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.
Your biggest initiative post Tribune—the Chicago News Cooperative—folded just over a year ago. Meanwhile, a similar nonprofit news startup, the Texas Tribune, is in the afterglow of its coverage of the Wendy Davis filibuster. Where do you think the fates of these two organizations diverged, and what lessons should observers looking for the future of serious local coverage take from the fates of these news publications?
I think there was a couple of big differences between the Chicago News Cooperative and the Texas Tribune, and the biggest one is that [CEO] Evan [Smith] developed the Texas Tribune with its own identity. if you’re living in Texas, you know what the Texas Tribune is. Evan and John Thornton solicited strong financial support from their local community, and I didn’t have that support. The Chicago News Cooperative got started as a project in partnership with The New York Times, which was was our biggest asset and our biggest liability—because while it gave us credibility, it was very hard to say, “We are the Chicago News Cooperative,” because everybody kept saying, “You guys are The New York Times.” Donors would ask, “Why should we give you money—we’ll just be supporting The New York Times, a profit-making corporation.” The Times association wasn’t the sole reason I pulled the plug, but the complexities it created were factors. In the end, we negotiated a deal where the Sun-Times bought the intellectual property of the CNC, and I used the money I got from that to pay off all our debts, and they offered almost everybody jobs at the Sun-Times.
Is there anything else you want to say?
We will eventually work out these problems in the industry, but journalists have to be part of the conversation. We have to come together and create the kind of industry that was available to people like me when I got out of college. While it’s not new that you don’t make a lot of money when you get out of college, there was a clear path. If you did the right things, you might not get rich, but you’ll make good enough money to support a family. Journalism will be sustained when people really feel like they got a chance to achieve the things they really want to achieve.