Medium vs. Platform – Lunch with Jim Brady

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Today, former executive editor of WashingtonPost.com Jim Brady spoke to a round-table of students and professors at the Cronkite School.  Brady is seen by many as a ground-breaker for online journalism having spur the Washington Post to pursue more interactive and innovative media on the web.

Brady regaled the group with stories of when WashingtonPost.com was on its first servers, which were so old you could literally hear them start creaking, causing people to shout “Everybody save!” as a warning to the newsroom.  Today, the technology has advanced, but a lack of open-mindedness to the web has persisted.

Thanks to people like Brady, over 160 reporters at the Washington Post also know how to shoot video to supplement their reporting online, but Brady still feels that multimedia and web content is not at the forefront of reporters minds enough.

“The web is a medium in its own right, not just a platform,” Brady added.

Brady said that he has always “pushed and pushed and pushed” to get the web into reporter’s journalistic thought process, and not just as an afterthought.  Brady said reporters need to be thinking how a story could be interactive or include a database at the story conception stage, not after the story has been written.

Of the hardest tasks to accomplish with online media, Brady puts engaging the readership at the very top.  He mentioned that it was a struggle to convince management to allow for commenting on stories because at that time no one was allowing it.  Because of Brady’s lobbying to create a user community on WashingtonPost.com, the paper became one of the first to allow comments on their stories.

Brady said that building that community of users is key to creating a loyal user base.  He mentions that 80 per cent of the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal is commoditized, meaning people can read about that story anywhere.  To get users coming back to your site to read it means creating a sense of community for the users.

This ties into the fact that Brady is adamantly opposed to calculating “unique visitors” for site metrics.  Brady is much more concerned with having a strong loyal user base than a huge population of users that come by once a month.

As for the plight of newspapers, Brady offered a unique perspective on big media’s inability to see the coming storm.  The problem, he said, is that the web came around at a time when newspaper execs had never learned to change.  The newspaper business model had worked lucratively for so many years that it wasn’t that they were unwilling to change, it was that they didn’t know how to change.

To wrap up, Brady offered some unique advice to aspiring journalists and media employees.  While previous visitors have advised students to learn as much as possible, Brady said not to overwhelm yourself with too many skills.  He said skills are secondary to having a strong understanding of how media has changed in recent years and how it will change in the years to come.

“Skills are one thing, but you gotta know how things are changing… Some people just don’t get it.”

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