Public should invest in quality journalism and news literacy, according to Washington Post’s Marty Baron


At the 19th International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ), Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, echoed statements he previously made about the paper’s role in the era of Trump. “It sounds boring, but we just have to keep doing our job, every single day.”

During his conversation with Joshua Benton, director of Nieman Lab at Harvard University, on April 14, Baron expanded further on accountability work, the role of subscriptions in business models, the importance of increased news literacy, and more.

When asked more in depth about the current impact of the Trump era on journalism, if this context had changed how he views his role as editor of a major news organization, Baron said that they have always done accountability work, and that currently it is especially worthwhile to do it. “We have fact-checkers, we’ve doubled the size of the team, and they’re busier than ever,” Baron said.

He said that since Trump began to govern the United States, the capital newspaper’s fact-checking team has documented more than 2,400 false or misleading statements by the president, with an average of “about 6 a day.” However, he clarified that the newspaper’s fact-checking team reviews all the statements, not only those of the president and his party, including those of Democrats and those of people who are outside politics.

“The environment is different because the President is attacking us consistently, he’s trying to demean us, dehumanize us, denigrate us, in every conceivable way, and to threaten us,” Baron said. “And we haven’t experienced that this way since probably the Nixon administration.”

Benton later asked Baron about the so-called Trump Bump, lingering effects or potential fatigue about news surrounding the President.

“I think the so-called Trump Bump was bigger than that, I think that people became much more concerned about the quality of news out there, they were concerned about the falsehoods and the crackpot conspiracy theories that were being spread,” Baron said. “And people came to believe, certainly within the current political environment, that if they didn’t support quality news, that there would not be quality news coverage. And they’re absolutely right about that. If we don’t have subscriptions, there won’t be quality news coverage.”

Regarding the restriction of access to news due to the adoption of business models such as paywalls and subscriptions, Baron stressed that historically, people have always had to pay to read the newspaper. Content was never free in the time of the print newspaper.

“We need to earn money one way or another. Subscriptions has been key to our financial turnaround, it’s been key to the success of the New York Times, it’s been a huge benefit to places like The New Yorker and other magazines,” he said.

“The public needs to understand that if they want to have real journalism, it needs to be paid for,” he concluded.

During a previous point in the interview, the executive editor of the Washington Post expressed concern about the financial crisis that local journalism is experiencing, which he considers to be the biggest crisis in the press at present.

“I’ve spent most of my career in local journalism, I think it’s incredibly important,” he said.

And he added that although the solution for news organizations will be looking for other types of business models to survive –he suggested subscriptions as an example– he thinks that fundamentally everything will depend a lot on journalistic content that is produced, giving people something they feel they have to read every day.

When asked how the presence of Amazon owner Jeff Bezos –who bought The Post in 2013– has technologically and editorially influenced the paper, Baron said Bezos has not demanded any journalistic content.

Regarding the recent purchases of local newspapers by private equity firms or billionaires, Baron said that they feel very fortunate to have an owner who is so committed to their mission, who is willing to finance everything they want to try and innovate to make it easier for the reader to navigate the site, and who also has a vision of the future of the newspaper in the long term.

“During one meeting that Jeff had with the staff, he used this phrase ‘in 20 years.’ I guarantee you that I have never in my life, in this business, heard a publisher an owner or anybody talk about ‘in 20 years,’” Baron said.

When faced with the question of what Facebook could do for journalism, in response to the current controversial use of the algorithms used by the social network to prioritize the dissemination of certain types of news that are often sensational or false among its users, Baron was forceful in saying that Facebook must recognize that decisions about content must be made by human beings and not by machines or algorithmic formulas.

“That ultimately human beings have to make value judgments and they will have to take the hit for that. If Mark Zuckerberg says, as he did during his testimony, that they are responsible for the material that’s on their site, well, then they need to assume responsibility. You can’t just have the revenue without the responsibility,” Baron said. “That’s pretty much what they’ve had to date. I do think that they are taking this seriously, for whatever reason, certainly political pressure is a major factor there.”

“They are going to have to make judgments, and they are going to have to take hits from politicians who don’t like the decisions that they’re making, from people here who may disagree with the decisions that they’re making, ” Baron said. “But just like us (journalists), we make decisions, we make value judgments, we get flack for those decisions, but that’s just part of doing the job, that’s called editing,” Baron said.

Regarding the editing of content on social networks and search engines in general, such as Facebook, YouTube and Google, related to major events such as a shooting in a public place, he proposed identifying, monitoring and evaluating the content that is most viewed on those platforms. In the context of a major event, the veteran editor suggested combating the spread of fake content by organizing a task force of people to analyze the content and remove it from the web immediately. “This is not very complicated but it does require exercising human judgment, rather than having to sort of apologize afterwards,” he said. “Respond to the news.”

Another of Baron’s proposals, which received attention on Twitter, was the need to promote news literacy and teach students in grade school and at the university level about this issue so that there are more critical readers of the news.

“As a society, we need to foster a higher level of news literacy. We need to train people to be much more critical consumers of information than they currently are,” Baron said. “And that’s a long-term proposition, a very long-term proposition, but if we’re gonna get there, we better start now.”

Video from the 19th ISOJ can be viewed on YouTube in English and Spanish.