Today’s Guest: Alberto Ibargüen, CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
With $2.6 billion in assets, the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is the 22nd largest foundation in the United States. Its mission is the betterment of the 26 communities in which it works and the promotion of journalism as a career and industry nationwide.
The latter part of Knight’s mission is particularly challenging at a time when traditional newspapers are shrinking and, in many cases, evaporating.
That puts Alberto Ibargüen, CEO of the Knight Foundation and a former publisher of the Miami Herald, at the same crossroads that silent movies encountered with talkies, talkies with radio, radio with television, television with cable, and now traditional print journalism with online reporting, blogs, podcasting, v-logs, streaming media, and so on.
Since 1950, the Knight Foundation has invested more than $300 million to advance quality journalism and freedom of expression worldwide. It has a vital interest in seeing journalism survive in whatever form it takes.
I interviewed Ibargüen recently for an old media business magazine and liked his approach to a rapidly changing world, and I was delighted when he accepted my invitation for a second round of conversation.
You can LISTEN to this interview by clicking the audio player above!
BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Reading the newspaper this morning, I see we’ve got more bad news in the business. Even The New York Times is talking about cutting 100 jobs.
ALBERTO IBARGUEN: It’s something like eight percent of their newsroom, yes. They’re certainly not immune from the drop in national advertising and the drop in jobs and jobs/classified advertising. Those are two traditional mainstays of newspapers. They represented, for most newspapers, well over half the revenue, and both of those categories are way down.
ANDELMAN: How do we square what’s happening, like the announcement at The New York Times today, for example, about 100 jobs — with the amount of money that someone like Rupert Murdoch is pouring into The Wall Street Journal all of a sudden? How do those two square with each other?
IBARGUEN: I don’t think anybody else could possibly have paid that much for The Wall Street Journal or for any newspaper because that’s not, I think, the reason why Rupert Murdoch was so interested in Dow Jones. I think Rupert Murdoch was interested in Dow Jones because he’s starting a competitor to CNBC, and Rupert Murdoch is as committed to news online as anyone else in big media. I’d say more so. So what he was buying was not the newspaper. What he was buying was the best news organization around, and so I would expect that, over time, those resources and that talent, when the talent is enormous at The Wall Street Journal for covering business news, it is a great newspaper, that that talent will be applied on television and online.
IBARGUEN: It’s hard to call that much money pessimistic, but I guess you’re right.
ANDELMAN: What about, if we move further West with that, what about Sam Zell and him buying the Chicago Tribune, plus the Los Angeles Times and Orlando Sentinel? He doesn’t have that same kind of online or electronic package, or does he?
IBARGUEN: No, I don’t think it’s the same, and I’m not sure that the deal is the same either. That one engaged a great deal, I think, of employee money. I don’t know if it was their retirement funds. I know that the Tribune Foundation became a contributor to that purchase. I think, in Chicago, the Tribune Company has long had lots of synergy with television and online, and I’m honestly not on the inside so I don’t know how they’re doing with that. In their smaller papers, they may be able, at least for a period of time, and Sam’s in Ft. Lauderdale here in Florida or in Orlando, they may be able to do reasonably well. They are, traditionally, newspapers that were run at very high margins, much, much more profitable on a percentage basis than say The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, but they really did also depend on classified advertising and national advertising.
I think the picture for the national papers is actually not bad if they can figure out the online piece because online is part of the worldwide web, not the local, geographically defined web. And by thinking of it as a national paper, you can begin to have the kind of national scale that the web seems to be naturally suited for.
The ones that I think are also probably okay, at least for the short-term, are the papers in very small communities where they still can publish the local news, whether it’s the high school football team or what happened at city hall. They can do that better than anybody else. The ones that are really getting squeezed are the so-called major metros, and that would include the Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald, even the Los Angeles Times because those regional papers are trying to do something in between the national scope that fits the web so well and the very local, local, almost neighborhood scope that the small town dailies are doing. So those are the ones that you’re seeing the biggest stress on, and there are some like the Boston Globe, a great newspaper, that although it made some money last year, I think the year before, they actually lost money. That would’ve been unthinkable five or 10 years before.
ANDELMAN: It seems like the smart move 20 or 25 years ago was for these major metros, the Miami Herald, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the St. Petersburg Times, and so forth across the country, to add regional editions and grow and spread out, but now we see some of that coming back, and maybe that wasn’t the way to move long-term.
IBARGUEN: Yes, hindsight’s wonderful, isn’t it?
ANDELMAN: I thrive on it, frankly. Yes.
IBARGUEN: We’re so smart after the fact. I don’t know what they could’ve done. When you were doing your introduction, you were talking about being in the position of the talkies with silent films and so forth. It actually was the position that Jack Knight, our founder, the founder of Knight Foundation, that Jack Knight found himself in at the beginning of the century when he actually built the second biggest newspaper company when newspapers were everything in news. He actually built the second biggest newspaper company by figuring out how to use new technology. Other people were being destroyed by it, and he figured out that because of improvements in transportation, improvements in printing, but mainly improvements in something fantastic and new at the beginning of the 20th century called the telephone, he could actually create a newspaper company that he could run from one place but ultimately in 26 cities, actually in his brother’s lifetime in 26 cities.
The point is that he knew, he figured out, how to use this new technology in a way to expand his business from one single newspaper in Akron, Ohio, and to be able to ultimately run a newspaper company out of Miami, Florida, that included Philadelphia and San Jose and Wichita and Biloxi and Duluth and St. Paul, Detroit, Michigan, and be able to do it all from here because of the telephone. That would’ve been unthinkable when that technology was first introduced or when Jack Knight first started to run the Akron Beacon-Journal.
And so I think one of the things that we try to do at Knight Foundation is, to be honest, we’re not responsible for figuring out how to keep these jobs. We’re not responsible for delivering a 25 or 20 or even 15 percent margin to investors. We’re trying to figure out, “How do you use that new technology?” Let’s experiment with different ways of delivering news and information because, in the end, we still do all live in geographically-defined communities. We still have environmental policy, education, who fixes the potholes are all ultimately decided by people we elect by geographically-defined communities, and either we change the construct of our governing structure, or we have to figure out a way of getting the people who are making those election choices better information, and it has to be electronic. It has to be digital.
ANDELMAN: As you said that, I’m thinking about how things have changed on one level. I think Ed Koch of New York City used to be known as “Mayor Pothole.”
ANDELMAN: Right? And now we’ve got Mayor Bloomberg who is trying to affect national policy from his mayor’s seat. It’s a very different kind of world even at that level.
IBARGUEN: It really is. And Mayor Koch was fantastic. I happened to live in New York at the time, and there wasn’t a pothole that he couldn’t pay attention to. There wasn’t a ribbon-cutting. And Bloomberg has a different appreciation. Given his background and given what he built in his company, the Bloomberg Business Systems that he built that were an early and phenomenal user of digital technology to deliver business information.
There is another aspect, by the way, of the current newspaper problem, and maybe it’s also true of broadcast television, I’m not sure, and it’s the nature of the ownership. When newspapers were owned, up until the 1960s, there wasn’t any newspaper company that was a publicly held company. They were all family-owned or individually owned, and it didn’t matter whether it was the Meyers and the Grahams who owned the Washington Post or the Sulzbergers who owned The New York Times or the Chandlers in Los Angeles, Knight-Ridder, etc. In the mid-‘60s, the companies started to go public. There were great benefits to going public. You could raise a lot of money, you could invest a lot in the business, and it was a terrific growing concern.
But as ownership started to shift from the families to people who were interested in newspapers to institutional investors, the demand on newspapers, and at the same time, there was new technology coming along, not just radio then television, which were already there, but with the web and with cable, that really began cutting into the advertising base of the newspaper model. There was this sort of perfect storm of web and cable cutting into the advertising base at the same time that the investors in newspapers became more and more institutional investors. And institutional investors not only don’t, but cannot care about the basic function of the newspaper – that is the delivery of news and information to a community.
Jack Knight cared, and, in fact, when he went to Wall Street, there’s a very famous speech that he gave the only time that he went to talk to analysts, and he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that if you don’t like the way I run Knight Newspapers then I suggest you buy another newspaper company’s stock because I’m not gonna change. I’m running this in the way that I think a newspaper should be run.” And that was a luxury that I think his successors didn’t have when a fella named Sherman a couple years ago decided that Knight-Ridder at, whatever it was, a 20 percent margin, wasn’t making enough money and forced the sale of the company. I’m reminded of that because I saw a note in the paper this morning that said that Mr. Sherman is now 100 percent out of newspapers, zero. He used to own some part of Belo. He used to own some part of The New York Times. He used to own a big chunk of McClatchy, which is a company that bought Knight-Ridder, and now he owns nothing.
It’s a different kind of commitment. A newspaper is not going to leave the town. An institutional investor will invest in the newspaper in the same way it might invest in a shoe company, it might invest in a rug company, it doesn’t matter. It’s just simply another type of investment, and they’ll do it for a period of time, and then they’ll either stay in because they continue making money or get out without any sentimentality. A news organization, whether it’s television or cable or even and certainly newspapers, cannot…The Miami Herald cannot leave Miami. And so there’s that institutional part that seems to me to be incompatible with institutional investors. And I think that’s a really big problem for, I believe, for all of the publicly held newspaper companies.
ANDELMAN: There seemed to be a time, and again, I go back 20 to 25 years when it almost seemed like a good idea to have people with good business sense to come into the newspaper business and apply some fundamentals to the operation. The problem is, I think, that the business has been changed in the last 10 years by technology and other things. It takes more than just business sense to make a newspaper work.
IBARGUEN: I think it’s a combination of problems as I indicated a minute ago. I think there is new technology that is absolutely disruptive – that is cable to television and Internet to both television and certainly to newspapers. So there’s disruptive new technology, and by the way, that’s not a negative. That’s simply a fact. It disrupts the old model in a major way, and so the people who are going to win are the ones who figure out how to deliver what the community needs on the new platforms. I firmly believe that’s what Jack Knight did in his day in the beginning of the 20th century, and I believe that’s what we’re searching for now.
But there’s another factor, which is that the institutional investor is looking for a return. The institutional investor, that is the Legg Masons of this world, don’t really care whether Philadelphia is informed, whether Tallahassee is informed, whether St. Petersburg is informed. They care whether you return the amount of money that they planned to have you return. And so if you returned 14 percent, and they were planning 13, then that’s great. And with newspapers, they came to expect somewhere in the 20 to 25 percent range, and that’s a lot of money. And that’s a lot of money when you have your core business, the business side, the core business attacked and under great pressure as in the case of national advertising and with the web coming on so strong on classified advertising for jobs and that sort of thing. Think about it. If you go buy a car, it’s just too easy to look up on the web virtually every model that you can think about. The last three cars I bought I basically shopped for online and sort of gone for the test drive, but I really haven’t gone to do much other comparison.
ANDELMAN: I was just thinking about a conversation I had in the last year or two with Karen Dunlap at the Poynter Institute. It was at a time when a lot of moguls were looking at getting into journalism. I think it was mostly over the Tribune Company, Sam Zell, but also David Geffen and some other people. I suggested that maybe Poynter or Knight or one of the other non-profits might consider doing either a private presentation or seminar for some of these moguls and get them early on and say, “Here’s the business side, but here’s also the side that you really can’t add up.” And that’s the stuff that you’re talking about that the Miami Herald is in Miami, the Chicago Tribune is in Chicago, and this is what it adds to the community, and this is what goes beyond. We’re gonna have a lot of people, I think, buying more newspaper companies and probably, as you say, not necessarily for the newspaper assets.
IBARGUEN: I don’t know Mr. Zell. I have met Mr. Broad, and I don’t know Geffen, but I do know some of the people who are interested in the Miami Herald. I’ve met the guy who put together the group that bought the Philadelphia Inquirer, and I’ll tell you, they are driven as much by community as they are by a possible business opportunity or the thought that they might somehow be the genius that figures it all out. They are really committed. The guy who put the group together in Philadelphia, who’s now the publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer, is from Philadelphia. The group that he put together is from Philadelphia. They really care about Philadelphia. They’re not going any place. They only own that one newspaper. And they have invested an awful lot of their money and their time and reputation, and I said, “God bless them, I hope it works.”
One of the things that I think we need to look at is, “What is the public policy that is required to help that kind of decision-making?” And here’s what I mean. We haven’t yet really announced it so I suppose this isn’t exactly a secret because I’m telling you about it, but we’re going to fund a commission at the Aspen Institute, which is a very well-known think tank in Washington and in Aspen. We’re going to fund “The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.” That’s sort of a mouthful, and if anybody has a short hand for it, I’d be delighted to know it. But the point of this commission is to take a high-level look at, what are the information needs of communities in a democracy, number one. Number two, where are we now? Take a snapshot. Are we meeting those needs? Do we know who’s on the board of education? Do we know who’s in charge of fixing the potholes? What do we really know about the people who are setting environmental policy? Here in South Florida, I’ll bet you that 99 out of a 100 people have not a clue who decided water policy, and with the Everglades and Biscayne Bay and the huge growth in population, water, as part of an environmental policy, is a huge issue in South Florida, and we don’t know who’s even thinking about those decisions. So what are the information needs? Where are we now? And then the third point of that commission would be to recommend public policy initiatives or alternatives that could include, for television, could include FCC regulation and, for others, might include changes in the tax laws that would somehow make it advantageous in a neutral sort of way for local groups to own local news organizations. They don’t need to be newspapers, but there has to be some way that we can structure the market or structure the influences on the market, like tax policy, that makes it desirable for investors to invest in informing communities.
ANDELMAN: When you fund an initiative like this, particularly this one, do you say, “And by the way, let’s light a fire under your asses,” because in six months, everything will have changed again?
IBARGUEN: Actually, yes is the short answer. I’ve spoken with the two people, they haven’t committed to it yet, but the two people that we’re asking to be the co-chairs of this, and I said to both of them, “If we don’t have a report out by early next year then forget it. You will see that things will change in the course of holding hearings, and all we’re gonna be able to do in that snapshot is take a snapshot of that moment in time, and six months later, it probably will be obsolete.”
However, there are some things that I think are worth a look – some things in FCC policy, some things in tax policy, for example, the way that newspapers are carried on the books at this point. Maybe there’s a tax way that we can somehow encourage local groups to buy out their hometown newspaper. I don’t know. Virtually every community in America, of any size, has a community foundation, some very big, some small, but all of them are charged with meeting the core needs of their community. My contention is that information in a democracy is a core need. It’s just as real as jobs and housing and education. If you don’t have information, you can’t have a democracy. It’s as simple as that. And so my charge to them when I had the privilege and opportunity of speaking to their convention last year in September in San Francisco, and I said, “I’ll bet not a single one of you is paying any attention to this basic need because you think it sort of comes naturally with a newspaper or with a television or with radio or even online, but you’re not doing anything about it. You don’t see yourself as a player.”
My hope is that they will begin to see this as a core need, number one and number two, begin to see themselves as players in this. And we, as Knight Foundation, would hope to partner with them in whatever ways they come up with for their communities and the kinds of ways that people have suggested as we’ve had conversations along the way have been…
Maybe a community foundation notices that the local newspaper is not writing much about city hall so maybe they fund five bloggers at city hall, and maybe they go down to the local NPR station and fund a chair in investigative reporting for the local radio station, or maybe there’s a group that is struggling to put out a local weekly on the web, and maybe they fund that group so that they can get more professional and more consistent and maybe go from weekly to daily online. I don’t know, but we’re interested, and we would be interested in partnering, that is to say we would fund part of whatever initiatives these folks come up with. But we’ve all got to take some responsibility for this.
As Americans, we’ve long assumed that quality news is free or incredibly cheap, free on TV, free online, free on radio, or very, very cheap in newspapers. In Europe, that’s never been the case. In Britain, you pay a tax when you buy a television. The newspapers are incredibly expensive. They’ve always been willing to pay for news. It’s never been particularly advertising-supported, and I think they’re having fewer issues than we are. I don’t know how you change the mentality, but I think we need to experiment with different ways of doing that.
ANDELMAN: Do you think that one day we’ll have to have societies to save the daily print newspaper the way we have non-profit groups in place to preserve historic buildings?
IBARGUEN: I doubt it. I doubt it. I think they will survive because there’s a demand for it, as radio has. There was a time when people thought radio would go out of business because of television, and when television became the primary source of news and entertainment for Americans, people thought that newspapers would be dead. That was somewhere in the ‘60s. It didn’t happen. It’s a big market, and there are lots of different demands for it, but I think what could happen is that newspapers become more of a niche publication as they already are becoming, it seems to me. What I think newspapers need to figure out is, “What is that niche?” They have traditionally thought of themselves as mass, broad-reach, not beat but broad-reach publications, and I’m not sure that they can be competitive with the web. One of the things that Jack and Jim Knight set this foundation up for…That’s a bad construction. Sorry about the grammar, but as a former newspaper publisher, I shouldn’t speak that way.
ANDELMAN: We’ll fix it in editing.
IBARGUEN: Thank you. But one of the reasons they set the foundation up was simply that they wanted to promote excellence in journalism. They didn’t say, and in fact, Jim Knight at one point wrote a memo to the trustees. He said, “I don’t have a crystal ball, and I’m not telling you how you should do it. I just want excellence in journalism to be promoted.” And so the trustees of Knight Foundation have interpreted that to mean excellence in journalism. It isn’t about the platform. It isn’t about being on newspapers. It’s about how you deliver believable, quality, fair, accurate, contextual search for truth into the citizens of our communities.
ANDELMAN: The last time we spoke, and it was kind of the focus of our conversation about a month ago, we talked about the incredible upheaval in media and communications. You said something that really grabbed my attention. I’m just gonna read this as a quote from you. You said, “So much of it has to do with technologies adopted by younger generations. We need to find what uses young people give to platforms, what are they using, and how are they using it.” Can you talk a little more, and I think this applies to what you’re doing at the foundation. Can you talk a little more about the effect of Generation Y on traditional forms of media and particularly on journalism?
IBARGUEN: I think, if you look back in history, you’re going to find similar kinds of, analogous kinds of, disruptive change. There was a point, I don’t know, call it in the 1920s when a younger generation began to communicate with itself through radio. The same kind of thing I’d say would probably be true with television later on, and it’s certainly true with online. Now we’re looking at a proliferation of technologies that use wireless technology that were unimaginable before, but you have to pay attention. It seems to me that I have young friends and colleagues who are in their late teens or early 20s to whom I can send an email and expect a reply maybe tomorrow, but if I send them a text message, I’ll get a reply almost instantaneously. And what that says to me is that these are folks for whom the preferred method of communication is the portable cell phone.
One of the things we’re doing is in the Knight News Challenge, which offers $5 million a year for ideas for how to use digital platforms. That’s digital. That doesn’t mean computer. It means digital platforms for the delivery of news and information to a geographically defined community. One of the clever applications we had in the first year, and it’s just begun operating, was from, of all places, MTV. And MTV put in an application, and they defined geography as the 50 states plus the District of Columbia. And the project was to hire a kid, a representative, a kid being defined as somebody between 18 and 25. I think about 90 percent of the people they hire fit that. There were a couple that were a little bit older and to hire one person from each of the states and the District of Columbia to cover the Presidential campaign on cell phone. They will text and send video clips to the people on their network, and then MTV puts it on their television programs and says to their young audience, “If you want to get more information from your state, the next time Mary reports from Iowa or Pete reports from Indiana send your cell phone number to this website, give us your cell phone number, and we’ll let you know.” So what’ll happen? At the end of the year, because it’s our grant, MTV will have to disclose all their learnings from it, and I think we’ll learn a lot about how young people are using cell phones to get important news and information. And I think we’re going to learn a lot about what kinds of stories turn them on, what kinds of stories were of little interest. I think we’re going to see some clever reporting and uses of the technology that a 50-year-old sending a text message or sending something through a telephone may not invent. And the worst that’ll happen is that by going to the preferred method of communication, the preferred medium, the preferred platform, we will touch, I suspect, millions of kids who otherwise might never have paid any attention to a major civic event, which is the Presidential election.
ANDELMAN: Did you encounter much skepticism within the ranks at Knight about funding something for MTV? On the face of it, it seems a little analogous. It seems like the project itself makes perfect sense, but it’s MTV so…
IBARGUEN: There were people who thought, “We’re a blue chip foundation from a blue chip newspaper company, and what are we doing with MTV?” I said, “I’ll tell you, exactly.” And that was one objection. Another objection was, “Who wants to give money to Sumner Redstone? He’s got plenty.”
ANDELMAN: That was my next question.
IBARGUEN: He owns it. And my answer to both is they have access to the kids who are using this technology. Right now, we’re in a stage where we need to figure out how best to communicate using this new technology. It’s part of our commitment to experimenting. We have got to try a variety of experiments in order to figure out what works. The industry is under a great deal of stress, and I say that both about television and especially about newspapers but also about television. I think if you look at your local television news I think that you see exactly the same thing has happened there in terms of the content as has in typical local newspapers.
My job at Knight Foundation, it seems to me, is to fund a lot of experiments so that we see what happens and so that others, whether it’s in television, newspapers, or online, will say, “That’s interesting. I’ll do that.”
One of the other grants we gave was to a young man named Adrian Holovaty, who is the guy who developed ChicagoCrime and then later worked at washingtonpost.com, and he put in a grant and got the money to develop code to interpret and rationalize and make accessible, intuitively accessible, lots of already available public information that is not accessible. In other words, his theory of the game was that, in any community, there’s lots of information that is theoretically available, whether it’s from government, whether it’s the city hall or whether it’s the school board or information from local organizations or information even from newspapers and other news organizations. But to put it all together and make it make sense for your neighborhood is very, very difficult because they’re on different platforms, and you’d have to spend half your life trying to gather it all together. So his idea, and it may turn out to be fantastic, is to develop code to bring it all together. Whatever neighborhood you live in, if you live, say, in the Coconut Grove section of Miami, you call up a little map of your neighborhood and you start clicking around, and his code will translate all of the available public information that you otherwise couldn’t access and will put it for you in geographic form. That code, at the end of the project, will become public and will become available to anybody in any community that wants to use it. I don’t know if that’s a solution to things, but I would think that if I were a newspaper publisher, I might be interested to use something like that in my website to drive a lot of traffic to my website, to have people have a sense of their own community geography when they come to my website at the same time that they see other stories that we might have developed at the newspaper.
And the last example I’d give you is that we made a major grant to the Media Laboratory at MIT. The Media Lab has famously been inventing gizmos for the last 30 years, and our grant is to have them apply those gizmos to the geography in which we actually live. The great thing about my board of trustees is that they are risk-takers. I don’t know what those gizmos are going to be or how they’re going to be applied. I really do believe, however, that it’s our job to experiment with that, and the trustees were willing to go along with that.
ANDELMAN: Knight has, I think, two areas of focus – community and journalism. How do you balance those competing needs?
IBARGUEN: The Knight brothers always had both of those interests. Jack especially, was a journalist first and foremost. His brother, Jim, was more the business manager. Jack had all the editors reporting to him, and Jim had all the general managers reporting to him, and they actually ran the company almost as if they were two separate companies, two parallel companies. So they had, literally, lifelong commitment to quality journalism and to delivering news and information and to, as Jack Knight used to talk about, giving the people the information they needed so that they could determine their own true self-interests. But they also had a really very, very clear sense, and that’s, in part, why they created this foundation. They had a clear sense that they were community builders. They did well when their communities did well, and that to the extent that they as business people could participate in the civic life of the community, that was good. And that there were times when the foundation would, either through scholarships or through housing projects or through economic projects or through arts projects, they hoped that the foundation would be a way of contributing to the civic life of the community. But their main contribution to the civic life of the community was the newspaper because that was how they gave to the communities the glue, the bonding element, which is the information that defines what that community is.
The newspaper played an enormously important role in the 20th century in defining what Philadelphia was, what Detroit was, and the Knight newspapers did not resemble each other. The Detroit Free Press was not supposed to look like the San Jose Mercury News, and the San Jose Mercury News didn’t look like the Boulder paper, and that didn’t look like the Wichita Eagle, and none of them looked like the Miami Herald. They weren’t supposed to because they were different communities, and they had to be the voice of that community, and that was a way of community building. I think it’s entirely consistent.
I’ll say one last thing, and that is that they never thought that building community through information meant boosterism. I don’t see anything in anything Jack Knight ever wrote or that he published that was where he put his finger on the scale and said, “No, we’re not going to print that because it wouldn’t be good news.” Jack Knight really believed that the fair, accurate, contextual search for truth is the best way for informing the people so the people can then make up their own mind. And that carried through, in my experience as a Knight-Ridder publisher, that carried through years and decades after he died. When his son was killed in World War II, he wrote about it, and he wrote about it because he thought nobody should be spared the kind of coverage that, if he were some other prominent person, the newspaper would’ve given to that death. He wrote a very moving column on the death of his son. And subsequent publishers…Lee Hills, I remember one time, got into a car accident here in Miami, and Lee Hills called the newsroom and said, “I want you to run this story. I caused a car accident, and it has to go in the paper tomorrow,” and it had to go in the paper because nobody, including the publisher, could be given a special pass. That’s great journalism.
ANDELMAN: I agree. I agree. I can think of some examples I’ve seen of that over the years where the publishers have bitten their pride and allowed themselves to be exposed to things where they had it within their power not to be, but they went for it anyway.
IBARGUEN: Or their friends.
IBARGUEN: And it’s a very tough thing. I actually will tell you that some of the most difficult moments I had was not in deciding to publish but in then later meeting with people about whom we had published unflattering things, but they were true. And that had to be the standard.
ANDELMAN: There’s a chat room that goes on simultaneously with the Mr. Media interview, and Luke Armour, who is a host at blogtalkradio.com and is also involved with the company, wanted to ask you this. He’s wondering, “How do newspapers see their experimentation with new tools and new media? Is it ever considered selling out, and have any of them seen a pushback from their attempts?”
IBARGUEN: Absolutely yes. I think, in fact, one of the things that caused newspaper companies to be so slow to adapt or to, first of all, to take the web seriously and then slow to adapt to the web is that traditional newsrooms did see it as entertainment and as light, as not serious. And I think that, in hindsight, as we were talking about before, 20/20 is great. In hindsight, I think that was a mistake. I think there was also a mistake made when newspapers decided to convert their operations to the web, and the mistake was a natural mistake, which was, “Let’s put the newspaper on the web.” And the problem is that it’s a form of telling the story that fits the medium, that is the newspaper writing somehow fits the paper, fits the ink on paper, fits the printing and the holding and the way you carry and the way you use newspapers. That worked. When you try to go to the web, and the web is as interactive and is as, if you will, transactional, I’m not sure that’s the right way to talk about it but has so many other possibilities for sound and movement but mainly interactivity, it’s an entirely different kind of relationship between writer and reader or editor and public where it’s not we have experience, we have gone out and reported, we have waited, we have sources, and here’s the story. “I write, you read.”
On the web, there’s a different demand, and it’s “I publish and you participate.” There’s a different feel to it. There’s a different expectation on the part of its users, and we have not yet figured out how to provide the value proposition of the experienced, sophisticated reporting and editing that we had developed with newspapers. On the web, at this point, virtually everything is, in the minds of many, it’s all pretty much equal. My blog is as credible as your blog as a blog from a senior reporter who’s spent 15 years covering the health industry, but I write a blog about the health industry on the web. Somebody may take us as equally expert because maybe I write a little better or I write with passion or I write with flair. So I think we’re not yet at the point where we’re giving users of the web enough tools to be able to decide what’s quality and what’s not, and that’s also something that we need to experiment with.
ANDELMAN: I have another question for you from the web chat. Mediawoman asks: “Can newspaper editors develop their existing staffs to work exclusively on the web, or do they stand to lose staff if they do that, or do they need to lose staff to the web?”
IBARGUEN: Well, they’re different questions. I think some newspapers have lost staff to the web. I think newspapers do need to adapt their staff. My guess is most newspapers are trying to adapt their staff to multimedia. For example, at the Miami Herald, I know that reporters will often now take recordings of their interviews not just for their notes but for possible use because the Miami Herald has an arrangement with public radio locally, and so the reporter becomes not just a print reporter but a radio reporter as well, and that will also be used online. I think training reporters to use all of the tools available is commonsensical.
I also think that if you talk to a college senior who’s interested in journalism about only print, I think they say, “Haven’t you been reading the newspapers? Where’s my career?” And the career is probably more online so I think editors would do well to see what is being done at Berkeley, at USC, at Northwestern, at Arizona. Those are the schools that just quickly come to mind as schools that are very, very aggressively trying to figure out how to do quality journalism using the web, using all of the opportunities of the web, rather than the more traditional print journalism. That’s not to say that there aren’t other schools, that other schools aren’t also doing it. Columbia, for example, is exemplary not just in terms of the teaching they do, but Columbia has chosen to go a somewhat different route with really very serious training in a second year. They used to have a one-year Master’s. They now offer a second year for what I’ll call substantive education. So if you’re interested in being a legal reporter, you could get a Master’s in journalism and then a second Master’s. Well, actually, I don’t know if it’s a Master’s but a second certificate or degree that would give you an extra year’s worth of training in law or in business or science so that you become a much better reporter because you actually know the subject that much better.
ANDELMAN: Knight has been involved — and I’m familiar with this personally because I’ve done some work there — with NewsU at Poynter. And it seems to me that in the panic over print journalism, and this is sort of what you’re getting at, I kind of felt that some of the industry leaders have lost sight that journalism skill sets, the reporting, the writing, editing are really transferable to any medium. You’ve talked about blogging and funding blogging, but that those skills, they don’t stop at the back page and then become useless.
IBARGUEN: Absolutely right. You are absolutely right. And any opportunity I have to talk with students, and I’m privileged that sometimes I do get to do that, I just congratulate them for being able, as journalism students, for being able to see that the skills of investigation, of gathering information, of writing it, of writing an interesting story, writing a story that can be about a complex subject but being able to understand it well enough to explain it simply. That’s a great skill, and that’s a skill that doesn’t require that you be printed on paper. That’s a skill that simply requires that you understand how to tell that story in ways that are appropriate to the medium that you’re using.
ANDELMAN: Will we still have journalism schools in 10 years? Will kids still be going there? Probably in a year or two, forget about 10 years. I guess we’ll be teaching them things far different than just print. Hopefully, maybe they’re already doing that.
IBARGUEN: We already are. We already are. If you go to the journalism school at Berkeley or the journalism school at Arizona or even Northwestern, these are schools that are working very, very hard to figure out how to teach the values of journalism but the skills of the web.
ANDELMAN: What would you like your legacy at the Knight Foundation to be one day far in the future?
IBARGUEN: “He wasn’t afraid to experiment.” That sounds like a tombstone, doesn’t it? But, really, I think one of the things that’s perhaps the greatest privilege of this job is that…When I was publisher of the Herald, I really did take seriously the fact that I was responsible for thousands of jobs, and that meant families and that meant income, and I was responsible to shareholders, and I was also responsible to the community to deliver the news and information they needed. I still feel that last responsibility. I’m just not any longer responsible for the business side, and so now I am really free to experiment. It would be a shame if I didn’t take advantage of that, of that great opportunity to experiment.