Marie Gilot: How people practice journalism is as important as the content

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A fascination with American culture drove Marie Gilot to leave her home in France at age 19 and study at the City College of New York. Intensely curious about the world around her, it was difficult for Gilot, now the journalism and media innovation associate at Knight Foundation, to decide on a career path.

But when she finally found journalism, “It was the answer to all my problems,” she said.

“I may not have become a firefighter, artist or teacher, but as a journalist I could talk to them and live through them to get that experience.”

Below, Gilot shares why digital disruption has redefined the job of journalists and what advice she would give to the next generation. She also clues us in on what her love of journalism has to do with old French crime tabloids.

You've worked as a reporter in El Paso, Texas. What was that experience like? How did it influence your career?

M.G.: Being a journalist was a lot of fun. But after 10 years, I saw very little change arise from my writing and I started wondering why. I was taught in school that if you write about the problems of the world, they get fixed. That was the theory of change. In the real world, it seldom works like that. That motivated me to go into the nonprofit sector. I wanted to really understand how social change works, and I knew it wasn’t through old-fashioned journalism alone.

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What did you do in the nonprofit sector?

M.G.: I was the director [for a year] of a nonprofit legal clinic for immigrants. I was then hired as a publisher [for six months] at a nonprofit online newspaper. Being at Knight now is perfect because it marries my two passions: journalism and nonprofit work.

The focus of your grant-making at Knight is on journalism and media innovation. What are some of the trends you’re seeing?

M.G: We spend a lot of money, resources and time working at the forefront of media innovation. We fund tools like DocumentCloud and platforms like Zeega and try to promote new processes to ... give people access to the information they need. The frustrating part is that, mostly, it hasn’t trickled down to the newsroom. There’s an adoption problem. The disruption isn’t just about newspapers not making as much money as they used to; there’s a need to reinvent how we do journalism and how we engage audiences.

Why do you think there’s a lack of adoption?

M.G.: There are several factors. One is that newspapers maintain large physical structures, like their buildings and printing presses. That’s anchoring them to an old way of working. There’s also a cultural resistance to change. There’s a feeling that this is the way it’s always been done; we know how to do journalism. But audiences have changed. They don’t want to be talked to. They want a two-way street.

You spend a lot of time helping smaller nonprofit news organizations think about sustainability. What are some of the challenges they face?

M.G.: There’s a range, so it’s hard to generalize. You have superstars like the Texas Tribune. After three years they are not just breaking even, they have a surplus. They had a big investment to start with and wisely developed a business side and diversified their revenue. But you have a whole lot of nonprofit operations that are only one person. When you have to do everything - report the news, maintain a website and sell sponsorships - capacity becomes a major problem.

What can these smaller nonprofits do to survive?

M.G.: You’re seeing some of them form partnerships. For example, the St. Louis Beacon is merging with St. Louis Public Radio to increase their fundraising capacity, their reach and their regional news coverage. The New England Center for Investigative Reporting, based at Boston University, is making money by offering investigative reporting workshops for high school students.

You recently guided Google journalism fellows on a tour of Miami's tech startups and worked with young people thinking about careers in tech and media. What advice would you give to the next generation of journalists?

M.G: I think this generation has a lot going for them, and they should follow their instincts, especially when it comes to social media. They understand that they can’t just create content, they also have to engage with their target audience through Twitter, through the comment section, etc. There is so much content out there that your audience doesn’t find you. You find your audience. You find your community.

Could you give us an example of how that works?

M.G.: WBEZ’s Curious City has taken this concept to a really interesting place. Not only do they ask their readers to submit story ideas and vote on them through their website, but they also invite the person who submitted the winning idea to be part of the reporting team. They go along on interviews and help decide the way it’s going to be edited. That’s one of my favorite grants.

So the process of producing content is shifting. What about the final product?

M.G.: The process is the product. By that I mean that we should no longer consider the finished article, or the broadcast news package, as the only unit of news. Maps, databases, lists, photos… those are news. And so are tweets chronicling the reporting process. You have to show your work. Audiences crave transparency as much as accuracy. I think it’s very exciting, and I wish I had understood that when I was a working reporter.

What does that mean for journalists?

M.G. It means you have to change the way you work. Journalists tend to go for scoops and single bylines, which means they can be territorial and unwilling to share their leads. But journalism excellence now is about collaborating with other journalists, and with programmers and designers and even with the people that we used to call the “audience.” One of our grantees, ProPublica, has a project called Free the Files where they ask readers to help extract information from PDFs and put it into spreadsheets. It’s manual labor that cannot yet be automated and it sounds pretty dull. And yet, nearly 1,000 people volunteered.

For fun you maintain a Tumblr site focused on old French crime tabloids. What sparked your interest in the topic?  Do you have the physical copies?

M.G.: They are the front pages of old newspapers you find at flea markets in Paris. I have some physical copies. The rest I found online in a French archive. They’re beautiful as art, but what I really find interesting is that they’re completely sensationalistic. They’re tabloids. It’s bad journalism! I like that because it reminds me to not be too sentimental or romantic about the great journalism of the past. There was bad journalism even when the industry made money.

By Elizabeth R. Miller, communications associate at Knight Foundation

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