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Truescope Talks with Maribel Perez Wadsworth

There are few media professionals as highly credentialed, and well regarded, as Maribel Perez Wadsworth, and it is a privilege to have her join us in the latest edition of Truescope Talks.

Having just completed a 27-year career at Gannett, Maribel began as a reporter in 1996 and left at the end of 2022 as President of Gannett Media and Publisher of USA TODAY, a nationwide network with more than 4,000 journalists in more than 200 local news organizations and USA TODAY. In 2015, she was named Gannett’s first chief strategy and transformation officer. Under Wadsworth’s leadership, Gannett newsrooms have been recognized with five Pulitzer Prizes in the past five years.

In 2016, then-U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker appointed Wadsworth to a two-year term on the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. She serves on the board of directors of the Associated Press, the Pew Research Center and Skillshare and is a trustee of the University of Miami, her alma mater. She is also president of the International News Media Association and the News/Media Alliance.

What inspired your media career and how did you get started in the industry?

I grew up reading my hometown paper, The Miami Herald, from my earliest memories. My mother used to joke that the broadsheet was taller than I was when I started reading it. It always fascinated me that the people whose bylines I read knew the news before the rest of us. Later, as I studied history and civics, my general news junkie tendency became more grounded in the vital role of journalism as a defender and protector of democracy. I was hooked.

You were at Gannett media for more than 25 years, holding various leadership positions including President of News for Gannett, Publisher of USA TODAY and the USA TODAY Network, and President of Gannett Media. What are your most memorable highs while with Gannett? Is there a particular low point that comes to mind?

You can imagine that a career as long as I enjoyed at Gannett is a bit like a rollercoaster ride — many highs, many lows and lots of twists and turns along the way. Thrilling, if at times terrifying. I’m most proud of efforts on three fronts — keeping a focus on journalistic excellence, championing diversity and inclusion long before they were on trend and helping to drive critical business model transformation. A few examples:

(i) As a young reporter I was handed a dream assignment to cover Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Cuba. While there, the week I turned 25, my editors at The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press gave me the flexibility to visit my mother’s hometown of Guantanamo, Cuba, which she’d left as a young teen following the 1959 revolution. It was a life-changing experience to document a major international news story, while also setting foot on my immigrant family’s homeland for the first time and to tell that first-person story. I’ve always thought reporters had the very best job in the world. So, later in my career, I saw my job as supporting their very best work. I’m proud of the positive impact Gannett journalism has had on the communities we serve. A particular high came in 2018 when our newsrooms were honored with three Pulitzer Prizes and two additional nods as Pulitzer finalists. We don’t work for awards, but they do reflect journalistic excellence that serves its community and country well.

(ii) In 2019, I received the News Leaders Association’s Robert G. McGruder Award for Diversity Leadership, something I still feel is one of the greatest honors of my career. The business case for a diverse, inclusive workplace is clear: diverse leadership teams achieve strong business results and drive innovation. And when your business is journalism, it’s an absolute imperative. I firmly believe that in order to cover your community effectively, fully, your news team must reflect its demographics. Diversity of race, gender, ethnicity, life experience and socioeconomic status, to name just a few, brings a richness of perspective that makes our reporting more complete. It helps us to see the issues we cover from new angles. It is vital to good journalism.

(iii) Another high was the exhilarating emergence of digital platforms and the complexity of creating content across a plethora of new channels, and importantly, to transition to a digital-first business model. I am grateful to have led the team that created and launched Gannett’s first digital subscription offerings in 2011.

As for the lows, it’s common knowledge that our industry has been buffeted by disruption for many years. From the effects of the market dominance of large digital platforms such as Google and Meta to maneuvering in the times of great macroeconomic upheaval such as the recession and housing market crisis of 2008-09 to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the business has been forced to make tough choices to stabilize and continue to transform. The toughest moments always centered on the painful decisions to reduce staffing.

During your time, Gannett underwent a significant digital transformation, launching new digital products and initiatives, including the company's augmented reality app and a subscription-based loyalty program for readers. What do you think has been their key to any success resulting from the digital transformation in terms of keeping audiences engaged with the media? How did engagement have to be rethought in the digital realm?

Everything had to be rethought for the digital world. Gone were the days of a news report wholly devised and curated by editors. We live in a highly interactive world, where most anyone can produce content and everyone is “always on.” These changes have been seismic. To start, we needed dramatic culture change. We had to redesign our newsrooms and our workflows for a multi-platform, multimedia 24/7 ecosystem. We needed new skills, new technology and updates to ethical guidelines and standards to account for new channels, such as social media. And importantly, we needed to create pathways for readers and viewers to interact with our content, to comment on our work, to share in and directly engage with the news of the day in ways we’d just never done before. Today, it’s commonplace for a news story to originate in the public conversation, in tapping into what is trending and on the minds of the reader or viewer. Audiences are savvy and understand they have a platform, in fact many platforms, of their own. And we have so many more tools at our disposal that makes storytelling richer and helps to connect to a far wider audience. The constant must be the adherence to journalistic principles of fairness, context, accuracy.

We also needed to foster a spirit of internal entrepreneurship, to harness the smart ideas and fresh perspectives of employees all throughout the company. We created the Gannett Innovation Lab to train employees in human-centered design and business planning and created pitch days for employee teams to pitch their new business ideas to the executive team. Several new products were funded as a result and the employee teams were redeployed to launch and oversee the idea’s execution. Some failed, of course, and a few succeeded, including the launch of the HumanKind video franchise focused on people doing good in their communities. HumanKind and its expansion franchises grew to deliver billions of video views and strong financial results. Importantly, the Lab was helping to build internal innovation muscle and bringing new generations of leaders to the forefront.

Upon leaving Gannett, CEO Mike Reed praised you as “an indefatigable defender of journalism in our democracy.” What are the biggest threats you see to the future of a free and  independent media and how do you believe journalists and media organizations can best uphold their role as defenders of democracy?

The threats are real and growing on multiple fronts — societal, technological, political. We are suffering from an existential crisis of information illiteracy that is giving rise and credence to falsehoods and conspiracy theories that undermine our democratic institutions. Social media and search are the primary ways people consume news and information and yet content on those platforms is often disembodied from its original source, lacking attribution and the ability to properly assess its accuracy and credibility. Misinformation spreads like a virus. Political leaders knowingly proclaim falsehoods and intentionally seed doubts about the work of credible journalistic sources. Independent journalism is facing political headwinds in the U.S. and throughout the world. Agreement on a common set of facts as the basis for debate has all but disappeared. People believe the facts that line up to their personal beliefs and discard those that don’t. What to do? For starters, journalists must be devoted to transparency - about their sourcing, about their methods. Second, journalists must continue to beat back the echo chamber, live in the communities they cover, get to know the people, the issues, the concerns. Aim to reflect that diversity in their coverage, providing context, helping to identify potential solutions not just report what’s not working. Report on the good things happening and the people doing good things. A more balanced approach to news — it’s not all bad — is extraordinarily helpful to building trust.

In an interview in early January of this year, in your role as President of INMA, you said you were hopeful that “flat is the new black of success” for the publishing industry, following a difficult 2022 and citing rising economic pressures. How is this year looking, a quarter of the way in and what immediate and longer term opportunities and challenges is it facing?

The International News Media Association just held our annual World Congress in New York last week - the first in person since the pandemic. The spirit of optimism was palpable among the more than 500 delegates from 46 countries. More than half - 57 percent - told us they felt the COVID-19 pandemic had a positive effect on their companies. While that might seem counterintuitive, it actually makes a lot of sense when you consider the dramatic acceleration of digital and business model transformation that was driven by the pandemic. Digital audiences grew exponentially as people sought critical health information and a better understanding of the pandemic crisis. Those audiences helped to fuel significant digital subscriber growth. Workplaces were completely reimagined and are still being redesigned for a remote/hybrid reality. Companies embraced technology for efficiency, productivity and collaboration. Supply chain challenges, labor shortages and inflation in key categories such as newsprint and fuel led to a recalibration of the print runway and a greater shift of resources toward digital. So, yes, after such a difficult economy as 2022 wrought, I think most companies would feel good about being flat or growing slightly this year. But the real win lies in the recomposition of the business toward a more flexible, more efficient, more digital-first enterprise. I was quite heartened to hear so many global media leaders express this optimism.

You’re a champion for diversity and inclusion in the media industry and have worked to increase the representation of women and people of color in leadership positions. What do media companies need to do better/ more of, to improve diversity and inclusion in the industry? What can individuals in the industry do?

First, choose. Diversity is a choice. Establish the conditions to increase diverse hiring, including and especially into leadership roles. Demand a diverse slate of qualified candidates for every job and don’t settle for less. Importantly, don’t stop there. The workplace you hire into must be inclusive, must make room for diverse voices. People take jobs for a lot of different reasons. People stay in jobs because of a sense of mission and community. They want to feel they are a part of something bigger. They want to be seen. They want to know their needs and ideas matter. Create opportunities, such as employee resource groups, that build community and help foster allyship. Importantly, don’t forget that even as media companies are tasked with covering news events, their employees are not immune to the effects of what’s going on around them. When George Floyd was murdered, our Black employees needed the rest of us to hear and see their pain. They needed to feel their work family cared. As leaders we need to listen to our employees and celebrate when they speak up with ideas or perspectives we hadn’t considered. It makes us so much better. So, individuals, you have agency. Use your outside voice when necessary for the greater good. When young mothers pointed out that not having a proper place to pump breast milk during the day was a real stress factor, it helped us to understand that a relatively small investment in nursing rooms had an outsized impact on employee satisfaction and retention.

What advice would you give young people interested in pursuing a career in media? What are essential skills for people in the media industry today, compared with ten years ago?

Few things delight me more than getting to speak to young people who are considering a career in journalism. The fundamentals of Journalism 101 remain remarkably constant - how to conduct interviews, navigate public records, develop sources, journalistic ethics. Multimedia skills - video, audio, interactive graphics, coding - these are increasingly important and they can all be taught. I’m seeing more and more students major in other degrees, such as sciences, law, finance and layering journalism on top. Expertise and specialization are good things. They make our reporting stronger, build credibility with sources and audiences. What’s tougher to teach is curiosity, empathy, healthy skepticism and discernment. Those are critical qualities for successful journalists. The throughline is open-mindedness and a general comfort with the idea that you just don’t know it all.

What do you most like to do in your down time?

Down time, a precious commodity. I always wish there were more of it. I love to travel, to experience new places, people, culture — and food! I’m also on a mission to visit every MLB ballpark. Halfway there so far. I’m an avid reader and I love to cook, though I will forever be half as good in the kitchen as my mother is because she’s the very best. I’m blessed by my 28-year marriage to my husband Chris, our three sons, ages 18-23, and two wonderful rescue mutts who make for a very full heart.

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