Michael Bürgi On Blog-Induced “Vanity Contests,” Dumbing Down News, and Reporters’ Post-Katrina “Victory Dance”

Michael Brgi has been the editor of MediaWeek, the business trade publication, since 2004. He joined the magazine in 1993 to report on the cable industry and later became news editor, managing editor and then executive editor. He has overseen all day-to-day editorial operations since 2003. Prior to Mediaweek, Brgi reported for Multichannel News and Inside Media.

Liz Cox Barrett: I’m curious to hear what the editor of a media trade publication thinks about blogs, how they’ve influenced the media business (or not) and their potential to make money (or not). Do you read any blogs? Are there any that you’d point to as particularly influential and/or likely to turn a profit?

Michael Brgi: I’m going to start off sounding like a complete curmudgeon. First, let me say I’m a Luddite, I’m not a tremendous user of the Web for enjoyment or for recreational purposes. I use the Web for information and, really, for my job. So I’m not a tremendous fan of blogs, I’ve got to be honest.

What I’d say blogs really are — if it’s not a completely inappropriate comment — a kind of a circle jerk for the world of journalists. … We’re all writing for each other. As a result I’ve never enjoyed that or had fun participating in that kind of milieu. I’m not a big fan of blogs but I also don’t know that blogs have a big business future. They’ll be around, they’ll be part of the wonderful world of the Internet for decades until the next cool way of sharing information comes around, but I don’t think there is much of a business there because I’m not sure how many advertisers feel the need to reach journalists (we’re only one step above lawyers and used car salesmen). I’m not sure advertisers are clamoring to get their ads in front of us.

I’ve got to be honest, I don’t read blogs. I do notice Gawker sometimes but I’ve got to admit I’m mainly looking just to see if they’ve picked up any of my stories. It’s a little bit of a vanity contest, whether or not Gawker or Romenesko or MediaBistro picked up one of our stories. I don’t tend to go to blogs to find stuff out or get a kick out of seeing what’s out there. I read newspapers and newsweeklies and watch TV news for most of my information.

I do find fascinating this new subculture of, I guess it’s being called “citizen journalism,” which is really taking root and blogs are an early extension of that. It fascinates me to think how this will ever turn into a business or will it ever need to become a business. … I’m not a big participant but I’m definitely an interested observer …

LCB: You’ve been covering the media business for over a decade. What are some of the biggest changes or innovations you’ve witnessed in that time? What has surprised you, perhaps a trend or publication that did (or didn’t) stick?

MB: I’ve pretty much been covering the TV business for about, this is scary to say, seventeen or eighteen years. During my time I’ve seen the advent of 24-hour cable news, which has really just so changed the way people digest their news. We were talking about it before, the whole new advent of news that can be personalized, whether it’s individual people getting their news from news channels’ [Web] sites or creating their own news through blogs … all of this has dramatically changed the world of news as we know it.

To see the New York Times lay off 500 people earlier this week — six months, I think, after they laid off another 150 — there is something big afoot. I’m not sure how much I like the way it’s going. Me and my magazine may be out off business down the line. These changes [are] irrefutable and it’s fascinating to witness.

LCB: What challenges do you see for the business of journalism?

MB: Somehow keeping people interested. Traditional journalism as we know it seems to be losing fans as they get older and die off and younger generations don’t have the same type of interest or attention span. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way; their interests are different, they don’t want their news in way we’ve all been getting it for the last several centuries or decades (depending on whether you’re talking about print or radio or TV). The print industry is hard at work creating all these new products that are real-short-attention- span theater. TV, Fox News changed everything in the 24-hour news world by taking a more partisan approach to news gathering… There is going to be a reexamination of how news organizations attract and keep audiences to stay in business. Things don’t look that good right now. I don’t know what the answers are, but there are a hell of a lot of questions that need to be answered soon.

LCB: This is a good segue way into my next question. What about the Associated Press’ asap — does the world really need another news outlet aimed at the elusive 18-34 demographic?

MB: I can’t get myself to pick up either of the New York papers handed out at subways. They just really seem so dumbed down. If I want some attempt at serious news, I read the [New York] Times or the [Wall Street] Journal. If I want to be entertained, I read the New York Post — it’s got little to do with journalism but it sure is a fun read.

No, I don’t think we need that many more [youth-oriented news outlets] but that contradicts what I said before, that news companies need to find new ways to reach people. It makes me a little afraid they’re trying to reach and sustain an audience by dumbing things down. It’s unfortunate, but it does seem to be an inexorable march.

LCB: What about Men’s Vogue? Does the world really need a Men’s Vogue? What’s your prognosis for this publication?

MB: Men’s Vogue? Probably a really smart idea. Cargo and similar magazines have really established themselves. There seems to be a real appetite among men — and I can’t include myself, if you saw me you’d know why I don’t — for fashion information and fashion tips and all that has historically catered only to women. I think there’s a marketplace there. Not a bad idea at all. For me, there’s zero appeal.

LCB: You recently wrote an opinion piece about how well the press performed in their coverage of Hurricane Katrina. You wrote: “After the 2004 presidential election, it became clearer than ever that the domestic news media are falling into red-state/blue-state partisan camps. … I’ve always been under the impression that journalism — the profession of finding and delivering news — is supposed to be objective. Well, watching, hearing and reading the heroic, impressive and passionate coverage of the horrors wrought by Hurricane Katrina by our news organizations served as a reminder that objectivity still exists, if only in times of crisis.” Do reporters really deserve to be applauded for, in effect, doing their jobs?

MB: Well, you know, no more so than a football player that does his job by tackling a running back before they’ve gained ten yards and gets up to do his little victory dance. The fact is journalism in general, I think, has suffered as a result of lot of changes that have gone on, but when the chips fell, all the news organizations — print, TV, and otherwise — rose to the occasion to cover what is arguably the worst tragedy this country has ever seen. … I was riveted to my TV and I hungered to read the paper every morning to get more information and almost completely across the board the news was delivered with a passion you don’t see in covering congressional hearings or other kinds of ordinary news events. It’s great to see that passion again …

LCB: Will this passion last? Will it be one of Katrina’s legacies?

MB: A lasting legacy? No, I don’t [think so]. We all do a great job of rising up in times of tragedy but we just so easily lapse back into kind of an easier way out when tragedy or crisis is not facing us. I don’t think it’s going to last necessarily. We can all be proud of those moments. …

LCB: What other lasting affects might Katrina have on the news business? News budgets?

MB: They probably are budget-strapped. But at least in world of TV, ratings are up. People are watching news. This has not been a crisis where ads have been removed. Actually, I’ve got to imagine the news networks are doing a tremendous bit of business now. They’re spending a lot more but they’re probably getting more ad revenue because their gross ratings points were up dramatically over non-crisis times and yet no one is pulling advertising.

That good feeling, that we did a good job —that will hang around for a while — but a legacy? Will things change in a more permanent way? I don’t believe so. When hurricane season is over and until the next tragedy befalls us, we’ll return back to the normal way we do things.

LCB: You also wrote that “the one black eye to Fox News’ [hurricane] reportage was the grotesque, exploitative work done by Geraldo Rivera.” You called Rivera’s reporting “an embarrassment,” particularly when he “grabbed screaming babies from victims’ arms for props and pushed relief workers out of the way when he went off to “rescue” survivors.” Rivera has been publicly feuding with the New York Times and disputing a similar characterization by the Times’ Alessandra Stanley who wrote that Rivera “nudged” a rescue worker out of the way for the cameras. Rivera says he did no such nudging and many journalists — The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times — acknowledge that he was showboating but not “nudging.” Have you heard from Rivera about this? To what were you referring?

MB: Fox News actually contacted me and challenged me on that front, the instance I referred to, the instance that I noticed. … I’ve been over this with Fox and in the blur of the coverage I didn’t write down the exact instant I was talking about. I remember seeing this as I was watching the coverage but I can’t point to the specific instance …

Let me say one thing on the record: I just thought Geraldo cheapened what it seemed everyone else at Fox News was trying to accomplish. Geraldo has a certain style, definitely a more in-your-face and I’m-just-a-regular-guy style. I just thought that it really detracted from what was excellent coverage on Fox News, and surprisingly neutral coverage. Fox News has a history of taking it a little easy on this current administration and, boy, they did not let up on the lack of response [to Katrina], the incoherence of the response. Geraldo did his bit to contribute, but his way completely conflicted with what I was seeing on the channel the rest of the time.

LCB: If you could be any existing bigwig in the media business — preferably on the editorial side, since that’s what we’re interested in at CJR Daily — whose desk would you take over? Why?

MB: A guy I always admired was Ted Turner, a man who stayed true to his vision and carried it out like no one I’ve ever seen before. And as wacky as he’s always been, he was also, in many ways, just a regular guy. To be a visionary and regular guy is something to be.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.