Michael Bolden’s role as CEO of the American Press Institute and his background in newsrooms, philanthropy, academia and community engagement gives him in a unique 360-degree view of journalism and how journalists interact with communities. In this conversation, we explore journalism’s importance for democracy, the need to listen with humility, the need to build healthy and supportive cultures, the role of metrics in news and much more.
(2:49) – Press as an enabler of the American democratic experiment
(4:35) – Listening to your community (and not just your audience)
(14:49) – The strength and resilience of community media organizations
(19:30) – The news ecosystem needs a mix of startups, legacy institutions and individuals
(23:17) – Be skeptical and don’t just follow the lead of funders
(27:42) – A holistic vision of cultural and financial health
(31:05) – Supporting, retaining and managing a stressed and overworked staff
(33:52) – Welcoming non-journalists as information providers
(37:41) – Metrics for News, listening and a 360° view
(42:30) – Transforming an organization
(46:37) – Rapid-fire questions
Listen to the episode here:
Michael Bolden became CEO and executive director of the American Press Institute in February 2022.Previously, Bolden was director of culture and operations at The San Francisco Chronicle. As a member of The Chronicle’s executive team, he supervised a range of coverage, including business, housing, immigration, race and equity, technology, transportation, and urban design and development. As part of his responsibilities, he promoted an internal culture that valued diversity and belonging and developed support for journalists facing online abuse and harassment, cultural trauma and workforce stress. Earlier in his career, he was a journalism lecturer at Stanford University and managing director of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, where he advised media change agents from around the world. He also served as editorial director for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a leading funder of journalism and media innovation. For more than a decade, he was an editor at The Washington Post in positions across the newsroom, including head of the award-winning transportation and development team. He’s also been a reporter and editor at the Miami Herald, the Northwest Florida Daily News in Fort Walton Beach, and The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. Bolden is a graduate of the University of Alabama, was a Maynard Media Academy Fellow at Harvard University and is working on his Master of Liberal Arts thesis at Stanford. He is a longtime member of the National Press Club, AAJA, IRE, NABJ, NAHJ, ONA, SPJ and the Sigma Tau Delta honor society. He serves on the board of directors of the Student Press Law Center, the nonprofit that promotes, supports and defends the First Amendment rights of high school and college journalists and their advisers.
Tim Regan-Porter: Welcome to the Local News Matters podcast, where we explore pathways to stronger journalism, better businesses, and healthier communities. I'm Tim Regan Porter, CEO of the Colorado Press Association.
Each episode is sit down with guests from newsrooms and others in the local news ecosystem to highlight the innovative work of local newsrooms and those that support them, as well as the crucial questions they face.
We aim to provide a unique mix of strategic, tactical and even philosophical themes, a combination of business and editorial topics, a zooming in to examine what’s happening on the ground in newsrooms and a zooming out to look at the bigger picture of national trends, thorny issues and enabling organizations and technologies. Because to have thriving local news, to have financially viable businesses with journalism that makes a difference, requires a holistic understanding of business, community engagement, technology, culture, equity and more.
A holistic vision of healthy newsrooms, healthy businesses and healthy communities is a vision shared by my guest today, Michael Bolden, CEO and executive director of the American Press Institute. The American Press Institute advances an innovative and sustainable news industry by helping publishers understand and engage audiences, grow revenue, improve public service journalism, and succeed at organizational change.
Michael has been a reporter and editor at The Times-Picayune, the Miami Herald, and the Washington Post. He was editorial director at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, where I first met him nearly a decade ago, and then a Managing Director at the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships (or JSK program) at Stanford University, where he was my advisor 5 years ago. Before accepting his current position at API, he was director of culture and operations at the San Francisco Chronicle.
That wide range of experiences shows in this wide-ranging conversation that I think has something for anyone who cares about local news and informed communities.
And now, I’m pleased to bring you Michael Bolden.
Press as an enabler of the American democratic experiment
Regan-Porter: Before we go into what you're doing at the American Press Institute, let me ask a picture question, which is, what do you think are the primary burning questions or issues facing local news?
Michael Bolden: Well, I think there is a huge question about local news and maintaining its place as an enabler of our democratic society and institutions. It is no accident that freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment. The founding fathers clearly knew, first of all, that American democracy is an experiment. And we think about the pursuit of happiness, and when we hear that we often think it's about individual happiness, but it's not. It's about how we exist and coexist together and the ability to make decisions together that affects how we live and how our society functions. And ensuring that people have the information they need is a vital part of what the free press does. And so at the local level, we have to have a robust thriving free press, providing people with the information they need. Otherwise, we're going to see more of our democratic freedoms slip away because people won't have the information they need to coexist in our communities. So I think that that is one of the first things that we need to hold up as important. And remember that context when we're dealing with everything else that comes our way, that freedom of the press is an enabler of what is a great democratic experiment. And when it suffers, our democracy will suffer.
Listening to your community (and not just your audience)
Regan-Porter: That actually leads into the next question I had, which is, what needs do local newsrooms serve, which you alluded to there. And do you think they've lost sight of what their communities need?
Bolden: I think that one thing that some local news organizations think about too much, frankly, audience, as opposed to community, right? Because I think that you can actually find a pathway to sustainability by only certain in an audience. But most people in this business that I talk to who got into this business, it was because they saw the importance that the media has in their local communities, right? And so what is the separation that might exist between a local news organization and the community, as opposed to the audience? I mean, your audience could be anywhere in the world. But how committed are you to the people who are in your backyard? And how involved are they in helping to set your coverage priorities and your relationships?
Regan-Porter: Let's dig into that a little bit, because metrics have played a key role in the evolution of news, for good and ill, I think. Certainly I think people who do sort of a simplistic pageview and unique visitor focus without understanding—It's not even good business. If your advertising dollars are all coming from local businesses and you're just looking at clickbait that you get from around the country or world. But I'll push a little bit. I completely agree that’s very crucial distinction. But when I came to local news from a magazine world where we knew our audience very well—you know, we had to get data on the audience, we understood what they wanted. And then there was a little bit of a shock coming into local newsrooms where we weren't doing audience surveys, we weren't understanding our audience or our community, I would argue, very well. And one mistake I think sometimes local newsrooms make is that we view our audience as sort of this amorphous blob. We serve the whole community. Well, we've done a really poor job of serving the whole community. And you know, ask any minority group typically in a major metro, and they will tell you that. But I think you want to serve the community, but not as sort of this amorphous whole. But you really need to understand the different needs of the different people in that community. Can you expound on that a little bit?
Bolden: Well, I mean, I think that's exactly right. One of the things that I fundamentally believe has to be a part of any local news operation is how are you actually connecting with people and hearing them as opposed to imposing your will on them? One of the things that we did this past election cycle, we funded what ended up being really 40 news organizations to do community listening and coverage experiments. And one of the examples I like to cite that involves ABC 10 News, which is a broadcast, television broadcast station. And they come to us with a project where they wanted to go into some precincts that have traditionally low voter turnout, and they wanted to do a voter guide. And we're like, OK, this is worthwhile. And then we're going to sign the final grant agreements, they were like, well, wait. We just realized, this isn't what we should do. We need to go talk to people and see what they actually need. And then decide if we need to do a guide or whatever. And we saw that replicated actually across the country with some of the news organizations that were participating in that, whether it was in Alaska, where Alaska Public Media was going out into some rural communities, or in Montana, where the Missoulian were actually visiting seven reservations in Montana. They actually visited all seven reservations to do listening towards—and actually see what was on people's minds. In Hawaii, Honolulu Civil Beat actually did pop-up newsrooms around the state for the same thing. And so you can't assume that there's any sort of monolithic beast that exists in the community. Frankly, as hard as it is, sometimes you have to put in more. You know, I know that's not easy. Like I said, you know, we made this possible through some very small grants, actually, where people went out and did the work. But the work pays off because it reminds you just how distinctive different elements of your community are and how you need to be listening to them all the time. One of the things I'm really concerned about with the midterm behind us, it's like, okay, so everybody who did some of those experiments, how do they not lose what they learned? And we'll be doing follow-up sort of coaching sessions, and information sessions for some of those newsrooms to make sure we can capture some of that and help them in some way not lose their progress because you're exactly right. But the other thing I will add actually that's very relevant to this. You know, we have a listening and sustainability lab, we called it, working with publishers of color this year. And one of our pupils was the Atlanta Voice, a business publication in Atlanta that’s been around for decades. And they did some community listening work as part of that effort. And they learned, they thought they knew they're on it, right? Black, professional, middle-class in Atlanta. And they discovered, oh, but we’re missing some stuff because we've made some assumptions. And they've got a couple of new initiatives going now as a result of that work. So that's also a good illustration of how you can't make assumptions about who your community is and what the community [unclear]. You've got to be constantly listening. And you have to, in terms of their feedback loops—so when you go listen and do something and then you get to hear again about you know, how what you've done has landed. And it frankly, that's a never-ending process.
Regan-Porter: Yeah, and as you're indicating there, both how you listen and what you do with that, I think, are so crucial. I feel like the industry's been in a mode for the past five plus years where we talk a lot about listening. But often, you know—and there's grant funding available and new tools. But sometimes it feels to me that many of us are checking a box and are listening to kind of have our assumptions reinforced or to come up with stories that we can use to spin a good story about how we serve the community. You know, nonprofit, for profit— both fall victim to that. You know, and five years ago, you were my advisor at Stanford. You know, we spent a lot of time working with the d-school. And it's just sort of basic good startup practices that listening is not about just validating what you walk in the door with. But it's really embedding yourself. It's not surveys and focus groups, although those can be part of it. But it really takes a new mindset. And I wonder, where do you see really good examples of that? And where have you seen that fail?
Bolden: Well, it does take a different mindset. I mean, I think it takes a huge amount of humility because your assumptions are going to be challenged. You're probably going to be told that you're wrong about something. And none of us wants to be wrong about anything, right? And yeah, that can be one of the reasons why it's so difficult for people to sort of acknowledge what's going astray. Some of the examples that I just cited actually are, I think, very appropriate for, you know, what you're talking about examples. I mean, the Honolulu Civil Beat example. The ABC 10 example, Wisconsin Public Media has a couple of good examples. VTDigger, which I'm a big fan of, and they're coverage of some of the underserved communities in that state. They've had some of their assumptions challenged. Those are all, I think, case studies that are worth looking at and examining a little bit closer. I love the Atlanta Voice example because, you know, it is an African American publication. That has been serving an African American community. And you would think, oh, they've got this. They’re like, no, we don't have this. And we have to be humble enough to say that we don't have it. You know, they're launching a new product because—yeah, I think that those are some of the good examples. Now, we're talking about, where have I seen it fail—oh, goodness.. You know, one of the examples, and this is a little bit unfair because they're not doing this anymore, I don't think. But look at the Washington Post, which for the longest time, the Washington Post, really was just a local paper. It was a local paper that covered something that was of national and international issue, but politics of Washington is a very local store. And, you know, their a motto used to be, if you don't get it, you don't get it, which, and that was during the time when I was there. And think about the hubris that's sort of embedded in that statement, especially for a local news organization, covering a region of millions of people that are incredibly diverse. And where most of the voices are being left out. And I think they had a good run at it. I mean, I don't think that they make a—I don't think that they assert that they're a local paper anymore, right? I mean, and now that I'm back living in the Washington suburbs, it's most apparent to me how they are not a local newspaper. It's kind of amazing that we can be in such a vast metro area where there are so many people with wealth and education. And yet we also are living in a news desert where coverage locally have just failed miserably in part because I don't think anyone ever bothered to really listen to what was going on here. I mean, there are some, you know, occasional attempts, but I mean, you know, for the most part it’s failed miserably.
The strength and resilience of community media organizations
Regan-Porter: Yeah, I want to dig in a little bit on the local part, because one of the things that's been kind of a revelation to me being at the Colorado Press Association is how crucial and strong and relevant a lot of our community newspapers are. You know, a lot of these are weekly. They might be daily online. And I hear this from other Press Association directors too that some of their strongest members, the ones that are growing, are actually these weeklies, who tend to get overlooked. You know, we focus on metro dailies, and then, and then talk about the problems and the sort of the rural/urban divide. But I'm wondering from your standpoint at API now, are you seeing the strength in weekly or community papers and a different tact in how they relate to their community?
Bolden: Well, so I'm going to like turn your question a little bit because it's not really just about weekly papers. It's about community media organizations in general. One of the things we did back in October, you know, the Society of Professional Journalists had their national conference here. We actually had a reception with a lot of local media organizations. Some of them daily, sent with them weekly. We also had people from the Baltimore Banner there, which is a new local nonprofit. As well as the editor of Street Sense, which is the publication generated by, you know, homeless people in many communities around the country. And to have them all in one place, talking about all of the different ways they are trying to fit into the news and information ecosystem. To me, it's just very opening, right? I mean, it's like, what is the diversity of the media ecosystem look like? That's what it is. You have frankly people from the Washington Post down to the one-woman shop of Annandale Today. And, you know, I think we've seen a lot of growth, especially in the community media level, during the pandemic, right, where people were looking for ways to stay in better contact with their communities. And also responding to what they thought were some of the deficiencies in the mainstream media by starting their own business. But there's clearly a lot of growth. There's lots of opportunities and lessons to be learned from what some of those organizations are doing. And one of the things I want to try to figure out is how can we create a two-way peer learning network where we can help some of those very small organizations tackle some of the problems that they may be encountering. But what are they doing, especially in the way of community listening and connecting with community, that larger publications can learn from them?
Regan-Porter: And that's a useful corrective to my focus on weeklies. Because that's a very print-centric mindset and even, you know, a lot of those weeklies are much more digital. But you know, where there's an information vacuum, something will emerge to try to fill that vacuum and it may be high quality or not, it may be gossip-based or not. But there are so many interesting examples, you know, podcasts,newsletters. During the pandemic, JSK did these community impact fellowships. And I got to hear a presentation from, I'm blanking on her name, but she was near the border in Texas. And she started conversations with the Latinx community on WhatsApp.
Bolden: Oh, you mean, not Texas. Arizona, with Conecta Arizona?
Regan-Porter: That's it, thank you.
Bolden: Which is a wonderful, wonderful effort actually that has gained lots of traction. They're doing conversations with, on WhatsApp. They have a Facebook group. I think they're doing some in-person meet-ups. I mean, they have been thriving.
Regan-Porter: Yeah, a community radio show, I think they've connected with.
Bolden: Yeah, and a podcast, I believe so. Yeah, we just gave them, and we gave them a great degree in the election cycle to do some of that work, to help extend some of it, so…
Regan-Porter: Yeah, and I think that's a great example of what can flow when your community-centric and you're just trying to meet the needs rather than trying to figure out how do we take what we're already doing and just get someone to read it, right? And that's a whole different mindset when you're, when you're really focusing on the community in all the different ways they want to interact and consume information.
Bolden: Well, I mean, even, I've talked a lot about these example, the election examples, but the Austin Common, which is a website, but one of the things that they've been doing, they've been doing sort of graphic novel-type guides, because that's what their audience wants. And like, okay, if it takes a graphic novel to get people to news and information they need, let's do graphic novels.
The news ecosystem needs a mix of startups, legacy institutions and individuals
Regan-Porter: You know, I had an interesting conversation with a major national funder, who you’re familiar with, and then they asked me the question, should we just be pouring money into all of these startups and not try to worry about preserving some of these legacy institutions? And my answer, I'm very interested in your perspective on this, my answer was startups are great. But if you've got an institution that is innovating and is willing to look at all of these things, it's worth preserving, because they have an audience and a reputation that has been built up over, in many cases, over a century. And as much damage as they might have done, or as the economic changes might have done over the past 20 years, there's still something there worth preserving—in some cases, certainly not all. And I’m curious what you think about that.
Bolden: Well, so the pendulum keeps winning, right about whether, do we help the legacy organizations and save themselves, do we invest all the money into the new organizations? What do we do? And I took what I think is a very practical approach looking at the news and information ecosystem. It will never be—and 20 years from now maybe you can point out that I was wrong—but it will never be one thing or the other. It will be all of these things. It will be some legacy broadcasters and publishers and whomever who have figured out how to better serve audiences and who have created pathways to sustainability. It will be some digital-narrative organizations. It will be nonprofit legacy media like NPR. It will be bloggers and the guy who's on Twitter or Mastodon or whatever tweeting the scanner news. It will be all of these things. And so I think when we talk about where do we put the investment. It isn't about making a bet on one or the other. It's about making strategic bets in areas throughout the ecosystem. I mean, there are legacy publishers who are taking their best shot. I mean, I think that what I've seen happening with a lot of the Hearst newspaper publications, especially the San Francisco Chronicle, where I worked, where my friend, Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, is the editor. I think that they're making some significant headway, including in realizing that they don't know sometimes what's going on in the community and they need to do more listening . They have this big project underway called SF Next where they invested a significant sum of the money in actually doing good old fashioned polling. They hear people in San Francisco talk about what they think the real problems in the city are, as opposed to making assumptions. And also coming together to talk about possible solutions. So you combine that with what you might see happening with a Meritza Felix and Conecta Arizona or what VTDigger—which you know Anne Galloway started and has been very successful in their efforts—or Ryan, the new publisher of the Kansas City Defender and what they're doing and their approach. I mean, I think all of these things will coexist in what will be a modern news and information ecosystem. And so you can’t decide to put money in one place or the other. You've got to make strategic bets. And some of those bets and all of those things will fail. Some of them will be successful. But I don't think there's anything unusual about that. If somebody's thinking that they're going to put money in one place and that's the only place it needs to go. And that's the only place where there will be success. I say they're wrong. And they need to take a broader view of the entire thing.
Be skeptical and don’t just follow the lead of funders
Regan-Porter: So American Press Institute, you know, gives out some grants, and you've been at the largest journalism funder in the country. And there's been increasing focus over the last 10 years. And I think it's increased, the momentum has increased for new organizations to really look at philanthropy. But I want to talk a little bit about, how should publishers and journalists who are recipients of these grants really look to these grants in ways that are most helpful. I think a lot of publishers and journalists look at these grants and say, okay, I'm going to get some money to fund this project and it's going to last for six months, two years, whatever. And then I go hunt for the next money, rather than it really should be, how do I use this money to build capacity, to transform an organization, to help with sustainability. And I've heard some funders talk about that as well, but they don't see that mindset, but that's really what they want to fund. Can you elaborate on your thoughts on that?
Bolden: Yeah, so one of the things that happened when I first joined Knight Foundation—and keep in mind that I wasn't in a grant-making role. I was the editorial director, so I was working with people across the organization to help tell the story about what Knight was doing. But when I would speak with grantees or potential grantees, people would frequently not disagree with me. Everything I said was correct. And coming from a newsroom where I didn't trust anything, and people were always having arguments about what was correct or what they perceived to be correct. That was very unusual to me. And one of my colleagues said, yeah, no one will ever tell you that you're wrong because they're hoping that they might get some funding. And if not from you, well you at least have the ears sometimes of people who actually do approve the funding. And one of the things that worries me increasingly in this landscape is people not being skeptical about, first of all , some of the ideas funders might have because funders do not know everything. As a matter of fact, they're often at a disconnect with the communities. And if you're in pursuit of dollars, in some cases just for survival, you might be willing to alter what you know you need to do just to get the dollars in the door. I mean, and so sometimes dollars for specific projects are not what you need. You do need some of the general operating support that you can then take in the direction that you know or suspect or you have evidence of that will serve your community the best way you possibly can. That's the thing that's most useful. And people can often get twisted around a little bit thinking about funders because they're like, oh well, I could get this money and then do X, but then they might not even know what the funder really wants and things just get all out of whack. Something that I think is really important for people, you need to know the funder. Just because somebody funds journalism doesn't mean that they're going to fund your journalism. Just because somebody has given money to journalism doesn’t mean that that is their sole reason for being. As a matter of fact, some people who fund journalism are only funding the journalism because it helps tell the story of their other work. Gates Foundation, I think is a perfect example of that, where what they put into the storytelling and the like into sort of a list of things like fighting malaria and poverty and that sort of thing. So that's absolutely you know, extremely important to remember and sort of keeping the North Star of why your publication exists and what your community needs, I think, are vital. And also remembering that sometimes that the funder that the publication across the river uses might not be the funder for you, right? Because some of these big national funders have very specific things that they're into, whereas there's a local funder might have a more specific interest that is aligned with what the community needs. I mean, here in Tulsa or Jackson, Mississippi, or you know, Fayetteville, Arkansas, you know, sometimes there are local funders at community foundations or donor-advised funds who might have programs or interests that are better aligned with what the needs of your community are.
A holistic vision of cultural and financial health
Regan-Porter: And so what are the focus areas for American Press Institute, and not just funding, but just what is your organization really focused on?
Bolden: You know, I joined in Februrary (of 2022) when we've been talking about where we're headed. And we're just now I think coalescing around what that message is. We want to make sure that we are supporting news organizations on the path to being culturally and financially healthy. Those two things do not exist independently. So when you talk about things like diversity and inclusion and making sure that you have online harassment support and trauma training for your journalists, that is absolutely as important as understanding your community and having revenue models that make sense. Those things do not exist in a vacuum. So what we're going to be talking about a lot in the new year is what is a holistic news organization and redefining success. Because success will not just be being fiscally viable because eventually that will fall short if you're ignoring your community or if you can't get journalists in the door because there are the people who come into your shop are too burned out. It's really about marrying those things together. And frankly, I don't think anybody in the industry has been talking about those things being so intertwined. What inevitably ends up happening is that we allow the conversation to get derailed down the one path or the other. And so one of the things that I want to start doing is looking at news organizations on a matrix of being able to say, okay, you are in this upper left quadrant. If you want to move to the upper right quadrant, you need to do x, y and z. And you can choose not to do that, but then you shouldn't be surprised when you're not successful because all of these components are necessary for success. So that's kind of the big overview of where we're heading. It does include things like looking internally at your own newsroom culture and diversity. It involves looking at community diversity and how you serve that. It involves looking at your own data and tracking how people are interacting with your content and what you're taking away from it. It involves looking at your source diversity and how you are building that or not. It involves being very comfortable with the uncomfortable and having to sit in the middle of the gray of disruption that we often experience and having a talent for experimentation. It does involve recognizing that we've all been through a lot over the past three years and we're going to be existing in a post-pandemic society eventually that has reached that expectations for the level of support that you have to give your employees and for what that means for how people, how resilient people are. So you'll see a lot from us coming around all of those issues. But we're never going to lose sight, I think, of this holistic approach to being a successful news organization.
Supporting, retaining and managing a stressed and overworked staff
Regan-Porter: I'm glad to hear you talk about the support for your staff as I think even if we weren't in a super tight labor market where some of these problems are widespread, I think journalism would still be facing a crisis of just losing good people out of the industry because it's a challenging job. It always has been, but you layer in mass shootings, pandemics, enemy-of-the-press type political language, it's no wonder that we're having trouble staffing. And then you layer on top of that issues of diversity and if you're a person of color going into a newsroom that's trying to diversify but doesn't have the right support or they're in a community where they're going to be feel particularly isolated and there's a whole series of challenges that I don't feel like we're, that we still have yet to really adequately address.
Bolden: Well and you just pair that also with the fact that, what does it take to run a modern newsroom right? I mean so you have developers and engineers and you might have forensic specialists, right? And even though you've seen like you know the tech market has had some of its own contractions and that sort of thing, people are—there's no shortage of choice especially for some of these newer positions that are vital to the future of the media. And so we're not just competing with other media organizations, we're competing with the market in general. And so if we can't supply the support that people need, people will go to other industries. And so we have to be very realistic about our ability to compete, our willingness to compete, and our willingness to support the staff at all levels. It really is the case that if you are a journalist covering anything over the past three years, you have just been through the wringer and you've been running flat out. And so the question for people in leadership is how can we support our journalists. I'll use this word again how can make sure they are resilient, that our organizations are resilient to deal with the challenges that might still be ahead. You know we just finished covering a midterm, we've got a presidential election that's happening here in a couple of years, and we know that that cycle is going to be tough. All the while, we're still covering the pandemic, right? On the West Coast, in San Francisco and Los Angeles, they're actually facing the possibility of mass mandates again, and also you know in certain areas of the country you also have fires that have been burning. You’ve got all the climate-change stuff that's been going on. And we just have to be very aware of the context in which all of our people are working and ensure that we're providing support for them to help them make it.
Welcoming non-journalists as information providers
Regan-Porter: And to tie this back to our earlier discussion about listening, you know, one of the things that I am very interested in is helping news organizations figure out how not just to diversify which is a Herculean challenge in-and-of-itself in terms of staff—looking at the pipeline issue which sometimes we can use an excuse to not do the work, but there is a pipeline issue—but also figuring out how do we use these assets we have to really engage the community and view them as platforms that are essentially owned by the community, regardless of the real ownership structure, that you know we have you know paper, we have websites, we have all kinds of tools in which to turn the mic over to the audience at points. And I feel like it’s a missed opportunity if we only focus on the professional journalist in the room and don't really figure out how to tap into the resources in the community.
Bolden: Yeah so I was recently—and I apologize we're not reaching out to you, but I was literally there for less than 24 hours, but I was recently in Denver for the convening of the major market public media television stations. And it included Rocky Mountain PBS, as well as we met at the Rocky Mountain PBS building. And the chief content officer there, she spoke about this very problem in Colorado where you go out to some communities and the best known person who has the most ability to reach people is someone who has no professional journalism training whatsoever. She was actually speaking about a specific person in the example that she gave. And it was like do we not bring that person inside our tent, you know, to help? Do we just write them off because they're not a journalist? And I think that anybody who's very aware of what's happening in the marketplace now, you say of course not. Of course we want that person to be part of our efforts, right. It's the same point I was making about Larry Calhoun, the guy who runs DC RealTime News and who’s tweeting the scanner stuff. It's like okay, we can say he has no journalism training; he's not a professional journalist. But that does not diminish the role that he has in the news and information ecosystem. So how do we all learn to coexist, and how do we all learn from one another? I think that that's the important question that we have to keep at the forefront, because otherwise we're not serving the members of the community well at all. Especially now when people are getting information from so many diffuse sources, right. I mean somebody might be getting information from their church Facebook group. Somebody might be getting information from Snapchat. Somebody’s getting information from Instagram. Somebody’s getting information from Twitter and now Mastodon and post.news. And in many cases people who were just ordinary members of the public, they aren't paying attention to who's generating it. They just know that they're getting the news and information from these places. And sometimes you ask them, well who is it, and they're like oh well there was somebody in the news. And they may not make the distinction. Whether it was KCBS or the Washington Post or whoever, they just know they got it from somebody who they thought was a journalist. But first we have to help people sort of understand how all this functions, but it's also important for us to realize that we have to work together. Otherwise it's just going to be total chaos. And well that I would add, Tim, too, just to make sure there is no confusion—and these are people who are not bad actors, right? These are people who are genuinely trying to solve needs in the community as opposed to people who are bad actors and trying to sow misinformation and disinformation in the community. I mean, that’s an entire separate issue.
Metrics for News, listening and a 360° view
Regan-Porter: Well one of the things that API offers is Metrics for News, and I've not dug into that. Can you tell me a little about what it is, and do you see any evolution of that tool putting more effort into it, or what’s the future?
Bolden: Yeah so Metrics for News is our analytics tool. So if you think about something like Chartbeat or Omniture or Parsley. It's our version of analytics. We think it provides a fuller picture of what your publication or your media organization’s relationship is with the audience. Because instead of just focusing on a snapshot of data in time, we can build dashboards that show the relationship through that with your data especially with topics and beats that you cover, historical trends. We can actually give you visualizations that help you know where you need to double down or retract some coverage. We've built on top of that something called Source Matters, which is a source diversity tracking tool which allows some of this like new levels of visualization. One of the things that we've been doing in the past year is creating a more robust framework that underlies both of those products. The old code is all being rewritten in something called Laravel, which we think will position it better from the future and allow us actually to be more responsive to what people tell us they want. But also making sure that the code is very transparent so that if we bring in—you know, the person who works there on it today might be the person who works on it a year for now. So that person who comes in a year from now then should be able to understand what's been done and why. That hasn’t necessarily always been the case with the code that's underlying some of our products. So making that investment to ensure that we can deliver robust product to anybody who’s interested in it. It’s definitely part of our future. And the question too becomes you know Source Matters is built on an iteration of Metrics for News, essentially. They're may be other products that come out of the same pipeline. And our new VP of product strategy, Elite Truong, is you know thinking very much about what else we can do for the news industry. Part of it for us involves taking on a risk that some news organizations can’t.
Regan-Porter: Yeah, I gotta say you know my background a little bit. My academic background with economics and math and got an MBA. But the industry's relationship to metrics is one of my pet peeves because it tends to be poorly data-driven in a dangerous way or it's all anecdotes. And I see not a lot of nuance and threading of the needle. I was listening to Reid Hoffman’s podcast just recently where he was talking with a business owner. And he said you know some decisions are and should be data-driven, and some decisions are and should be gut-driven. And I feel like we lose that nuance. And I think a lot of the data-driven decisions, particularly some of the larger chains to be frank, show a poor understanding of the business and what's really driving it forward and they undermine the brand. So anyway I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on sort of how do you marry your relationship with the community and issues of brand and trust and metrics that can lead your stray, if you're not measuring the right things or interpreting it with some nuance.
Bolden: So this is where the community listening comes back in, right? I mean if you’re going to be listening, not just outside the newsroom but also in the newsroom, you can't just let yourself totally be guided by the data because the data is sometimes as you say can lead you astray. But what else are you doing? It is a blend of gut and anecdote and data that I think that needs to guide every news operation. Because if you're too much in one camp or the other, I think that you are probably going to go astray. It's like what is the 360-degree view of your work and how it meets community needs? And I think each of those things provides a perspective, and if you take any one out of the equation then you're going to miss something.
Regan-Porter: I think any good data analyst is also looking, what is this data not capturing?
Bolden: What is the data not capturing, and what were the imperfections that went into the process or the tool that was capturing the data, right? Because we know that tools themselves can be flawed. And if you don't have a full sort of understanding of the richness that data can yield but also the fallacies that can be inherent in data, you most certainly can get off track. So…. Transforming an organization
Regan-Porter: You are at an organization where you're trying to take a more holistic approach. And I don't know if what you've been up to for the past—you've been there, what, almost a year?
Bolden: It’ll be a year in February.
Regan-Porter: I don't know if you would characterize it as organizational transformation, but in some ways I think we're all continually transforming. And I wonder what are your tips or best learnings on how you transform an organization successfully?
Bolden: So I laugh because I'm going to throw around a term that we've been using a lot. So the listening is a huge part of it, right? And one of the things that I try to do is listen to people who have a range of experiences and opinions about what's been happening at API and seeing how that fits in with some of my own assumptions, sometimes which are wrong. But I’ll also resurrect part of what we've talked about about gut. My gut has been in play a lot I think in terms of thinking about transformation that we need to do but it's also about how can we build this organization to be responsive and, I'll use this other word again, resilient, right? And why are we doing what we do? For us, it's not about the existence of API. It's about the existence of news organizations themselves and fulfilling the mission that they have to their communities. And so when we look at some of what's been happening in the industry, especially with some of the cuts that have been happening and that sort of thing, it's like, okay, back where we need to be helping the best way that we can and are we doing that as effectively as we can? And if we're not, well then what transformation do we need to undergo? I think a question for any organization dealing with questions of change and transformation is or should be the goal, we want to be excellent. So we might be good. We might be doing something you know somewhere on a continuum from average to okay to superlative. But how do you maintain excellence all the time? I think that is the key organizational transformation. It's sort of holding out excellence in front of you as the goal, as the carrot, and continually being in pursuit of it. And not excellence for excellence’s sake, right? It's all the stuff we've been talking about that journalists are responsible for—whether we're talking about freedom of the press and the role that we have in democracy, whether it's talking about listening to community and being responsive to it, those are all components of the definition of excellence that we should have in this industry and we need to be in pursuit of organizational change that helps us be excellent in responding to all of that.
Regan-Porter: So before we finish up with some rapid fire questions and media recommendations, is there anything I haven't covered, any message you want to put out there, or questions for listeners that you're generally curious about?
Bolden: Well I mean one of the things I'm always curious about right is that how exactly do people feel about their media? Where are people getting news and information? What do they think is being missed? What do they think news organizations should do better? W here do they get different types of news? How do they distinguish between different types of news? Do they not distinguish between different types of news? These are all questions that I think are very instructive to people who are in the media trying to provide that information. We had a robust conversation in our staff meeting I think it was just last week around you know opinion journalism and opinion pages and where people are turning to for local opinion news or if that's something that they even want, right? And so that's something that's been occupying some of my time and I'm very curious to hear what people think about that. Rapid-fire questions
Regan-Porter: Alright, great. So now onto the rapid fire, and your answers don't have to be succinct. But the questions will be fairly quick, with apologies to all the other podcasts I'm stealing from. Messy desk or clean desk?
Bolden: Clean desk
Regan-Porter: Compared to a year ago, are you more or less optimistic about the future of local news?
Bolden: More optimistic.
Regan-Porter: Do you have a favorite failure of yours?
Bolden: A favorite failure of mine. Oh, my goodness. One the things that I constantly have to remind myself is how little that I knew. So I think that there are failures all the time happening in my life where I am educated on things that I just had no idea about. Whether it was being an assigning editor at The Post or you know being editorial director at Knight Foundation and learning about my own personal blind spots, or frankly, my own ignorance about things. And the assumptions that I make. I think we all make assumptions that really are points of failure. And recognizing those can help steer us in the right direction. You know one of the things that all of that has taught me is to interrogate everything, that nothing’s off the table, including my own decisions and my own approaches to things.
Regan-Porter: What's the best single piece of advice, career advice, you've ever been given?
Bolden: Have an advisory board for your life. You know it's not easy to go it alone, and you shouldn't go it alone. You should have different people of different specialties and different viewpoints and wisdom who can advise you on these things that might happen in your life. Sometimes it might be personal; sometimes it might be professional. But having that multiplicity of wise voices, you know, at inflection points I think can help steer you in the best direction.
Regan-Porter: What piece of common advice or conventional wisdom drives you crazy in its wrongness or over-simplification?
Bolden: Goodness. Well, I'm gonna say something that’s kind of the opposite of what you asked me. Because I think that there is this embedded attitude that's more problematic. I urge people to be fearless. Not to be reckless and fearless, but I think you have to be fearless, especially in your professional life and be willing to take chances and be willing to admit mistakes and take responsibility for them and move on. Some people don't subscribe to those sorts of things. Actually some people want to cover up those sorts of things. But one of the things I have found in my life especially when there were mistakes that I’ve made. I have been quick to open up to them, and say, okay, now we move on? And move on to the next thing because I'm going to make mistakes. That’s just part of who I am. I haven't seen anybody yet who doesn't make them. But yeah that willingness to embrace them and move on I think is undervalued and not something that gets talked about enough.
Regan-Porter: What's your favorite place to think big?
Bolden: My favorite place to think big…. What do you—well I know this is supposed to be rapid fire, but that’s such an interesting question. Do you mean physical place or do you mean an arena of things or what?
Regan-Porter: Could be either.
Bolden: Oh, god. Well I think as a society frankly we don't think big enough sometimes. And having big dreams and being able to sort of pursue impossible goals is important. I mean you think about the moon shot right and how collectively that really did bring people together, especially when it was finally accomplished. People were like, oh my goodness we're actually—we're going to the moon, right? What are our moonshots that are bringing us together, those are the areas that we need to think more about. When I was a kid I used to love to read the encyclopedia. And in the world of the encyclopedia there were visions of flying cars and all kinds of other things. Where are the flying cars? Why aren’t there flying cars outside my window right now, Tim? I think in every arena of public life we need to think big. And you know I'm actually a Trekkie, more of a Next Generation fan than anything. But there are so many elements of that world where so many problems have been solved, that I think we need to think big about as a society because they just stand in our way, right? We shouldn't be worried about people being hungry. We shouldn't be worried about people trying to find medical care to fight cancer. We shouldn't be worried about people going hungry. Those sort of things. Can't we solve those? I mean those are some areas where I think we should think big because if we can think big about those things and solve some of those things we can move on to some of the great stuff that will allow us to explore this universe, whether it be the great out there or the great you know here and come up with some truly remarkable revelations and influence. But you know I'm a bit of a—I'm an optimist and I'm a bit of a person who just likes to dream the impossible things sometimes.
Regan-Porter: Love it. I'm a Trekkie, too. What's one thing you do to restore yourself and maintain your sanity?
Bolden: Play with my dogs. I have two Sheepadoodles. Grace will be three in February. Gabriella will be two in April. And you know this from your own experience but the love of pets is unconditional and unwavering and so no matter what problem you might be encountering spending any time with your animals, whether they're cats or dogs—I've had both, I just have two dogs right now—is a sure way first of all to remind you that you are a good person. Because sometimes the world beats you down and you you forget that. But also the existence of unconditional love and its simplicity, most certainly is a way to restore your soul.
Regan-Porter: Alright. Two more. What's your smartest time saving hack?
Bolden: Oh, my smartest time saving hack. So, to-do lists at the start of each day and then just check those off as I go. Because sometimes I get distracted because my mind sometimes feels all over the place and having that focus list that I can just check off is a way to ensure that I remain on task and also gives me a sense of accomplishment.
Regan-Porter: What's a creative measure of success you’ve set for yourself or your team?
Bolden: Yeah, so a creative measure of success really does have to do with—I'm gonna go back to George Washington and this idea of civic happiness, which really is about how resilient and effective people and teams are. And it's something that I think is actually measurable, right? I mean in your interaction with people and then the job satisfaction and that sort of thing. And there are a lot of elements that go into it. I mean you know like—well the simplest one, posing the famous question that JSK is probably familiar for—and for your listeners, JSK is the Stanford fellowship—but how are you doing, really? You know things like that when you ask people those types of questions and you genuinely care, and you provide support around it. I think that that's a critical part of that.
Regan-Porter: And then the next the final thing, with the apologies to Ezra Klein, not your favorite books but just three to five media recommendations. Podcasts, newsletters, books.
Bolden: Something that's relatively recent, Newsroom Confidential by Margaret Sullivan who was most recently at the Washington Post. it is immeasurably useful to read that. You know I also love—I let me think of a movie and it's gonna be a recent one. So She Said, the movie by, that just came out out that actually didn't so well at the box office. But I think it's a good reminder of the power of journalism and how effective we can be. But and it's also a reminder of the need to be skeptical about power and people in power, which is something that we should we should never lose. And actually we also also need to be curious constantly, and so I'm going to throw in a podcast to this list, which is actually something done by KQED in the San Francisco Bay area. It’s called Bay Curious where they often respond to things that you know people in the community want to know more about and those sort of tell people a story about it. I think probably every media organization probably should be doing something like that in their communities because it sort of taps into the zeitgeist of what people are thinking about.
Regan-Porter: And then last question, the plug zone. How can people find out more about you or American Press Institute?
Bolden: Go to our website, which is pressinstitute.org. Or feel free to email me, I’m michael <dot> bolden <at> pressinstitute.org. If people are interested in things like Metrics for News or Source Matters, or our newest product—which I actually did talk about much—the API Inclusion Index, which measures diversity and inclusion not just in the newsroom but also in the community, we're happy to talk with people more about that. I'm also still on Twitter, @michaelbolden, and I'm @bolden on Mastodon. And I forget what I am on post.news, but I'm there, too. And my DMs are always open.
Regan-Porter: Thank you very much, Michael
Thank you for listening to the Local News Matters Podcast. And thank you, Michael, for your thoughtfulness, your vision and all of the work you do for newsrooms and communities across the country.
Next week, I’m thrilled to have Maritza Felix of Connecta Arizona, and the project I made a fumbling reference to in my conversation with Michael. Maritza is doing fascinating and unique work for Latino communities along the border and that work has had an impact and garnered attention and awards across the country.
A final thanks to our production partners at Pirate Audio. Pirate Audio believes every community deserves great things to listen to, and they are on a mission to help local newsrooms reach their communities via audio. If you’re interested in starting a podcast or need production support, let me know, and I’d be happy to connect you.
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