Edwin R Murrow Award–Winning Website: Editor Interview

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The Tyee.ca, founded and edited by UBC School of Journalism adjunct professor David Beers, has won this year’s prestigious Edward R. Murrow award for best news website.

We spoke with David Beers to learn a little more about his experience founding the Tyee and what he sees as the future for digital media.

Q: Why did you decide to start the Tyee in 2003, and could you tell that web-based journalism was going to take off?

A: Well, I had a bit of an inkling. Some of my good friends and colleagues started up Salon.com, and Slate started up soon after in the mid-90s. So in 2003, we were already eight years late to the game.

But I had seen an important change around that time. In the early 2000s, a lot of the content management software that had been created by Salon.com suddenly became available to smaller enterprises like our own. That was one development that told me that it was a possibility.

I also looked at the local media culture. If it was going to work anywhere in Canada, it was going to work here, because we have a highly engaged, literate population in the Lower Mainland and B.C., and it was a population that wasn’t being served by its own media. Most of the mainstream media was owned by one or two big corporations that were based back east, and there was a good opportunity to do something that had B.C.’s own stamp on it.

Q: Did you expect it to take off to the extent it has?

A: No, I always talked about it as an experiment that needed to be run. At that time, there were a lot of small political debates about whether we had enough media diversity. Some people said having one or two companies owning media outlets was fine as they were doing a good job and had the resources to continue doing so. Others said that media diversity produces a more rich competition of ideas, and the opportunity to move beyond status quo thinking. A culture can become mired in the status quo and if its media only reflects the status quo, then you may not have enough diversity.

The other debate was whether we were ready for Internet newspapers. Are people ready to leave paper? We also had to find out whether it made sense to do a regional paper or a hyperlocal paper, so we were getting that slice of the market. The only way to find out was to create media and see if anybody would read it.

Q: Where do you see online news going in the next few years?

A: The Huffington Post is a great example of what I like to call the reputation economy. If you want your reputation to start small and get big, the Internet is the place to go.

People write for the Huffington Post for free, and they write about whatever they want to write about because it matters to them, and it helps their own reputation. And then they figure out how to turn that reputation into money. Also, if they were only writing about what they cared about for their own reasons in order to make money some other way, could you really trust that?

Unfortunately for original publications, the reputation economy is not so vibrant. I can’t command hundreds of people to write for the Tyee in order to be a little more famous in B.C. So the tension I’m getting at is that the Tyee is more similar to an old-fashioned newspaper than to the Huffington Post. We run a lot of opinion and analysis pieces, but it’s not our main interest.

Q: The Huffington Post is also more of a content aggregator, rather than a newspaper.

A: Exactly, so they’re counting on people like us to produce content so that they can aggregate it and place an ad next to it and make money. I don’t begrudge them that, but it’s not the role I want to play on the Internet. I want to create original content and bring new information to the conversation – information that likely would not have been brought to the conversation by the existing big media players.

Q: What’s it like being editor-in-chief of the Tyee?

A: It’s the best job I’ve ever had. Instead of stepping into a culture that was already created, and either adapting to that culture or trying to change it, we were able to create a new culture from scratch. To create that new culture is exciting, as well as creating a new workplace model, a more rewarding way to create journalism. The Tyee is more of an intellectual community than what you might experience somewhere else. There’s more time given to discussing ideas, and what’s going on in the world. It’s a more creative environment, and that makes it more fun to go to work for me.

Q: What is some advice that you have for aspiring journalists?

A: The Internet can be deceiving. You can have a relationship with the computer screen and feel that you can do this on your own. Or you can network with people on Twitter and Facebook and feel that you’re plugged into a community. If you’re starting out, I’d advise a real-life network of people who you see face to face, compare notes, get together to work constructively, take your work seriously, and work together to help each other get better. That was really instrumental to me when I got started.

I’d also tell people to focus on a few things and develop some expertise. I wanted to be a magazine writer, and the way I broke through was focusing on a few specific areas. Then I researched until I knew more about those topics than anyone else in my little part of the world. I learnt about the military economy, refugee issues, and suburban architecture.

And lastly, don’t wait to get a paid assignment –make people know what you’re capable of doing and get your name out there.

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