BDN Director of News & New Media Anthony Ronzio on the future of journalism

This is the third in my series of interviews with folks who will be speaking at the BDN What’s Next Conference. Last week I spoke with Spose, and the week before that I chatted with Think Tank’s Patrick Roche.

Anthony Ronzio is the Director of News & New Media at Bangor Daily News. We discussed the various imminent paradigm shifts facing his industry and Maine newspapers in particular.

Ronzio’s journalism experience includes stints as Chief Executive of MaineToday Media’s two newspapers in central Maine—the Kennebec Journal in Augusta and the Morning Sentinel in Waterville—editorial page editor of the Sun Journal; and assistant editor of VillageSoup when the digital-first, community-news Website began in Maine’s midcoast region. He also has been president and treasurer of the Maine Press Association.

What will you be covering at the What’s Next Conference?

I am a moderating two panels. There is one focused on IT, infrastructure and purchasing technology panel, and another on information hubs. Patrick from Think Tank, whom you interviewed last week, will be on that one.

What is most exciting to you about participating in this conference in particular?

I don’t think Maine gets thought leaders together enough to really hash out what is going on in this state. It happens every once in a while, though not enough in an organized fashion where people who know what’s going on get together and share what is happening here in this state rather than what is happening in any particular industry, sector or movement. The Social Media Breakfast movement has been a step forward in that space, where it brings people who rally around those efforts to get into the same room and talk about issues of common concern. I see this conference as somewhat similar in that it is about Maine, it is about what is happening here, and it is about bringing together people who have a strong awareness of what is happening in this state to share knowledge.

We are really a self-contained state, economy and culture here and I think that we all have a lot to learn from each other. As somebody who has worked in journalism his whole life I think I have a lot to learn from a guy who produces a rap album with the help of crowd-sourcing efforts. He could help me, I could learn a lot from him, and also, maybe he could learn a lot from me and some of the conversations we might have at a conference like this. It is fair to say that this type of conference brings together a lot of different personalities and people from disparate backgrounds, a lot of whom can learn a lot from each other to be more successful people.

You have come to BDN at what continues to be an incredibly interesting time for journalism. This week there was this talk of Nate Silver’s departure from the New York Times, where the Public Editor stated that Silver didn’t mesh well into their culture, and—reading into it—that culture appears to be one where resentment and anxiety about where the industry is going plays a pretty substantial role. Silver, who is this new, beloved, disruptive institution in his own right, was lost to this amazing institution, it appears, because there is a good deal of nervousness about where we are heading, and what it means for folks who do things in a particular way. That seems to speak to a much larger reality with regard to the changes facing the industry as a whole. How are you keeping up with these shifting paradigms?

I am glad you brought up the Nate Silver scenario, because if there really is a microcosm for our industry as a whole, that is it. You, Alex, are Nate Silver. I don’t mean that in the sense of your keen analytical abilities, but what you provide to the BDN as a source of content is disruptive, it is not everybody’s cup of tea, it is not what tried and true ink-in-the-blood journalists would consider proper for the BDN. I think it should be argued that what you provide is critically important for a news organization to have to push new boundaries, engage new readers, and provide evocative content that is compelling and makes people talk.

It was his methods and practice that made Silver disruptive, but what I saw in the discussions around this was the question “Where does this disruptive image fit within the institutional image of the New York Times, and to a larger extent, what the newspaper industry is?”

In his trademark cranky, wry and on-the-nose style, Al Diamon touched on this recently when he examined the direction the Portland Press Herald might be going with a paywall, and the direction BDN is going in with regard to this model that features news as well as aggregating community-created content. He didn’t put it quite that way, but this is what I got out of it. With regard to the new news ecosystem, there are multiple directions to go in, no? Not only are we at a cross-roads, we are at a multi-way intersection.

And every direction is considered right, depending on where you think the business is going.  I think that whatever exact models we all are working towards, and whatever it is going to be, they are yet to have been created. Right now it is a matter of working toward where we see the future will be, while also providing good, competent journalism. I firmly believe in the model we are working with at the BDN because for people of Generation X and down through the Millennials, that the consumption of information will happen digitally first and print second. Maybe. Print will become a secondary and specialty medium. It is going to become a quaint, old fashioned medium that will be special and come out once in a while. It is not going to be the consistent presence in people’s lives in the way that it has been and so we should begin preparing for that as soon as possible.

This is so interesting to me because at my company Knack Factory, where we produce a good deal of digital content, we will get together and ask ourselves, “How do we make something great and get noticed?” Because of the fact that there is a new video or mind-blowing photo set every week, we’re like, “Let’s just put out some of our content on news print and walk around and put it into people’s hands,” which is an unintentional throw-back to when I was making fold-and-copy photocopy magazines when I was a teenager.

Exactly. The Internet is not a meritocracy. The best stuff doesn’t always rise to the top and yet to compete in this industry right now, from BDN to the New York Times, it needs to. There is all of a sudden, though, this great glut of competition and great things are getting drowned out by other great things and it is becoming increasingly more difficult to make yourself stand out. It is easier to make yourself known, but there is a fine line there because you can make yourself known for all of the wrong reasons and you can make yourself known for making colossal mistakes and the Internet is not known for being very forgiving. If you make a misstep, you could kill what you are trying to do.

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Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.