The Washington Post Goes ‘Multisensory’
Martin Weil has been a reporter at The Washington Post for more than 50 years.
Weil is also one of the newspaper’s “most beloved” tweeters, according to Jeremy Gilbert, the Post’s director of strategic initiatives, because he tells stories on Twitter in haiku. “Marty doesn’t do it all the time, but he does it frequently enough that he has developed a real following. Would anyone have told him or anybody else at the Post that the right voice for Twitter was to write in haiku? Of course not.”
But it works because it’s authentic. “It’s distinctive precisely because no one else would have thought that this Japanese unrhymed verse form would have worked on that platform,” says Gilbert, who was the keynote speaker at the Council’s Digital Media and Advocacy Summit in June. “That’s the magic of what Marty does. All too often we conflate authenticity on Twitter, Snapchat or Reddit with ‘youth’ and with the way young people supposedly communicate.
“That’s a mistake,” says Gilbert, who began his career as an art director, working for newspapers in Florida before overseeing editorial and advertising storytelling for digital platforms at National Geographic. “I’m convinced that people want to have relationships with people, not organizations, which is why I am against expecting people to speak in the same institutional voice.”
This isn’t a problem at the Post. Since Jeff Bezos bought the paper in 2013, it has added 200 journalists to its newsroom, with an emphasis on finding new voices. “We don’t segregate them by age or experience or any of that, and they don’t work exclusively for the print edition or on digital projects,” Gilbert says. “We mix it up, so they are all involved in all the platforms. And we want them to be themselves, because that is what stands out.”
Journalism is changing because the way we communicate is changing. “I did a little reporting in my early days, and I’ve always thought of myself as a journalist,” Gilbert says. “Traditionally, the first part of any news reporting was to gather information and then to write something. The emphasis was always on the writing, which of course is still essential. Then, once the writing was done, maybe someone would develop a graphic or go to a video. It’s just that we’ve learned to complement and deepen the reporting by coordinating all these activities, and I see my role as the person who connects all these different disciplines to tell a more engaging story — a ‘multisensory’ story.”
Apparently, it’s working. A text-only Post story is typically read for 45 to 60 seconds, but a “multisensory” story — one with audio and video, for example — keeps the reader’s interest for four to six minutes. (It also drives sales of digital subscriptions.)
Gilbert says the goal of all these efforts is simply to produce better journalism. “The core strength of the Post — its biggest asset — is the reporters,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is use the tools that are now available to us to complement and strengthen their reporting.”
That’s where Heliograf comes in. The content-generating artificial intelligence system, similar to one in use at USA Today and The Associated Press, made its debut at the Post in 2016 and has since churned out 500 stories on the 2018 House, Senate and gubernatorial races. “You’ve been reading stories written by robots,” as one scare headline covering the rise of robo-writers put it.
Gilbert sees nothing menacing here. “It just wouldn’t make sense for us to assign our human reporters to write these stories, in part because they appeal to a very small audience — to readers interested in something other than the ‘key’ races,” he says. “But there are people who want to follow these campaigns, and the stories can also be updated very quickly. We see this as another way to help the reporters covering the key races use their energies on the key races, but also to give readers — even a small but specific audience of readers like these — what they want. Reaching these readers is a different way of thinking about scale.”
As other organizations develop their own expertise with multisensory platforms — we’re all media companies now — Gilbert recommends respecting the range of personalities at your disposal. “You can’t be overly prescriptive about how your people express their personalities when they use these platforms,” he says. “We try to be tolerant, because it will always be the distinctive human voice that stands out. Like our friend Marty Weil and his haikus.”