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September 2, 2014

Q&A Amy O’Leary: Everyone is trying to be innovative right now

New York Times reporter and digital specialist Amy O’Leary talked to us about about social media, innovative newsrooms and her advice to young journalists.


New York Times reporter and digital specialist Amy O’Leary talked to us about about social media, innovative newsrooms and her advice to young journalists. (Update: Amy O’Leary is now Editorial Director of Upworthy)

What is the one digital trend that has reshaped storytelling the most?

The rise of social media is probably one of the most transformative trends that journalists are either taking advantage of, or misunderstanding, today. Things like Facebook and Twitter have created new challenges — but also new opportunities — for the promotion and distribution of our stories.

Some young people today say that they think “the news will find them.” If this is our new reality, how do you make sure your stories find people? It’s a question I’m very interested in.

You’ve worked in print, radio and digital media. Do you think there are certain types of stories that work better with one medium or the other?

Absolutely. Certain mediums tell certain types of stories better than others. Audio, for example, is wonderful for hearing the emotion in someone’s voice, or getting a sense of what is authentic in an eyewitness account. Images can have very strong emotional pull, and describe the relationship between people, things and their environment.

Text is perhaps the most flexible medium, since it engages most directly with the imagination. But also, text has the unique ability to provide abstract analysis, conceptualization and to do the most important thing of all that a story can do: create meaning. In the hands of a skilled craftsperson, written stories can be so broad as to reach every kind of person, but so deep as to pierce your very own heart.

What are, in your opinion, the most innovative newsrooms these days?

Everyone is trying to be innovative right now. I try to pay attention to newsrooms that are the most different from The New York Times, so I can learn from their experiments. I am interested in the way that Vice, Mashable and Buzzfeed are covering international stories right now, and I am particularly interested in the way that the Washington Post will transform, now that its owner is Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon.com. I imagine they will make some impressive changes soon.

What basic elements do you require for a good story?

A good story is one that you have never heard before. Surprising details are the best way to engage the curiosity of the human mind, and the wonderful thing about journalism is that our job is to go out in the world and discover surprising details about the world.

What advice would you give to a young journalist?

I think that young journalists should use their research skills to investigate their own careers. So, if you want to become a journalist, you should read and study a lot of current journalism. After reading and experiencing everything you can, you should make a list of your heroes and study their careers to see what experiences they had, how they became excellent at their work, and then copy their best strategies to build your own career.

Amy O’Leary talked at #Story14 about how new digital trends in social media, mobile reading and anticipatory computing change the way we tell stories. Here is her speech, and here is an exclusive interview about the skills young journalists need in today’s rapid changing world.