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john carroll

A lifetime newspaperman, Carroll left his role as editor of the Baltimore Sun in 2000 to become editor of the Los Angeles Times. He worked at the Times for five years before he resigned, citing a disagreement with the paper's owner the Tribune Company over budget cuts. Carroll is now a fellow at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government's Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 8, 2006.

[Has the media landscape changed since you first entered the field in the 1960s?]

... It is different. Newspapers are no longer in the driver's seat, the way they used to be, of the media. They enjoyed for a period of many years something close to a monopoly. They had great pricing power in advertising. That's what made newspapers what they are. They're the principal engine of journalism in America. They do most of the reporting. Most of the other media are recyclers of what newspapers produce. …

I estimate that roughly 85 percent of the original reporting that gets done in America gets done by newspapers. ... They're the people who are going out and knocking on doors and rummaging through records and covering events and so on. And most of the other media that provide news to people are really recycling news that's gathered by newspapers. ...

It is very evident that the new media, the media that are coming along with the Web, are investing almost nothing in original reporting. If newspapers fall by the wayside, who's going to do the reporting? What will we know? Who will stand up [against] the government when the government, for example, nullifies a couple of generations of law and secretly decides to wiretap us? Who will go to the courthouse? Who will go the police station in all the towns across America and make sure that things are being done properly? Who will examine all the people who seek to become political officeholders in the United States? ...

The only people who are going to be left standing as journalists in great numbers will be newspapers, and their business is being badly damaged by the owners.

... But the newspapers aren't all doing hard-news reporting all the time.

No, but they do most of it. Most of the hard-news reporting that gets done, and for that matter most investigative reporting that gets done -- and much of the news analysis that gets done, the really probing articles that enlighten people and explain complicated things -- is getting done by newspapers.

Then you don't count as real reporting what people on the Web say, that they are "citizen journalists."

... I think the Web opens up vast possibilities for good journalism and already has created many new voices that are valuable. But I don't think we can turn this thing over entirely to bloggers and citizen journalists. They're valuable, but there are things they can't do. ...

“I estimate that roughly 85 percent of the original reporting that gets done in America gets done by newspapers. ... They're the people who are going out and knocking on doors and rummaging through records and covering events and so on.”

The marketplace of ideas has been expanded by them, but they don't have staffs of reporters going out. They don't have staffs of reporters covering the morgue. They don't have staffs of reporters covering the White House. They've got very little in the way of reporting resources. It's not their fault. They're not in a business that makes enough money to put reporters out on the street. ...

... Are you worried that that professionalization of the media is going to disappear?

I am. Professionalization has not been without its price. Newspapers and other media have, to some extent, lost touch with the nitty-gritty problems of people who don't have much in the way of means. That's not good. But I do think that the professionalization of newspapers and of other types of journalism is basically a good thing. There's more setting of standards, and I think that newspapers are better than they used to be. ...

I can just hear some blogger out there saying: "What are you talking about? [New York Times reporter] Jayson Blair, 'Rathergate' -- there's a whole series of missteps and ethical lapses."

There have always been those. The difference today is that there is an array of other parties outside of newspapers who make it their business to amplify the problems in the press: The bloggers do it; the talk show hosts do it; the president of the United States and his staff do it; innumerable political groups of right and left do it; and then there are also many interest groups that do it.

All of them have a vested interest in damaging the credibility of newspapers. The newspapers have certainly done their share to damage their own credibility, but that is the nature of daily journalism. Daily journalism is, by definition, imperfect. It's not history. It's daily journalism, and it is flawed. And the only way that a good newspaper can give the reader a faithful portrayal of what's going on is to correct itself day after day and to add more perspective, and over time the reader gets the idea.

The Jayson Blair episode was bad, but the public was not damaged by it in the long run because it's all been corrected; everybody knows it's done. The only damage was to the New York Times and to the profession generally. But these things have happened forever. When I joined the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1973, the paper's chief investigative reporter was in the penitentiary for extortion. Very few people know that because we didn't have all this amplification, and the Inquirer was able to absorb that devastating blow -- and it was devastating; there are people today who probably cringe when they think about it -- but it was able to overcome that and become a great newspaper.

So you're saying, then, there's unfair magnification.

Yes. It's out of proportion. Newspapers are out there stating whatever they want to state to the public, and therefore they're totally fair game and deserve criticism, and are made better by criticism. But if a reader thinks that the New York Times is just a terrible outfit or the Los Angeles Times is just a terrible outfit that distorts the news and isn't honest, they're not being realistic. There's no better source of news in America than a top-tier newspaper. By that I mean New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and the L.A. Times. Nothing can touch that.

When you get your news from these talk shows or from television network news, you're not in the ballgame, as far as being a sophisticated, informed citizen, with someone who is getting their news from a top-ranked newspaper.

So when you hear somebody say that you are "elite, arrogant, condescending, self-serving, self-righteous, biased and wrongheaded" --

Yeah, that was from Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, and it was in response to a column in which I not only criticized him and his protégé, Mr. [Bill] O'Reilly, but actually made light of him, which I think was an unpardonable offense. So does it bother me that Roger Ailes feels that way about me? No. I'd be disappointed if he didn't. That's part of being in public life.

You said his network practices "pseudojournalism." Give me an example.

I cited my paper, the L.A. Times, as an example. O'Reilly attacked my paper for certain perceived failures, which were factually and provably false, and he wouldn't correct it. For example, when we criticized Arnold Schwarzenegger for dealing in an unseemly way with women, O'Reilly went on the air and asked: "Where was the Los Angeles Times when Clinton was misbehaving in Arkansas? Why didn't they do anything then? This proves that they are biased against Republicans and conservatives and in favor of liberals." But when you look at the record, the Los Angeles Times was the leading newspaper in exposing Clinton on the so-called Troopergate scandal in Arkansas. We had as many as nine reporters in Arkansas at that time. We broke that story in newspapers. ... Yet O'Reilly says we didn't cover it. That's what I meant by pseudojournalism: The facts don't matter; it's made up.

They would argue you're mixing up two things. They're a news network. They have reporters out in the field who have covered Iraq, who have risked their lives -- you just don't like the politics of their commentators.

No, ... the politics doesn't bother me in the least. I read and listen to a wide variety of commentary from left and right, and I find it interesting; I find it fun to read; I find it challenging; I learn from it. I'm totally in favor of that.

But the old-time commentators who were so revered, people like [New Republic founder] Walter Lippmann and [New York Times columnist] James Reston and so on, they built their reputations by being journalists. They were faithful to the facts. They didn't make things up; they didn't lie; and they corrected their own errors. This crowd -- and I'm thinking particularly of the Fox commentators, but it's not limited to them -- they're not journalists, because they don't care about that stuff.

Another criticism of you is that, especially when you went to the Los Angeles Times, you had your eye firmly affixed on an audience in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but you ... [really didn't care about local issues].

Right. Well, I'm going to disagree with that. A paper the size of the Los Angeles Times -- it is the largest news-gathering organization west of Manhattan -- it's not supposed to be a one-note paper. It's supposed to play a lot of notes. We're supposed to cover cultural news well; we're supposed to cover national news, foreign news, local news and so on. We've tried to play all of those notes well.

I think we did very well locally in some ways, although Los Angeles' metropolitan market has about 18 million people in it, and it's very, very difficult to be a person's local newspaper under those circumstances. I think we did very well over time on the big common denominator: important stories.

For example, over time -- I was there five years -- toward the end of that, we had a bureau in Sacramento covering state news. Those stories were stories that cut across all of those areas, and I was very proud of that.

Did we cover every sparrow that fell in Los Angeles? No. Before I got there, the previous CEO of the company had decided that the Los Angeles Times should produce a series of weekly or twice-weekly publications that would cover neighborhoods. It's very difficult for a big paper to do that. The old saying is, can an elephant play jacks? Elephants can't play jacks, and the Los Angeles Times cannot be everybody's local newspaper. ... They had confused, to some extent, the identity of the paper. It was like reading two papers: a small, local weekly with certain editing standards that are necessary in papers of that size, and then also a very sophisticated, big metro daily. The two clashed.

You referred to a "crisis of the soul" and said that "our mission is to save journalism itself."

Right. Well, let me take the two separately. The crisis of the soul has to do with the cultural difference between the corporation and the values of corporate business and journalism. There's a widening gap between the two. They don't really speak each other's language very well. They have different philosophies, different ethics. To some extent those differences spring from loyalties.

The corporate people believe that every employee of the company should be loyal, first and foremost, to the shareholder, and that is a prevailing ethic in American business, and it makes sense in just about every way. The journalist believes that he or she works not for the shareholder primarily, but for the reader and for the public. It may seem like an abstract difference that doesn't cause problems, but it does, particularly when the money gets tighter.

The two sides look at each other as separate tribes. Journalists look at corporate ownership as some alien tribe that has taken away the local newspaper and is, lately, determined to milk it to death. The corporate people tend to look at us with amazement sometimes: How can these people not understand that they work for the shareholder? It's this business about serving the public. That's a luxury we can't afford anymore. ...

I think journalists -- good journalists -- have always looked upon themselves as public servants. ... I don't know why they want to go into it. I don't think it's really the money. The money's pretty bad unless you become a superstar. I think it's a combination of things. For a certain type of person, ... it's just an exciting way to make a living. It's an exciting job. It's fun. It gives you an excuse to satisfy your curiosity, gives you a reason to ask people questions and talk with interesting people and see interesting things, ... and you get paid for it. ... Just the sheer entertainment and satisfaction of crafting a story and seeing it in the paper, that in itself is a reason to go into it.

Then when you sit back and you think, well, is there a larger purpose to it? Yes. I've been involved in stories that have actually done some good for people. You have, too, stories that may have saved lives, stories that have increased the quality of justice in America, stories that have enlightened the public in helping to exercise their vote with more pertinent information.

So in the reflective moments, you can say not only am I entertaining myself; I'm actually doing some good.

And [is that the mission right now for journalism] ... ?

Well, I wouldn't be so grandiose as that, but I do think that the position of journalism in America is in question. This is the question that the founding fathers furrowed their brows over quite a bit: ... What will public discourse be?

Now we've turned all that over to Wall Street. It's a market question. The markets don't care about the quality of American self-government. That's not their business. [And we've] abdicated that question to the markets.

[Some say], in the modern world, the public interest is what the public is interested in. ...

Well, it's true. That's quite true. But what the public is interested in depends to some extent on what information is available to the public.

You also said that newspapers are mortally threatened by the Web.

... The economics of the newspaper business have been badly damaged by the advent of the Web. Newspapers used to be quite privileged. They had something resembling a monopoly on local advertising, and they were able to raise rates and do those things. The Web has changed that. The economics that made it possible to put vast numbers of reporters on the street may not be with us for very long. Then who will put out those reporters? Who will invest in reporting?

Who's going to pay for the news?

Who's going to pay for the news? ... Google and Yahoo! and those people aren't putting reporters on the street in any number at all. ... They can link to the L.A. Times; why should they spend hundreds of millions of dollars gathering news when they can basically get it free? ... The blogs can't afford it. Network television is taking reporters off the street. Radio journalism -- commercial radio journalism -- is almost nonexistent.

The newspapers are the last ones standing, and somebody's got to do the reporting. Otherwise ... there will be plenty of stuff on our computer terminals and on the TV, but we will not really know very much. Public discourse will be diminished because the sheer reporting that goes into achieving the factual baseline just won't be there. …

I have to look at myself and say, yes, I am very sentimental about newspapers. My father was a newspaper editor. I've been a newspaper reporter and editor. ... Now that I'm out of the business and I'm in the academic world, I'm standing back and trying to see it clearly. I recognize my own sentiments, and I'm trying to look beyond that.

But I also am very clearheaded about the fact that newspapers are doing the reporting in this country, and newspapers are threatened. Reporting is absolutely an essential thing for democratic self-government. Who's going to do it?

Is it possible that there's a new paradigm, a new model? ...

Yeah. I think that paradigms are evolving, and I'm hopeful that some of them will be for journalism. There's the nonprofit model that's certainly been great at NPR, and there are a few papers that are nonprofits, notably the St. Petersburg Times. ... Wall Street and corporations are becoming disillusioned with owning newspapers. ... They're extremely profitable -- they make barrels full of money -- but they don't grow much from year to year. ... Perhaps public ownership of newspapers through publicly traded corporations may diminish, and other forms of ownership, including local ownership, can happen.

You said [newspapers] make barrels of money, ... but then investors aren't happy?

Yeah. Let me illustrate. ... A typical newspaper makes a 20 percent operating margin. That's roughly double what the typical Fortune 500 company makes. They're very profitable. ... This is true at the Los Angeles Times; it's true at the Baltimore Sun, where I used to be editor; it's true at the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky, which is a money-making machine. People think of this as a washed-up old business. It's not.

It makes tons of money. But the owners are under great pressure to increase earning. Newspapers are not growing very fast. ... Even when they make lots and lots and lots of profit, you've got to make lots plus a certain percentage every year, and that percentage isn't very good. That's the problem, as far as it being a publicly traded stock. …

All three papers I've been editor of, particularly the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun, are achieving [a 20 percent] profit target. ... But they're achieving their profit targets only by cutting resources every year, getting rid of reporters, giving the readers fewer pages of news in the paper. You don't have to be a mathematician to know where that goes. It ultimately, if you project it out, leads to no content, zero content, and then what do you have to sell? So that's a problem. ...

So what's the rationale behind that? Why do you have to cut costs when you are making hundreds of millions of dollars?

Because you have to make more money every year than you made the last year in order to keep the shareholders happy. And so even if you made barrels full of money one year, you've got to make more than that the next year. ...

I think that newspapers could operate at a 10 percent average operating margin very, very robustly for the indefinite future. It would give them a better product, and it would give them money to invest in their future, which is a Web-based future. Right now they're not investing very much. The owners are treating them as if they're doomed and they want to get as much money out of them as they can now, and that is clouding their future. That is sacrificing the future for the present. ...

[Why is newspaper circulation dropping?]

For a variety of reasons. There are many other ways to get your news these days, and younger people in particular prefer to get the news from the Web. But there are other reasons, too. I think that excessive cost cutting has been very damaging, not just cutting into journalism, but most papers have fewer pages today and fewer reporters today, which makes them less valuable to the reader.

But there have also been less visible cuts that have been very damaging to newspaper circulation, cuts on the business side in things like promotion and marketing and such things that are necessary to keep circulation up. A newspaper I know quite well decimated -- literally decimated -- its promotion budget. By decimated, I mean cut it by 90 percent. ... If you cut your promotion down to virtually nothing, you might as well just put a gun to the paper's head, get it over with.

Isn't it possible that the kinds of journalism that you like, that you grew up with, ... are not the kind of journalism that people want to read?

Yeah, it's possible. Different people like different things, and there's definitely an audience for that kind of high-end journalism. Does it have wide popular appeal? Some of it does; some of it doesn't. It depends on the story. But ... a newspaper has to play a lot of notes. They have to have a horoscope; you have to have certain things that aren't great journalism --

Entertainment.

Yeah, it's entertainment, and a newspaper should have a broad appeal to a lot of tastes, one of which is very high-end journalism. ...

Very few readers will tell you they want more news. ... [Would putting more entertainment coverage increase newspaper circulation?]

If you were to follow the referendums, you would end up with a newspaper that's about Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, terrible crimes and a lot of entertainment stuff. But do you take a serious news organization and turn it to that purpose? I think not.

First of all, it's a practical matter. It's a very, very crowded field. These subjects are already being covered extensively. Second, they're being covered in a more entertaining way than newspapers do, and sometimes they're very loose with the facts. That's just inherent in that type of gossipy coverage.

Imagine the New York Times, the L.A. Times, getting into that type of stuff on Page 1. It would discredit the rest of the paper. It would discredit them when they're reporting on serious subjects. It would cut into their credibility, so that would be a mistake.

Serious news may not be the number one thing that Americans want, but Americans want it. ... It's a very good niche, and it's our niche. It's what we know how to do. It has the interest of the public and a high social purpose. Social purpose isn't valued as much in business today as it was back when the newspapers were locally owned. ... But the paper had a larger purpose than simply to crank out more money this year than it did last year. Unfortunately, the purpose of the paper has been diminished under this form of ownership. ...

[How are changes in technology affecting the news?]

Well, how you distribute news has changed, definitely. It's moving to the Web, and I think that will prove to be a good thing. But how you gather the news hasn't changed that much. You can do some electronic gathering of news that wasn't previously available, but we still have a very grubby business.

I was a reporter. You go out and you knock on doors; you try to talk to people who don't want to talk to you; you go out in rainstorms waiting for people; you muck around in the basement of City Hall looking for old records. It's not a glamorous business, and it's not the thing that a lot of people want to do, but it's something that is important, and newspapers do that. The other media don't do it as much. ...

The Web has really done us a great service by creating the blogs and creating the opportunities for more voices to be heard. I still think that there's a need for trained, full-time, professional reporters who are overseen by trained, full-time, professional editors. If I'm an editor and I get something from a citizen journalist, I really have to re-report it just to make sure that this person isn't a crackpot, to make sure that the facts are right. ... It's great ... information, but it's not sufficient. ...

[What do you say to charges that liberal bias motivated your critical coverage of Arnold Schwarzenegger's past in the gubernatorial race?]

... People who know me know that I'm a very moderate person. I'm not an ideologue in any fashion. ... The L.A. Times on that Schwarzenegger story was totally alone. There were thousands and thousands of journalists covering that race, and only one paper examined the factual history of how he had treated women. That was the Los Angeles Times. We were way out of line with everyone else.

Maybe we were wrong. I didn't think so. I'm very proud of what the paper did. I think all the others are wrong not to examine it. ... I think that if, for example, George Bush or John Kerry had that behavior in his record, neither would have had the presidential nomination. I think these things are important. They're revelatory about character, and I'm proud that the paper covered it. But we presented ourselves as a big target for the talk shows and the people who disagreed with us. That's part of it.

I can hear someone saying, yeah, but right on the eve of the election [to publish that story] --

It was a tough decision. This was an odd election. It was about 60 days, as I recall, from start to finish. Usually the press has a year to examine the candidates, scrutinize them, investigate them, find out what they're about. We rushed as fast as we could, ended up with this story, I think it was five days before Election Day.

Then we had to make a choice: Do we publish it, do we share this information with the public, or do we not publish it, and then after the election say, "Well, we knew this, but we didn't think that we should publish it until after the election"? Either way, we were subject to great criticism. We decided to make a decision in favor of quick disclosure rather than disclosure later.

So it was a judgment call?

It was a judgment call.

And it might have influenced the election. So be it?

Sure.

... Would you do this job if you didn't get paid?

Probably not. I'd probably have a job. I've always had a job. I don't know that I would do it [for] free, although if I got particularly exorcised about a particular issue I might.

... [Is the recent] attack on The New York Times [for running its NSA wiretapping and SWIFT financial surveillance stories] a rerun of what happened 35 years ago? ...

Well, it's interesting. In the Iraq war, as a person who covered Vietnam, you certainly see things happening over and over again, learning old lessons about fighting an insurgency, and ... we're learning all this over again. And the attacks on the press, attempts to discredit the press, make it less believable, we certainly saw that during the Nixon and Agnew period. ... It's nothing new, but there is a fairly alarming confluence of cases right now that makes me think it's worse now than it was. ...

Denunciations of the press, legal attacks on the press, efforts to haul the press into court, efforts to take away The Washington Post's broadcasting license; ... I think it was every bit as raw back then during Vietnam as it is today. The expressions may differ a little bit in technical ways, but the climate was the same. …

The patriotism of the press was frequently denounced during Vietnam. We were often called traitors for writing things that were controversial or that were contrary to what the administration wanted written. There's always a class that's willing to denounce other people's patriotism.

For what purpose?

For purposes of saying there's only one opinion that's legitimate, and if you are a good citizen of this country, you'll keep your mouth shut because your opinion is wrong. I regard that as obviously wrong, misguided, but it's a permanent fixture of our political life, and I think that it becomes more visible in times of crisis.

[In the Valerie Plame case], different media organizations took different positions on the issue of confidential sources. ...

To some extent, a news organization cannot have a black-and-white rule. They cannot say we will never publish something that's classified, the reason being that classification is sometimes used to cover political problems, and the public interest sometimes demands that that be exposed. Now, the wiretapping of massive numbers of citizens ... deserved to be exposed.

They basically secretly reversed years of the law and years of controversy over government wiretapping of citizens. Can all of that law and all of that concern about the privacy rights we have in our conversations, our thoughts, can all of that be secretly done away with just overnight? I think The New York Times in this case was absolutely right to publish that. ...

And the [SWIFT] financial tracking program? [Was that story valuable?]

The financial tracking was a little less clear-cut than the wiretapping, because we really don't have much in the way of rights to our financial privacy. I think the IRS could probably give a more coherent account of my finances than I could. That privacy is long gone, and we accept it. ...

I actually think it was the right thing to disclose that. I think it told our terrorist enemies nothing that will change their behavior. They knew our government announced that we were using all available means to track their finances, their international money transfers and so on.

... It used to be "Don't send me anything until you've got the story right." Now it's "Hurry up and get the story done, and by the way, on the side do a little blog for the Web."

... You know, the newspaper business used to be much more rushed than it is today. When I was a beginning reporter, I used to write 14 obits a day. That's a lot of stories. I don't know anybody who's knocking out 14 stories a day now.

[How did you approach your new job when you became editor of the Los Angeles Times?]

Well, the paper had been through a rough time when I became editor. There had been two big things that happened. One was the Staples scandal, which was an ethical crisis involving a secret partnership between the paper and some developers, ... mixing advertising and reporting. The staff was really in a state of shock about that. There was a lot of unrest.

Then secondly there was -- partly because of that -- the paper changed hands. It was purchased by the Tribune Company based in Chicago. It had always been controlled by Los Angeles interests before that. And that was a good change.

... They bought Times Mirror newspapers, which included the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and Newsday and some others. I was editor of the Baltimore Sun and they said, "Will you go out and be editor of the LA Times?" I said, "Maybe, what do you want to do with it?" They felt they bought one of the crown jewels of American journalism and that they wanted to keep it that way and build it. ... You never know what direction the business will take in the long run, but there was an understanding that we were there to put out a first-rate, a top-tier newspaper. I think we did that. It got harder and harder as we proceeded.

How did it get harder?

Because of cost cutting. ... They cost-cut every year. And for a while it was fine because there really was considerable fat in the operation. But after a while ... it began to damage the paper. It began to damage the business side of the paper and its ability to keep the circulation up. It damaged the news side of the paper. It reduced the amount we were able to give the reader. ... It was happening at an accelerating pace. And it was happening at a time when the paper was making lots and lots of money. ...

I got to the point where I had felt that I should leave the paper. ... Every year we were getting rid of reporters and cutting space in the paper, and it was accelerating. I didn't understand that strategy. I understood the short-term need to boost the profits -- you know, got to do that -- but there was a strategy in it; that is to say, something worth a long-term vision. I was unable to understand that. I felt it was leading to bad places for the paper, and I felt that I didn't want to be part of that. ...

I was pushing people out the door, reducing staff and reducing pages in the paper, which no editor likes to do. ... That was something that can't go on forever and it was really crucial to why I decided to leave the paper. ...

But I was really torn. I loved the paper. It's got a great staff, and I took a long time pulling the plug on my job there, because I really didn't want to go.

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posted feb. 27, 2007

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