Live event blog: New York Times' Brian Stelter discusses digital identity

By Cole Kennedy
We're here and about to get going in Fisher Auditorium (Gannett 088). The ONA Mizzou student leaders are very excited to present Brian Stelter of the New York Times to discuss Digital Identity and Online Entrepreneurship, and how his blog, TV Newser, ended up landing him a job at the Times.

Our sincere thanks must also go to Randy Smith, the Donald W. Reynolds Chair in Business Journalism, and the entire Missouri Business Journalism Association, without whom this event would not be possible.

We have a hashtag for the event if you're following along on Twitter - make sure to add #StelterONA to your tweets from the event! And if you've got a question, send it along to @ONAMizzou and we'll do our best to ask Mr. Stelter.

Brian benefited greatly from the fact that anyone can be a publisher, a fairly novel fact when we was starting out. It's great, because now everyone can participate in the media.

He began this trend very early, around 10 years old, when he started a website about the Goosebumps books. He was able to publish from a young age, and build up an audience, and eventually was able to meet R.L. Stein. Brian was building his digital identity.

Brian was a senior in high school when he had the idea for a blog about cable news. It was the beginning of the war in Iraq, which was the first war that was televised 24 hours a day on cable news. It wasn't until his second semester in college, however, that he started TV Newser, which focused on cable news.

It all starts with one bit of inspiration - "I wish there was a website that did this."

Mediabistro bought TV Newser from Brian in college for $500 and beer money, and he was perfectly happy to do it. That was his first experience with online entrepreneurship.

He added an anonymous tip box, and he began having users of his website participating in the media.

Strangely, his senior year in college, the New York Times called Brian to do a profile on him, and it ended up on the first page. It was that story that led to the Times considering bringing him on board when he graduated. By continually beating the Times and the rest of the media with his coverage, Brian became enough of a thorn in their side to make them hire him.

Brian covers everything from "American Idol to Al Jazeera," and believes himself to be more of a video reporter, because online digital video cannot be ignored.

When he first started out, Brian hardly thought about his digital identity or what that meant. Now, he thinks about it every day.

Digital identity is Facebook, Twitter, and most importantly, your Google results. A good rule of thumb is to 'own' the top ten results on your Google Search results by the end of college.

Brian wants to be able to share a variety of items, be they congratulations or interesting news from competitors, but he wants to be able to do it in his own voice.

Brian actually has a larger audience on Facebook than on Twitter, but it happened without him particularly noticing. It's important to remember to constantly be managing your digital identity on a variety of platforms.

When he began TV Newser, he didn't think of it as a start-up, but now there are all sorts of news start-ups, like Politico, FiveThirtyEight, Huffington Post, etc.

But what are we doing when we act as an online entrepreneur? The media, in a broad sense, is a meeting place for our society. The media is many things, to many people, and it's becoming more and more participatory all the time.

Despite all the noise about what is changing, professional journalists will still be the main producers of journalism, and they will strive to leave bias at the door. Brian sees journalism going in every direction: stories are getting shorter, and some are getting longer. Some are more highly fact checked, others not so. Some are machine written, and others are incredibly creative. We can choose what our corner of the journalism world will be; what direction we go in.

As young people, we're in a great position, coming into the journalism world without the preconceptions that some established journalists have. Young people are more comfortable with the web.

Brian remembers when Twitter was first used in the New York Times newsroom. Before then, there was simply no way for reporters to publish without editors. Which, as you can imagine, was a little nerve-wracking at first.

In the end, it made journalism more marketable. It gave every reporter their own distribution network. It's fortunate that young people are so comfortable with these online tools.

The audience makes our stories better by adding more sources and more context, and that gives this generation an advantage.

"We're not cooks at an all-you-can-eat buffet. We're hosts of a dinner party." New journalists must think more about the end user more than newspapers have in the past, and that's what the current crop of online entrepreneurs are doing.

The type of people in this room are the type of people most equipped to adapt to the rapid pace of change.

Brian remembers an example from an early story about how young people consume election news: "if the news is important, it will find me." That's the type of challenge online entrepreneurs are up to.

How do young journalists achieve success in online entrepreneurship? "Keep your head down and work hard." Produce as much content as you can, because when starting out, quantity really counts for a lot.

The goal nowadays is not to get to the New York Times, it's to get an audience for whatever you are producing. By doing that, maybe you will end up at the New York Times, or even doing cooler things that haven't even been imagined yet.

Brian sometimes wonders if he could have been more entrepreneurial when he built TV Newser. There was no emphasis on building yourself and your digital identity.

Brian is very grateful for the latitude the Times has given him and his colleagues to figure out the right way to manage digital identity. The professional news industry is absolutely facing a financial crisis, but not a distribution crisis. People need what they produce.

People want news, want new information, and fortunately, we have the tools to provide that. And that's why online entrepreneurship is important - to satisfy those needs. Maybe that will provide a partial answer to the problem.

Question & Answer:

If Brian were starting a publication today, he might go so far as starting solely on Twitter. Today, there are so many tools to begin a website with that it's very easy. Just remember, it's critical to focus on producing and building your audience. Worry about platform later.

When Brian was starting out at the New York Times, he was a little concerned that people wouldn't like him. However, the culture was too ambivalent - people didn't care enough not to like you. So he put his head down and worked to produce nearly 400 stories his first year and earned the right to the notoriety he has today. Earn the right to be there, to write bigger stories, and have fun.

The master of online entrepreneurship?

Matt Drudge and Drudge Report. Every month, he promotes his traffic scores. Even if your audience is only in the hundreds, it's all a matter of starting somewhere. Focus on building that audience, and getting that snowball rolling.

What are some publishing tools and research tools that are undervalued today?

Things like Topsy, with an archive of Tweets going back years. You can dig deep into the archives on there, but not on Twitter. Sometimes, Twitter can become too insular and turn into a "media chatroom," so we have to make sure that we work to avoid that.

What are some of your favorite apps to stay organized, or consume news?

Circa is an excellent app that explores the idea of how news should be packaged on a mobile device. Brian wishes he had an app that ran in the background, so that when he landed in a new city, he could subscribe to the local paper. He uses Foursquare for something like that, but it's unfortunate that there aren't many news apps doing that. The key is to make it easy - it goes back to the young person's quote: "if the news is important, it will come to me." And of course, Candy Crush.

How do you deal with the conflict between making news easy to access while also having paywalls to pay for news?

Advertising is continually shrinking as a proportion of what pays for non-television news. Subscriptions will continue to increase to offset that loss. Part of that is having multiple options for subscribers, and we haven't discovered any perfect solution yet, but we have to hope that newspapers continue a partially free model. "I want this to be open and accessible, and I want it to be easy to pay for."

Is there a time when a plethora of social media is bad for journalism?

Social media isn't bad, but misuse of the tools is bad. Journalists have to be particularly careful to monitor accuracy, especially during breaking news events. Also, though it might be slower, it's always better to wait until you can share a link with your audience than just sharing a single bite of information. Also, it's definitely better to share the audience with the institution, because after all, they pay the checks, not Twitter.

How do you disconnect from the constant stream of news?

Though these tools are great, when he needs to get something done, he'll leave his desk and go to a quiet room, turn off the WiFi, and not touch social media until the story is done. When he was working on his book, he gave all of his passwords to his fiance, who changed them and he couldn't access them until his draft was done.

Was it difficult to transition from writing news articles and tweets to a book?

Hardest thing he's ever done. Reporting and researching the book was very fun, but consider that his average article for the Times is 1,000 words, and the book had to be 100,000 words. That was terrifying. It was hard to write in a narrative style. It does make you think differently about writing and reporting; living it every day over a year. Overall, though, it was a very fun experience.

Going into the book, were you certain that was the book you wanted to write?

Absolutely - when he started, Ann Curry hadn't been fired and he was in denial about how bad the Today show was at the time. He had even written a draft and had written a phenomenal lead, but had to start over and tell the story as it was. The process of discovery was enjoyable, watching the producers who were masters at doing morning TV. And now, he gets to add another chapter at the end for the paperback edition.

Thanks to everyone following along! We're glad for everyone who was able to go out to the event, and for all the people keeping tabs on the live blog. Finally, thanks to Mr. Brian Stelter for taking the time out of his busy schedule to visit Mizzou!

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