Irving Washington

The Revolution is Online

Air Date: May 11, 2020

Online News Association CEO Irving Washington discusses the future of digital news and the impact of paywalls on access to information.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Irving Washington is executive director for the Online News Association. ONA, the world’s largest membership organization of digital journalists as a media diversity advocate, Washington has managed programming and fundraising initiatives for journalists, media professionals and students around the world. Before joining ONA, Washington worked for the National Association of Black Journalists and the Radio, Television Digital News Association. Welcome. It’s a pleasure to have you here.


WASHINGTON: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.


HEFFNER: Online news really touches us all. How integral do you think online news is today versus 10, 20 years ago?


WASHINGTON: Yeah, I think online news is critical today. It’s how people are getting their news. I believe in the latest research, it’s second to TV primarily in terms of where people are getting their news and the rate at which that’s growing is continues to grow rapidly. So I think it’s how people can expect to consume news is how people are consuming news. And the interesting thing when we kind of look back in terms of ONA’s origin story ‘cause 20 years ago we were founded – and one of our founders Rich Jaroslovsky, he really described sort of the lay of what the environment was back then. So 20 years ago, there were really two issues that shaped ONA and I think it overlays to what digital journalism is today. One, there was a frustration from people who were working in digital journalism 20 years ago who really believed in the Internet and they weren’t taken seriously, which it sounds a little crazy today but you know, back then the Internet was looked at as possibly a fad. It didn’t have a lot of accessibility for, for many people. And so it was looked at as a second project or maybe a product of what was happening then. So it wasn’t taken seriously. And there was a lot of frustration from people at the time. Rich who I just mentioned, he worked for the Wall Street Journal with their website. So he was frustrated for one and there are many people working in that space. And then another piece was really around the credibility of online news in and of itself in terms of was it a medium that people were going to eventually consume news. So with those two sort of pieces in mind and people believing in that, that’s how ONA was founded. And I think as you can see, 20 years later that those assumptions about the importance of online news and digital news were correct.


HEFFNER: Right. And, I think it’s fair to say, Irving, wouldn’t you, that the standardization of the editorial rigors of the daily newspaper or evening news have, those standards have been translated into most every outlet online so that those traditional legacy local, state and national publications, in effect, the reliability is just as strong online as it is in print or on TV.


WASHINGTON: It is definitely strong there. And I think one of the things that the online journalism has shown is that, you know, the more things change, the more things you know also stayed the same. The credibility study that I mentioned 20 years ago, I believe it was around at that time, around 13 percent of folks had online news as their most trusted source of news, which obviously wasn’t a majority back then, but considering that number went from zero to 13 back then, it shows, it showed a gave signs that online news was going to be a medium, that was going to be forceful in terms of how we consume news. So I think when people talk about the rigor and the structure of doing that, we also have to think about the consumer on that side and that, that they’re looking for sort of trusted news sources and that the industry has evolved with that. And online news has been a part of that.


HEFFNER: One of the things that we couldn’t say five years ago, certainly not 10 years ago, was that not only had the rigor translated into the dissemination online, but that there was adequate value being placed on it. I remember when Arianna Huffington was testifying back in 2009, along with some of the other new media moguls and editors and really arguing that we need to validate this, we need to quantify it in terms of the staff and the cost associated with building the online newsroom and then producing the news, especially for those digital specific and digital exclusive outlets. Nowadays, I would say the vast majority of online publications have pay walls. Has that been helpful for their self-preservation? Has it also caused any kind of backlash that too much online now is behind a pay wall?


WASHINGTON: Yeah, I think, as with most things, that’s a complex answer in that regard. So when we look back 20 years ago, online journalists couldn’t get press passes, which is another impetus of when ONA was founded. So now that that has been legitimized, one of the things when you talk about sort of the revenue and business model of local news and sort of the access to that, I think we for lack of a better word, we had it a little bit easy on the revenue side of things where there was, and by that I mean there was one model: advertising, that worked for everyone. For the most part, you know, if what worked in DC could work in sort of a small rural area and it could be supported or the editorial work of journalism could be supported by advertising. And those conversations were two totally different conversations. And I think, you know, over the evolution of 20 years that has changed. But at one point in time it was unheard of for those two conversations of the business and the editorial pieces coming together. Now that that’s changed, you talk about pay walls that’s one business model. And so I think one of the things now that both on the consumer side and in the industry that we’re grappling with is that there’s not a one size fits all model anymore. And so for some news organizations, the pay wall will work and there’s communities that can support that and they come from backgrounds that may be able to financially support that. However, that won’t be for all communities. And the interesting thing I’ve always thought about journalism, it really comes with a public service, even with the commercialized model. It’s come with the public service heart. So where I believe we’re grappling out is how do we fulfill that public service that was in the constitution for us to have along with the commercialization of that. And that’s where I think, you know, in conversations that we’re seeing, they’re multiple models now that are working. You have the nonprofit news model that is growing at a rapid pace. There’s several conversations now and route is government support it model that will be included in that as well too. Then I think another piece that is different now and as we move into sort of 2020, is that organizations that might not be a legacy organization, people still might be getting news and information from those type of organizations where there’s different organizations producing content that are still providing news and service to communities.


HEFFNER: There is some element of violating the public service in using the pay wall that can become more and more depressing of news literacy. I don’t know if you see it that way.


WASHINGTON: Yeah, I think that a, it’s debated. The short answer, it is debated. I think there, there are people that would say that, that has been violated. But then there’s the other piece of the very real, you know, need now for news organizations to be sustainable and where that advertising model is not working and then the greater public, again, that public service around what journalism, what journalism is. I think what we see is where that debate is centering on some middle ground is that there are multiple organizations or players can be in a community that are providing different services and it could be a combination from all those business models. So there could be an organization that has a pay wall model, there could be a nonprofit journalism organization in that same community that’s doing more of the public good, the service going to the city council meetings, covering those sorts of things. And there could be a niche publication serving things like education, health care that are getting very specific content to people in the communities. And I think that is what’s been probably the most difficult to grapple within the industry as well too, is that there are multiple players and organizations involved and how we consume and get news and how people are getting news, whereas before you may have had one or two larger sort of legacy publications.


HEFFNER: And in fairness to some of the pay wall advocates and operations, there is an increasing tendency to make it affordable so that if you do 99 cents a month or something akin to that, be able to have a resource like a Washington Post or New York Times at a very affordable rate. And that has led to a great proliferation of subscribers the national outlets. Of course, what’s a challenge, and you mentioned it from the beginning as local. Would you say of the online news representatives that you work with, local is still the toughest the toughest beat and the toughest model to try to resolve in 2020?


WASHINGTON: Yeah, local is the toughest model to resolve with standard practices again, of that advertising model. Where we are seeing bright spots is and I think this is something that, you know, ONA is championing is around really being connected to your community. And so what we are seeing is beyond sort of that pay wall model and where some, there are some local successes are events, you know, connecting with the community, literally having your reporters out there connecting with communities with various events and services. You have membership models now where it’s not just the pay wall. And I think this is the thing that we’re seeing more and more now in the conversation. How do you refer to your community? Various terms of subscribers, audiences and now you’re literally hearing news organizations talk about community. Twenty years ago that was not the case. Those were readers. And so now you’re, you’re hearing people talk about community and you’re seeing news organizations particularly at the local level starting to themselves more into their community and making the community a part of sort of either the story gathering process, and a lot of this also I think ties over to the state of journalism where we are now, where as we all know, trust in news organizations is a huge factor. So I think news organizations are trying to tackle both of those in terms of building that trust along with sort of making new revenue models.

HEFFNER: How can the local online news survive the massive conglomerates and mergers that we’ve seen in recent months and years?


WASHINGTON: So to that question, I think to flip it a little bit, so can local journalism survive? Yes. Can and, or will all have the same local news organizations that exist today, will they be here 10, 20 years from now? I don’t know. And I think it’s important to make that distinction, particularly, you know, as we have more internal industry conversations, I think we tend to focus on the actual institution or the legacy brand of a journalism community. But I think it’s really important to note and, and we see this a lot, I think on the online space. It’s filled with startups and there’s a lot of things that are hopeful. And I think it goes to, you know, we focus on innovation a lot and the tendency is to only think about technology, which that’s work that we do. But innovation is much more broad than that. We were founded on sort of the Internet kind of being the impetus of the future. Now, when I think about innovation, I also think about diversity, equity and inclusion. And so, you know, to give you an example, in Chicago, you have City Bureau who has a project like The Documenters, which is bringing the community involved in and training them on how to report on local government meetings as well too. That’s a model that wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago. So that’s what I mean when I, when we talk about local journalism versus the institutions,




WASHINGTON: Could that model survive? I think there’s, there’s a good chance that people want to be connected. You know, when you look at something like Sally Lehrman’s The Trust Project and Trust Indicators, how people are interacting with news is dramatically different than what it was at the earlier part of this century. And again, I think if you look at models like City Bureau, those are the things that I believe will survive. And that’s how you’ll have access to news and information along with the more commercialized model and some legacy media brands will still be around and they’re pivoting to sort of how people want news.


HEFFNER: I think that there have been benefactors and philanthropists who’ve operated now in this space to try to fill the void left by that consolidation, so you see in Chicago and Charlotte and San Antonio local online-based publications pop up and they are basically the new local newspapers and that so-far can, can be described as having some successful outcome as a sustainable in many instances, nonprofit enterprise. Many of them modeled from Texas and what Evan Smith has done down there. So if these are popping up and having success are they really becoming the new local newspapers, these small nonprofit websites that then emerge in communities and cities as large as a Charlotte or a San Antonio?


WASHINGTON: Yeah, I think they are, but I think there’s a caveat to that. I think I think we’re literally living in a time where that model of what local journalism is, is changing. And I think you’ll see more collaborations, which this is already starting to happen. It’s been happening for the past decade, but you’ll actually start to see more collaborations with local news and then how they are getting their information. So these, these startups that are happening they’re, the start to what I think is something larger sort of on the local media landscape. And again, it goes back to you know, I think the question when we talk about what’s happening on the industry side and the revenue side of journalism is what’s your community saying that they want and how do they, how do they want to get local news? And I think, you know, there was a report last year and these are things that we need to reckon with in terms of, there’s a growing number of people who are actually choosing, selectively choosing not to use news. Where I believe in a report last year it was around when I view the news, the news is typically negative. It lowers my mood. And then also the, again, the trust factor as well too. So there’s some things that that we have to, I think, reckon as an industry which the startups as you see in the nonprofit journalism space and also for-profit, it’s not just nonprofit, overall, they are at their founding dealing with those issues, not backtracking into it and trying to correct for it.


HEFFNER: For viewers who are interested in a more international lens on this question, where is online news available now that it, that it wasn’t in recent years and where is there still a struggle to be able to have access to information online and journalists being protected purveyors of information online?


WASHINGTON: I think in general overall access to and, and I would say the Internet, let’s starting there, access or just online in general is increasing across the world. And particularly in the news environment I think there are some, you know, bright spots and, and this is more of a global trend, not just with journalism. Obviously what’s happening in Africa and sort of access there you see this with I believe tech companies now that they are starting to make more investments there and that’s because access and information is still evolving and changing there and people are getting more context to that. We recently about three or four years ago held a conference in Japan as well too, which we were working with that community on some of the things in the U S in terms of that collaborative environment and the nature of how us organizations are collaborating that was happening over there in Japan, and so working with how can news organizations collaborate as well too. And I think for the UK and what’s happening in Europe, while there are some similarities there of what’s going on, they’ve had some models there, whether it’s the government supported model or some other models that I think the U S can learn from. And again, it’s in that spirit of collaboration around what are the business models that are working? How are people accessing the information? It’s different everywhere. But overall, I think the trend that we’re seeing is that while our membership base is a majority in the U S it’s a growing population on the international side, but what’s causing that growth is sort of the need to learn from each other.


HEFFNER: What would you say is the most significant obstacle to the virtual newsroom today? Is it the trust factor? And the fact that many are likely to form assumptions about media on a whim or based on, you know, how the headline reads or would you say that the organization itself and the ability to collaborate in the way that newsrooms did is going to present the bigger challenge? Is it going to be more an internal challenge or an audience challenge for the long-term trajectory here?


WASHINGTON: There’s, there’s a bit of both, but I think the external challenge is probably the important one to note. Journalism, the fundamental tenant of journalism is built on the fact that if, and when I provide you facts, you make informed choices. And I think now we are in a society where, and again, research has shown this, facts necessarily are not the single factor in how I make a decision. And so that then does roll into the trust factor and then it rolls into how people consume information. So I think we’re reckoning with our, our fundamental tenant was all we have to do is provide facts. Like that’s really all our job is we provide facts and it’s an important job. It’s a job that nobody else was doing. But we’re living in a society now. And, and again, if you look at just back to that diversity factor, cause I talk about this a lot how this is a trend. This is more than just a trend. This is more than just the business case. You know, we will be in a majority minority country in the U S and abroad as well too. And so that’s going to change the dynamic in the way that people want, interact with news. And I think that piece, that external factor of when facts are important and it’s the core tenant of what journalism is and will always be, how you are connecting with people and audiences, I think that is going to be probably the biggest thing that we’re wrestling with. People want to know who’s telling the story. How are you telling this story? In conversations that I’ve had with many people outside of journalism, you know, we talk about bias and you know we try to report beyond the facts. People will point out whoever decided the story, there’s a bias that happened there, whether you’re conscious of it or not. And so whereas people did not question that before, people want to know how did you decide that story? What made that story important? And did you acknowledge any bias that you had and possibly selecting that story.


HEFFNER: How is that dynamic going to change that you reference with respect to minority majority status, you know, you, you hinted at it but you didn’t say it more explicitly. How do you think that dynamic will change, and I think part of your question is will we be prepared for that dynamic change?


WASHINGTON: Yeah. I’m hoping we will be prepared. ONA is doing some work to, to make us prepare for that. So a couple of ways that I think that dynamic will change, and actually you, you’re already seeing this. One of the ways that I believe it will change is that there’ll be an expectation that somebody that looked like me is in your organization and is advocating on issues and things that I believe are important. And there’s so many ways you can dissect of how people identify and we’re talking about race and gender and socioeconomics. There’s so many ways that people identify, but that will no longer be a nice to have, people will expect that there is somebody represented in your organization, preferably at various leadership levels, so that those stories are surfacing. And I think there’s going to be accountability factor. You see, you see this now. One of the ways that we actually promote, encourage people to do that, is to share their diversity numbers. Just as sort of a low hanging fruit start you know, NPR has done that. Vice is doing that. The city here in New York I think started out the gate doing that. But people are going to demand accountability around knowing, you know, where do you stand on diversity in terms of your organization. So I fully see that fully see that as a trend and I think the next part of that is going to be how am I reflected in the coverage and stories? So if you’re making the investments and really engaging people internally, externally, I should see that in the stories. And then how am I involved in that story creation process as well too. And what are the opportunities to give feedback, you know, not necessarily make this just a one-way communication. We’ve used community and I’ve used community a lot in this, in this conversation, but I think it’s probably the single most important thing that people will expect to make communities out of organizations that they’re attached to and that includes news organizations and where they get their information.

HEFFNER: Was there any reaction within your colleagues in online news to the Washington Post’s response to a reporter who tweeted a story that was unfavorable about Kobe Bryant after his death, not immediately and at the second after learning the report, but there was, there’s been some discussion that Marty Baron and his standards for reporters and what they’re disseminating in online forums like Twitter or Facebook is too much of a company mandate and is actually going to stifle freedom of expression, in this particular instance, this is a woman reporter who had documented sexual assault, was sharing the story in theory a few hours after his death because most of the early obits were not covering that aspect of Bryant’s career, which was not an insignificant one. I’m wondering how your members responded to that event and their feeling about company-wide policies, really micromanaging how reporters use social media in addition to how they’re editing their stories.


WASHINGTON: Yeah, I think there’s sort of probably two ways in the response to that. As with most things, there’s a sort of a mixed response to that. The side I think everyone can collectively agree on is probably one of the most interesting things in that particular situation is the last time that the social media policy had been looked at, which I believe was quite a while. So I think news organizations overall, when you look at it from an online industry standpoint, how things are evolving online and sort of what are, how that connects to reporters and people who work for the organization. That’s something that has to be looked at very frequently because the nature and the rapid pace of how technology is changing. So I think there’s one inside sort of internal piece of that. The external piece of that, again, I think that goes toward you asked like one of the changes that the demographic shift will have, and that goes toward how does the industry sort of respond when there are different and new voices, in the newsroom as well too. And one of the things that I think we’re seeing right now, and we’ll probably see this for quite some time, I actually think one of the signs of pushing forward with diversity and when you’re making strides is actually when you have that tension and that tension is called out, and by that what I mean is when you actually start making places more inclusive, that initial period should feel uncomfortable because nine times out of 10, you had people who were homogenous and perhaps look the same, came from the same background. When you actually start incorporating diversity inclusion and actually making those individuals feel included, they will likely challenge some of the norms and how things were done before. And that’s going to cause friction. But I think that when you get past that, that’s where conversations start to happen. And I think this is an example of that.

HEFFNER: And that’s what seemed to happen, which is her Wesley Lowery; my friend among them got behind her and said the editor was wrong in attempting to muzzle her. And the suspension was ultimately revoked and she was reinstated. But Marty didn’t apologize. We’ll leave it there. I appreciate your time, Irving, very much on this important subject.


WASHINGTON: Thank you so much.


HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.