5 Questions with Smithsonian.com: On Staying Grounded and Holding Steadfast to Its Roots
Sometimes in the process of news gathering or carrying out coverage, a defining moment happens to a news agency or blog. Welcome to our new Beyond Bylines series: Five questions about the big stories you’re covering.The Smithsonian.
It’s an icon and brand that comes with an institution, channel, print magazine, and bevy of museums in Washington, DC.
Then there’s what’s online.
There are many components to the Institution’s online presence, starting with its main site, si.edu. And there’s Smithsonian magazine and Smithsonian.com.
Smithsonian.com features an army of freelancers, who keep their ears to the ground, staying on top of new developments and trending news.
For example, when a prominent newsmaker dies or there’s breaking news, Smithsonian.com often thinks about how it can differentiate itself from competitors.
“Is there a direct Smithsonian connection (such as an object in the collections)?” asks Brian Wolly, digital editor with Smithsonian.com. “If not, then what’s our approach that will add to the conversation happening online as opposed to just adding more noise?”
Wolly talks about evolving in the digital news world and the most important story covered in the past year.
1. The Smithsonian is massive. How easy was it to evolve with the digital news world? Were there any road bumps?
One of the blessings of being a part of an educational institution like the Smithsonian is that we can easily resist the siren song of celebrity gossip or the latest social media outrage.
We are uniquely positioned — the rare D.C.-based journalism outfit that isn’t mandated to cover the ins and outs of political punditry. But sometimes we have to work a little harder to draw audiences away from that. We can’t rely on those politically hot topics to bring us traffic, even as we are covering equally pressing subjects (like climate change, for instance). In this rapid-fire news cycle, relevancy is always a challenge. But we hold steadfast to our roots, as part of the Smithsonian Institution and devoted to the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”
2. What do you look for in an online story?
Topic wise, we always are thinking about “putting a Smithsonian lens” on the world, which means to approach a story grounded in fact and well-researched analysis. No hot takes here. We have scholars and museums that cover the arts, the sciences, and history; we have a zoo, a tropical research center and an astrophysical observatory; we have a museum devoted to design and others devoted to Native Americans, African-Americans and Latino Americans; we have a center devoted to world cultures. And there are numerous other fields of interest I haven’t mentioned.
We often get picked up on Reddit’s “Today I Learned” subreddit, and its basic premise aligns rather well with our editorial goal. Every story should have that nugget of knowledge, that surprising fact you want to share at your dinner table or office happy hour. Here’s one of my favorites: Less time separates us from Tyrannosaurus rex than separated T. rex from Stegosaurus. So if a story doesn’t have that — then it’s not a Smithsonian.com story.
3. What was the most important story that you covered in the past year?
The debate over what to do with Confederate monuments gave us an opportunity to do what we do best: Contextualize the news. One of the arguments often given is that the monuments “belong in a museum” and that is no coincidence given museums’ reputation as a place where history gets interpreted. Smithsonian.com has stayed true to that mission throughout the year. We reported on the history of how the statues came to be in the first place. We followed the story as localities across the country debated how to respond to the controversy, which only became a bigger story after the events in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Today, the discussion has expanded to historical figures like Dr. Marion Sims, a controversial gynecologist who operated on enslaved women, and a much broader and necessary public conversation is happening about who tells the collective history of the United States.
4. Tell me about audience. Who’s your online reader?
Our readers are curious and inquisitive. They are well-read and well-versed in the news, but want to know the historical or scientific context behind what they read online. They are looking for a unique and learned perspective on the world around them from the animals in their backyard to the galaxies far away and from the origin story of their favorite food to the history of how the geopolitical crisis of the day came to be. Located around the country and around the globe, our readers love to experience world culture as well. And they share our stories on social media.
5. What’s next for Smithsonian online? Where would you like to be in five years?
I’m hoping that we’ll continue to grow our audience and our staff. One of the questions we toss around a lot here is “if the Smithsonian museums had endless exhibition space, what would they feature?”
In five years, I’d love to see us expand our history coverage, as well as compete with sites like Hyperallergic on covering the art space or Afar in the travel space. The Smithsonian itself has some fantastic projects on the horizon, including the reopening of the dinosaurs hall, and we’re excited to align with them editorially.
Does your newsroom or blog have a great story to tell? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us why we should ask you five questions next.
Christine Cube is a senior audience relations manager with PR Newswire and freelance writer. Follow her at @cpcube.