Local Edition: What Mike Wilson learned at FiveThirtyEight and The Dallas Morning News
This interview originally ran in Local Edition, Poynter's weekly newsletter about the digital transformation of local news. Subscribe here.
Mike Wilson didn't go to journalism school. So when he started in newsrooms, first as an intern at The Boston Globe, then as an intern at The Miami Herald, the skills he had to learn on the job were pretty fundamental, including basic reporting and ethics.
Now, as editor at The Dallas Morning News, Mike is pushing his newsroom to maintain those fundamentals while developing new skills to keep up with unceasing digital transformation.
We spoke last week about what he's learned in a career that's taken him from legacy newsrooms to a digital newsroom and back to a place working hard to become digital.
Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.
I feel like your resumé over the last few years says a lot about where we are in journalism right now. Can you tell us about your career — from The Tampa Bay Times to FiveThirtyEight to Dallas and why you made those moves?
I loved The Tampa Bay Times. At the time I left I had been managing editor for a few years, and I just loved the place, but there were a combination of personal and professional things going on. One was, personally, my last child had left for college and I no longer felt necessarily attached to the place where we were living.
Coincidentally at that time, Nate Silver was advertising for a managing editor, and I had been thinking about delving more deeply into digital journalism than I had in Tampa Bay, and just started to explore it, and things worked out. I just knew I’d learn a lot by working at a digital pure play.
And I had a great time at FiveThirtyEight. Nate and I hired the staff and set up the norms for the newsroom and created a stylebook, got freelancers, went through all the HR stuff and launched a site in four months.
It was incredibly exciting to do that, and I stayed for about a year after that. And I’d probably still be there, but I got this email from Jim Moroney at The Dallas Morning News saying he was looking for an editor.
It was exciting to think about running my own newsroom, particularly because he wanted somebody to accelerate our push into digital here. A year at FiveThirtyEight didn’t make me the world’s greatest digital journalist. I had been far enough down the road to point people in the direction we wanted to go and start that process.
What skills do you think you learned from being at FiveThirtyEight that you’ve taken with you to Dallas?
I don’t know if it’s a skill, particularly, so much as an awareness that there’s an audience out there right now for our work that is not waiting until tomorrow or waiting until later today. The urgency of giving people information and then continuing a dialogue with them about whatever we’re publishing rather than having it just be a one-way thing. It’s mainly just that awareness of the urgency that was the biggest change in me.
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You’ve been part of some interesting things in Dallas, essentially re-envisioning how the newsroom works and what it needs. When I was there last year you all had a long list of skills that you thought were essential. Can you tell us about some of them?
Skills training is a huge part of what we’re doing still. We have nine leaders from across the newsroom who meet once a week to plan and organize training sessions. There’s a constant kind of digital journalism university happening at The Dallas Morning News. There are key skill categories that we are focused on growing. And as an editor, I always start with writing.
When journalism deans ask me: "What do you want from people?" there’s this long list of digital skills and multimedia skills and ethics, but the first thing I say is I need people who can write a sentence. That remains a priority for us. We’ve got a couple of writing workshops a month where people either inside the building or outside the building talk about some aspect of writing or story construction or editing. I think that writing continues to be a vital skill for people coming into the news.
Beyond that, our list includes:
– The ability to post and design items in our digital CMS.
– Use of social media, promoting your work, doing Facebook Lives, growing your followers.
– Analytics. Journalists here have access to the data about how things are going. We try to help them understand how to read that information, get a handle on what’s working for the audience and how it can influence story choice. If there’s an issue we’re writing about with the city that’s got a lot of readership, let’s come back with something more as soon as we can. If something consistently is not gaining audience and seems to us to be of little consequence to shoring up the democracy, let’s move on.
– Data analysis. We do some training and just help people to manipulate and understand data. That’s a little bit more limited one, it’s something that we offer to everybody but we really just want our core people to do really well.
– SEO and headline writing.
– And then things like Freedom of Information Act requests, how to do them, how to follow up. We have a new in-house tool called the FOIA Tracker, where we’re keeping track of requests that we’re making newsroom wide and updating the database when the government follows up with us.
Is that something you all built in house?
Yeah, we did build it in house.
– And then image editing, video editing.
– And one that I’ll mention, this is sort of on the soft skill side, but coaching and building collaboration. We have some workshops and a year-long leadership program about those things, trying to create a newsroom where people are good at leading and good at being colleagues.
Two weeks ago I spoke with a veteran journalist and a journalist in the earlier stages of her career, and they both had obviously different skills they need to work on. As a newsroom boss, how do you deal with those generational differences?
We start by asking questions of our staff about how they think they’re doing in these areas? Implicit in the question is the idea that to be able to do at least competently in these areas is key to our success. We want the answer to be, “Hey I’m pretty good at these things,” or we want to help people get to where they’re pretty good at those things.
A (younger journalist) comes to us with a deeper understanding, a native understanding, of those tools than I have. But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be expected to get up to speed and understand the value of our analytics or understand how to create stories in our CMS or how to use social media.
There’s no curve and there’s no exemption for those of us who are either more veteran journalists or less-digitally inclined. We want everybody to be able to do the basics.
What would you tell someone new to journalism right now about what they should focus on mastering if they want to have a career in this business? Writing?
It starts with writing. I have a 22-year-old son who’s an aspiring journalist, and I think about his path. I think it will really need to include great dexterity with social media tools and reporting news in a live way on Twitter, Facebook Live, and almost a little more of a sense of – I hate this idea about building a brand – I think it’s more about having a relationship with readers.
That’s what I’m seeing the most effective people doing on Twitter. They’re known because they’re responding to people, they’re responding in an appropriate way, they’re interesting. That ability to have that relationship and interaction with the audience is going to be important.
What about for the vets, who’ve been through a decade or more of really tough changes? Any real talk for them? I’m not talking about people in your newsroom, because they probably get it or they wouldn’t still be there, but other local journalists who’ve weathered this so far.
People in my newsroom struggle with this question just like they do in other newsrooms. Just like every other place, we’ve gone through hard things and had to make changes and lay people off and we’ve seen our newsroom budget get smaller.
I always tell people the same thing. This is a time of existential crisis for our news organizations because there’s just so much uncertainty about how journalism will be funded in the long run.
Weirdly, it’s also the most exciting time in the history of storytelling because of the tools we have to tell stories and the ability we have to really deeply connect with the audience.
I always put it in their hands and say, this is great work we do, and I’m incredibly excited by it. But for all of us, any time we have a round of layoffs or bad news in our business, we have to do a gut check and see if we have the heart for this.
So far, so good.
Dallas has an intense focus on training and helping people evolve. What can and should other newsroom leaders do to help people catch up and keep up?
We’ve had a lot of success putting this in the hands of the staff, to a large degree. If you have people who have skills of whatever kind, even if they’re not in boss positions, they may be leaders in another sense. You can enlist them to basically teach what they know.
Making it a staff project has been a big help. That’s the very democratic side of it. The more autocratic side of it is I do think you have to make it mandatory. You need to expect your journalists to have the skills that are going to make your business viable in the long term.
Does that include understanding the business side?
Nobody in our newsroom has to know what’s the CPM on an ad now, or how does programmatic selling of advertising work. But they do need to understand the business imperative to our growing and engaging audience. From a business point of view, what does it matter if someone comes back to our site three, four, five times instead of one or two?
So we have talked a lot about that. We actually had the people from digital marketing do a series of seminars for our journalists and it was great. Our people really wanted to know – how does this work?
What is something that your newsroom doesn’t know about you?
Oh my gosh, I’m the guy who has been seen dancing in a Harlem Shake video. I feel like my kimono’s completely open here...here’s something: I bet they don’t know that I really like country music.
That is the un-coolest thing I could have told you.
OK, let’s switch to something cool then. You all have had an interesting year after not endorsing Trump, dealing with reader reaction and then being featured on “This American Life.” What’s it been like to not only engage with readers, but then to be part of the story of our country lately?
When the people came to protest, I wasn’t looking to be a story or be part of a story, but just to fulfill what I saw as my obligation to talk to the people who were mad at us. It turned out to be such a quirky and interesting experience that the tweets I did got some attention.
It was much weirder to be on “This American Life.” First of all, David Kestenbaum was really good. He was sitting in my office with his headphones on and his wand microphone and asking me these great questions. By the time we were done, I had this feeling that a lot of interview subjects have, which is, boy, I hope I came off OK. I really felt like I’d been pretty open with him. I thought, jeez I hope I haven’t made any tragic mistakes here.
I thought the story he did was really fair to everybody involved. I was really impressed with it.
When you started in journalism, you wanted to learn the basics. How about now? What do you need to learn or keep learning to stay in this business?
I think I need to try to do the very difficult job of just staying current on the technologies that are going to influence our business in the years to come.
Earl Wilkinson from INMA talked to us recently, and he said, “You are living in the time of the slowest technological change you will ever experience.”
And I was like, "Oh my God. You gotta be kidding me."
It was a really daunting thought. So I think keeping up with and understanding the technologies that will affect our relationship with readers is probably the biggest thing I need to keep working on.