WASHINGTON, D.C. — Tomorrow, The Washington Post’s executive editor will vote, come into the newsroom and wait, like the rest of the country, to see who Americans choose as their next president.
For all the innovations and creative ways journalists can now cover this election, the audience is still looking for something pretty basic, Marty Baron said.
“I think that people are just eager to know what the results are going to be and who voted how,” he said. “I think there’s such a high degree of anxiety surrounding the election, people just want to know what happened.”
On Tuesday, Baron will lead a revitalized Washington Post as it chronicles the conclusion of an election cycle filled with twists and turns. Among other things, The Post is planning to cover every major race with the help of artificial intelligence, an unprecedented experiment for a newsroom with a growing engineering team and a tech-savvy owner in Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Baron, who was hired on at The Post shortly after the last election, previously led The Boston Globe and The Miami Herald. This year, his newsroom broke the story of Donald Trump’s “Access Hollywood” remarks, his uncharitable foundation and Bill Clinton’s connections to the consulting firm Teneo.
But on Tuesday, Baron knows it’s the information itself that matters most to people.
“…I think fundamentally people just want to know, OK, so who won?” Baron said. “It’s not going to be all that complicated.”
In an interview in his office at The Washington Post, Baron discussed how The Post has covered this election, what’s changed for political reporters and what other newsrooms can learn from them.
Among the two biggest differences between covering an election today compared to four years ago: social media and the pace of news.
“I think there’s an expectation on the part of the public that they’ll be able to get information instantaneously, even if that information is not easy to attain instantaneously, or even possible to attain instantaneously,” Baron said.
Also, the rise of ideologically oriented media now plays an increasing role in how the campaign takes shape, he said.
“It’s not just sites that are ideologically oriented,” Baron said, pointing to the latest column by The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg. “It’s propagation of total falsehoods out there by certain sites, that’s been a huge factor.”
With 140 people added since Bezos took over, The Washington Post now has about 700 people in the newsroom. That gives them the ability to be in more places, Baron said, respond more quickly to the news and push that news out better on social media. It also gives them the ability to cover more hours of the day, he said.
“We really have become a true 24-hour news operation.”
Those new hires, many who come from digital news organizations, have also added a new style to the Post, Baron said. They write with a stronger voice, they understand digital journalism, and people are adopting their style “because it works,” he said.
While a lot has changed, one thing hasn’t with this election cycle, Baron said — the work of mainstream news organizations still matters.
The Washington Post and The New York Times have played a central role in covering this election, Baron said.
“People who wrote off mainstream news organizations made a big mistake.”
What lessons can journalists in other newsrooms take from this election? Journalists are not good forecasters. We’ve all been surprised at how the election has evolved, he said, and no one could have predicted it. Journalists should be careful about predictions.
It’s imperative, he said, that journalists tell people where things stand only after thorough reporting. They also have to do a better job listening, he said.
“We live in an era where media’s dominated by talk, a lot of talking, a lot of shouting,” he said. “I think core to being a good journalist is being a good listener.”
If there was a failure of the mainstream press leading up to the election, it was neglecting to connect the depths of grievance and anxiety among significant parts of the country, Baron said. Looking back that could have been detected sooner.
“I think all those lessons apply for any news organization under any circumstances,” Baron said. “I also think it’s really important that we understand what our core mission is, and that is to get at the truth.”
Investigative reporting is central to that, Baron said. That work will bring criticism, but it can’t deter journalists from doing their jobs.
On Tuesday, Baron’s day won’t be quite as crazy as the rest of the newsroom’s.
“My day is a lot of waiting,” he said.
But the reporters, designers, graphics editors, systems people, editors and everyone else at the Post are all prepared to cover the end of the election.
“The person who probably has the least to do is me,” he said, “because everyone else is doing their jobs so well.”