Wanted: Reporter with Personality








While the explosion of video content on social platforms has long-portended the exponential growth of original video content produced directly by news publications, a similar large-scale investment of resources into audio has been absent in the media industry – perhaps until now. In a recent issue of Politico’s Morning Media, Joe Pompeo reports that The New York Times’ “nascent podcast operation” is set to “balloon this year as the Times gets more ambitious about audio.” According to Times Associate editor Sam Dolnick, the Times will nearly double its current offering of seven shows to 12 in 2017, adding staff as necessary to accommodate the production of increased content.

While the development of new content models by news publications is often in direct pursuit of a new revenue source, that’s not exactly the case here. Pompeo notes that with “advertisers including Paramount, Casper and Blue Apron, the Times is already making some money on its podcasting lineup. But as with most Times initiatives lately, the real business proposition is to get people hooked in a way that either inspires or reinforces their belief that the whole Times shebang is worth subscribing to.”

So how will audio content do that? According to Dolnick, the key is in turning their reporters into “personalities”, noting “In text, reporters are just grey bylines that most people may not even notice. … But in audio, our reporters become personalities, your friends, your guides, and we think the loyalty that engenders will draw people deeper into the New York Times ecosystem.”

In a twenty minute segment on his weekly HBO news magazine slash satire program, Last Week Tonight, John Oliver took a look at the newspaper industry’s current state of affairs, trumpeting the essential role that print journalists play in the media “food chain” and skewering, in turn: “digital-first” media companies; the dissolution of state-house bureaus at local newspapers; the priority publishers place on covering first and foremost that which drives online traffic; the much-maligned tronc, FKA Tribune Publishing; editorial interference of publication owners; and finally us, the consumers, for precipitating the decline of the industry by increasingly refusing to pay for content. But buried in the piece is this important comment from Marty Baron, Executive Editor of The Washington Post, on the growing responsibilities of journalists: “They have to do their traditional reporting, they have to participate in social media, they have to produce a wire service that’s available twenty-four hours a day, they have to be responsible for video…you name it, they’re involved in it. It’s a lot to ask.”

Add “become a personality” to that list if you work for the Times.

Not to say that this doesn’t already happen. Print journalists have long been made available to TV news programs to further report out on pieces they have authored, providing additional detail that may have been left on the cutting room floor or adding color to the story that may have been omitted from the published version. But for reporters to become “personalities”, they are expected to do more than simply report the news.

A review of coverage throughout the 2016 election unearths some excellent journalism, perhaps most notably by The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, who’s reporting on everything from the breaking of the now-infamous Access Hollywood tapes to an exhaustive look at President-elect Trump’s questionable charitable giving drove news cycles day after day. For his work he has been lauded by dozens of fellow journalists, including The Atlantic’s Dan Gillmor and Vox’s Tara Golshan. Fahrenthold regularly appeared on broadcast news programs throughout the election to comment on his breaking coverage. And that coverage hasn’t stopped, with Fahrenthold vowing at the close of a piece published on December 29th, “I’ll seek to cover Trump the president with the same vigor as I scrutinized Trump the candidate.”

That quote is taken from “David Fahrenthold tells the behind-the-scenes story of his year covering Trump”, a piece that ran in The Washington Post’s magazine’s final issue of 2016, authored by – David Fahrenthold. It is over 5,000 of Fahrenthold’s own words dedicated to telling the story of how he went about the process of reporting on Trump’s charitable giving claims and the lack of evidence to support them. It’s a riveting behind-the-scenes look at how a reporter does his job. But why was it written? Perhaps for the same reason the Times and Dolnick are looking to increase their use of audio: as a way to create “personality”? Fahrenthold has also done a few promotional appearances since the publication of the piece to discuss how he managed his coverage, including on Katie Couric’s popular podcast, the teaser to which refers to Fahrenthold as “an overnight sensation after 16 years on the job.” Whether this will ultimately boost The Washington Post’s bottom line is unclear, but his work and the promotion of it, as an example of cultivating personality, is certainly something worth watching.

With increasing varieties of content for which reporters are responsible, and the growing need to do more than simply “report the news”, Marty Baron is right – the competing pressures facing journalists represent a lot of different asks. Maybe that has always been the case. Edward R. Murrow was quoted as saying, “One of the basic troubles with radio and television news is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news. Each of the three is a rather bizarre and demanding profession. And when you get all three under one roof, the dust never settles.”

As the nation’s first reality-star–turned-President assumes the highest office in the land and the newspaper industry continues to wrestle with revenue challenges, this “incompatible combination” has never been more apparent. We will all have to watch closely to see how the industry is able to balance the time needed to effectively investigate and report out on what matters most on a daily basis with the need to cultivate the personalities that might be most helpful in ultimately driving readership.