Steve Buttry has been a journalist for over four decades. Having started out as an editor and reporter in the newspaper business, he was an early digital adopter and is now Digital Transformation Editor with Digital First Media, a job he describes as being about helping “newsrooms get farther and faster down that path to a true digital-first operation.”
Which means, says Buttry, that newsrooms – particularly those traditionally in print media – need to dramatically change their business model if they want to survive. The model he decries of “a newspaper factory with a website” has to change – newsrooms must have at their core the creation of digital content, with the newspaper as a byproduct of that. “That’s not just your website, it’s [also] your apps, your text messages, your social accounts,” explains Buttry. “It is your digital footprint. And we can monetize all of those.”
It’s that latter promise that will speak to newspapers struggling with plummeting advertising figures, focused on the bottom line in order to survive. The message is yes: you can become a thriving business, but you’re going to have to make massive changes to do it. It’s all part of a transformation in our industry, a transformation which Buttry – who covers it extensively on his blog The Buttry Diary – makes clear is already well underway.
So how does social media fit into this new model? For Buttry, it’s an integral component. “If someone had told me in the 1980s when I was a reporter for the Des Moines Register that there was a tool that would help me find people who were experiencing and witnessing news as it was happening, I would have thought ‘This is so cool!’,” he says of Twitter. It’s not there to replace the traditional news reporting tools, but to add to and complement them. “I can do all of the old school, shoe-leather reporting tools, and use Twitter so if I’m working on the same story that you are and you’re just a hell of a good shoe-leather reporter, I’m gonna kick your ass! I got shoe leather AND Twitter!”
Journalists ignore it at their peril. “It does have a stupid name and it’s got stupid words that come along with it – tweeps and twitterati and retweet,” says Buttry. “But how could you watch how important it has been in every breaking story for the past five years and not think ‘I better get good at using that’ ?”
That goes for Facebook too. To ignore such platforms is, says Buttry, to miss a vital chance to connect with your audience. “We can lament how much time people spend on Facebook and Twitter . . . and wish they would spend more time on our products and try to think of ways to attract their attention, and we should do those things,” he says. “But we should also say ‘Man, that’s a great community there that we should be a part of.’ We should reach people where they are, not lament that they’re not where we are.”
Social media can help build community – something Buttry feels is vital to the health of any news organization – and also assist in getting the story right. That was made even more apparent after fake images of Hurricane Sandy began circulating as it hit New York. “I saw each of those [on Twitter], but I saw at least as many references to the fact that they were bogus, or not current or whatever, as I did the bad information,” says Buttry. “There’s a strong ethic of correcting in social media that I really like.”
The speed of news transmission in a digital world, however, means errors occur outside the traditional fact-checking structure. So what’s the best policy for a journalist who has mistakenly retweeted a fake image, or a news organization with an online error? “Say what the error was, and fix it,” is Buttry’s advice. “I think that’s the way to go, it’s more transparent, it’s more accountable.”
The issue of correction brings up a subject about which Buttry has written extensively on his blog, which is the ethical impact of a changing media landscape. He recently revisited Dr Bob Steele’s guiding principles for journalists, in a post which outlines those he thinks hold up well and those which require revisiting.
The latter, according to Buttry, relate to transparency. “When he [Steele] wrote those in the early nineties for whatever reason, transparency was not a big issue in journalism ethics, and right now I think it is,” he says. So what should the new guiding principle be? “We should, as a profession, say you recognize the journalism that you’re building upon and you link to it,” he says. “Attribution and linking is the difference between research and plagiarism.”
Talking to Buttry, who four decades into his career has become a prominent blogger, media commentator, and boasts over 12,000 Twitter followers, it’s hard not to get excited about journalism’s potential in this social-media age. It’s a welcome change from the hand-wringing laments of many traditionalists, especially coming from a man who learned much of his new skills mid-career. “For years when I’d speak to high-school classes or to young journalists about why I did it [journalism], I’d say, ‘Well, it’s something different every day! You’re always learning something new or encountering some new experience,’” he says, and goes on to address all the mid-career journalists debating whether they need to get on board the digital – or social media – train. “Well if you’ve been saying that, then prove it! It is something new!” He recalls his time at the Des Moines Register when as a young journalist he watched those in their fifties lose enthusiasm for their profession due to too many years on the job. For Buttry, that’s not likely to happen in the digital age. “This can be a really exciting career and profession still if we embrace these opportunities to learn.”
And there’s a sweetener for mid-career journalists. “Frankly I’m doing better financially than I was doing ten years ago, when I was just what I considered to be a hell of a good reporter, or even before that when I considered myself to be a hell of a good editor,” he says, something he attributes to the fact that the mix of experience and digital expertise is hard to come by. “Somebody with good journalism experience who is going to take the risk and be uncomfortable and feel stupid for a while, while learning, but who’ll get some digital chops, is going to really add some value to the remaining years of their career.”
All very well and good for Buttry’s generation, but what about young graduates, suddenly realizing that their industry is going through a massive transformation and jobs are not easy to come by? Fear not, says Buttry. “I think this is a great opportunity for young journalists, particularly if they have some sense of risk and entrepreneurialism.” And it’s these young journalists that convince him that journalism – far from being the dying profession that many are already prematurely lamenting – is in the full bloom of health. “I have a great deal of faith that they’re going to hand journalism on to the next generation in better shape than my generation is doing.”
— Steve Buttry (@stevebuttry) October 31, 2012