The case for optimism at Tronc
Editor's note: Anne Vasquez is the chief digital officer of Tronc and a previous contributor to Poynter.
“The only way to achieve the impossible is to believe it’s possible.”
– "Alice in Wonderland"
The news industry could use some inspiration from Disney.
Our industry is scared. We're scared we won’t survive. We're scared our sacred mission to serve the public is being corrupted by egos and falling into the wrong hands. We're scared we value cheap clicks over substance.
Valid fears. But we can’t allow ourselves to be blinded by our fears. No one who has ever made history has done so by ceding to her fears. Instead of betting on our demise, we should be rooting for each other.
We must take calculated risks. Leaps of faith. Acknowledge that a solution to a problem often is a progression of experimentation and failures, and not just one simple step.
That’s why I’m betting on Tronc. It’s also why I’m betting on The Washington Post, BuzzFeed and any other news organization willing to shake up the status quo in service of its journalism.
We need to be inspired, revived, reimagined. If only there were more tech entrepreneurs like Michael Ferro and The Washington Post’s Jeff Bezos willing to invest in the survival of an independent press to leverage our credibility in a crowded media space.
In the four months since Ferro purchased a sizable stake in Tribune Publishing, renamed recently Tronc, Inc., the company has been buzzing with newfound energy. The calcified media company that has been slow to evolve, like so many others in the industry, has quickly made changes to chart a new path.
These are the kind of sparks that fly when a tech startup mindset meets a legacy company’s corporate culture. It’s exciting. It’s innovative. It’s uncomfortable.
We should not be wasting our time debating the merits of the consolidation of one corporate culture into another. Our industry doesn’t have time to waste on shortsighted solutions. We need to find a new way. And we need to stop looking in the same places.
In the short time I’ve known Ferro, I’ve become a fan. He’s an idea-a-minute guy who doesn’t mince words and oozes energy. A lot of energy. It’s not uncommon to leave a meeting with your head spinning and the world beneath your feet shifting.
It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my 20 years as a professional journalist — and it’s precisely what our industry needs. Our audience is moving to mobile at lightning speed, making video increasingly important and social media a critical distribution platform.
Our future is intimately intertwined with tech. Digital-native companies like Jonah Peretti’s BuzzFeed want the experience and storytelling of credible journalists. We want to figure out how to grow and reach wider audiences through mobile and social.
So what is Tronc doing that others could learn from?
- Invest in technology. A lot has been said about artificial intelligence and machine learning. They sound like scary terms. They’re not. Both can enhance journalism. How? By visualizing the content. Machines can be taught to find graphics, thumbnails, photo galleries and videos faster and better by using AI. The goal is to make the work of journalists easier and more efficient, so they spend more time conceiving and pursuing stories.
Machine learning also serves our audience. How? By serving up relevant, related content readers want to read or click on. Combine that with the ability to gain a better understanding of the audience’s behavior and preferences, and our journalism becomes more valuable to advertisers. With access to more than 100 AI patents by Tronc investor Patrick Soon-Shiong, founder of NantWorks, Tronc plans to spend the months ahead experimenting like a kid in a sandbox.
- Collaborate. Acknowledge the great work others are doing and not be too proud to say it out loud. Rather than build a new content management system from scratch — which is what Tribune Publishing would have done in the past, and it would have taken years — Tronc is working with The Washington Post to explore licensing its sophisticated CMS. The Post’s Chief Technology Officer, Shailesh Prakash, and his team are regularly lauded by Bezos for their skills and sophistication. And with good reason: They are great people to work with.
- Respect journalism. Foster a content-first culture that capitalizes on the credibility of professional journalists — and reward them. Ferro has announced pay raises in the third quarter for journalists throughout the company. Tribune Publishing has won a combined 92 Pulitzers, and Tronc understands their value. It also understands that great journalism can take many different forms. Making journalism more accessible and visual is not sacrilege; it’s smart.
The road ahead is by no means easy. But I’ve never been one to turn away from a challenge. For that, I credit my parents, who fled the tiny communist island of Cuba more than 50 years ago with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They and others like them overcame seemingly insurmountable odds.
Our industry can, too.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Michael Ferro purchased a "majority stake" in Tribune Publishing. He is the primary shareholder, but he does not own a majority of the shares. We apologize for the error.