The Digital Leap: Q&A with Rob Russo

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Posted on January 26, 2013

Rob Russo is an award-winning journalist with over three decades of experience. Rob has headed the Washington and Ottawa bureaus of The Canadian Press, and in June 2013 joined the CBC as managing editor of its parliamentary bureau.

Navigator recently spoke with Rob about journalism, social media and the rapidly changing media environment.


In your career, you’ve covered a number of different governments — in provincial assemblies, on Parliament Hill and in Washington. How has the journalism business changed, particularly with the rise of digital media? Has it been a change for the better?
Editorially, the digital leap has generally been terrific for journalism. More people than ever people are reading, listening and watching our journalism. The walls between our audiences and reporters have been lowered or torn down entirely. We aren’t telling them what the most important story is of the day. They are making that decision. They are the editors filtering out what they do and don’t want to hear about. Then they are turning to us to make sense of it all. That’s broken some connections, but given birth to vibrant new connections with our audiences that didn’t exist before.
What we haven’t been able to do yet is find a way to make the kind of money we used to make as an industry, given the larger audience and the stronger connection.
But we’re in a period of transition and I’m confident that we’ll get there.

In a lot of cases, it seems like the desire to be the first to report a story has replaced journalistic standards, like proper sourcing and fact checking. Do you think the media’s credibility has been damaged as a result?
Pollsters aren’t the only ones who have blown calls lately. Reporters have got it wrong on some notable stories of late, notably the Boston bombings. If we openly admit it when we get it wrong and take thoughtful steps to ensure that errors aren’t repeated, we can rebuild credibility and, in many instances, enhance it. And the other truth is organizations like the one I work for now, the CBC, and the one I just left, The Canadian Press, have exceedingly rigorous standards on sourcing that make it very difficult for idle speculation to make it into the public domain. If those standards are adhered to we should be fine.

The nature of breaking news is such that the immediate vacuum is filled with a combination of both substance and speculation. Is the public interest better served through this instantaneous news cycle or upon sober reflection?
Reporters hone powers all of us have: powers of observation and recall. On breaking stories, we do very well when we rely on these two powers but can stray
into trouble when we draw conclusions as a story is still developing. I used to tell reporters in these circumstances to write only what they know—what they’ve seen, what they’ve heard and what they’ve been told by multiple, independent sources.
One of the best examples of this kind of reporting came during the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Merriman Smith, a reporter with UPI, won a Pulitzer for writing only what he saw and heard while others speculated wildly. His flashed dispatch: ‘Three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas.’ Second flash: ‘Kennedy seriously wounded.’ He got both of those dispatches out long before the competition and instantly captured the story for UPI with sparse, powerful and accurate reporting.

Is there room for both immediacy and thoughtful analysis? Or does the one undermine trust and credibility in the other?
There is no room for speculation in those circumstances. There is certainly room for analysis, but I would be very careful about that as well. Stick with what you know. Dig to find out more. Tell your readers and audiences you will keep working to find out everything you can that is relevant. But speculation in a developing news environment can be perilous.

Twitter wasn’t around when news of Monica Lewinsky’s stained blue dress or the impact of hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 first broke. How would it have changed the evolution of our understanding of these events?
I was in Washington and wrote about both of those events. I’ve no doubt Twitter would have had some impact on the reporting. But there was some top-flight old fashioned reporting done in both instances. Would Linda Tripp, Lewinsky’s older confidante, have tweeted about her friend’s tryst with the president of the United States? Perhaps. The 9-11 story happened as we watched it in real time on television. There were some heart-wrenching stories that came out in recorded telephone conversations, but they emerged days later. Some of the stories of those people trapped above the 80th floors of those buildings almost certainly would have been instantly tweeted out.

Can a 140-character limit lend itself to investigative journalism?
It can certainly be a way to obtain information and promote that information. For example, the Ottawa Citizen’s Glen McGregor is smart and active on that platform. He’s developed an important following as a result. I would not be surprised if that following has helped him get information he might not have otherwise landed. But I get a McGregor snack on Twitter. If I want his gourmet feasts I’ve got to read his full stories.

What implications does this technological and cultural shift have for your profession going forward?
They are myriad and impossible to accurately quantify right now. Smart phones and tablets are voracious consumption devices of our work. There will come a day soon when more reporting produced for television is consumed online than through the flat box in our living room. That is bound to have an impact on how television is produced. The whole ‘second-screen’ phenomenon—people watching television to take in a live event while following tweets or digging for analysis on a tablet or laptop—is opening up huge avenues of opportunities for intrepid reporters. But none of it will matter if we don’t keep investing in deeply researched, well-reported and carefully edited stories.

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