Like some 125 editors-in-chief before him, Brian Hamman learned to report stories, write headlines, and lay out pages in the offices of Student Life, Washington University’s student newspaper. His tools – Apple computer, digital recorder – were different from the typewriters and flashbulbs used by his predecessors. But the final product – words and pictures printed on newsprint – remained largely the same.
That was 2000. Today, Hamman is director of development for new digital products at The New York Times, a job he could not imagine when he graduated in 2002 with degrees in American culture studies and English. His day-to-day task is to develop mobile apps. But his real role is to think about newspapers in the digital age – who reads them and what those readers want from them.
“To say newspapers are dead is just not true,” says Hamman. “But in a very short period of time, things have changed dramatically. Readers are not sitting down with a newspaper, a cup of coffee, and 45 minutes. They are in line at Chipotle, and they have seven minutes. Or they are in the elevator. They have small bits of time, and the article does not fit into that small bit of time. So the question is, ‘How do you give the full story in a way that fits in with that reality?’”
Hamman is among a group of recent A&S graduates who are shaping the newspapers of tomorrow – a future, they say, that promises more news, if less paper. At New York’s Newsday, Sam Guzik, who graduated with a degree in English in 2010, is finding new ways to use multimedia and social media to enhance the editorial and opinion pages. And at The Washington Post, Sarah Kliff, who graduated in 2007 with a philosophy-neuroscience-psychology degree, is telling stories in new ways and sharing them on new platforms.
“A lot of people are focused on the challenges facing the industry, and it’s true that there may be fewer newspapers and competitive markets in the future. But it’s also an exciting time because there also are new ways to engage readers that weren’t available before,” says Guzik. “The winners will be the ones who find the right tool at the right time.”
New Products for a New Time
The troubles of the newspaper are many and well documented. According to Pew Research Center’s annual report on the state of media, the newspaper industry continues to hemorrhage jobs. Newspapers employ only 38,000 full-time journalists, a 30 percent decline since 2000. Despite a rebounding economy, print advertising fell for a sixth straight year in 2012. And digital advertising, while climbing, can’t compensate for the losses. Meanwhile, upstart competitors like BuzzFeed, Digg, and other news aggregators are making money off the original content generated by newspapers.
Still, not all the news about the newspaper business is bad. According to Pew, some 450 of the nation’s 1,380 daily newspapers have successfully adopted paywalls, making content available only to paid subscribers. And many are expanding their reach by drawing a new generation of readers to their digital editions. This is where opportunity lies for newspapers, says Hamman. The trick, he says, is to be a tool, not just a publication.
“News organizations tend to have a one-way thought process,” explains Hamman. “It’s all about the article. The reporter reports the story. Then someone else figures out photography. And then someone else takes the story and photo and puts it together. You are thinking about filling boxes. That’s very different from product development. When Kayak makes a travel search or Foursquare makes a mobile app they are starting with the question, ‘What is the user trying to accomplish?’ In the case of newspapers, the answer for some readers is information, not necessarily the article.” That’s what aggregating sites do so well – they slice and dice both hard news and entertainment into nuggets that are easy to read and easy to find.
Hamman and The Times are responding to the aggregators with mobile news apps that are more scannable, engaging, and up-to-the-minute. It also is launching specialty apps that combine great journalism with helpful tools. The real-estate app, for instance, includes both articles and a function that enables users to search for nearby open houses. He sees a future in which newspapers can create custom feeds for readers.
“We are reading our news on devices that know a lot about us,” says Hamman. “I think it’s possible where one day we can crunch all of that data and provide you with a more personalized experience based on your interests, your friends, and where you are.”
New Technology, Old Values
Newspapers across the nation have created dynamic sites and apps for their sports and news coverage, but few have devoted the resources to develop engaging multimedia content for their editorial page. That’s a mistake, says Guzik. Because, beyond deep reporting staffs, newspapers boast another important advantage over the competition – community values.
“An aggregator does not have a sense of tradition,” says Guzik. “So as newspapers adapt to a changing landscape, it’s important to go back to those foundations – that strong editorial voice that is aligned with the values that founded the newspaper in the first place.”
Guzik is a multimedia producer at Newsday, a daily newspaper serving Long Island and New York City. In December, he posted “Police, power, politics,” an editorial package about a Nassau County corruption scandal that included video, a timeline, and profiles of key players. It was an engaging way to tell a complicated story.“We have been experimenting with new ways of making our point,” says Guzik. “We’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to have an editorial page when there is no longer an actual page. How can you best make your point in a different medium?”
Guzik first started asking himself those questions at Student Life. He was editor-in-chief his junior year, but it was his next job – director of new media – that set him on his current path. He started Student Life’s Facebook page and Twitter feed, built slideshows, and helped redesign the newspaper’s website. Those early experiences prompted him to study digital journalism at Columbia University, where he discovered a passion for video.
“There are times when I feel it is easier for me to tell a story using crossfades and transitions in Final Cut than it is using periods and commas,” says Guzik.
Today he videotapes every editorial board meeting. That footage made for an especially compelling local election package, which featured interview clips of every endorsed candidate. Guzik also has launched a new moderated forum called “Take the Podium,” which invites the community to respond to hot-button topics.
“Comments can get pretty nasty in unmoderated forums, so we wanted to find a way to structure the conversation better,” says Guzik. “There is a lot of value to a letters page. So how do you take the best things – its structure and gravity – and cross-pollinate that with the flexibility of the Internet. It’s all about trying to leverage the Internet better to create an engaged audience – not just one that is bouncing in and bouncing out.”
The 24-Hour Beat
Sarah Kliff’s first big-time journalism gig was at Newsweek, the venerable magazine that ceased publishing a print edition in 2012 (and brought it back in early 2014). Some of her long-form stories took days, sometimes weeks, to report.
Today, as The Washington Post’s healthcare reporter, Kliff will post four, five, even six stories a day to Wonkblog, the Post’s immensely popular blog covering healthcare, technology, energy, and immigration. She also constantly posts to her personal Twitter feed. Some tweets link to infographics, reports, or government documents; others are photographs or quotes from the press conferences she covers. Some tweets are direct questions or answers to individual readers. She has some 27,000 followers, and it’s a safe bet that only a fraction of them have ever seen her byline in the Post’s print edition.
“There is no more 5 p.m. deadline,” says Kliff, who also served as Student Life editor-in-chief. “That is the great and the horrible thing about the Internet – you can write as much as you want. It takes a lot of nimbleness.”
But the digital era is changing more than how much Kliff writes. It’s changing how she writes, as well. During the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, she asked Twitter followers to share their enrollment experiences. She also uses social media to identify common trends and concerns about healthcare.
“Twitter is a big part of how I do my job,” says Kliff. “It gives me a stronger sense of what really matters to people.”
One thing that matters to many readers is context. For instance, one of the most popular stories of the past year was the Post’s “9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask.” The primer, which answered questions like “How did it all go so wrong in Syria? And, please, just give me the short version” and “I hear a lot about how Russia still loves Syria, though. And Iran, too. What's their deal?” was reposted on countless websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds.
“Usually the newspaper is where we put the news of the day, but we’ve found there is a real interest in explanatory journalism,” says Kliff. “People really want to ground themselves, and that is a great way to accomplish that. That’s not something we do a lot in the print edition.”
Kliff also uses her blog and Twitter feed to promote the work of her rivals – another practice that’s rare in newspapers. But she believes, like Hamman, that The Post is a tool, not just a publication.
“The people who are following me are largely interested in following the healthcare law,” says Kliff. “So I feel like I’m a curator for them. I will promote, of course, what I am writing, but I also will link to a Wall Street Journal or a New York Times piece. I see my job as providing a service and giving them a guide to a very complicated topic.”
In this way Kliff is more humble than some of her peers. But she says this is a humbling time for everyone in the newspaper industry.
“We are all learning and changing. We have to,” says Kliff. “What I’ve learned is that you’ve got to be open to new ways of getting information, new ways of telling stories, and new ways of sharing them.”
Diane Toroian Keaggy (LA'90, former news editor of Student Life) worked at the St. Louis Post Dispatch for 18 years and is currently director of campus life news at Washington University.
Note: Sarah Kliff is now a senior editor at Vox.com.