The Washington Post’s recipe for success in the Trump era

“We are not at war with Trump, we are at work with him.”

With pacate yet resolute words Cameron Barr described the atmosphere within the news room of The Washington Post, where he works as Managing Editor. The quote is actually from Marty Baron, the Post‘s Executive Editor, and has slowly become the staff’s motto. It’s even printed on t-shirts we learn from Barr.

Through a keynote speech and a conversation with Lucia Annunziata, Editor at the Italian edition of the Huffington Post, at the International Journalism Festival, Barr touched upon several topical subjects such as the role of truth, the changes  carried out by his newspaper to keep on striving – and profiting – Trump’s America and how to report on it. His opening speech to a crowded Sala dei Notari in Perugia was built on two anecdotes worth sharing.

Truth (still) matters

Firstly, Barr proudly retold how The Washington Post first reported on the phone-call between Trump’s National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, and the Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, which led to the firing of the former.

He highlighted two takeaways from this anecdote. First of all, the story proves that the Trump administration ‘does care’ about the truth: they would not have requested the journal to cover up the initial denial by Flynn otherwise. Second, that ‘truth still matters’ also for the readers, who, after the Flynn, case wrote to the newspaper encouraging them to keep up the good work.

Back to basics, Barr recommended sticking to the traditional definition of reporting: “The revelation of previously undisclosed information which is relevant to the public and which a powerful person or authority wants to keep secret.” And he noted that the anecdote ultimately showed that when the news is true, authorities (still) cannot get away with it.

Engaging the audience with social media

The second anecdote was a demonstration of how new media can be deployed effectively in investigative journalism, for instance when a reporter reaches out to his audience to get help for his investigation. This is the amusing story of “how a Univision anchor found the missing $10,000 portrait that Trump bought with his charity’s money,” where the Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold was able to verify his investigation after asking support to his twitter followers. Univision anchor Enrique Acevedo had indeed read Fahrenthold’s tweet and was successful in finding the portrait which proved that Trump had used charitable donations for personal purchases.

The take-away here is an encouraging one for journalists: social media is more of an opportunity than a threat. And equally heartening was the answer to Annunziata’s question on how to deal with an unprecedentedly confrontational President. Barr highlighted that, while it is true that Trump vilified mainstream medias, he is also keen to ask for their help to spread his ‘news’ to the readers, whom the D.C. newspaper ‘treasures as [its] defenders.’

Adapting to a new ecosystem

Barr admitted that the news environment has changed fundamentally and that this poses some challenges. In his words: “A day used to be for one news cycle and now is the vessel for multiple news cycles.” Nonetheless, he refused the notion that traditional media are doomed to succumb, and The Washington Post is the proof of that: the journal was profitable last year and, Barr anticipated, is expected to be profitable this year too.

Barr only gave away a few of the ingredients of the Post’s success recipe, but enough to whet the appetite of the audience: an increased investment (and recruitment) in investigative journalism; a change of tone, which has become more narrative, often in first person; openness to new forms and leveraging on innovative tools, such as data graphics, which can also take a central stage.

Annunziata then sharply asked why mainstream media failed to predict Trump’s success, and whether this was the proof that journalists have through time moved too close to the power center detaching themselves from the people, and if Barr and Baron have discussed this.  He admitted that there has been some detachment from the medium-low working classes, possibly because his reporters were used to cover more extreme situations (e.g. poverty) overlooking the way the working class felt. He reassured the public that the topic has been discussed within his paper, but with a forward-looking attitude, “not to miss the next object.”

A glance at the news

Annunziata took the chance to get Barr’s views on topical news, such as the US strikes in Syria that have taken place during the night of 7 April. The event, according to Barr, further confirmed how unpredictable Trump can be: on the one hand, the strike countered the ‘America first’ and intra-American narratives which were at the core of Trump’s campaign; on the other hand, it delivered on his promise of ‘being different from Obama.’

Barr stated to Annunziata that it is too early to say how influential the many military profiles within his administration will be on Trump’s presidency. And it is too early to draw conclusions on the effect of the administration’s business ties and possible conflicts of interest. Questioned on the matter by the New York TimesDiana Henriques, who was attending the panel, Barr remarked that his staff is actively ‘working on it.’

Providing information, not riding emotions  

Barr’s cautious, vigilant, and fact-based tone is one that he considered indispensable for those who want to work for The Washington Post. In response to a question from the John Nery from the Philippines Daily Inquirer, Barr explained that a reporter should accuse somebody of ‘lying’ only if he was utterly certain that that somebody had all the correct information to make a truthful statement, but chose not to . He was also very clear that news reporters must not be ‘too opinionated’ politically about Trump. If they wished to push a certain political view, they should rather pursue a career as opinionists.

In a world crowded with one-sided communications which try to trigger and boost emotions, the mission of a news reporter in the eyes of Barr is to go against the tide, ‘turn down the emotional level’ and provide the readers with solid information.