Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes…

Amanda Meade talks journalism, social media, audience and data with optimistic US digital news guru Vivian Schiller

You have been the chief digital officer for NBC News, CEO and president of National Public Radio, and more recently you spent a year at Twitter. Can you tell us what you will be doing next?

I’m trying to follow the advice I’ve given so many others who change jobs, and not jump into a full-time role right away. I’m doing some advising and having a lot of interesting conversations across the industry.

This [US] spring, I’ll be a fellow at an academic institution. With both kids in college, my husband and I thought it wasn’t fair that they should have all the fun, so we’re going back to college too. Luckily for them, we won’t be in the same city.

When you left Twitter in October, you tweeted: “It was a fascinating experience.” How was the transition from a news organisation to a social media one? Can you tell us what you learnt at Twitter and how it’s informed your views on the nexus between news and social media?

The immersion into tech-company culture was eye-opening. And, yes, the free food is everything it’s cracked up to be. No question there is a lot that news organisations can learn from tech companies, but that’s also true in reverse. News organisations can learn how to cycle faster, embrace iteration and pay more rigorous attention to the audience through data. On the other hand, tech companies can learn to be more transparent and to take a longer view.

The next few years will be interesting. As social platforms attract ever larger audiences and control much of what the consumer sees, we may see news organisations pushing back to regain some of the direct relationships with audiences they have ceded.

You’ve worked in leadership at some of the world’s biggest media brands – what have you learned about the environment for women at that level of media companies, and what advice would you offer women who aspire to reaching those heights?

I’ve been fortunate insofar as I have never felt discriminated against because I was a woman. I think that’s largely because I’ve had a series of great mentors – mostly women, and a few great men. But I’m well aware that not everyone has been so lucky. My advice to women who are just starting out is to establish a network of people you can trust from your industry.

Networks are often recommended as a means to get ahead. But for women a network is also important for a more important reason: to be there for you during the inevitable crises of confidence. Most women I know, myself included, suffer from the ‘imposter syndrome’ from time to time. Your network is there to tell you you’re not fooling anyone.

VivianThe relationship between the media and the audience has changed dramatically. What challenges and opportunities does this present for journalists?

The relationship has indeed changed dramatically and that is a boon to journalism. Never has it been so easy for the audience to access quality journalism.

And never has it been so easy for journalists to find and engage with eyewitnesses, sources, experts and, of course, readers. Things are far more complicated than in the binary creator/consumer world we used to live in. It has required new skills, and a certain tolerance for noise, but in the end it’s better for both our craft and our business.

What trends have you spotted in the US that you think we should keep an eye on Down Under?

I’m interested in the emerging ‘barbell effect’ in US media. The very best general-interest US news organisations are doing reasonably well – the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, BuzzFeed, Bloomberg, CNN, NBC, etc. And many of the focused vertical properties are thriving – Verge for tech, Quartz for finance, the new Marshall Project for justice. It’s the brands in the middle that are having a rough go – those properties that are neither big enough to break through nor focused enough to find a targeted audience.

How central is an understanding of social media to journalists?

That’s a bit like asking how central are words, or pictures. Journalists who are not actively participating in social media are not part of the conversation.

News organisations that are not making social media central to everything they do are not serving their audiences.

What has been the most exciting development in the media for you in the past two years?

Data. News organisations are learning how to harness data for every aspect of journalism – from sourcing stores to creating new forms of visual storytelling. Paul Steiger from ProPublica recently said that data is the most important development in journalism since photography. I have to agree.

Are you optimistic about the future of news reporting or are the best days behind us?

I am very optimistic. Certainly there are plenty of challenges. Business models are uncertain; reliance on tech platforms carries big risks; audiences are hard to aggregate. But the hunger for reliable information continues unabated and technology continues to offer unparalleled creativity and reach.

Would you encourage your own children to become journalists?

Absolutely. I can think of no higher calling. (Although I’m afraid my kids have been called elsewhere). The job market is rough, no doubt. But it’s the millennials, especially those with coding skills and product instincts, who will forge the future platforms and business models for sustainable quality journalism.

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Amanda Meade is Guardian Australia’s media correspondent. She has been a journalist for 25 years, formerly at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian