The evolution of storytelling, Kim Kardashian, and why there has never been a better time to be in the business.
Jim Roberts is Mashable’s Executive Editor and Chief Content Officer. He manages Mashable’s editorial team and oversees editorial strategy and operations.
Previously he was Executive Editor of Reuters Digital, and before Reuters he worked at the New York Times as Assistant Managing Editor having previously been Chief Editor of nytimes.com.
# 1 – How have you seen storytelling change in your personal evolution from NYT to Reuters to Mashable?
Jim Roberts: It’s definitely been completely reinvented and I’m still seeing that every day there is so much change constantly going on. It is fascinating and a great privilege to be in the business of being a communicator at a time when tools are becoming more personal and intimate.
In the last ten or fifteen years this has been a challenge to traditional journalists and the ones who have adapted the best are those who see change and disruption as a gift and not as an enemy. There are of course significant business components to managing this but in my view every disruption is an opportunity and a new adventure, a new way of reaching the audience. Change is a chance to build, to grow, and to simply communicate better.
# 2 – How have you helped others to follow you on the journey given the difficulty of change management?
JR: I did a lot of evangelising when I was at the New York Times. I tried to show the power of digital communications and to demonstrate ways in which you could embrace digital communication and still feel comfortable in your own realm.
JR: One of the things I remember is talking with more traditional journalists about the potential benefits of live blogging and how you could take some traditional techniques of reporting and writing but deliver them in a much more episodic way. The best way [to bring people with you on the journey] is to show that new tools and avenues have a connection to what they have are comfortable with in their traditional roles as journalists.
The other thing that is very potent is when you demonstrate the impact of what you do. Metrics are a powerful tool that nobody had back in the print world. They let you see the immediate interaction and building of an audience. If nothing else then simply appealing to a journalist’s vanity is not a bad approach; show them the numbers and show that some techniques work better than others.
The other big area is demonstrating how visual elements are so critical to conveying information. Many of the good journalists at the New York Times were very attached, even reverentially so, to the written word. While I have a great respect for that and for long form in particular, it is critical to recognise that whether it is photos, or video, or graphic representations – in fact anything visual that can communicate has the potential to be if not more powerful than words at least equally powerful.
So much of media consumption these days built around visual storytelling and that is a tough lesson for many traditional journalists to understand.
I sometimes talk to students and tell them that you need to start thinking about telling stories without words at all – not that you will necessarily want to but you will need to understand how to.
# 3 – What do you say to those who fear that metrics means pursuing the lowest-common denominators at the expense of quality; less real news and more funny cats and Kim Kardashian?
JR: Well firstly we are going to have to face the fact that you cant stop people being interested in Kim Kardashian or cats so if you don’t provide it they will find it elsewhere.
Personally I think there is room for both. If you go back through the history of print journalism you will find that virtually all the newspapers had a panoply of hard news, ‘news you can use’, celebrities, sports, and comic strips.
The wider and lighter fare always shared space with the heavier fare and publishers were aware that people wanted to be informed but also entertained. You can’t ignore that you have to be prepared to entertain but that doesn’t mean you cant inform.
If yo can provide news in an entertaining way you have a winning formula; look at [political satirist] Jon Stewart. Stewart presents information as ‘fake news’ but it is real information delivered in a satirical way that reaches people and informs.
The likes of Buzzfeed and Mashable do provide a full range of content from hard news, sober news, and deep analysis to the whimsical. We do cats and celebrities and memes but to me it is all part of one publication and it has a voice and an identity and neither side is at odds with the other.
This is more of a continuum as opposed to a binary choice; we are not doing either hard news or cats but rather a rainbow that connects the two and in the middle are a lot of techniques. If we’re talking about storytelling I want to deliver hard news that engages people the way viral content does.
We are in a golden age of storytelling you need to say to yourself my job is to be a communicator and present information that helps people enjoy their day better. We have tools and platforms whether devices or apps, Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram – all of them means of really reaching people. There is no better time to be a journalist and to be in this business. Embrace it.