Sunday, January 29, 2017

A voice for free speech in a free world

Marty Baron, center, with U. of Navarra faculty and students. Photo by Manuel Castells

Marty Baron, editor of the Washington Post, came to speak at University of Navarra events in Madrid and Pamplona last week.

Baron's message made me proud to be an American and a journalist. The whole world looks to the U.S. for leadership. Here is an excerpt from his speech in Madrid.

"At the center of our mission is journalism that holds powerful institutions and individuals accountable. We have an obligation to speak truth to power. And the powerful in our world should never be allowed to suppress it.
For all the challenges we face in the media today, this is the greatest. It is why we as journalists must stay faithful to our central purpose. Someone must still tell things as they really are.
No government power, no powerful institution, and no powerful individual should have the right to stop us. And we in the press should not stop ourselves because of fear or self-censorship. These are times to remind ourselves what it means to be a free people, times to think hard about what is required of us if we wish to hold on to the freedoms that we value.
In too many countries, in too many ways, our liberties are being placed at risk. Among those most in jeopardy are free expression, including a free press. For those of us who work in the press, and for all who cherish the free expression that gives meaning and life to our democracies, the quality we now need most, is courage."

During press conferences and interviews with journalists, he spoke in excellent Spanish. The speeches in Madrid and Pamplona he delivered in English.


He answered questions about the movie "Spotlight"and about the post-fact world of media we are now living in.

"The profession of journalism is profoundly imperfect. Our missteps are many and our missed stories are many. We spend most of our time stumbling around in the dark. It's barely controlled chaos in the newsroom."

"One lesson. We need to be better listeners. I've been consumed by this idea of listening.
We have to give voice to people who have fallen to the margins of society or have been pushed there. Look to those voices and bring that truth to light."

He mentioned a scene in the movie "Spotlight" about how his team of journalists at the Boston Globe revealed a massive coverup of sexual abuse of children by priests. The reporters at first dismissed a victim who tried to give them evidence because he seemed overwrought, unhinged. "Sometimes it's hard to tell who's crazy and who has been driven crazy," Baron said. "It's important that we listen."

A number of students asked if there was an audience for serious long-form journalism, investigative journalism. People seem to prefer tweets, celebrities, and gossip, they said. Baron said that the Post's metrics show people are spending the most time with long-form investigative stories. But they have to be written well and use all the new digital tools for internet storytelling -- video, audio, interactive graphics and maps, searchable databases, original documents, and interaction with the audience.


Baron said the future of the press and democracy are in play right now, given the tendency of the president and his followers to create their own version of reality, or "alternative facts." The best strategy for the media to regain credibility is to focus on facts and verifying information. Journalists today have to be courageous, he said, as the president attempts to delegitimize and dehumanize the press as "scum" and "dishonest".

As for those who see journalism as a field shrinking in opportunities and prestige, he said, "I am not among the pessimists. You can reach more people than ever before. The field is growing. The media are a growing part of our lives. We spend more of our time consuming media than ever before. There are so many new websites and they're growing. I tell parents of journalism students that they're mistaken if they think the profession is shrinking."

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He told students: "I'm eager to see if you can build a sustainable business model for journalism.  You have a chance to re-invent the profession. You will have it very difficult. Difficult does not mean impossible. We have to see opportunities in the obstacles. You will have to earn everything. You will be given nothing."

Among the requirements he wants to see from this generation of journalists:

1. You will have to learn to dig deeper and use all the tools available to get the full story.
2. You will need to know how to write well, and not just for print but for video, audio, and for the internet, which is a new medium that requires a new form of writing.
3. Be curious about the world. Be aware of the limits of your experience. Be more impressed by what you don't know than by what you do know. Humility.
4. You will need some basic tech skills, some coding.
5. Master new forms of multimedia storytelling, and develop a stronger voice with more personality.
6. Be comfortable with the ways people receive and process information, such as in social media. And recognize that you will have to promote your own work.
7. Get comfortable with metrics. Your work will be measured.

"We will require entrepreneurs. You will be creating entirely new companies. You will have to be an entrepreneur in larger organizations. Nothing is more important than a good idea. You have to have a good idea. Creativity is important. Metrics can tell you how you did."

"At the Post, we look to hire people who can teach us something we don't know. I want people with a strong sense of mission. The mission and the business are not separate. Understand that your work needs to contribute to the commercial success of the enterprise."

Intense media interest

Given all the news about the elections in the U.S. and the high profile of the new president, national and regional news organizations sought interviews with Baron and covered his speeches in depth.
Here are some samples of coverage:

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