That's what the ASNE-APME-APPM News Leadership Conference, just concluded here in Philadelphia, was all about. It's the third year these three respected orgs - the American Society of News Editors (formed in 1922); the Associated Press Media Editors (formed at a bar in 1930; yearly meetings since 1933); and the Associated Press Photo Managers (2001) - have thrown a meeting together. Philadelphia Media Network, parent company of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com, was among the cosponsors.
The subject, mostly, was storytelling, perhaps the oldest art - sitting around the communal fire, talking about what's happening, in the world and in the mind. That is what newspapers do: Tell true tales to the world so the world knows. Whether on bark, on paper, or in digital code, that's always been the mission. Much is at stake if papers no longer tell stories well. They will . . . go away. Disappear. Bye.
As for the republic? Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, laid it out plainly: "Trustworthy information is essential to civil society and to a healthy democracy."
This year's ASNE was about what doesn't change (the mission) and what must (how we do it, where it shows up, how it gets to people). The title of Monday's keynote speech by Kathleen Carroll, departing Associated Press executive editor and senior vice president, said it all: "Hold Fast to the Mission, Innovate Absolutely Everything Else."
You heard much about new media, apps, skills, digital tools, even new ways, if not to tell a story, then to package and deliver it to an audience on paper, laptop, mobile device, device not yet devised.
You heard much about millennials, how to reach them, how to hold them. Liz Nelson, director of audience engagement strategy for USA Today Network, said in an interview that in one crucial way, millennials are not that different from the rest of us: "They are interested in news and information, but they are getting it in different ways. They are not coming to us, though; we have to go to them."
One example: Millennials like authentic, personal connection, so give it to them. "They will respond to a writer at the Inquirer because they feel they know you - but they won't respond to a corporate brand," Nelson said. If all that makes papers work harder . . . tough.
You also heard about what U.S. papers have long covered: social issues, politics, race.
Isabel Wilkerson, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer in journalism, brought the crowd to its feet Tuesday morning with her talk, "Our Racial Moment of Truth."
Speaking by phone Wednesday, Wilkerson stressed that now is a special moment for race relations and their coverage. "As a country, we have been exposed to the spectacle of black deaths, to the mistreatment of black individuals as a lowest caste, in a way comparable to the era of public lynchings and executions of black Americans before large audiences," she said.
How have newspapers done in their coverage? "We have come a long way, surely," she said. "What newspapers can do now is provide context, a line or two about how we got here. Why, for example, does Philly have the demographics that it does? It wouldn't take that much time or space to explain. Because people do not know - and what people do not know can be news just in and of itself."
Probably the most anticipated single talk was Baron's keynote for lunch Tuesday. He's the guy portrayed by Liev Schreiber in Spotlight, the movie about the Boston Globe, where Baron was editor during the Globe's famed investigation of sex abuse in the Catholic Church.
Baron, who graduated in 1976 from Lehigh University with a bachelor's in journalism and an MBA, took his job at the Washington Post in late 2012 - and in October 2013 the paper was purchased by Jeff Bezos, founder, chairman, and CEO of Amazon.com. Baron outlined the many ways the paper has changed since then.
(He did not address the herd of wildebeest in the room, as in: "OK, we're digital. How come we're not making money?" Digital is where papers are, but it is hardly a solid line to profit. Baron said only that he was satisfied with how the Post was doing financially.)
How does a paper change? Experiment: Bezos has given the paper an undefined grace period in which to try new and different things, assay "the unconventional and uncomfortable," adopt what works, and leave what doesn't. Publish opinion writing online in real time, as news breaks, when viewer interest is highest. Publish everything earlier in the day. Support bloggers and add new blogs in new niches. Treat your engineers and technology people as first-class, equal brothers and sisters.
Aggregate: "Use the work of other writers as one foundation of our own work, and add to it as we can." Don't be proud; use the best that's out there, plug holes with it, build on it. Enlist freelance writers all over the world. And for goodness' sake, speed up your webpage loading time.
Change your headlines: "We're looking for headlines in plain, snappy, alluring language" attractive to the web generations. "We can be fun," Baron said, "in the style of our storytelling while remaining faithful to our traditions."
The internet "calls for its own form of storytelling," Baron said, with "stories that are more conversational and accessible in style, with animation, video, annotated documents, a voice that feels more authentic, because it is." So think differently. Create teams of writers, graphic artists, videographers, and engineers who can collaborate in new ways.
Asked afterward whether he ever encountered innovation fatigue in his newsroom, Baron said: "You encounter people who say, 'On top of all the other new things we're doing, now we have to do this, too?' And I understand, but we just have to say, 'Yes, we do. That's how it goes. We have to keep moving.' We'll still be doing great journalism and the big stories, we'll never stop doing those. But we have to be a profitable enterprise, and we have to reach readers in these new ways."
Penny Riordan, director of digital partnerships at GateHouse Media, said: "I was really glad to hear him defend the headline writing. The tone in news writing has changed so much, in a good way. It matters so much in the social-media world, and you have to reach the readers where they are." She also liked the Post's policy that all posted stories must have either photos or videos. "That's how you grow the news," she said. "A news video, at the end of the day, is a story. Viewers watch videos based on content."
What does a multimedia, cross-platform, digital-first story look like? Like "The Waypoint" (www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/lesbos), a minidocumentary about refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos. Zoeann Murphy, video journalist, and Samuel Granados, senior graphics editor, both of the Post, spoke of the novel ways their team was built (writers, videographer, graphics folks, computer people), how they followed the refugees, built the project, told the story.
You can watch "The Waypoint" pretty much straight through, click click click, beginning to end. There's text over images both still and moving. There's music, interviews, news, B-roll. But there are also plenty of invitations to take side roads, drill further. You can, for example, see the things the travelers left behind. You can linger, loop back around, read more, see more, learn more (for example, about the screening process before they go on to Europe), be engaged, involved. (Granados said later: "What's important to me is that the viewer feels, 'I am in control, if I want to skip to something, if I want to go deep, I can.' ")
Team members devised ways to involve their subjects, too. They gave refugees cameras and asked them to "take pictures of what was meaningful to them," in Granados' words. You can see those pictures - plus videos from refugee cellphones.
They thought up graphic ways of exploring refugees' feelings. One was a "visual quiz," asking them to draw answers when asked, "Whom are you traveling with? And whom did you leave behind? Is someone waiting for you at your destination?" The drawn answers are inexpressibly moving. Point of view comes deeply home.
So - as perhaps all of ASNE 2016 proved - it's not just the tools, the media skills, the digital gewgaws. Each new thing papers are trying aims to foster connection, empathy. "We were trying to find ways to convey the emotions we observed," Murphy said. "Their relief when they arrived, their exhaustion, the long waits, the frustration."
We're back around the communal fire, telling the story, to connect, to engage. If that old art ever went away, that fire would go out - and we'd be left in the dark.