Q&A with Washington Post executive editor, Marty Baron

Baron spoke on the state of local news, advice for student reporters covering private universities


Marty Baron. Photo by Hannah Denham, ’20.

Hannah Denham

Marty Baron, the executive editor of the Washington Post, visited campus last week. Alecia Swasy, professor of business journalism, interviewed him on stage in Stackhouse Theater on Tuesday night, and he visited classes and spoke with journalism students on Wednesday. 

Baron was previously editor of the Boston Globe, including during its investigation of a pattern of sex abuse within the Catholic Church, later portrayed in the movie “Spotlight.” Before that, he edited for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Miami Herald. Under his leadership, newsrooms have won 14 Pultizer Prizes. 

The Ring-tum Phi sat down with Baron for an interview in Reid Hall on Wednesday, March 27. Here’s what he said.

Q: In your experience with editing, what makes a reporter that stands out?

A: One thing I’d like to say is that it’s important for reporters generally, in particular, to be more impressed with what they don’t know than what they do know. I think that there are always questions to be answered. We always need to think of what the next question is. What is it that we’re developing? Have we asked enough questions? That sense of curiosity and that sense of modesty in terms of what we know about. That’s what I look for. Obviously, you look for a lot of other things: the ability to write, the ability to report, the ability to think critically, a whole range of skills that you want. But I think, more than anything, the capacity for someone to be a good listener and to try to draw information out of people and to really listen to what they’re saying and what they’re trying to say.

Q: You attended LeHigh University, which is private. Do you have tips for student journalists covering issues on a private campus like Washington and Lee University?

It’s harder because there’s less public information, so I think it’s important to know what kind of public information is readily available. I think it’s really important to cultivate sources in a lot of different places. Not everybody on a college campus sees things exactly the same way. There’s a variety of constituencies, so it’s important to cultivate sources in all different constituencies. That would include students, people involved in student government, faculty — really important — board of trustees, to the extent that you can, within administration at every level that you possibly can, and then alumni and alumni groups. So you’ll know what people are talking about, hearing, what they’re seeing, what documents they come across, what kind of communications there are. I think when there’s less public information, you have to rely on human contact and that’s something people need to work at consistently so that people will trust you and people will confide in you. You always have to recognize there are different constituencies out there with their own agendas, so it’s important to check things out and put things in proper context for whoever might be providing you the information. But source-building becomes incredibly important, whether you’re covering private companies, private individuals and private institutions like this one. 

But also, find out — It is a big institution in town. It has to provide, certainly with its development work for example, permits to do all sorts of things. Look at publicly available information that there is. It has health and safety codes that it needs to meet. It’s not a completely unregulated  institution, so it’s important to find out in what way is it regulated, what information does it provide the Department of Education, for example. What information does it provide accrediting agencies? What is the available information out there?

Q: The advice that many student journalists hear on the undergraduate level is to work their way up: start at a tiny, paper, then in five years move to a regional/metro paper, then state level, then maybe national 20 years down the line, if it’s in the cards for them. Do you think this progression still stands in the journalism industry?

It can. It’s not the only route. It’s not necessarily a bad route. It’s the way that people learn the ropes, they learn to cover things. If they’re covering police, they get to know the police chief and understand what kind of police records are available. If they’re covering courts, it’s a good way to get to know how the processes work, to learn along the way. But not everybody takes that path. We’ve actually hired people directly out of college on occasion, people who have been through our internship program or people who have some sort of special skill that we really need. As I said the other day, we try to hire people who can give us something we don’t have, can teach us something we don’t know. It’s not always the case that we’ve just hired people we thought could learn from us. We would like for them to learn from us, but sometimes they have a lot to teach us, as well. Particularly now, with the development of new ways of telling stories that are not part of the tool set for journalists who have been around for a long period of time. For example, animation. How many people who have been journalists for more than five years know anything about animation? Hardly anybody at all. Hardly anybody who is hired as a reporter knows anything about animation. The graphics people don’t know anything about animation. So someone who’s specialized in animation, that’s an amazing skill. The same might be true in the area of design, particularly digital design. That’s an area that’s still relatively new, that’s different from print design in some ways and in meaningful ways. That might be a skill we might need to acquire from someone who may not be immediately out of school, but they’re a couple years out of school. Information graphics would be another area where we might do that. It kind of depends. And we’ve hired some reporters for certain entry-level jobs straight out of school, as well. So, it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s not necessarily a bad thing for somebody who wants to be a reporter to learn when the stakes are little, not quite so high, to work in a small town or small city, things like that. You really get to know people, get to know how it works and use that skill to move on to the next job. If you go to a small news organization, I think it helps if you go to one where there’s an established pipeline, where you can see that other people have progressed in their career, along to the next stage, if they want to. 

Q: Yesterday you talked about the crisis that you see in the industry with local news. Where do you see the industry headed?

I don’t really know the answer to that. I think there’s some promising signs. A few, not a lot out there with some news organizations doing innovative work: Minneapolis, San Francisco is doing some interesting things now in terms of really trying to bind themselves to the community, there’s something called the Vermont Digger, which is a digital site. There’s also some great investigative reporting going on at the local level, I’m encouraged to see. I don’t think we know actually what the model is for local news. I think people are beginning to realize it has to be subscriptions, that advertising is not going to sustain these news organizations. It will have to be a fairly tight pay model where if people want to read anything, more than one story, they’re going to have to pay. 

And it’s important for the local news organizations to provide journalism that people value. Nobody’s going to pay for something just because they think that it’s public spirit to do so. They’re going to do it because they realize that there’s something here that they would like to have, that they need to know about their community, and that these news organizations are providing information that they wouldn’t get elsewhere and are doing the kinds of stories they support. Local news organizations have to make that case every single day to their readers, in the same way that national news organizations have to make the case to their readers, their public, as well in order to get them to subscribe. 

But I worry about a lot of local news organizations. Since their staffs have been depleted, they’re going to have a very difficult time making an argument to the public that they’re doing something that is worth paying for.

Q: What is the role of wire news services in the industry and what’s the impact been for the Post? 

It’s not recent at all. We’ve had a news service going back decades. Originally, at one point, it was a jointly operated news service with Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, and then for whatever reason, that arrangement ended, and the Washington Post has been offering that news service the same way the New York Times offers that news service, as well. It’s been going on for a long time. It is a business for us, not a big part of our business, but it is a business for us. It has increased exposure for the Washington Post. But things have changed. It used to be just print newspapers, and now people see the Washington Post online, so always things need to be sort of reexamined.

Q: Since the Post aired the Super Bowl ad, what’s been the feedback?

Generally, quite positive, positive certainly from journalists, for the most part. Positive from the public. I think some people, let’s say in the president’s camp, somehow saw it as some sort of attack on the administration. I don’t know how anybody reasonably could look at that ad and say it’s an attack on the administration. It’s just an argument for journalism and how journalism works and what journalists do. The president’s son, Donald Jr., put out a tweet that condemned the ad. It was really odd. There’s nothing offensive about the ad whatsoever. Journalists are eyewitnesses to history. They provide the public information they need and deserve to know. They often take risks to do so, and all of that is undeniable. Overall, I think, the public really understood what the message was, even if people in certain quarters didn’t or just chose not to.

Q: Yesterday evening you mentioned the phrase, “news deserts.” Can you talk more about what that means, where you see this occurring and why it’s bad?

There are well over a thousand communities in this country where there’s no longer a local news provider. They have essentially no TV coverage. They don’t have radio coverage. They don’t have print coverage. They don’t have online coverage. There’s no professional coverage of the news in their community. Essentially, nobody’s covering their public officials or what’s generally happening in their community or anything like that. Those are the kinds of communities that are called “news deserts.” It’s gotten a lot worse. The number of communities is growing quite significantly because the people who have provided that kind of coverage in the past don’t see it as financially viable. That’s concerning, that you would have whole communities where people are not provided the information they should have about their communities where they can have engaged citizens. There’s nobody monitoring government officials, policymakers, politicians, anybody. We have a system of democracy that’s founded on the idea that people are engaged citizens, that they know what’s happening in their communities, that they express their point of view and that somebody is actually keeping watch on powerful interest, including government. Here you have so many communities where none of that is actually occuring. That’s not healthy for democracy.

Q: Also yesterday, you talked about the Post’s preparation for the 2020 election coverage and its “America team.” Can you talk more about that?

We have about eight people on the “America team.” Their job is to constantly get out into the country and spend a lot of time there. Not parachute in but to spend time really getting to know the issues and traveling around the country and to reflect what people in all corners of the country are thinking, from rural American to parts of urban America to the suburbs, you name it, and capture what’s on people’s minds and to tell that story in a compelling way. That’s their mission.

We live in a country that is pretty sharply divided, so you really want to understand, what are the perspectives that different people bring to these policy issues we face today? Why do people think that way? What is it about their life experiences that causes them to think that way? In fact, what are their life experiences? That’s the job of the America team, to get out into the country and do that sort of work.

Q: Does your job ever get overwhelming? 

It’s a lot of work at times. I don’t know about overwhelming, but it’s certainly a ton and it doesn’t stop. It really is 24/7 and instant in many cases. The news just doesn’t stop and our public expects us to provide them that news at every minute of the day, every single day. Yeah, there’s a lot to keep track of.

Q: How many hours a day do you sleep?

I’m trying to increase the number of hours lately, but typically I go to sleep at maybe 11 and get up at 5:15, so six hours. I’m trying to increase that to seven, seven and a half, something like that, just because I need it.