News War [site home page]
  • Home
  • Interviews
  • Site Map
  • Discussion
  • Part 1
  • Part 3
  • Part 4
  • Watch Online

The challenges facing newspapers

Dean Baquet

Former editor, Los Angeles Times

Dean Baquet

So realistically, what would you like [in an owner]?

... There's always going to be a certain amount of tension between the editor and any owner. I came here from The New York Times, which many people would say is the ideally set-up ownership because it's got a family that has an institutional, historic investment in publishing a great paper. But I can promise you there has been tension over the years between the editors and the Sulzberger family. That's just part of the game. Everybody's got different priorities.

... The ideal owner for me -- what would make me happiest? ... Lots of money, comfortable with probably a lower profit margin than Wall Street would want, steps back from the job of what the newsroom does and lets it cover even his friends or her friends.

I don't think an owner has to be uninvolved, though. ... If I was the publisher of the L.A. Times, I would want to have some involvement in the community. Otherwise, what's the point of having a local ownership anyway, if you're not going to be involved and engaged in the community? That's imperfect, but it's also great. It's great because you've got somebody who's thinking about the community. It's imperfect because you've got to trust that he won't push his friends and hurt the people he doesn't like. ...

Your owners have recently communicated to you that they have done a readers' survey, and they want to tell you how you should get new readers, right? That could change, editorially, what your content is.

... I want to know what people want to read. I want to know how people read the newspaper. In a way, newspapers have been a little bit allergic to readership surveys. I don't mind knowing that stuff. ... A certain percentage of what's in every newspaper, if we own up to it, is designed purely for reader pleasure: home sections, food sections, travel sections, even some of the stuff in the news section.

But what makes me different from a consumer product -- and when I say "me," I'm talking about the Los Angeles Times and newspapers in general -- is that one of my jobs is to sometimes give my customer things he doesn't always want. I think of a newspaper as the restaurant that, when you order just a steak and dessert, says, "Absolutely not; you've got to have some broccoli." ... Even if every readership survey said nobody wants to read about the war in Iraq, I'm still going to cover the war in Iraq. ...

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.

Lauren Rich Fine

Managing director, Merrill Lynch

Lauren Rich Fine

All I have to do to buy a newspaper in America is put down 50 cents, maybe a dollar, and I get a hell of a deal for 50 cents or a dollar. Why wouldn't something like that continue indefinitely?

I'm not sure I completely understand why somebody is either sensitive to the cover price and won't pay it or chooses not to buy the paper. A lot of it has to do with media habits changing, but just overall consumer habits changing. There's too much coming at them every day, and ... to really sit and stop and read is becoming more difficult for people. ... I know, for example, I stopped getting one of my papers for a while because I felt tremendously guilty that I was only reading the front page and a little bit, and I had cut down a lot of trees to do that. But then I reached the point where I thought: "You know what? I really miss it. I'm going to get it back again." ...

I have this fictitious ad campaign in my head for a newspaper that shows a clock running 24 hours, and it shows a blank newspaper with just the masthead at the top. As the clock is ticking forward, it shows you how it gets populated throughout the day. Then the punch line is, "All for 50 cents," because it is amazing what's in a newspaper that starts out blank in the morning, because you don't know what the news events are. But at the same time, when I think about what I can get online -- you think about Katrina, tsunamis, how you can watch straight from the event that people are filming -- that's a pretty [amazing] experience also.

On Sept. 12, 2001, newspaper readership had to have been the greatest it's been as people were trying to make sense of the world. It was the worst day, economically, to put out a paper, because no advertiser in their right mind wanted to be associated with those images. And that, to me, sums up some of the challenge of the industry: ... Whether you pay the bills or not, the consumer expects you to be there. ...

David Hiller

Publisher, Los Angeles Times

David Hiller

Well, I'm not one of the ones who believes that a lot has gone wrong with it, so you may have to talk to others. I know we've got challenges in our business, and the challenge is mostly, how do newspapers change to stay relevant to consumers and advertisers in the Internet age? And because -- it may seem a cliché, but some clichés are true -- the Internet changes a lot, as do other [technologies] -- the explosion of cable TV choices, wireless technology, iPods -- the fact is, there are so many ways that consumers and online users can find news and information that the old ways of doing things just aren't going to cut it, and you have to find ways to change in order that consumers want to continue to come to us as a newspaper, to us as a Web site.

If we don't figure out how to change, we're going to get left behind. So ultimately the issue for newspapers is, how do you change, and how do you change fast enough to stay indispensable to your readers and users so they come to you every day rather than to Google, rather than to Yahoo!, rather than to some wireless service? Newspapers have got to do a much better job of that to be successful. …

You must have heard that you needed to cut costs, jobs. The editors back in 2004 were resisting.

Yeah. I think one of the biggest disservices that's been done is converting this debate over the future of newspapers into a simple-minded, cuts-versus-no-cuts debate. I know that's how it got portrayed in the press, including in the pages of newspapers, including our own paper. But that makes it a way too narrow issue. The issue isn't about jobs and cuts. That's focused on the wrong thing. The issue is readers, audience, users. Those are the numbers that you've got to be focused on. Are we growing? Are we staying important to our readers and users?

Now, along the way, as we change, we're going to have to reallocate resources; we're going to have to cut in some areas; we're going to have to add in other areas. But to get dug in and make this huge issue of the future of newspaper just portrayed as something about the numbers of jobs in the newsroom is a really unfortunate oversimplification. …

Jeff Jarvis

Blogger, BuzzMachine

Jeff Jarvis

If you invented journalism today, you wouldn't have the same structure of the newsroom and the print. You wouldn't have all this hoo-hah for TV. You could if you chose to spend the money on it, but I [would] far rather see this money going to more reporting, ... to educating people to how to get better facts about their government and society. And that's possible now. ...

Journalism has to get far more innovative and inventive. ... I'm beginning to see it happen. Gannett -- not the company that I would have expected to be widely innovative -- has just blown up its newsrooms and changed its structure and become agnostic to media and seven-by-24 in their coverage. They care about new ways to get news including data, and they care about having the people in the community help report. Whether they can pull this off or not I don't know, but that's the right spirit. And I'm seeing that from Gannett, not from the L.A. Times. ...

The L.A. Times is not doing it?

Not that I've seen. The rhetoric that I hear about the L.A. Times is about protecting the newsroom and protecting the size of that. There's a tremendous amount of waste in American journalism. We send 15,000 journalists to the political conventions where nothing happens. Whatever does happen, you can watch it online and on C-SPAN. Why? Ego: We had our person there to do the same thing that the next person did.

Why does every town in America need a movie critic? I started the magazine of criticism, Entertainment Weekly. I love criticism. But the truth is, they don't; the movie's the same across the country. Why do they need an NFL writer and a golf writer? Why do we need editors re-editing AP [Associated Press] stories that have already been edited and re-edited? Why do we give people stock tables when they're going to get them online and it costs a fortune to print? We do it because we fear we're going to lose one more reader. ...

What the L.A. Times' now-former editors [Dean Baquet and John Carroll] say is: "We are one of the last four national newsgathering [organizations] in the United States who also are international. We think it's of public service that we have four people in Baghdad. It costs a lot of money, but it's in the public interest to have as many people covering Iraq as possible." ...

Who says that's the cut to make? Why isn't the cut to make let's get rid of the stock tables? Michael Kinsley arrived at the L.A. Times as opinion editor; he had 16 people writing 21 editorials a week. Take five of them and put them in Baghdad. Fine. See? ... The world has changed. Why shouldn't journalism? ...

But what they're saying is ... we have to avoid the problem that network news is now in where ... you now have one person at CBS who covers the Supreme Court, the Justice Department and the FBI all at once, every day. ...

Well, that's a management issue. ... No one is telling you have to get rid of your Supreme Court correspondent. They're telling you this is a business and we've got to deal with new business realities. ... My friend Jim Willse at The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., killed the stock tables in April of 2001. He invested money in making a much better business section, but he saved a $1 million a year on paper and ink for those stock tables. ...

Today we operate out of the fear that [readers will] leave us if we get rid of a cartoon or a stock table. We operate out of the ego to think they'll come to us because we have a columnist logo. They're going to come to us if we contribute value to the community, and that value is going to come from reporting. So let's find the ways to put more resources directly into reporting.

The Los Angeles Times put the resources in to look at the local community hospital -- nobody else on the Internet or anywhere else was doing anything like that -- an in-depth look that has resulted in significant change, may have saved lives. The Los Angeles Times put the resources in to track down the stolen art that was at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. ... The fear is the resources won't be there ... to do that kind of reporting, especially as you go and transition to the Internet.

There's a new medium and a new way to do things, and so among the ways to get journalism over to that new world and that new growth are to find new efficiencies. ... What's the relationship of the newspaper to that journalist? ... It could be that they could hire them, but they're not hiring anymore. It could be, perhaps, that the business side creates an advertising network across a web of good, trusted, reliable people doing journalism. ...

There are new ways to maybe get public-supported journalism. NPR and PBS get money from the public and do great journalism. Jay Rosen at NYU has started something called, which is an effort to see whether people will support journalism with their ideas and their money and their reporting. That's not the solution to all journalism; the point is we have to find many models, many new ways to do things. ...

Someone is going to go investigate the hospitals; someone's going to figure that out. I hope it's still the journalistic organization, the newspaper, but if it's not, other journalists may band together to figure out a way to do it. ...

Larry Kramer

Former head, CBS Digital Media

Larry Kramer

... Is what's happening today with newspapers similar to what happened to television news?

Yeah. There's a changing economic model. That's one of the problems, and newspapers are having a hard time adapting to that and understanding it and filling in the holes. The '80s ... was the beginning of the decline of the ratings of the evening news programs -- the birth of CNN and of the cable news outlets starting to come on, multiple places people could get news and information. ...

So the Web -- same thing -- is even more sources of news. So TV is having to deal with the Web itself also. Newspapers really had to deal with the Web earlier on because the Web didn't really bring you pictures. It was still largely a text medium for the first several years, so newspapers learned about the Web and understood what it could do earlier, I think, or started to understand what it could do.

Ten years ago [it started].

Yeah, I think so. And you could see why certain forms of news worked better in that environment -- news with [a] short shelf life, things like that. It did change a little bit how we do news journalistically. It did place a higher priority on real-time news, meaning people's expectation of a story on the Internet was that it was correct because it was supposed to reflect all the information you knew right up to that point, ... whereas a newspaper, well, you print it, and people might believe that it's accurate to the moment it was printed, but that things could have happened since or did happen since, and you wouldn't really know it until the next day. ...

So it was another challenge to newspapers. ... If the advantage was that the newspaper story was longer than what you got on TV or more detailed than what you can get on radio, that was no longer the case once the Web came around. It could be even longer or deeper.

The news hole is endless.

It was an endless news hole, and the storytelling process changed, and it's getting even worse for newspapers, because now you can incorporate all of the elements of storytelling -- video, audio and depth -- into any story you want. You can make it as deep as you want and not affect the viewer who only wants to see it for 30 seconds. ...

The other challenge, the bigger challenge, though, is the economic underpinning of newspapers is shattered. The support for large news organizations that newspapers had came from advertising. Over the years, the percentage of revenue that came from advertising grew and grew as the circulation price stayed the same. ...

So you had the newspapers dealing with a couple big problems. One is several sources of revenue like classified advertising, which really have no tie to news, were supporting news operations because the delivery mechanism was the same. The newspaper that people used to get news, was how a classified was delivered to somebody, was the cheapest way to reach a mass audience with that information. That's no longer the case. So there is no real tie between news and that advertising, and news people don't really understand that. ...

Craig Newmark

Founder, craigslist

Craig Newmark

I do think the biggest problem newspapers have is loss of trust, and I feel that's a result of failure to speak truth to power.

Explain that. Their own fault?

No. I am not blaming anyone in any manner. I just point out that there are many problems. There are many challenges facing newspapers and the whole news business these days. Paper is expensive to buy, to print, to deliver, and news organizations of many sorts are having problems with declining audience. One problem has to do with, well, failure to speak truth to power.

These days I'm frustrated -- and a lot of journalists are frustrated -- that when they see someone lying to them -- say, a politician -- they feel like they're not allowed to call the politician on that. They're not allowed to print what the politician is saying and then why it's a lie. On the other hand, that's why newsmen who do speak truth to power and who back up what they're saying, that's why they're getting more and more audience. For example, two of the most respected newsmen in the U.S. are [Comedy Central's] Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

They don't consider themselves newsmen.

I agree, but even the Romans practiced satire as a means of delivering honest news. You see it in Shakespeare, the whole wise-fool thing: The jester could tell his boss bad news because he was funny and officially didn't have to be taken seriously. ...

The newsgathering infrastructure is losing its financial base, part of which is the loss of some classified revenue. Do you see how craigslist has undermined the economics of the newsgathering business?

OK. I can see how a lot of new organizations, particularly on the Web, have deprived traditional news organizations of some real revenue. That's a real effect, and it disturbs me, because I can see that people like investigative journalists have been getting fired for some years. One cause of this has to do with newspaper chains going after high profit margins. ... I feel that as a good citizen, if I want to help people do the right thing, I would bring this to light in whatever small way I can, but also I could support the people who are building new ways of funding journalism. The best example of this is Jay Rosen and, who is right now trying to launch his experiment where he, again, tries to find a couple of new ways to fund journalism, maybe sometimes a sponsorship or a patronage model. ...

Ever consider expanding the profits of your operation to buy a news organization?

We're not real interested in expanding the profit base. The principal reason we charge four new cities for job postings, and that was recent, was because we kept getting complaints about bad posts in those cities. Once a market gets mature, it attracts some bad guys. As far as buying a news organization -- not interested. I should mention that any interest you hear from me in terms of news and journalism is just me speaking. Craigslist is not interested in that. ...

No one ever called you up and said: "What are you doing? Are you some kind of Communist?"

We hear from the news business a lot, and it's almost always people [who] like what we're doing. That includes newspaper publishers and editors. The only flak we've gotten are from a couple papers where they've decided to abandon the separation between marketing and editorial, but that's a very, very tiny fraction of the news business. Mostly they encourage us to do what we're doing.

So no one called you and said, "You're destroying us?"

Nothing like that.

You understand the newsgathering organizations feel threatened -- not just the corporate ownership, but the newsrooms?

I speak to a lot of reporters, and I can see that they feel their jobs are in some jeopardy because of a whole host of effects: due to TV news, due to the Internet, due to a desire for high profit margins in some cases. And I think this is really serious because the most important reporting, investigative reporting, has been cut back not only because of the Internet but for the last 10 or 20 years. We need to preserve reporting jobs, and most importantly we need to preserve and strengthen investigative reporting. ...

home + introduction + watch online + interviews + parts 1 + 2 + part 3 + part 4 + join the discussion + producer chat
site map + press reaction + dvd/vhs & transcript + credits + privacy policy + journalistic guidelines
FRONTLINE series home + wgbh + pbs

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

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
photo illustration copyright © entropy media
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation