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23 October, 2012  ▪  Olena Pototska

Keep Pushing for Change

American journalist David Boardman talks about the challenges facing mass media in the digital era

In developed countries, the abandonment of print media monopolies in favor of online mass media has dissolved the barriers traditionally separating journalists and readers. In countries with restricted democracy, the Internet is a powerful domain where press freedom survives and civil society takes shape. David Boardman, Executive Editor and Senior Vice President of The Seattle Times and secretary of the Board of Directors of the American Society of News Editors, talks to The Ukrainian Week about the challenges facing US online publications, why Americans praise their press and what Ukrainian journalists should do to create a real fourth estate.

UW: The Seattle Times has upgraded significantly over the past few years. It is now actively operating online. In 2012, the publication won a Data Journalism Award. What are the biggest challenges the publication has faced and what challenges lie ahead?

Our biggest challenges included the new rhythm. In the online world, people expect constant change and updates. Trying to juggle journalism in the online regime and still doing in-depth, important journalism is the biggest challenge. Many US news agencies struggle with that and are not being successful. Many US publications thought it was a mistake to go and give the contents away online. A lot of papers provide free access to their online content for people who buy the actual newspapers. I think newspapers need to have an integrated economic strategy. Although The Seattle Times website now offers free access to its website, we will have to change this.

UW: How did your relations with readers change after your publication went online?

In the digital world, so much more is about two-way and multidimensional communication. The conventional idea of newspapers is “one to many”. In the digital world it’s “many to many”. We are to be in the centre of a conversation, but the notion of news as a conversation is now replacing the messaging from the newspaper to the readers. Now we should be the honest brokers for the readers and sort out the most valuable information for them. We have a whole aspect of our operations focused on communication and public outreach. Sometimes we do crowdsourcing and use many ways, such as online chats, comments and public events, to get our audience involved. Every week, we bring people into our news meetings, allow them to share some of their ideas and see what they think of what we are doing. Some of our best investigation ideas have come from the readers.

UW: The Seattle Times is known for its investigative journalism. It has received the Pulitzer Prize nine times since 1950, including one in 2012. Some assume that online media is not a good format for analytical and investigative journalism because people read only short stories and look at pictures online. Do you agree with that?

I think print is the best place to unveil large investigative stories. Online delivery provides invaluable additional tools to show videos, animation, interactive graphics and original documents. And it allows people all over the world who would never read the print version to see your work. For instance, our 2012 Pulitzer Prize winning investigation called “Methadone and the Politics of Pain” had a huge impact all over the USA. As a result, the state took methadone off the preferred drug list and doctors stopped prescribing it in Washington State, and many other states are now following suit. The idea is to be able to use the whole variety of platforms including not just online, but mobile phones and tablets. The key task is to think what the unique value of each platform is.

UW: Ukrainian oligarchs and the government use the media for their own purposes, while media owners are most often not interested in honest investigative journalism, which is quite costly. What is the situation with it in the US?  

I think that ultimately it comes down to market forces. We have a saying that people get the journalism they deserve. People must show what they value. When we do market research in our community and ask people about their first impression of The Seattle Times, the most important thing they overwhelmingly value in the publication is investigative reporting. It is expensive. Our methadone investigation cost us nearly $250,000. But we have raised the price of our newspaper by 40% in the last five years and we’ve lost very few readers. People are willing to pay for quality. Investigative reporting is not only an honourable and idealistic thing to do – it is economically sound too.

The Seattle Timeshas become the second biggest newspaper on the West Coast of the US. Our webpage gets about 7 million unique visitors per month which is extremely high performance for a local newspaper. The most significant reason for this is that we give people news they can’t get anywhere else – and most of it is investigative news. The more good stories you do, the more good stories you get: the public sees that you are willing to do this and gives you tips.

Maybe some Ukrainian media owners will eventually say “Let’s try it!” and their newspaper will become the most popular newspaper in the country. One time, we revealed unfair labour practices at a local company. They were our second biggest advertiser paying us millions of dollars a year. Their president went to our owner and said that if we didn’t stop publishing the stories, they would pull all their advertising from our paper. Our owner used a rude two-word phrase in response and the company pulled all their advertising from The Seattle Times. But it showed the community that we were willing to stand up to their pressure. Over time, we made the money back with community support.

UW: The problem is that Ukrainian media typically survive on proceeds from advertisers or subsidies from their owners. And the biggest Ukrainian media are owned by oligarchs or the state. As a result, little space is left for journalists…

The government in any country will always try to shut down access to information. It happens all the time in the US. If times are hard for free press in Ukraine today, journalists should find a way to change this. You have to support each other and make decisions jointly.You just have to keep pushing. The good thing is that there are so many tools to do this. Digital journalism can reach a lot of people across borders, and inspire international pressure. The protest that happened at the World Newspaper Congress in Kyiv had worldwide coverage. My brother in Oregon sent me an email saying that he saw it. That sort of pressure can create real changes. It will not happen overnight but it will definitely change.

UW: Even the best journalistic investigations elicit no reaction from Ukrainian politicians today. As a result, people do not believe that newspapers can change anything. Is this true for the US as well?

It’s important to keep in mind that your society is very new at this. At a similar point in history, American society was not getting effective investigative reporting, not getting the change. But it has had free press for over 200 years now. However, we have not exercised this privilege until about the last 40 years. I urge you to not waste that much time before you exercise yours.

Of course, investigative reports sometimes fail in the US, too. We’ve done several investigations that show the failure of American gun control laws. However, the lobbying group – the National Rifle Association – is so powerful in the US that almost all efforts to regulate guns are futile.

There are cases where we reveal something and it takes many years for the system to catch up. But I can’t think of any very important story that didn’t ultimately make a change. It’s mostly a matter of how long it takes. Sometimes change happens the next day; sometimes it takes years. Very often, the pressure comes from advocates energized by what we have done, not from us. 

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