Steven Ainsley and Marty Baron Speak at Emerson College

November 22, 2009

By Rebecca Ballard

Although the moderator of the Ainsley and Baron talk prefaced things with a statement saying that this would not be a talk about the uncertain future of journalism, and in particular newspapers, the questions often ended up taking the speakers in that direction.

This however, came as little surprise as the two speakers both hold high positions in one of Boston’s two larger newspapers, the Boston Globe, Steven Ainsley being the publisher and Marty Baron the editor. One of the first questions the moderator asked them was what was the hardest decision each had faced individually in the past year.

It turned out that it was a problem they had both faced together, stemming from the economic difficulties the paper faced. As a publisher, Ainsley’s job focuses on the business aspect on running a newspaper. Ainsley said that in the beginning of April, after several months of planning, he set into a motion a plan they believed would reduce loss effectively and quickly, in order to keep the paper from going under.

First they met with the labor unions, who according to Ainsley represented about 75% of their employees, in order to reopen contracts and concessions. Here, Baron stepped in saying that they’d had to lay off 12% of the newsroom in order to avoid closing the newsroom entirely due to financial difficulty. According to Baron, employees’ pay was also cut by 23%.

“It was extraordinarily difficult having to stand in from of people who care very much about the paper and tell them that if we didn’t make the kind of progress that we needed to make that this newspaper…might cease to be,” said Ainsley.

Ainsley then explained that they brought in outside consultants to help them figure out how to cut down costs and keep the paper from sinking. He said that this decision was one that caused some dismay because the consultants were not journalists.

Baron agreed that this was exactly why, stating that he was “not a fan” of the consultants because it concerned him to measure, on the editorial side of things, what they did in metrics. He stated that other newspapers where people had been cut in that manner had in his opinion, decreased in quality.

Ainsley admitted that they strayed from their task several times but still in the end contributed significantly to the successful strategy that the Globe then developed. At the same time, he praised the newsroom for working with the consultants, and also for “drawing lines where they needed to be drawn.”

The fact that these speakers came from a specific newspaper, and one who had a story of recovery no less (as the New York Times has decided in the last month to take them off the market) gave them an upbeat view. Baron pointed out that through the internet and other media they can now engage viewers and readers in ways they never could before.

“The readership of journalism everywhere is greater than it ever was,” Baron said, bringing up the fact that when the Boston Globe broke the investigation into sex abuse crimes in the Catholic Church, people around the world were following the story.

Towards the end of the question and answer session, Ainsley said that a lot of newspapers had made the mistake of dumbing down the argument for their readers in an effort to make their content more accessible. I understood why this was done, as well as why this was a problem, so once the speakers were done I approached them with a question; how do you make people care when they don’t?

I was thinking in the context of stories that have either been covered for an extensive length of time (for example, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) or that covers a topic people have been generally overloaded with previously (for example, war, famine, genocide, and disease in Africa).

Baron responded that as a journalist, one might chose to write about what was important to them, but a subject being important wasn’t enough to make a reader care. What you had to do, he told me, was make an important story interesting by showing a reader why it was relevant, or finding a way to connect them to who or what it involved. I found this advice very practical, honest, and helpful.

When asked what their “bionic” journalist of the future would be, Baron quipped that such a journalist would in fact be human, not bionic.

“To be a good journalist you have to have a soul and a heart, and a conviction and a determination,” Baron said. He also showed interesting insight into the future of journalists when he said that traditionally journalists worked their way up the ladder but in the future, journalists would likely be able to leapfrog over veterans based on skill and ability. Future journalists, Baron stated, would have to operate on their own.

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