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.”

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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