ICM interview: Pat Thornton, the Journalism Iconoclast

Pat Thornton is the author of the Journalism Iconoclast weblog. He’s outspoken and unafraid to skewer some sacred journalistic icons (hence the name). He currently works for Stars & Stripes. More bio here. I interviewed Pat last week via gmail chat. This is an edited transcript of that interview.

ICM: Alright, first a little background to familiarize our readers with you. What’s your title at Stars & Stripes and how long have you been working there?

Thornton: My title is something like Web Content Editor, although it probably needs some revising. I was recently put in charge of our blogs. I’ve been here about a year and a half.
ICM: How large is the S&S web staff?
Thornton: Editorial is 4 people. There are other Web people who do strictly technical tasks.
ICM: Do you consider S&S a “converged” operation? Or is there still a wall between print and web?
Thornton: There is a strong wall. Ironically, the Web staff does work that gets into the print edition, but print staffers rarely do work that is Web-exclusive.
ICM: Do you see that changing? Has it changed since you started?
Thornton: Stripes is a unique operation because our print circulation is growing. Our Web and print audiences are quite dissimilar too. So, it makes sense to expand the Web staff, so we can serve our Web audience better. But, I would like to see the two staffs work together more. We get along with the print staff, and they do produce content for us on major Web projects.
It has changed a bit since I started. On some special features I have led, I’ve gotten some help from print reporters and photographers.
ICM: What’s an average day like for you as a web-content editor?
Thornton: That really depends on the day. Some days I put print content on the Web site and design a top story graphic for our homepage. Other days, I’m out in the field capturing multimedia content. Other days, I’m writing HTML and CSS. The typical day is a combination of at least two of those. Obviously, there are certain days I prefer over others.
ICM: What’s the biggest challenge you face in your job?
Thornton: Fomenting change. Innovation. It’s a big cultural challenge.
ICM: How are you overcoming that challenge in the newsroom?
Thornton: Slowly. In a newsroom like Stripes, change takes time. Patience is key. Stripes doesn’t have to innovate right now because there are two major wars going on, which have caused our reach and circulation to grow. But if Stripes wants to grow stateside — it’s not printed stateside — it will have to be much more innovative on the Web.
ICM: Your weblog writings are often challenging to the way news media (especially newspapers) do new media. Has that ever caused a problem with your work? Do your bosses read your blog?
Thornton: It has not caused problems with work. Stripes has no issues with me blogging, and I wouldn’t work for an employer that did. In fact, the success of my blog is a major reason I’m now the editor in charge of our blogging operations. I don’t know if my bosses regularly read my blog. My guess is no.
ICM: So you’re the blog editor – how’s that going?
Thornton: It just happened this month. We still have to work out exactly what they want me to do with our blogging operations here and what our ultimate goals are for them. We’re installing a new print and Web CMS this month, so things are pretty hectic. I should be able to answer that question much better in a month. But we needed drastic change with your blogging operations. The JI gets more traffic than Stripes’ most popular blog, and my blog is not backed by a 100,000 circulation newspaper.
ICM: heh. back to the journalism iconoclast. What prompted you to start blogging?
Thornton: The JI is not my first blog. It’s actually my third attempt at blogging, but it’s my first successful blog. I knew I wanted to blog and share my thoughts. I was an opinion columnist for my college newspaper and was successful at that. I also figured out that if I wanted to have a popular blog, I would have to write about something I knew about. Journalism and Web development are two important things in my life. And sometimes I get so fired up, I just have to get it out somehow. Some nights I can’t get to sleep until I write a post to vent my frustration.
ICM: Where do you get inspiration for your posts?
Thornton: Many places. I have a bunch of journalism bloggers in Google Reader. My last post was inspired by a post by William M. Hartnett. Readers of the JI also send me links and suggestions to blog about. Other posts are framed our my personal experiences. I do a lot of thinking throughout the day, and eventually some of my thoughts become ideas for posts.
ICM: What have you learned from the experience of blogging?

Thornton: First, blogging can give anyone a voice. I don’t work for a major journalism corporation, and yet I have one of the more popular journalism blogs. Second, blogging is a great networking and marketing tool. I’ve met a lot of great people through my blog and have been approached with a lot of great ideas because of it.
Any journalism student who wants to get noticed should get a blog. Starting the JI is the best journalism decision I have ever made.
ICM: Okay, obviously our audience is primarily student journalists and advisers. What tips do you have for students who are now in college – maybe working on their school newspaper or whatever – to prepare for the future of journalism?
Thornton: Working on my student newspaper was another one of the best decisions I ever made. There is so much autonomy at many student publications. I was eventually editor in chief, and I got to force real change. Also, working at a student publication is a great way to try different things. I wrote sports, news, was a columnist, a photographer, built special features and an editor. If there ever was a time to take risks — big risks — it’s when you are in college. And one of those risks might turn out to have a huge reward.
To prepare for the future, I’d say this:
Have at least two things you are really good at besides reporting and editing. Mine are HTML and CSS and multimedia reporting.
Every journalist needs to know how to write, edit and report. But the future needs journalists who get and understand the Web.

And if you want to make journalism better — truly foment change — you have to believe there is no idea too crazy to succeed. Journalism needs dreamers. Journalism needs entrepreneurs. Journalism needs people willing to take big risks. The status quo will result in all of us losing our jobs.
ICM: You mention that journalists need to “get and understand the Web.” Could you flesh that out a little more. Lots of students, for instance, know facebook, youtube, and the like. Is there something more to understanding “the Web”?
Thornton: It’s one of those things that if you need someone to show you how to do something or if you need to read a manual for something like YouTube or, you don’t really get the Web.
Anyone can use Facebook. We need people who have that entrepreneurial spirit — the people starting their own blogs, creating their own personal sites, etc. Making a MySpace page is nothing. Do you know some HTML and CSS? Can you FTP files to your site? That’s understanding the Web. And getting the Web means that you understand that the Web is an interconnected Web of people, cultures and civilizations.

Just because you can shoot video or make an audio slideshow, doesn’t mean you get that concept. Journalism needs people who understand that the Web is a community. That’s how we break out of this one-way communication paralysis in journalism. The Web allows everyone to have a voice, and many journalists — and journalism students — still don’t get that.
ICM: Do you have any “big risks” on the horizon you’d care to mention – any entrepreneurial efforts?
Thornton: This is the year I start taking big risks. I can’t really talk about anything yet, but expect some announcements this summer. I can say that I will be applying for a Knight News Challenge grant.
ICM: Okay, so besides the blog, do you have one work project that you’re especially proud of that you’d like to mention with a link?

Thornton: Army-Navy – I’m proud of it because it’s the first project I planned for Stripes. I designed the feature, coded it, wrote some of the content, captured audio, took photos and did some multimedia.