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How new technology changed the media landscape

Dean Baquet

Former editor, Los Angeles Times

Dean Baquet

Part of the problem has been that your product, the information you gather, and one of the life streams for the paper economically, classified ads, have moved to the Web, ... where it's now free. ... In fact, people can get it and companies can make money off of it ... without paying you.

Right, [like] Google and Yahoo!.

Right. Do you feel like you're being ripped off?

You know, no. I guess if I felt surer [of the] newspaper as a business, I would feel ripped off, but I don't know how you can traffic in public information the way we do and get upset when people profit from the information you disseminate. I mean, my job is to find stuff out.

So this is what I meant when I said the view of my role is different than the view of the owner of a company. My role is to find stuff out and to disseminate it as widely as possible, so it's hard for me to get upset at the Googles and Yahoo!s of the world. ...

So you don't get upset, even though they're, in a sense, taking your material and making your newspaper, your physical newspaper, somewhat obsolete?

Well, I'm not convinced they're making the physical newspaper obsolete. ...

Isn't your circulation declining?

Yeah, but I think there're a lot of reasons why, and I don't think I can blame all that on Google and Yahoo!. [One] of the reasons why circulation is declining is because some of the people who want to read the L.A. Times read it online now. I'm more excited about the prospects of the Web than I am nervous about the Googles and Yahoo!s.

The reality is, I have something like 1 million new readers on the Web that I didn't have before. The reality is I have a paper that has always struggled for national recognition. I've got a newspaper, the L.A. Times, that has been competing with The New York Times and The Washington Post for [a] generation, but because we're not nationally circulated, people don't know how good we are. Suddenly, though, on the Web, they can find out. I can have readers anywhere in the world now, and that's worth the trade-off to me. ... But again, if I was running the business side of a newspaper, I might feel the opposite.

The people you say you're not upset with -- the Internet people who repurpose your material -- say you're a dinosaur; you're the old, mainstream media, and you just don't like the idea that your economic model is quickly disappearing.

[I want to] say a couple things. First off, if we disappeared tomorrow, most of the people who call us dinosaurs would disappear, too. All the bloggers who exist to comment on us, the Googles and Yahoo!s who don't really have many of their own journalists but who rely on what we cover in the Middle East, who rely on what we write about in California and the nation and Washington, they wouldn't exist if we didn't exist.

Our economic model is obviously threatened. But ... there will always be a need for journalism. There will always be a need for coverage, and not just commentary. There will always be a need for institutions that have the wherewithal to have bureaus around the world and around the country, and big capital bureaus. There will always be the need for those kinds of institutions.

I think the people that call us dinosaurs don't understand what the world would look like if we weren't around. Their world would be very different if we weren't around. They rely on us. If we disappeared tomorrow, they might have to reinvent something that looks like us. …

You don't think they get their information from the radio, from television, which I know newspapers used to be very upset that television [in a sense] repurposed their information.

... It would be a great exercise to follow the flow of a fact that appears in Google, Yahoo! or on the radio, or on local television. I think you would trace it back to a newspaper. I think the reality is, when I drive in in the morning, and I listen to the radio, I'm listening to the front page of my newspaper and The New York Times. Those institutions that traffic in what newspapers come up with couldn't survive without newspapers.

... I say all that not to make the case that I should be comfortable. I say all that to make the case that what we do is vital and absolutely necessary, and we have to exist. I just think that economically, and for the civic life of the country, there is always going to be a desperate need for journalism. I believe that. …

But your circulation's going down.

Circulation of the actual newspaper. But if you add the readership of the paper to the readership of online, it's probably greater than it's ever been in the life of the L.A. Times.

But online it's free.

That's an economic issue, I agree. But in terms of what I do, in terms of what I find out, in terms of what I contribute to society, as a newspaper man, I've got more success that I've ever had. ...

In general talking with people about the future, they all talk about the Internet. Newspapers have to get some way of making Internet pay. Why [is it] the L.A. Times appears not to have had as big an investment in the Internet as The Washington Post or The New York Times?

I think The Washington Post first, followed by The New York Times, were really quick to embrace the Internet. I think that a lot of other newspapers, including the L.A. Times, were slow. ... I'll own up to that. ... Journalists were slow to embrace this thing. It felt odd. It felt like this thing had different deadlines. Who really reads it? We're all middle-aged. I mean, I'm young for an editor of a newspaper, but I'll be 50 soon. So we were slow to embrace it. Business sides of newspapers were slow to embrace it, too, because they ... didn't see how they were going to make money from it. So we were slow. I would own up to that. I suspect that Tribune Company would own up to it, too.

But my God, what a good thing it is now once you embrace it. First off, it feels just like the afternoon papers I started for. You get the story; you put it up. I like that. That appeals to the competitive part of me. I get e-mails now from people all over the world who read stories that they like, who read stories that I like sometimes, too. I have readers I never would have had. I have readers I never could have dreamed of having. When we do a big story, we have more impact than we ever could have had. I'm speaking as a journalist whose job it is to disseminate information. It's the best thing that's ever happened to us.

It takes away all of the boundaries, while we still get to maintain this thing we love, which is the paper on paper. I have no doubt, because of the way the capitalist system works, that the people who own newspapers will figure out a way to profit from it. Some newspapers have. The Wall Street Journal has, and some others have, too. I'm not that worried about that. I worry about this middle period, this interregnum where there's tremendous pressure on newspapers to cut costs to get ready for that future. I'm worried about protecting the institution during that middle period. But I'm excited about the Web, even though [we] and everybody else were slow to embrace it. …

 
John Carroll

Former editor, Los Angeles Times

John Carroll

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. …

 
Rob Curley

VP, Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive

Rob Curley

I think that for a very long time, a lot of traditional media organizations were building Web sites the way that they thought the Web should work instead of the way the Internet really worked. ...

So I think that if they're meaning that these people are now embracing the idea that we're going to use some of the same technological sensibilities that Yahoo! and Google and pure dot-coms [use], yeah, I think that they weren't truly embracing those things.

It's really hard when you have this legacy organization that's been so successful at what it does and has to change to fit into this new opportunity.

You say that they were not thinking in the way the Internet works. What do you mean, exactly?

... Most people who use the Internet don't want to pay to visit sites. Most people who use the Internet don't want to have to give lots and lots of registration data. People who use the Internet feel like if they know a story ran in this publication 10 years ago, they should be able to find it now.

What's interesting to me is when you look at how some of the competitors to the newspaper industry are handling the news, what they're really doing is just pulling together what we do really well and linking to us. It's not like they have a fleet of reporters out there. I mean, I use Google News. Do I think it's a news agency? No. But do I think that if there's something that I want to know and I can find it? Yes. They're going to search every newspaper on the planet, with the exception of some in Europe, to find me the stories that are the most important to me about that.

So I think that yeah, we have to start thinking more like the Googles and the Yahoo!s do about customer service and using the Internet the way it really works. ...

 
Scott Johnson

Blogger, Power Line

Scott Johnson

... I strongly suspect that in days of yore, before the development of the Internet as a means for the dissemination and circulation of information, that mainstream media organizations have gotten away with fabricated, bogus, false stories many times and not been called to account. ...

 

Eric Schmidt

Where do you think this is all going?

Let me give you some projections. There will be an infinitely overwhelming amount of information that is real news, masqueraded news, false news and just bad news. It will be very hard for people to sort out which part is real and which part [isn't]. We will develop algorithms and better and better ways of putting that all together.

Society will come to understand that just because it's written on the Internet does not mean it's true. New trust mechanisms, new ways of knowing what information is true will emerge: new brands, new leaders, new opportunities for new companies, and old companies as well, as they enter this new market.

The economics of the industry will be changed quite radically. Classifieds are unlikely to recover simply because the online version is so much more easy to use, so much more applicable. All of the auction sites and so forth and so on are just more effective. So that revenue will be replaced by other sources of revenue -- subscriptions, specialized licensing programs, targeted advertising the way Google does.

There will also be a reallocation of resources. There will be relatively fewer really deeply investigative teams, which I view as a bad thing. If you look at the economics, more and more of the reporting will be forced into this quick-action response. There won't be as much money for the high-quality, deep reporting that I think we need.

And how do you answer that?

The great new investigative reporters are probably going to emerge in completely new societies of information -- a MySpace reporter, a Facebook reporter. These kinds of communities have tremendous activity. There's a new forum, very different from what you and I grew up with, and I think we're just beginning to see the power of these communities.

You think these new reporters and in-depth reporting will generate itself out of these Web sites and new things on the Web?

There's a lot of evidence that people in college today spend relatively little time on the traditional broadcast, traditional news kind of information sources. They're spending their time getting their news from comedy, online, from their friends. There's a lot of reasons that news as a phenomenon will change, be much more social, be much more community-driven. An awful lot of that information will be seen, pursued and consumed by people who are on those communities.

[Former editor of the Los Angeles Times] Dean Baquet says he's not worried about news surviving, but in this transition period, we may be losing a whole tradition of reporters, [that it will be] difficult to build that up again. What do we do in the interim to preserve the tradition?

I'm not sure that this is an interregnum. The Internet shifts are typically one way. They typically do not give another opportunity. The change in the way the industry will be structured, the way people will make money, the way new brands will be formed are probably all permanent.

The good news is that a new generation of young reporters in high school and college today have grown up with this medium; they understand how to get their message out; they know how to investigate using the new tools.

If you think about it from an investigative reporter perspective, the tools you had 15 years ago versus the tools you have today are infinitely stronger today in terms of being able to figure out what people are saying, what they really meant. If you think about it, we at Google, over a five- or 10-year period, should be able to take statements and literally determine if they're true or, more likely, a probability if they're true. So you could imagine the first thing you would do as an investigative reporter is take what everybody says and say, "What's the probability of all this being true?"

One of the things we teach is you have to go to the original documents. It's those skills -- and an editor to tell you that's what you have to do -- that might be lost here.

It's crucial that the next generation of online reporters understand that they need to go past the information that they see on the Web. It's too easy for the information that they see on the Web to be wrong or false or manipulated or part of this endless echo chamber that we seem to be generating now over and over again in all of these different communities.

Papers like The New York Times are changing the way they write their articles and headlines to make sure they wind up on your site?

I'm not sure that's so new, because people have always used headlines to grab attention. Now they're trying to get our computer's attention.

But it is changing the way they write.

I'm not sure it's good that they're changing the way [they] write. But the important thing is we're trying to accurately rank this enormous explosion of information and provide real value to end users.

The rush of news organizations of all kinds to go on the Web, to make things more available, that's the wave of the future?

Being online is the future. Many organizations have talked and talked and talked about these changes, but the fact of the matter is the time is now. People who bet against the Internet, who think that somehow this change is just a generational shift, miss that it is a fundamental reorganizing of the power of the end user. The Internet brings tremendous tools to the end user, and that end user is going to use them. They're going to find out new information; they're going to go to every source they possibly can; and they're going to be more informed as a result of it.

Newspaper chains' financial advisers we've talked to are saying newspapers have to go super-local. But that doesn't necessarily result in quality information.

As a result of the globalization of the market, a few newspapers in this case could become global newspapers, and the people who don't quite meet that test get less and less readers, less and less traffic, and they have to specialize. They have to become local or regional or specialized in some market. Indeed in some markets, where there's very competitive newspapers -- I'm thinking of London, for example -- the newspapers have specialized around political parties, and that specialization seems to work.

You could imagine something similar occurring in the United States with respect to news gathering for televisions; that the two political parties could each have news outlets that were primarily specialized in what they were doing.

[Berkshire Hathaway chairman and billionaire investor] Warren Buffett says newspapers are an industry in decline, and he sees no reason to invest in them. They've lost their advertising base.]

I completely disagree with the assessment that the economics of newspapers won't work. The economics are different going forward because so many of the viewers will be online. It's just like people reading the newspapers; in many cases it should be possible to have more readers online than there are in printed form. And remember that the online reader doesn't have to have all those trees killed in order to produce the newspaper.

It should be possible to come up with an economic system using advertising and other forms of subscription that pays newspaper reporters more money over time, because you don't have to also pay for the newspaper, the physical newspaper print and the presses and all of that, and the distribution.

If, say, the L.A. Times is turned into a local paper, doesn't that remove a set of eyeballs looking out for the public interest?

It's true that the business problems of a particular publication could reduce the number of voices and the number of eyeballs, but remember, at the same time, thousands of other people are now looking at the same subjects, especially the ones that are highest priority. All the bloggers, all the people tracking everything, all the people with video cameras following politicians around.

But do they do newsgathering, present new information?

It's perfectly possible an infinitely brilliant single reporter could be their own publisher and editor and build their own brand as long as they could do it within what they can do within a given day.

The fact of the matter is that these newsgathering organizations do, in fact, have value. They actually provide a coherent trust, a coherent brand, a coherent sense that this [information] is probably true. So those structures are incredibly important to the future of news, whether it's Reuters or AP [Associated Press] or the Los Angeles Times or The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times or any of the publications that you can imagine that are going through these transitions.

It is the newsgathering and the branding and the editing that will ultimately be used by the end users to determine whether they want to believe this or not.

Wall Street is waiting for the stocks of newspapers to really tank so they can take over and present a product that doesn't do as much in-depth reporting, has a lower overhead, presents people with what they "want" but not maybe what's in the public interest.

The people I've talked with who are doing private equity buyouts and so forth in the content industries admire the content industries because they have very stable cash flow and they're relatively out of favor in terms of valuation. But every one of those buyers has to have a strategy for getting growth back, and we believe that one of those strategies will be using these online mechanisms, the advertising that I've been talking about, to get real growth coming.

Mind telling me who these people are?

No, of course not. Yeah, we talk to all these people because they'll call us, ... and it's good to know them.

And these are potential buyers of content like the L.A. Times, the Tribune Company, or any of these things we see going on right now?

Yeah. And the reason that they call us is that they understand that we're part of their future. Remember that a buyout company does not buy an asset to take it to zero. They buy an asset at a low price in order to help restructure it to get to sell it at a higher price, which is how they make their money. And they make a lot of money when they do it.

And you see that going on in the coming years?

There's a lot of evidence that this will be occurring in many parts of the content industries, and I don't think it's a bad thing.

The only real criticism I fear I've heard is that you could become influenced, because you become the distributor.

There are a number of reasons to think that that's not going to happen. One is that it's not consistent with our mission, all right? We're trying to get all the world's information to end users.

The second thing is that the information markets will not end up with just one source, one distributor. We would like to be one of them, but we're certainly not going to be the only one.

So you think competition and access will be there?

Competition will be there, and access will be there, because the Internet is all about open access and competition. Even though Google may do very well, there will always be an alternative to what Google is doing, and people will always have the free choice, ... because there's no way for us to prevent them from exercising that choice.

That is one of the key aspects of why the Internet has been so successful. No technologies can dominate.

But governments can dominate it.

It's very difficult for governments to dominate the Internet because it's so difficult to control. People want to be free. People want to hear multiple voices. They want to make their own decisions. And people who see things will report things. …

What happens when you have a million people with video cameras in a genocide? What happens when you have a million people who are writing blogs about something that an evil government did?

If you were a dictator, and you took over some small country, the first thing you'd do is close the borders, get control of the tanks, shoot down all the television stations and prevent your populace from knowing anything going on. The Internet is completely counter to that. It's impossible, no matter how hard you try, to do a complete shutdown of that information.

Do you see the fear that the Chinese example presents? They can change what you can put online, block certain sites.

Again, without going into all of the details, the average Chinese person has all that information available to them through other mechanisms which are technologically known within China, and so the fact of the matter is that in some sense they're fighting a losing battle.

Former editors of the L.A. Times said the Internet, Google, Yahoo! are great, but how will they stand up to, say, government censorship, such as what you faced with the Chinese government?

In the United States the federal agents asked for information in a very broad subpoena. We used the American legal system and convinced a judge that that subpoena was overbroad. It was a violation of people's privacy, and it was limited to just the right information. That's the American system at work.

When we looked at China, we concluded that China, which does not have this wonderful American system, we had a choice of withholding our service or following their law, because we couldn't go violate their law. We made a decision to engage. We made a decision to spend time there, to trust [that] the individual citizen in China would see that they weren't getting all the information, and eventually they would agitate, eventually they would complain, and that eventually a more proper legal system, which would allow the open expression of information, would flourish in China.

[But] ... someone in China can't see the Tank Man photo [taken at Tiananmen Square].

The important thing to know about Google in China is that 99.9 percent of the information is available in China, and the 0.1 percent which is in fact blocked, we mark that it's blocked. If you've ever met a Chinese person, you know that that's not something that they accept. They view that as a great challenge. I'm sure that that information's getting through to Chinese citizens.

What if the Chinese government says, "We don't like what you've got on Google News or other parts of the world that affect our economy and government"?

We've decided that we will not respond positively to that pressure.

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posted feb. 13, 2007; last updated feb. 27, 2007

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