You just said in the small markets you might want to cut back on the newsprint. Advance Publications did that, and it caused massive outrage. How should they have handled it?
Advance in New Orleans just came out and said, we’re going to three days a week, screw you, and it was accompanied by steep editorial cuts. Meanwhile, when they did cut delivery days in Detroit a few years ago, they said, “We’re doing this so we don’t have to lay off more reporters.” Every paper in the near future is going to be facing that decision, because if you’re delivering a paper for people, and costs you $3 a day and you’re charging them a dollar, you rely on advertising to make up that other $2, and that isn’t going to come back. You either have to create a new revenue stream to make up for that, or you have to cut delivery. Additionally, digital advertising has to mature, so you can transition more evenly to a combined print digital product rather than a newspaper that’s got a digital website.
Do you think issues might arise with some of these new revenue streams damaging the credibility of the paper?
Let’s take branded content. There are issues with it, but you need to sit down and say, “Let’s try and do it in a way that doesn’t diminish the news organization,” because if you diminish the credibility of the news organization, nobody’s going to believe your branded content—no one’s even going to look at it. All a news organization has got is credibility.
Last year the Chicago Tribune was caught using Journatic to produce outsourced, semi-automated news. Do you feel this was reflective of a continued Zell-type management outlook or reflective of broader problems in newspaper management elsewhere?
I think the whole idea of trying to automate content is bad, and it isn’t going to work, and people are going to see through it. I don’t think that was a Zell idea, because Journatic was devised by two Tribune executives who are now at the Sun-Times. There’s a good way to do it. For instance, when I was at the LA Times, if I had a computer program that could scrape data from communities around LA, and had trained reporters look over it, I could have expanded the area I could have covered. But if I had taken data, didn’t check it out, sent it to the Philippines, had somebody write a story about it, and then call them ‘Joe USA,’ that would have been a disaster.
How do you feel about the interest the Koch brothers have expressed in buying the Tribune papers? Do you think that the widespread concern in journalistic circles over their potential effect on news coverage is warranted?
The key question is what they’re going to do in the newsrooms: Are they going to keep them independent, and would they actually turn around and invest the money to devise some additional revenue sources to make these papers financially independent? Hopefully they would be smart enough to say, “We’re going to have a right-wing editorial page, but the news operations are going to be left alone,” because you don’t do well with this business when you turn it into something that doesn’t have credibility. Put in a strong editor, someone who’ll stand up to you, and who will run the newsroom with the utmost of integrity.
Do you feel the way Murdoch has handled the WSJ has been a good example?
I think the Journal has become more conservative in its news judgment, but I still think it’s a great newspaper. It’s the same thing: Murdoch’s a smart guy; he knows that this is the Wall Street Journal. You don’t go in and make it the New York Post, because it isn’t going to work, and you’ll lose too much readership.