2016 wasn’t the worst of it
I started out as a managing editor of the L.A. Times.
I end it as a vice president at CNN.
We lived in Los Feliz, under the hills of Griffith Park and neon signs of donut shops. Now we’re in Jackson Heights, in the shadow of brick buildings and halal butchers and planes headed to LaGuardia.
After the move, we let our 12-year-old walk to the store alone. In mid-November, a block from our house, someone called my friend a “sand n-----” and said he was “gonna die.” We stopped letting our girl go.
I’ll remember this year.
Some people say they are broken. “2016,” they write on Facebook, “I hate you so much.” David Bowie and Prince and Muhammad Ali died. Our social-media feeds deepened and hastened the gulf of a nation divided. We lost Mom (Florence Henderson). Then Dad (Alan Thicke). There were layoffs and buyouts and reorganizations, at Mashable and the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Huffington Post, Fusion and Gannett.
This is just the beginning.
My main journalistic lesson of 2016 is to brace for massive upheaval and redefinition. What we’ve just seen — the election, fake news, red feeds, blue feeds, mistrust, niche sites, the so-called end of the mainstream — have implications for all of us in the fourth estate.
How do we get through the next few years? It feels like everyone hates us. Does what we do matter? Those are the questions in the daily emails and phone calls I get.
Like the country, my key takeaways from the year are at odds with each other. Here’s what we need to reconcile:
We’re entering a post-social world...but shareability matters more than ever.
Many sites built entire brands off social referral traffic or gaming algorithms. A few viral hits could make a month. Now? Advertisers want more. They want loyal, regular audiences. And those same audiences are fatigued with the “sameness” problem of digital content. Consider headlines that start with “How” or “Why” or that old standby: “The one thing you need to read before (insert big life event here).”
Do not underestimate social media though. The most successful news outlets are leaning on audiences to pick up the task of distribution. Between the habitual app browsing and their trust in friends and family, audiences remain firmly in control of our success. That means we must continue to meet them off platform — and not necessarily just to push our content.
Yes, we need to optimize stories to be shared with tools and buttons. But more than that, our storytelling should be so compelling that people genuinely want to share it with their world.
I challenge us to contextualize virality rather than chase it: connect the dots of Aleppo to Syria’s suffering, of Putin to global authoritarianism, swing states to economic inequality, male mortality rates and the heroin epidemic.
Newspapers are over...but they can still be saved.
How? Focus coverage around communities, force digital thinking into the newsroom and embrace new revenue streams such as video, events, newsletters and sponsored content. That takes massive investment, reorganization and training. It requires an alignment among editorial, business and corporate leaders that journalism is at the core of the brand. It is the mission. It is the product. It means letting go of the notion that because print revenue pays for everything, everyone else must remain tethered, too. We have to stop the episode of “Survivor” unfolding before us. Tremendously talented and idealistic journalists are voting themselves off, leaving 15 directors of strategy with nothing left to save.
Metrics still matter, except we need smarter ones.
We measure ourselves against each other through unique visitors. And on a daily basis, we compete against ourselves via pageviews. But those metrics do not offer the most important yardstick of success: how useful and informative and relevant and revelatory we are to our audiences and advertisers. I’m cheering for engagement (which I’m defining as minutes spent) to matter more. My friends at Vox measure time between visits, a gauge of whether audiences need us. And at the recent Newsgeist unconference in Phoenix, I heard about a new assessment: multiply uniques by average engagement time to encourage stories that are both immersive and reach new people.
Yes, we gotta do something about fake news, but let’s remember the great, great democratization of content that the internet created.
I entered journalism through a diversity program in the late 1990s. Our power — to make a difference through the types of stories we tell and the types of people who tell them — willed me into the field. But a funny thing happens when you land in a newsroom: You learn story structure such as inverted pyramids and that objectivity is two sides of a story instead of 15. We run away from nuance and inconvenient truths like the hero of a story being a Jehovah’s Witness or someone else not like us. Few editors really understood our desire to tell stories from inside communities — and for them.
But the Internet saved my career — and made room for new voices.
It gave birth to blogs such as Damon Young’s Very Smart Brothas, which share new lenses and ideas, and redefine the mainstream. It allowed someone like me to lead newsrooms such as Quartz, the L.A. Times and CNN and prove that niche stories can indeed find big (and monetizable) audiences.
Fake news can be fought. I believe we are up to that task, whether it’s via Chrome Extensions or our own commitment to facts. But we cannot close the gates and return to what was (see point above on newspapers dying).
Now, more than ever, we have to define ourselves and what we stand for, as institutions and individuals. And then we have to look around and see who’s missing, what’s missing. The journalism we build going forward must broaden our definition of inclusion. There is no path forward, no monetization, no trust we can regain for any of us without making space for all of us. Only with those perspectives can we begin the much harder task of telling more complete, contextual stories.
Goodbye, 2016. Thanks for the needed lessons. We’ve got a lot at stake in the days to come, from business models to public trust to the safety of a kid just walking to the store.