Sunday, April 25, 2010

William R. Hearst III on News & the Future of News

William R. Hearst III is a partner at the powerful venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. He serves on many boards of directors, perhaps most importantly The Hearst Corporation. According to its Web site, "The Hearst Corporation is one of the nation's largest diversified communications companies. Its major interests include magazine, newspaper and business publishing, cable networks, television and radio broadcasting, internet businesses, television production and distribution, newspaper feature distribution, and real estate."

Fred Dodsworth: Your family has been involved in the media business for?
Will Hearst: For over a 125 years.

Dodsworth: Where do you see the media business going?
Will Hearst: As long as people gather someplace and exchange information there are going to be institutions that gather information and package it, and to some degree, put their credibility next to it. When you say the media business you're of course including broadcasting and print and Internet and all kinds of different platforms on which people both gather and exchange and consume information ... and entertainment as well.

Dodsworth: What is the goal of that dissemination of information?
Will Hearst: It's the campfire. It's the place where people gather and compare notes. The ultimate question people are asking themselves is "How does my life compare to that life?" "How's it going to affect my life? " "Is there an opportunity here for me?"

We also read — and I mean read in the sense of view and consume and browse and search for information — for a kind of human dimension. When I read about Katharine Graham dying I thought, "Oh. My dad died a few years ago. And I know Don Graham." You tend to sort of take the dramatic events and the human events and personalize them. And that's just never going to stop. From the earliest imaginable human society people gathered around and compared notes, and that's what we're doing.

Dodsworth: You kind of started your career at Rolling Stone, an alternative publication.
Will Hearst: I like alternative newspapers a lot.

Dodsworth: The S.F. market has a great number of alternative papers. When one looks at the total readership of all the alternatives, it surpasses the readership of the major dailies.
Will Hearst: The other thing you're getting is you're getting a publication count that looks like the daily newspaper world of the mid-1950s when San Francisco had seven newspapers. We don't have seven newspapers today (chuckling) but we do have (at least) seven alternative newspapers. And that's not even counting the ethnic press.

Dodsworth: So what is the 21st century definition of an alternative newspaper?
Will Hearst: (Laughing loudly.) That's almost impossible to answer. I don't think you could make a definition. There are certain characteristics of alternative newspapers that seem to trend. Alternative newspapers tend more often to be weekly, rather than daily. They often tend to be smaller format rather than broadsheet. They often tend to excel in cultural coverage relative to the metro dailies. They often tend to underachieve in business coverage and sports coverage. And they tend to cover national politics, and to a large degree, local politics in what I would call an ideological coverage approach as opposed to a "paper of record" approach.
So if you (read) an alternative paper, you'll get better arts coverage, you won't find out what's going on in the business community, you'll get token sports coverage and you'll get coverage of city hall that's VERY opinionated.

I give a speech that usually irritates an audience of traditional newspaper people: "You want young readers? Double your arts coverage. Easiest thing in the world to do. It doesn't cost you that much and yet it absolutely is what the alternative presses are doing to kill you."

Dodsworth: Ideological coverage used to be synonymous with alternative press.
Will Hearst: Yes, and I don't mean to use that in a pejorative sense. I read, and I'm sure you do, LOTS of things from different points of view. I read lots of things from points of view that I don't always share. I think anybody that cares deeply about an issue, really, sincerely, should spend a lot of time reading the opposition press on that issue.

Dodsworth: I once heard attorney Laurence Tribe recommend The Wall Street Journal to a group of movement organizers.
Will Hearst: (Laughing.) The thing I like about The Wall Street Journal the best is its editorial pages. Not because I agree with them but because I think an editorial page is a contract to commit ideological journalism , and they're the only newspaper that really lives up to the contract in the sense that they write great poison-pen, withering-scorn editorials. If you could get the New York Times to write with an equally florid pen, from their point of view, you'd have a good day's worth of reading between the two of them.

Dodsworth: Is bias in the press an important issue?
Will Hearst: I think it's an important issue at every level of the business. In the same way that companies have cultures, newsrooms have cultures. I wouldn't make the case that there's only one way to do it and objectivity is always better than subjectivity, or visa versa. But I would make the case that you pick up a product of a culture and you read it for a while, you get a feeling. You either say, "This thinks the way I do." "This thinks the opposite of the way I do and challenges me." Or "These guys are trying to not take an ideological point of view," then the question becomes, "Do I trust them as newsgathers?"

A newspaper like the New York Times tries to take the paper of record strategy and the Bay Guardian takes a different approach and the American Spectator takes a different approach from them.

Dodsworth: Sorting all that out asks a lot of the reader.
Will Hearst: I think readers do this all the time. The one theory I violently oppose is the "Foie Gras Theory" — that you're sort of force feeding people information and there's nothing they can do about it. I don't watch or read anything that way and I don't listen or participate in conversation that way. What I'm doing, what you're doing, what your readers are doing, is every time they're reading something they're saying, " That sounds like B.S." Or " That resonates with my experience." Or " That's a strange point of view."

There's an active intelligence — I'm not saying critical, I'm not saying educated, I'm not saying analytical — I'm just saying there's a dialogue going on inside the brain of the reader that is looking at everything they're hearing. People are having internal thumbs up/thumbs down every second they're consuming information.

Dodsworth: In the beginning you said, "comparing themselves"
Will Hearst: They're comparing their picture of reality and they're comparing their picture of emotional life.

One of the things I think many people would agree to today is when you had a very white, very male media picture, one of the things that was wrong was a lot of people weren't seeing themselves. They were out of the dialogue. I think the whole media got stronger by making those changes — not in terms of "growing the audience," but in terms of more different places to feel agreement or disagreement.

Dodsworth: Race and racism are not popular front page stories.
Will Hearst: There are a lot of people who experience life in America through the prism of race. It affects their life. It's a major issue. To talk about race is no different than talking about baseball or talking about any other thing that touches a lot of people's lives. If you DIDN'T talk about race, you would be excluding something that a lot of people are experiencing everyday.

Now I don't experience it everyday. But I've listened long enough, and been told often enough to understand that for a lot of people it is a daily experience. It is a seven-day-a-week experience. It is the pre-eminent, running tape of their experience. If you don't introduce that topic, you're not letting those people find anything that feels like life feels to them.

If you define your newspaper as "I'm going to talk about the people in power and people who are about to be in power and that's the only dialogue I'm interested in covering," then you're going to be talking to a very small number of people, for whom that's their experience.

If instead you say, "I have a picture of a community — to go back to that word — that is my home-base coverage," than I think you have to turn the problem on its head and say, "Who are we? Who is the universe of people I'd like to be able to talk to in a relevant way so they find some experiences familiar and some experiences unfamiliar." Then you've got to talk about those issues. Then you've almost got to talk about the disparity between the community and the power structure, because for a lot of people, that's their experience of the power structure.

©April 25, 2010 Fred Dodsworth (originally written July 23, 2001)
This interview cost me my job at the SF Examiner. David C. Burgin, Executive Editor of the paper had been fired by Mr. Hearst, and Burgin knew I would have asked Hearst why. Of course Hearst told me. I didn't publish his answer but I probably should have. No one who knows Burgin would have been surprised by Hearst's answer.

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