Editors: Find your niche

In a world overloaded with information and editors lacking resources, what is the future of journalism and how should editors adapt? The World Editors Forum spoke to Butch Ward, of The Poynter Institute.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | March 8, 2016

Ward has a rich history in journalism and the corporate suite. He was a journalist for 27 years and managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Baltimore News AmericanHe is the former managing director of The Poynter Institute where he is now a faculty member.

Given the explosion in content and how everyone can be a publisher, what does that mean for journalism?

Journalism is a product of a discipline and is the result of dealing with rumors, raw data, and all manners of unverified information and organizing what is useful to our understanding of the world we live in.

Any organization can aspire to journalism; there is nothing that keeps you from doing it. It’s a matter of will and discipline. Journalism is unique in that it is verified. Even in its most basic form, journalism is a process that makes sure the information is actionable and usable.

I think the worrisome signs surrounding journalism is the resources that carry out this work have been depleted. As a result, a lot of journalism today is not as reliable as perhaps as it was in more prosperous time.

With diminishing resources, how can we ensure journalism’s survival?

We need to focus on what differentiates us and that’s credibility. Organizations need to decide what they are going to be known for and carry it out. Those who do will have a better chance of surviving. Just trying to be everything to everyone is a ticket to extinction.

Become the expert on healthcare, become the expert on politics, become the expert on cancer research…my point is pretty simple, place some bets. What are you going to be known for?

For example, Vox wants to be known for a place that explains the news, they don’t cover everything that is bubbling up today. When they do have a story, it shows deep understanding of the issues. You have to be credible, you have to be able to choose what you can gather and present it in a compelling fashion. To do that, you get to know what you are and make some hard choices.

What’s stopping editors from doing this?

If you were to convene a group of publishers and editors and you were to say, ok you have fewer people you have than last year, you are going to produce less than last year, I promise you, the conversation will be: what will we stop doing. Notice that this is exactly opposite of what I say to do!

You have to take bets. Asking what we will stop doing is the wrong way to think about it. Instead, it should be: what does my community care the most about? What do they need the most from you?

For example, TCPalm, a local paper in Stuart, Florida decided that they are going become expert on the water resource in their community. It is the source of tourism and a huge part of the local community. They wanted to be the last word on anything that has to do with this water source and they become known for their coverage. They have a separate channel on the lake and water infrastructure. It’s a choice, that’s good thing.

What I urge publishers and editors to do is to find out what your community needs and then make smart choices about what you are going to own. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had a layoff and they chose to focus on investigative and consumer reporting and they never take resource away from it. They won Pulitzer prizes for their coverage. They have done a good job focusing their energy. It sound so logical and easy but it takes proactive decision-making.

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