. I think that explainers are in the grand tradition of journalism. They've been done ever since I was a novice journalist myself, and did them—Q&As and things like that. So I don't think exactly they're a breakout form, but it's clear that people are mystified by some of the things happening in the world—things that are particularly complex, and they want somebody to step back and put it in context and explain it at times in a very basic way—start from the beginning. So we want to do that. We have done that. We've done that for a long time.
The other thing I'd point out is that we continue to do more major investigations. We continue to do great foreign reporting. We continue to do great national reporting, and accountability work at the local level. A couple of weeks ago we just had a very big piece looking at the local giant homeless shelter here, and the horrible conditions in the shelter. So this is a news organization that continues to do that kind of work. But we can expand our portfolio without sacrificing those traditional functions. And there's a whole wide world out there.
There are a lot of subjects to be covered. Take something like The Intersect. Covering the culture of the internet is...it's a big part of people's lives. There's absolutely no reason we shouldn't try to cover that. We're trying to do that, and we're trying to do that in a way that is appropriate to the web, and that will gain traction on the Web as well. As far as PostEverything is concerned, this is a forum for contributors who are not employees of our organization: people who have not written for us before, people who may not have written for anybody before, but who have something to say. As the tagline on that site says, "The conversation is bigger than you think." We want to bring a lot of people into the conversation. They have really interesting things to say. We've had great reception for pieces that have been posted there. The piece that we had recently—the headline was something along the lines of "What happened when I drove my Mercedes to pick up my food stamps"—it did extremely well. It raised important issues, and it was written in a particularly interesting and provocative way. We had a piece just yesterday by a woman who was writing about her three-year-old who’s been suspended five times already from school—and what that says about how black children are treated in a way that's different from how white children are treated, and whether that does anybody any good. That worked really well. We had a post about male-on-male rape, which also was incredibly well-read. So, you know, we've had a wide range of subjects there and that's exactly what we're trying to achieve. There's nothing about them that violates the great traditions of The Washington Post, and really expands our portfolio. That’s what we're trying to do.
CAPITAL: Will there be new hires rolled out over the next few weeks and months? Is there a number you're working up to, at which point you'll stop hiring?
BARON: When we've reached our budget. There's been a lot of hiring this year, as you know. We still have some initiatives that we haven't hired for yet. We continue to do that. And then some of the hires are replacements for people who've left. I would imagine by the end of this third quarter pretty much all of the hiring for these initiatives will have been complete, and we'll probably just be hiring for replacing people who might have left. There's always some turnover in a newsroom. People go pursue other opportunities, or retire, or whatever it might be. But the hiring for the initiatives, I would imagine, will probably continue throughout the third quarter.
CAPITAL: Are you still staffing up WPNYC [the Post’s New York-based design studio]?
BARON: We've continued to hire people for that. We haven't hired everybody yet for that. There's two aspects for that. One is sort of the engineering/IT group, which is not my area. And the other is the designers we have there. We've also situated in New York some new editorial staffers for whom it would be very difficult for them to move to D.C., so we've given them a desk in the New York office.
CAPITAL: Have readers seen any new products come out of the New York office yet?
BARON: No, most of the people there—or at least the ones I'm involved with—are working on the longer-term redesign of our website, and that's got a ways to go.
CAPITAL: I know there’s been some hires for a new mobile initiative, to be led by Kerry Lauerman. Can you say more about what’s in the works?
BARON: We haven't really talked about new mobile products yet.
CAPITAL: Looking at the new ownership, has there been any sort of noticeable difference in what readers have been getting editorially, or have things been continuing as-is?
BARON: Well, I think we've talked about it already. We're experimenting every which way right now. PostEverything is new. Morning Mix is new. We have a whole set of new verticals, blogs, whatever you want to call them. We've rolled those out. We created a breaking news team that works during the day, that is designed to sort of capture whatever the conversation at the moment is and work on that, jump on those kinds of stories. All of those are the sorts of experiments that we've launched. And they're doing well. We're very happy with how things are going. We have tried to fill those positions as quickly as possible and get people up and running. And you know, you're seeing the manifestation on the site as these things get launched. We also launched Storyline this week... [that is] storytelling on the intersection between policy and people. That's an experiment as well. All these things are sort of experimental in one form or another. They're all layered on top of the more traditional journalism that we continue to do, and will continue to do.
CAPITAL: So, because they're experiments, there's a chance things could be tweaked or rolled back in the future?
BARON: I suppose that's possible. Yeah, of course. That's the nature of anything. When we launch something it doesn't mean that we're committed to not changing a thing for the rest of its existence. But the truth is that everything is going really well. So at the moment there's nothing that I would change. They're all doing extremely well, exceeding our expectations.
CAPITAL: I just noticed that the most-read story right now on your website is an aggregated piece about a Russian lizard sex station in space.
BARON: [Laughs] Is that right?
CAPITAL: It’s called…
BARON: How do you know?
CAPITAL: I’m just looking at the external most-read widget.
BARON: Oh, on our site. I see. OK. Is it the most read? Really? Are you sure?
CAPITAL: That’s what it said…
BARON: Hold on a second. Yeah, most read. That's right. It's showing up as the most-read.
CAPITAL: That’s an example of the diversity of your online content…
BARON: You know, this is written by—I think it’s written by the breaking news team that captures the conversation. Yeah it is. It's put into the Worldviews blog, which I didn't mention before but we also added to that and that's been hugely successful. Umm. I don't know. It's an entertaining piece, don't you think?
CAPITAL: I agree. And well-written as well.
BARON: So, we're not at all opposed to having informative, entertaining pieces on the site.