Exit interview: Aron Pilhofer on the digital landscape, buyouts at The Guardian

Photo by Graeme Robertson; Treatment by CJR

Aron Pilhofer has had a front-row seat to the sweeping changes newsrooms have experienced at the hands of digital disruption. In a journalism career spanning more than 20 years, he’s participated in the technical evolution of the industry–from learning how to use computer-assisted reporting (CAR) to track campaign finances in the early 2000s to building data-driven news applications at The New York Times, and ultimately helping lead the Times in its transition to a digital-first newsroom. For the past two years, he’s worked at The Guardian’s headquarters in London as its executive editor of digital.

Last week, The Financial Times reported that more than 250 staff had taken voluntary buyouts as part of cost-cutting measures. Amid the news, Pilhofer announced–separately from the buyouts–that he will be leaving the organization in October to take up the James B. Steele Chair in Journalism Innovation at Temple University.

Pilhofer spoke to CJR about the digital media landscape, The Guardian’s membership strategy and recent buyouts, and how he’ll keep his finger on the pulse following his move to academia.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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You’ve been overseeing data and interactive journalism for many years. What innovation do you think is the biggest game changer in the media landscape right now?

I’ll tell you what I’m fixated on right now. I’m spending an awful lot of time on VR and the journalistic possibilities of VR. My team here, under the direction of Fran Panetta–who has done so much great interactive documentary work here before–we were able to put together the team and find the budget to do “6×9,” which was our first foray into virtual reality, and it came out so amazingly well.

Like a lot of journalists who haven’t really done anything with VR, I was deeply skeptical and I think Fran was as well. Can you use this medium in a way that meets the rigorous journalistic standards of The Guardian and tell a story, while at the same time utilizing this new medium to its fullest? I think “6×9” does that, so I’m really excited about VR as a storytelling tool, as a newsroom medium, a new platform, [and] a new distribution channel as well, because to distribute VR content you’re thinking about the Google Play store, you’re talking about Oculus, you’re talking about PlayStation, you’re talking about these platforms that have not been places where news organizations have been before.

What do you think about Facebook Live, and live streaming in general on social platforms?

It’s going through its moment. Obviously, Facebook is making a big investment in live streaming. I think we’ll see. It’s hard for me to know. I know that back at The New York Times we did a lot with live video–and not terribly successfully, I might add. Live video is really hard. I guess it’s a little bit like VR. There are times where it’s the absolute best thing in the world for the particular story that you happen to be in, but I think it’s probably going to be a niche.

What do you think newsrooms and schools should be doing to educate journalists on new storytelling tools?

I’ll have a better answer for that in about a year. In the course of getting an undergraduate degree, you’re not going to learn to be a programmer in six months. I certainly think being exposed to these sorts of storytelling possibilities, that’s key. I think reaching out to other disciplines also is key. I’m an advisor to The New School’s journalism and design program, where they combine the disciplines of design and design-thinking with journalism.

It makes total sense for them because Parsons is part of The New School. There, I think you have a situation where you now offer an avenue into journalism for students who might otherwise have stayed in a very traditional design program, for example. It’s making students aware that there are different ways into a newsroom now. When you’ve got a desk like the one that I run, where you’ve got designers and developers and hardcore programmers and people doing VR and all the rest, these are not the traditional skills that you would have found in most newsrooms 10 years ago or five years ago.

You were part of the team that pioneered The Guardian‘s membership strategy. Why do you think that’s the best approach for The Guardian in the current climate, and what has the relative success been so far?

I think there’s a few news organizations in the world who could really make a membership program work, and The Guardian is among them. The Guardian isn’t owned by shareholders, it has a great story to tell about how it came to be, it’s extremely mission-driven. Every dollar it makes, if it ever makes any money, would be strictly put back into the journalism. It’s the kind of organization that really is very similar to National Public Radio or to many of the public media outlets in the US who are so successful with a membership program.

In order for a membership program to work, it has to be the entire organization, including the newsroom, who are full participants in it. At public radio stations they have pledge drives a few times a year and everybody is part of that, including editorial. They get on the air and they explain why it’s important to support WNYC, for example. If you put up a paywall, you would never have the whole organization focused on one business model. I think it’s really important that you have an editorial strategy, you have a content strategy, you have a mission, and you have a business model that are all completely aligned. 

Also, The Guardian has made no bones about being proponents of “open,” and it’s hard to have a closed website and closed apps and continue to be a proponent of the open Web. There’s nothing wrong with a paywall, I totally support paywalls. [But] for this organization, I think membership is the right strategy. Right now we have 50,000 paying members. We did launch membership almost two years ago, but it’s only in the last six months that we’ve really started to put some serious effort behind it organizationally. I would say a year from now you’ll see those numbers ballooning.

A number of Guardian staffers took buyouts recently. How will those cuts impact the kind of journalism The Guardian can produce in the future, and how much of a priority is data and interactive journalism going to be in that mix?

It’s big priority. We unfortunately had to say goodbye to more than 250 colleagues, and that was really, really difficult. A good chunk came from the newsroom. Obviously, that’s going to impact our ability to produce the kind of journalism we want to produce, there’s no doubt about it. But we still have a huge editorial operation that literally spans the globe. We still produce the kind of journalism that The Guardian is known for, it’s just that we’re going to have to do it with fewer people. The Guardian will remain one of the largest newspaper newsrooms in the world. It was a hard thing to do, but when you looked at the finances, we just absolutely have no choice. We just had to do it. We had to reduce costs.

You’ve worked both in the US and the UK markets at the forefront of digital media innovation. What challenges do those two markets have in common and what, if anything, is different?

You’re starting to see in the UK the same kinds of economic pressures on the industry that you’ve seen in the US for going on 15 years–now being exacerbated with the move of some of the digital ad dollars to Google and Facebook. You’re starting to see that really take hold hard here in the UK–that pressure, the pressure to refashion the business, to reimagine where revenue is going to come from, the shift from reader revenue as opposed to anonymous reach.

I think the media landscape is different. Obviously, the cultural differences are huge, much bigger than I thought they would be. The Guardian is really an outlier in the British newspaper landscape, which is great for us, in a way, because it really is distinctive. But the newspaper market over here is completely crazy, in ways that I expected and ways I didn’t. What passes for a newspaper in the UK is sometimes…coming from the US, it’s kind of a shock, particularly the tabloids. What will pass for “news” is kind of amazing. Cable news in the US is what newspapers are in the UK–I think that’s probably how I would put it.

What will you miss about working in a newsroom?

Certainly not the daily dose of news and that kind of rhythm; I won’t miss that at all. I haven’t been doing that for a very long time. I was a newspaper reporter for a lot of years and I have been there and done that. The industry is changing so quickly, I will miss being right there at the heart of it. I think now I’m going to be removed from that, so it will be a little harder to spot opportunities and to see trends. I’m hoping I can figure out some way to stay connected to a newsroom. Bill Marimow [the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer] is going to be one of my first calls when I get to Philadelphia, I can tell you that.

What do you hope to achieve in your new role at Temple?

There are two parts to it. One is teaching, and I am going to do my absolute level best to help students figure out what they want to do with their lives. I mean, I was there. I took an exceptionally long time to graduate college because I didn’t know. [And then] when I set foot in the Minnesota Daily college newspaper, a day later I knew what I wanted to do with my life, so I know how that can happen. To the extent that I can help students along that path, that will be enormously satisfying. Obviously, I hope I don’t suck as a teacher. We’ll see. I’ll do my best not to.

Then, outside Temple, I hope to be able to continue to help the industry transform, to help newsrooms that are in such terrible trouble navigate these waters. I don’t know what that part of it will be exactly, but we’ll see. I have nine different ideas of things that I want to do, and I don’t know if any of them are any good, but that’s how I hope to keep my finger on the pulse in the industry, to a degree.

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Shelley Hepworth is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymiranda.