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John Walcott on the future of news: “Less is more, if it’s better”

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SmartBrief is proud to announce that John Walcott will join the company as chief content officer and editor in chief. Walcott, the Washington bureau chief of The McClatchy Co., is an award-winning editor and journalist. As Ken Duberstein, former chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan, put it: “John Walcott has long been one of the best and fairest journalists in Washington, and he doesn’t pull any punches. Never has and never will.” As he prepares to transition to his new role at SmartBrief, Walcott shared a few insights into the future of online journalism and Web content.

The Web has made it possible for consumers to keep up with news in real time, but the sheer volume of information from a variety of sources can feel overwhelming. Do social tools help that situation or hurt it?

Social media is as old as language, and it can help or hurt, depending on how it’s used. SmartBrief’s products, professionally edited for vertical and horizontal communities of interest, are good examples of social media used well, to focus readers on timely, important and reliable information without wasting their time on gossip, unchecked assertions, and political or ideological biases. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to play a part in expanding the scope of those offerings.

Content and content aggregation are often depicted as being inescapably at odds. What’s your take on the relationship between content producers and content aggregation? Is it changing?

You’re right; that’s a common perception. I know because I’ve been a content producer for 38 years. However, I think that view is a simplistic one. The quality of content remains, and I hope will always remain, paramount, but the means of distribution began to change when writing was invented — a development that Plato bemoaned, incidentally — and they’ve never stopped changing. Perhaps the most appealing part of moving to SmartBrief for me is the chance to play a role, one that I think is very important, in marrying the traditional virtues of journalism, with independence at the forefront, to the new possibilities of technology and the new realities of the 21st century. If we can’t do that, if timeliness and Web hits trump quality, then I think we’re all going to be in trouble.

Media critics often bemoan the 24-hour news cycle and the Web’s bottomless appetite for information — but of course, these things aren’t going away. How do you see reporters and editors addressing questions of content and scale online? What needs to happen for responsible journalism to flourish in an environment that always demands more?

More of what? Jack Fuller, the former editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, addresses some of this in his new book, “What Is Happening to News?” and he found some research that suggests that when people are bombarded by information and data, many of them begin to rely more heavily on emotion rather than reason to sort through it. If I stop, look and listen, I think I see some evidence of that on the Internet, the TV, the radio and elsewhere in this country and around the world. So the answer, which again puts SmartBrief at the forefront, isn’t just more, more, more, faster, faster, faster. It’s better and smarter. In fact, we may find out that what the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said is truer than he ever could have realized: Less is more, if it’s better.

What assumptions about the Web do news organizations have to confront if they’re going to thrive?

That all information is created equal, that popularity is a measure of quality, that faster is better and that more is better. I guess I’m old-fashioned, but I’d rather have one piece of good information that I can use to make a decision than 100 unfiltered bits and pieces of gossip, rumor, speculation, theory, advocacy and sensationalism.

Image credit: The McClatchy Co.