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October 04 2010

14:00

John Walcott makes the switch to online, but wants to bring some traditional-media virtues with him

The whole newspapers vs. aggregators war of attrition doesn’t make much sense to John Walcott. As he sees it, newspapers have always been aggregators. So what’s the big deal?

“The New York Times motto, ‘all the news that’s fit to print,’ minus a few words — ‘all the news we see fit to print’ — is aggregation,” Walcott told me.

That kind of thinking may explain why McClatchy’s D.C. bureau chief is saying goodbye to newspapers and hello to SmartBrief, which compiles daily news summaries across a variety of industries, usually in partnership with a major industry association. In his new role as SmartBrief’s chief content officer and editor-in-chief, Walcott brings 38 years of experience at newspapers to a company that produces an online-only product. (We should note it’s also a company that has had Walcott on it’s advisory board for several years.)

Walcott says he sees little difference between the worlds of the daily newspaper and SmartBrief. The goal with both, is providing readers with “information that is timely and trustworthy to make their decisions.” What makes SmartBrief different is the way they approach that audience, through aggregation, curation, summaries, and links. Walcott says that could be a good model to emulate in the media business. “When you present a summary and a link you are offering readers a choice: Do I care enough to read about this?” he said. “That’s a pretty efficient way to gather information.”

Assembling those summaries takes what Walcott calls “intellectual rigor and honesty in deciding what are important stories.” It also demands a measure of trust from your audience, knowing that you’re going to provide reported, qualified information — in other words, a relationship not unlike the one readers have traditionally had with traditional media.

Walcott knows all about traditional media, having led Knight Ridder’s D.C. bureau before McClatchy’s purchase of the chain and previously having worked at Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal. He won the first I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence in 2008 (a prize administered here at Nieman) for McClatchy’s series investigating the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq.

Of course, SmartBrief’s collection of specifically targeted audiences isn’t the same as a D.C. bureau’s broad, general one. The company curates summaries of the day’s news in industries like accounting, finance, health care, non-profits and technology. The newsletters SmartBrief produces are free to subscribers, thanks to its deals with trade associations, nonprofits, and other industry groups.

As audiences fragment, Walcott thinks media companies would be wise to find ways to tailor what they are doing to specific groups and the ways they consumer information. It’s not just that people want news that’s targeted for them, but it’s also increasingly hard to find that right signal/noise ratio. That makes aggregation all the more powerful, he said. “The job of aggregation as I see it is to drive readers to the source of content,” he said. “If we’re doing our job right, people producing the best content will benefit from that.”

Despite an increasingly flow of traditional media figures into online outlets, Walcott said he struggled with the idea of leaving newspapers. But he says SmartBrief is taking an active role in figuring out a path to success in media. And that’s something he wants to be a part of.

“At the end of the day the thing I’m trying to do is bring the virtues that good journalism posses and marry them with the new ways people are getting and sharing information,” Walcott said.

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