Washington Post publisher Weymouth sees new media as ‘them,’ not ‘us’

Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth draws a big, bold line between “old media” like the Post and “new media” such as blogs and citizen journalists.

The Post is embracing the new “tools” of online journalism, but they don’t change who journalists are, what journalism is or how the Post does it, Weymouth said Wednesday as the keynote speaker of the Knight-Batten Awards symposium in Washington, D.C.

Weymouth made several points that advocate a progressive future for the Post. She told the audience of Washington journalists that all Post reporters should use social media to connect with their readers and that innovation is the job of every employee in the company.

The overall tone, however, was more combative toward what she labeled as “new media.” There was much talk about competition, but little about the benefits of collaboration. On some subjects Weymouth expressed views that were conservative or even a little curmudgeonly.

She joked about that at one point:

The popular perception is that so-called traditional media just doesn’t get it — that newspaper executives are generally a group of bumbling old white men clinging on to the good old days and wishing that whole Internet thing would go away. Well I am here to blow up that myth, to tell you that there is at least one old white woman in there clinging on to that hope.

On citizen journalism

Weymouth strongly asserted that journalism is not something anyone can do on any given day.

“I do firmly believe that it [journalism] is an art, and a profession, and requires expertise,” she said “True journalists understand the rules of decency, the ethics of journalism and how to separate fact from hype.”

Later, she acknowledged that citizen journalism does have a place, not on equal footing with the Post but as a potential source for its reporting.

“Citizen journalists, armed with cellphones and Twitter accounts, are not the enemy. They are additional sources on the ground,” Weymouth said. “When used properly, their photos and words enrich our coverage and our readers’ understanding of the unfolding story.”

On blogs and new media

Weymouth was especially derisive about “new media,” by which she seemed to mean independent blogs and nontraditional news sites.

“Traditional media, and the journalism that we put out, remains the foundation even of the new media,” she said, stating that most of links on blogs and independent news go to traditional media reports.

She referenced a “recent Pew study” to support that. As best I can tell, she was referring to the 2010 Project for Excellence in Journalism study that reported that 75 percent of news links on blogs went to American legacy media outlets. (The study looked at the most-linked-to stories in the blogosphere each day.)

But you can’t use a study of the overall blogosphere to draw conclusions about the niche of local blogs and independent media companies. Where I live in Arlington, Va. (in the Post’s coverage area), local blogs provide far more original and relevant local reporting than the Post does. And many DC blogs give the Post a strong challenge in the District proper. In my past job at TBD we collaborated with more than 200 Washington-area blogs providing local news and information.

9/11 would have been ‘more horrific’ in the social media era

On a completely different subject, Weymouth talked about how the 9/11 attacks would have been more traumatic if social networks were able to capture a closer, more personal view from ground zero:

Most of us learned about the events of that day in one of four ways — by television, by radio, by newspaper, or by a phone call from a friend. And while we are all incredibly grateful for the ways in which technology has enhanced our lives, I think we are also grateful that we didn’t live through 9/11 with all of that technology.

We didn’t have to see live video footage shot from inside the collapsing buildings and uploaded onto YouTube. Cellphones didn’t have cameras back then. … Can you imagine how horrifying it would have been if we had tweets from the victims on the planes or in the offices, or if they had posted to their Facebook pages?

… Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and all the technologies that have yet to be invented make all these events more real, and more horrific. Television pales in comparison.

Yet some good could have come from having more firsthand reports of the attacks. Perhaps some urgent social media messages from people at or near the towers could have saved family and friends the worry of not knowing what happened to their loved ones.

Social media certainly would have brought us all closer to the attacks and the people affected. Whether someone sees that as good or bad says more about their view of the technology than anything else.

Huffington Post social media editor Mandy Jenkins was in the room yesterday and wrote a post collecting reaction to Weymouth’s 9/11 statement: “She’s right, it would be horrific. … But I don’t say ‘thank goodness’ to that lack of social media. I imagine, ‘What if?’ I say, if today’s social media had been around, those who perished on September 11, 2001, could have been the storytellers of their own history.”

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • Anonymous

    The Post suffers from the same malady as the rest of the chattering class – and the political class – namely not getting out enough.  Her point about ethics and seriousness and such is well taken – we’ve all seen a gazillion examples of wild-eyed blog coverage – but it’s not as though the Post (and NY Times and Washington Times and MSNBC and Fox News, et al) don’t have their respective axes to grind and reportorial outrages to outlive.  Are the  Janet Cooke and Jayson Blair incidents supposed to have slipped our minds?

    Main stream media is a vital part of our national personality.  Ms. Weymouth correctly notes the overwhelming presence of MSM stories on the web, and the huge debt owed to said ink-stained wretches by the so-called new kids on the block.  Ms. Weymouth, however, as a true-blue Postie – was unable to avoid being condescending.  “they may be okay for sources…” – or some such, as though writing a complex, well-sourced, honest story is beyond the ability of those who aren’t sitting under rows and rows of fuorescent lamps, pounding away on their terminals.  It ain’t that hard, Ms. Weymouth.  It’s rare, for sure – polemic being way more fun than actual reporting – but it’s not that hard. 

    The Post has been badly hit by the combination of “new media” and editorial arrogance.  The organization is running off of considerable profits generated by their Kaplan arm – said activity attracting, shall we say, interest on the part of regulators – and recently pushed their weekly newsmagazine Newsweek over the side.  They are closing even local bureaus – in the name of reduced rent expense – having already shuttered international and national bureaus.  The talent that has left the place via buyouts is staggering.  All in all, not a good decade – and not all of the damage is their conflict with new media.

    The Post – and other establishment papers – have fallen prey to the same hubris which seems to befall most successful organizations.  They have a sense of “we know best” – they often do – and while such confidence is based on a lot of truly good work – they aren’t especially self-aware,, especially in the arena of views more conservative than their own.  Their religion coverage is mostly secular, their editorials skew toward the collective and away from the individual, and way too many (in my opinion) of their headlines and leads betray a big government / Keynesian bias.  It’s not a huge problem for the readers – most people expect it of the Post these days and discount the coverage accordingly – but it is a huge problem for the paper.  Main stream media – in general and at the risk of over-simplifying – has a left-of-center point-of-view.  They don’t see it – mostly – because the people with whom they work and the cities in which they are published (DC, NY, Chicago, Boston, LA, San Francisco, etc) have a prevailing leftward breeze most of the time and thus there isn’t a lot of day-to–day, in the neighborhoods, pushback on their stories.  Sure the interest groups complain, but not the folks who live next door.  And so the Post and others in the MSM top tier manage – despite being told about it – to viscerally anger about half the population of the country – the part that doesn’t think that endless government meddling is going to do any better tomorrow than it did last week.  These are folks who don’t deny that there are issues in need of attention, but they wonder what about recent government performance would cause anyone to think that our “goverment family” should be trusted with even more money.  Those who raise such an issue normally get not only a negative response by the Post – but often a downright hostile or derisive one.  It’s editorial arrogance – and I’d find it easier to justify if they were actually gaining market share.  Instead they seem to double-down on the same old “we’re smarter than you” – in their columns, their headlines, their editorials, and now – in the words of the Publisher – and I guess we’re supposed to be grateful that we have such people to do our thinking for us.

    For me?  Not so much.

    The new media has attracted an audience the Post should have owned.  There’s no reason they couldn’t have done Drudge or Huffington or any of the other major players – all it would have taken was an editorial board open to conflicting ideas instead of busy pushing orthodoxy (all the while patting themselves on the back for their diversity). but the Post as an institution is no more capable of such “vision” than any other successful entity.  GM, Chrysler, US Steel, the networks, federal government – you name it – have all been hit by institutional cholestrol and a love of what they are used to doing.  So too the Post.  And if Ms. Weymouth were to ask me for advice I’d tell her to move – for a year – to Salina, Kansas or Cody, Wyoming or some small town in southwest anywhere and forget how it used to be.  America’s different now – buried in debt, crippled by millions without work or the promise of work, weakened by school administrators infatuated with self esteem at the expense of academic rigor, etc.  She should come out and visit.  I lived in DC for 55 years – was born there – worked on the Hill and downtown, even carried the Post when I was much, much younger.  I loved Washington.  Believed in it.  Had confidence in our abilities – those of us inside the Beltway.  But I’ve been away for awhile – seen things from the other end of the telescope.  From this end the new media are doing a much better job of catching the spirit of things than the MSM are.  That’s what she’s missing.

  • Mike Cooke

    I am sure the faster spreading of news, such as escape routes from the towers, what happened on the first plane before it hit, relayed back to air traffic control etc. could have saved many many lives. If social media saved one life it would be worth upsetting people let alone possibly saving 1,000′s. Ms. Weymouth does not understand the power and value of social media which given her position is a little worrying, don’t you think?  

  • http://www.facebook.com/arthur.hasson Arthur Hasson

    ‘What if’ could also include more lives saved…. Eventually I will have a ‘friend’ that perishes and I would like very much to read what they have to say before they die…Facebook thankfully would have saved part of our relationship automatically if if they didn’t get a chance to make a ‘last post’.  

  • http://profiles.google.com/rp509855 Rod Paul

    She prompts an interesting question: IF 9/11 had live blogging and tweets and images etc., would it have reduced or increased the amount of conspiracy theories that were spawned?

  • Anonymous

    Classic big media protectionism. Look at how the average newspaper develops its talent. Pluck a green kid out of college and have them start writing. Without any particular knowledge of what they’re writing about. They get edited and get better. Journalism isn’t rocket science. There’s no accepted body of knowledge, no accreditation or licensing, no one right way. And “new media” was an acceptable term, say, 15 years ago when it was actually new. It’s not anymore.

    Entities, both companies and individuals, without print or broadcast appendages are doing some fine work online, and in certain areas, far exceed what comes out of MSM (particularly in niche topics). They learn the same way: produce content, get feedback positive and negative, do better next time. What am I missing here, Katharine?

    Weymouth’s statements are particularly galling because she won, to use Warren Buffett’s term, the genetic lottery and not because of any particular talent she’s exhibited. Not that Pinch Sulzberger is any prize, either. Just goes to show that the biggest problem with newspapers is newspaper executives and editors (and Sam Zell is NOT a good counterpoint example to this — he’s sui generis).

  • Anonymous

    She does remember that WaPo syndicates TechCrunch, right?