Merrill Brown on Interactive Reporting, Newspaper Web Sites, and Integrating Blogs into the Mainstream

Merrill Brown

Merrill Brown, a longtime reporter, media critic and media consultant, recently wrote an article for the Carnegie Reporter titled “Abandoning the News,” which uses a survey of the media consumption habits of 18-34 year olds to examine the future of the news business. He has held numerous jobs in journalism, including serving as the first editor-in-chief of, New York financial correspondent for the Washington Post, and reporter and freelance critic for the St. Louis Post Dispatch. One of the founders of Court TV, he is currently principal of MMB Media LLC, a management and strategy firm.

Paul McLeary: The study on which your story is based looks at how those in the 18-34 demographic interact with media. How are young people different from the population as a whole in how they use and interact with the media?

Merrill Brown: Well, it’s kind of an obvious point, but first and foremost they want to interact with it on their own time and in their own way. So if that means accessing it by wireless phone, if that means at 2 a.m., if that means on a trusted blog, they want to use media in ways that fit their schedule and viewpoints. And that obviously is totally different from historic consumption patterns [which revolved around] the daily newspaper you picked up at 6 a.m. or the nightly newscast you watched at 6:30 p.m.

PM: As far as content is concerned, the piece implies that young people seem to be looking for more opinion in their news stories. Do you think this would create kind of an archipelago of different news outlets for people looking for news that fits what they want to hear?

MB: Well, I don’t know if I said, or the report said, they necessarily want opinion in their news stories, but they certainly want opinion in their news coverage. I’m not sure that people are rejecting conventional objective reporting, but I think what people are saying is that it’s not enough, and viewpoints, especially as news breaks around them, are really important.

PM: When the report talks about issues revolving around newspaper content and how it is packaged and presented, is that applicable to both print and online editions?

BM: Absolutely. They [online newspapers] need to be a part of this transition, just like other newspapers are, and being online simply isn’t enough. It’s how you involve people, it’s how you create community features, it’s how you enlist people to be participants in the newsgathering and news assessment process. Newspapers are waking up to the fact that they need to use the Web not just as a way to repurpose their product, but as a way to think about the product differently.

PM: In the study, did you look at the content of what people are reading on the Internet? Specifically, how are they getting their news — from blogs, newspapers, news sites?

MB: Well, I think the data is pretty clear that the main sources of news…are portals. Yahoo!, AOL and MSN by far are the most frequently used sites, and I think that’s important. In fact, if you look at the data carefully, they seem pretty dominant. That’s really interesting, because it says how big the opportunity is for people at companies like that, who are amalgamators of large amounts of eyeballs serving important information to people.

PM: Traditional media have started to react to the Internet by buying up Web assets. The Washington Post recently bought Slate, the New York Times bought, and Dow Jones purchased Marketwatch. Do you think deals like these are going to become more common for traditional media outlets?

MB: Absolutely. You think about Marketwatch, which is a great example. Dow Jones — which has a great product on the Web — realizes it needs to do more stuff on the Web and a way to do that, in their view, was to spend half a billion dollars to buy another Web site that has both editorial and commercial assets that they don’t have. That’s very telling, and it goes to the point I make several times in the report about the need for traditional media companies to invest, to be adventuresome, and to embrace the process of creating new products as a critical part of what they’re doing.

PM: The Washington Post online currently runs Howard Kurtz’s blog-like news roundup several times a week. Do you see newspapers incorporating blogs on their Web sites?

MB: I have no doubt that newspapers — well, they already are, in small ways — are increasingly going to use the tool of a blog to create real-time reporting and commentary vehicles for their people and other contributors. You’re already starting to see that if you look at what [Nicholas] Kristof is doing for the Times [addressing reader email on the paper’s Web site]. You’re seeing more and more real time work done, and more and more work done that involves getting reader feedback. In large part that’s what blogging is all about. Blogging gets characterized as one thing or another when really, it’s about a tool that allows people to create content and link to content and do so in real time. Newspapers are slowly but surely getting smarter about that.

PM: If you had to do design a media outlet for young people, what would it be? How would you structure it?

MB: It would make conversation and engagement as easy as engagement is in Facebook. If you think about the community component of things like Facebook and popular blogs, and how easy it is to participate in the core mission of those sites, how easy it is to engage in Craigslist, how easy it is to do [instant messaging] — news companies have to look hard at that ease of use and that level of engagement and wrap it around news products for this audience, because that’s what they expect. They want to talk about the news, they want to be a part of a conversation about the news, they want to contribute their own ideas, they want to do so in real time, and there are plenty of Web models one could look at to begin to think about product development in this fashion.

PM: Using this idea of more interactivity in the news, what role do you see traditional, trained journalists occupying in this interactive future?

MB: There’s certainly an overlap. I’m not somebody who thinks conventional, hard-nosed reporting is irrelevant. Conventional, hard-nosed reporting is critical to information sharing in a complex world. But I also think that the things reporters do and the way they interact with various publics is going to have to change to involve the public more.

It’s funny, I just had this conversation with somebody in journalism. It used to be the case that you’d report your story on your own, you’d write it on your own, you’d get published and you’d walk away from it. … That’s no good anymore. You have to really engage people, think about how to involve the public when you’re reporting your story, and then be open to and conscious about feedback after its published. Reporters … historically aren’t trained to do that. They have to be engaged with people in many steps of the process that they’re not used to. So you don’t just get your story published and walk away form it and ignore a couple of nutty letters you get in the mail. People should be engaged in getting feedback from the moment the story hits the streets, and that’s why email is important and newspapers and news organizations publishing email addresses for reporters and producers [is important] because people need to be responsive in order to engage the public or the public is going to walk away.

PM: Do you see this interactivity expanding the public sphere?

MB: Yes, the process of engaging the public in the production and evaluation and assessment and ongoing reportage involved in stories is absolutely critical. We have to learn, as journalists, how to do that in a way that’s consistent with our ethos but expands our public engagement.

Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.