Nicole Carroll came up in journalism during the industry’s last years unmarred by the Internet, but she’s no Luddite.
The still new editor in chief of USA Today, the main news property of Gannett Co., brought up the notion of innovation in technology as an “opportunity” whenever possible during a conversation at the New York office of USA Today, which is headquartered in Virginia, where Carroll moved with her family after spending nearly all of her career in Arizona.
A good example of Carroll’s view of what technology can do for journalism is “The Wall,” a multipronged investigative report released last year. She led the project while still editor in chief of The Arizona Republic and it made use of augmented and virtual reality, short and long-form video, podcasts, and USA’s dispersed network of reporters for a project that took a deep dive on the prospect of a physical wall along the 2,000-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico, a campaign promise of President Trump’s.
She saw the opportunity for an “ambitious” (a word she uses freely in reference to herself and her work) project, along with an opportunity to “educate Americans” on an issue that was being used as a new tool in the Culture Wars being reignited as part of Trump’s campaign.
“Our job is to spread truth,” Carroll said. “Truth” is a word that also she brings up often, but truth in media can be a tricky thing these days, especially while covering an administration and a president that seem to have a passing relationship, at best, with the concept.
USA was criticized this week for running an op-ed by Trump that attacked a revived proposal to expand Medicare to all Americans that was quickly picked apart by fact-checkers at many publications. The Washington Post said of the piece, “Almost every sentence contained a misleading statement or a falsehood.” USA responded to critics by saying it gives op-ed contributors more “leeway” but within 24 hours had posted online a breakdown by Factcheck.org showing numerous instances where Trump “misrepresented the facts and made misleading statements.” USA also published an op-ed from Sen. Bernie Sanders titled “Trump lies about ‘Medicare for All’ and he’s made health care worse.”
“It’s a responsibility and privilege to be in the position that we’re in and we all take it seriously and we’re proud of the work we do every day,” Carroll said, before Trump’s op-ed was published.
She is a matter-of-fact type. While perfectly pleasant to be around, one gets the sense that Carroll prefers work to idle chatter, even if (maybe especially when) it’s in the name of publicity. She doesn’t meander in her speech. Anecdotes, which people so often pull out to illustrate a discussion on this or that, or just for entertainment’s sake, are very scarce.
As for finding herself atop one of the most widely circulated newspapers in the world, and one of the few, if not the only, major news outlets in the U.S. that’s maintained a reputation of centrist reporting, Carroll chalks up her success to a simple love of journalism, which she can track back to middle school.
“I didn’t set out to have this job,” Carroll said. Nevertheless, she referred to it as “the best job in journalism.”
WWD caught up with Carroll about six months in to her new position to discuss the state of media under Trump, how social media has increased opportunity but made the job of reporting more difficult, and the most important stories, so far, of a busy news year, among other things.
WWD: I want to hear how you started. I know you were in Arizona for a long time.
Nicole Carroll: I was in Arizona for 18 years. I started there as a breaking news editor and I left there as the top editor. Before that I had been at the East Valley Tribune, which is a competing paper in town. Before that I’d been at the El Paso Times. My first job out of school was the El Paso Times. I was a breaking news reporter and it was fantastic because there was so much news. I think [every journalist] should have experience covering breaking news — it teaches you to be quick, it teaches you to be accurate, you develop sources. All those are skills you need no matter what you do [in journalism].
WWD: So how long have you actually been in journalism?
N.C.: I went to college and got a journalism degree and did several internships while I was at [Arizona State University]. It actually started before that. While I was in 8th, actually 7th grade, in Canyon, Texas, I wanted to be on my school newspaper, but we didn’t have one, so I started one. It was called The Eagle Eye, yep, on a legal-sized piece of paper and we typed up the stories. Somebody drew an illustration of an eagle and we put it on the mast and, you know, it was like, a Q&A with the coach and little 7th grade gossip. But it was very well read.
WWD: I was about to ask what the circulation was like.
N.C.: It was lunchroom, whoever was in the lunchroom at the time, we handed it out, some lunchtime reading. So, I guess it is literally a lifelong passion of mine.
WWD: Where do you think it comes from?
N.C.: I’m a curious person, I like to learn things and I like to talk to people and I like to tell stories, so it was a very natural path for me.
WWD: I mean, this is silly, but just speaking from my own experience, I’m wondering how you’ve done it for so long?
N.C.: You know, it changes so much. There’s always something new — a new challenge and a new opportunity in journalism, because our industry has changed so much, so it feels like I’ve had many careers in one because I’ve been able to learn so much and do so many different things.
WWD: Do you consider yourself to have been a beat reporter?
N.C.: Yeah, I was breaking news, I was an education reporter. I did get into editing pretty early though — the Tribune newspapers hired me as an education editor. I do like having influence over more stories than just my own, you can spread your influence in a wider way. But at heart I’m a reporter, anyone who starts as a reporter you’re always a reporter. Even recently in Arizona, last year there was a flash flood and it killed a family of 10, it was terrible, and I remember I was driving through the town when it happened (this is when I was editor of The Republic) for my son’s baseball tournament and I saw the text alert come over my phone and I stopped. I tracked down the family and I was our first reporter on the scene and I was interviewing them and videoing them and when our reporter came, I handed off the assignment.
WWD: Did you ever see yourself becoming an editor in chief?
N.C.: Well, I just loved journalism and opportunities kept coming because I was passionate about what we do. I was always very ambitious, I’ve always been very ambitious in what we do, so I didn’t set out to have this job, but it came through different experiences that I’ve had where I’ve shown that passion and I’ve shown that ambition.
WWD: Do you think “The Wall” project kind of pushed it over the edge for you to get the job?
N.C.: I don’t know. I’m really proud of “The Wall” project. Speaking of ambitious work, that was something I felt very strongly about, being in Arizona. I was at a Trump rally in Arizona and was surrounded by everyone chanting “Build the wall! Build the wall!” Our job isn’t to tell you what to think or how to think, but I really wanted to make sure that everybody who was chanting that and everyone who may be against it had the facts, they knew what they were talking about. So we sent out more than 30 reporters and photographers all along the Southwest border to explain, this is the impact it could have, this is how it could or could not be built, here are the people who would be affected. Again, just so people would have information. Our goal is to educate Americans about the wall.
WWD: With the current climate of news and everything that’s going on, do you think that kind of “Build a wall” fervor that Trump tapped into, it goes back way further — but how has that been for you as someone who been in journalism for so long, to see it go over the edge, the anti-news, anti-media sentiment?
N.C.: You know, it makes me even more determined to help people know the truth. Our job is to spread truth. And when you have this rhetoric out there about “fake news,” it just makes it more important that we help people to know that this is true and help them know why. This is why I believe we should be even more transparent, you know, here are the documents and here’s the video and look for yourself. It’s really upon us to help people find the truth.
WWD: It’s hard, though, when you have someone like Rudy Giuliani going on TV saying “The truth isn’t the truth.” I feel like it’s almost, I hate saying this, but beyond a point where you can convince someone of a fact that doesn’t jibe perfectly with what they already think is right or should be the case.
N.C.: It’s very troubling that many times we cannot agree on a shared set of facts. It is troubling. And again it’s our job in the media to lead people to the truth — the facts are facts, so again, I think it’s a matter of upholding our own credibility. I think that’s what’s so incredibly important, that we maintain the standards that we have in the face of all this, so that people can believe us. I think it’s important that we’re transparent about how we gather the news, it’s important for us to admit when we make a mistake and it’s important for us to stand behind our stories when they are being attacked, because we know they are true.
WWD: There does seem to be just a huge lack of understanding of what journalism actually is and what reporting actually entails. Do you think that reporters today, or just news people in general, should start being more public about what the job entails?
N.C.: I do think we need to tell our story more. Explain, you know, we heard from three independent sources before we went with that fact, the editing process behind a story. I think that would help. Help people understand why what we’re putting out there is credible. I think that the other thing we need to do is just tell the story of our industry, in general. Recently we had those fires in Redding [California], those terrible fires, we have a newsroom of 11 people in Redding, who, while their own homes and their own families were in danger, they stayed in the newsroom overnight to be able to cover that story. So, we did a story about that and I think that helps to say, not only is what we are saying true and credible, but many times the reporter is putting him or herself at risk to deliver that news. And people need to understand that….We do have fact checking processes for stories. We do have standards for making sure we’re fair and objective and we just need to make sure to convey that as much as we can.
WWD: With USA Today, it’s a younger paper, younger than a lot of the major papers that are out there, so do you think that is a benefit for you today being a little bit younger, less rooted in the past?
N.C.: USA Today was founded on innovation, and we were new, we were colorful, succinct…so I do think that’s always been part of our DNA and continues to be, like with “The Wall.” If you look at what we’re doing with AR and VR, we’re continuing to push how we tell stories. And how we connect with audiences. So I think it’s definitely a benefit that we were founded on innovation as we continue with that.
WWD: Do you think it works, projects with AR and VR, heavy video stuff? Do you think readers really connect with that more than they do a print story, or are you just trying to talk to different types of readers?
N.C.: We just want to make sure, again, our job is to spread the truth and we want to do that in whatever way people want to receive it. With “The Wall” we did 12 individual videos that were actually turned into a documentary… but those mini docs have had more than 30 million page views on Facebook Watch.
WWD: And what was the feedback for that — did you get any direct feedback saying “‘You opened my mind,’ ‘This is so great’”?
N.C.: Absolutely. I mean, people on both sides of the issue, which is what you want, so many people said, “You know, I may not agree with this or that,” or “I agree with this or that, but i appreciate how comprehensively you covered this for us.” And speaking of transparency, I did those podcasts with [our] reporters because I knew there could be some skepticism around the reporting, just because of how partisan we are right now, so I wanted people to hear from the reporters directly about what they went through to get the stories, what surprised them. I wanted them to meet the reporters and understand again how credible and professional these reporters are and the information they were bringing.
WWD: Do you think there is another industry that takes transparency and being correct as seriously as journalism and news?
N.C.: That’s a good question. I think there should be, we’d all be better off, you know, “The truth shall set you free,” to be as transparent as possible and let people see how you do what you do.
WWD: Speaking of people on both sides of an issue, USA Today has always been more down the center. Is that hard to maintain in these times, when maybe there are reporters who really want to say one thing or another or report on a story that just inherently speaks to a bias?
N.C.: Our reporters know that credibility is the most important thing that we have and for people to believe what we report, they need to maintain that credibility, so we were proud that when they put those charts out that show media sources, we’re generally right in the middle and that’s where we need to be. We are here to tell the facts, to tell the truth and let people make up their own mind.
WWD: Is that a conversation that happens in the newsrooms or the hubs, making sure sources or whomever you’re talking to for a story represents both sides?
N.C.: Absolutely. We invite that kind of discussion in the newsroom, that if anyone feels we’re going too far one way or another, they speak up and say “Hey, what about…” and we take that seriously.
WWD: Going forward, even though you’ve only been in this job a relatively short time, is there anything that you are particularly focused on, either to bring more to the fore in coverage or pulling back on a little or changing?
N.C.: My priorities are investigative reporting. We’re tripling the size of our investigative team. Investigative reporting is our highest calling, it’s our mission… it also helps us build an audience and a business. People want to subscribe to or be around investigative reporting. We’re also expanding the network. There’s USA Today and then 109 network properties [all operated by Gannett Co.] — we’re hiring reporters in cities where we don’t have network properties, so we can better do original reporting across America. And then innovation, we want to continue to push the way we tell stories. And then obviously right now covering the presidency and everything that’s going on is a huge priority. Again, just because we are not biased doesn’t mean we’re not going to aggressively cover whomever is in power — of course we are. The priority right now is to not only cover what’s happening, but to put it in context that will help explain things to the American people. There’s just so many story lines and so much news coming every day, I really want to make sure we are a source of helping to explain what is happening and put it in context.
WWD: I’m curious what you think of that sort of aggressive reporting, which has always been part and parcel to journalism and covering any presidential administration, being used as a tool against the media? People and pundits asking, “Why are you being so aggressive,’ as a criticism.
N.C.: That’s OK. We’re not going to apologize for aggressively covering the president no matter what the political party, doesn’t matter who is in power; it’s our job to aggressively cover that party. So, when we do get any type of feedback of “You’re doing too much of this,” we just explain, you know, this really isn’t partisan, it’s our job, to hold the powerful accountable is our job.
WWD: What do you think has been the most important story this year so far, just in general? I’m thinking now is this even fair?
N.C.: I don’t think it’s fair…
WWD: We can go top three.
N.C.: OK, three. I’m thinking about, obviously, Trump continues to be a top story. There’s a lot of people who care very deeply about the president and his policies, so that is obviously a top story for us. I also think immigration continues to be a top story, looking at what happened to the children with the situation at the border was a flashpoint, and something I’m really proud of our coverage on. Again, having the properties across the country, we had journalists in California, Arizona New Mexico, Texas, “boots on the ground,” able to cover that story directly for us. I think the issue with social justice and racial issues continues to be a big important story for us to cover, as well. I’m sure there’s more I could mention but those three come top of mind.
WWD: Is it hard within your work, day-to-day, to adjust to the attention span that seems to be very different than it was 10 years ago? Or maybe it’s not and I’m just projecting…
N.C.: You mean for the readers or the journalists?
N.C.: It’s just the world we live in. So, our job is to focus on the things that impact real people, whether that’s their president, their taxes, their health care, so that’s how we stay focused, the things that impact our readers and to hold the powerful accountable.
WWD: Tying back into your day-to-day — what is it like managing such a large paper?
N.C.: We are primarily digital. We are a digital news company in every conceivable way — the majority of our audience is digital, the majority of our revenue is digital. So, managing a digital newsroom is constantly changing. You know, you have to be aware of how we’re covering the news of the day, you have to be thinking about the deeper more insightful enterprise in the day ahead, you have to be thinking about the platforms you’re using, text and video and social media and podcasts and newsletters. So you’re thinking about how to deliver all of that great journalism across different platforms. I think it’s a very exciting time to be in a digital newsroom.
WWD: Getting more into investigative, is that maybe a reaction to, this is my perception, but the industry’s hyperfocus on breaking news and scoops, because that’s what’s been getting the clicks?
N.C.: You know, I think people expect breaking news, so we will cover breaking news. I want to make sure that, in addition to that, we’re bringing exclusive investigative reporting that impacts real people’s lives. That’s what will set us apart, that’s what will make us distinctive and that’s our mission. So, it’s a very high priority.
WWD: Who do you consider to be your rival? Is it just everyone now?
N.C.: You know, when you’re looking at pure audience, last month [July] we had 120 million uniques, so from an audience perspective, we go back and forth with CNN. When I think about from a news perspective, we are a national publication, so we are competing against The Washington Post, The New York Times, but we’re also right in there with the digital brands as well. So, we have a lot of competition.
WWD: I feel that’s just the way the industry is now, a lot of industries, everyone is competing with everyone for eyeballs.
N.C.: I’m less worried about that than I am our audience and growing the USA Today audience, you know what I mean? We’re not the New York Times, we’re not The Washington Post, we’re not The Wall Street Journal, we’re not CNN. We’re USA Today. We serve the whole of America, we are a digital-first company, we focus on investigative news and putting the news into context and we have this great advantage: We have 109 properties, close to 3,000 journalists out there, so we have reporting that the others can’t touch. So I’m less worried about competition, as I am growing our own distinctive audience.
WWD: Since you have so many reporters on the ground, do you feel that, as there’s been such a crunch with local newspapers, are you thinking USA Today is coming in to fill some gaps?
N.C.: We definitely have a very robust reporting network and we are filling in, Boston, Atlanta, Minneapolis, places where we don’t have network properties. So I’m not sure we’re filling in [for lost newspapers] but we’re definitely on a mission to become essential across America.
WWD: Since you’ve been doing this your whole career, I’m curious how the shift to digital has sort of washed over you, since it has been so marked…whether anything’s been lost with the increased pace.
N.C: I think the thing that’s changed the most is how much we know about our audiences. We have so much more data. In the olden days, when I first started, you put out a paper and letters to the editor and you know, circulation, you knew circulation, how many papers you sold, but you didn’t know a lot more than that. Now, we know instantly who’s on a story, where they’re coming from, where they’re going to next, how long they stayed on that story, how long they watch a video, how long they listen to that podcast. We just have a lot more information about our audience. So, while that’s not going to make our decisions, it’s going to inform our decisions about how we cover and how we convey information.
WWD: Do you miss how it was before? A little slower, you could fully digest a news cycle…
N.C.: You know I love where we’re at now, I think it’s a very exciting time. I’m pleased there’s so many more ways to bring more information to people. You can look at it like “Oh, that old way has gone away,” but you can also look at it like, “Look how many more people we’re able to reach.” There’s just so many more ways to reach people now, and for someone who’s in the business of spreading truth, that’s a great place to be.
WWD: Is there anything about the new job that keeps you up at night, anything in particular that worries you?
N.C.: To me it’s not a worry, it’s just a challenge every day. How do we reach people today and how to we give them the information they need to make decisions and how do we bring context? How do we explain something and how do we break news out of it? How? Every day is a challenge but I don’t stay awake at night. I’m excited about it.
WWD: Do you think it’s more challenging now than it ever has been, or is it the same, but in different ways?
N.C.: I think it’s more challenging now than it has been. All the different ways of providing information, all the different ways people receive information. But I’m not daunted by that. It’s a puzzle.
WWD: Do you have any thoughts or concerns with all that’s happening with social media and the news, how they’re using the news, I guess Facebook specifically, and the whole thing with points of entry on these platforms for wanton acts of manipulation?
N.C.: I think people have to be very careful as social media users. We’re happy to use social media to help our audience, we’re not dependent on it, but we’ll certainly use it to help reach a broader audience. We all know there’s a lot of misinformation on social media and I have three kids and I tell them all the time, “Click into that story, read it, look at the sources, where the information came from before you share it.”
WWD: That generation, too, social media is almost like an appendage, so I imagine it’s hard to look at your arm and think it’s bad for you.
N.C.: Yeah, right. And they fully expect that the news will find them, but I’ve managed to raise very critical news consumers.
WWD: Do you think there has been a time previously when there’s been so much misinformation competing with actual information so directly all the time?
N.C: I don’t know, historically, but I can tell you that’s absolutely happening right now. In a very direct and daily way.
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