'Newspaper as important as fire dept'

Prof. Glasser says equating free press with free enterprise is dangerous.

theodore glasser 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy Theodore Glasser)
theodore glasser 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy Theodore Glasser)
A recent report by researcher Zvi Reich discovered that the average Israeli journalist relies on 2.5 sources for every story, as opposed to 3.5 by the average American reporter. Thirty years ago, a similar study showed that The New York Times and The Washington Post averaged some eight sources for a front-page story. The local media scene is in as much turmoil as America's. With Channel 10 on the verge of shutting down due to lack of finances, and the Israel Broadcasting Authority mired in stalled reforms and rock-bottom ratings, the models of both commercial and public news media seem to floundering. Ma'ariv is millions of shekels in debt, cutting costs, hemorrhaging staff and always on the verge of closing. Its two chief editors recently quit. A free daily closely allied with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has leapfrogged Ma'ariv and is now the second most read newspaper in the country. Ha'aretz has lost several of its leading reporters and editors in the past six months as management has cuts costs. When he was here in 1993 on a Fulbright scholarship, Theodore Glasser, a professor of communications at Stanford University, found that Army Radio was the most credible news source in the country. It showed the government's commitment to quality public broadcasting, he thought, and was a good example of how the state that thinks good journalism ought to exist can create conditions for good journalism. To survive, let alone stay relevant, newspapers need to be viewed as essential public services, something a community cannot live without, like public libraries and schools, says Glasser. The Jerusalem Post sat down with him to speak about the future of media at a conference on the subject at the IDC Herzliya. Glasser's teaching and research focuses on media practices and performance, with emphasis on questions of press responsibility and accountability. He has held visiting appointments as a Senior Fulbright Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; as the Wee Kim Wee Professor of Communication Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore; and at the University of Tampere, Finland. Despite the crisis facing journalism, he says, enrollment to journalism schools across the US has never been higher. The new crop of journalists defines the trade much more broadly than the older generation, and can work across multiple formats. The stories we're putting on our front page seem to me to be getting more and more important [Iran, the settlements and Jewish identity issues.] But at the same time I'm seeing that these things are becoming less and less important to a new generation of people. Even if they're not interesting, the stories still belong on the front page. That's the power of the press, to gain the attention of the policymakers. And that requires publishing the story even if no one reads it. That's what a good paper recognizes. There's a balance between those kinds of stories and other kinds of stories that people read and want. But if you give up your front page, you give up your mission. Maybe it's better in places like Iran and Cuba, where nobody is pretending that there's any press freedom. But in some places in Europe, and increasingly in Israel, there is a semblance of press freedom, but actually, the publishers, industrialists and politicians hold almost absolute sway over what gets reported in their media and what doesn't. This happens everywhere. Rupert Murdoch is notorious for steering reporters away from stories. But it happens at The New York Times, too. It's a subtle process. There's no smoking gun and there's no paper trail; the publishers are smarter than that. That kind of pressure from the private sector is notorious and raises questions about what does the term "a free press" mean? What choice does an editor have? Ninety-five percent of the time you're totally independent, but 5% of the time you have to take what's sent from above. But once you start acquiescing, 5% becomes 6%, 6% quickly becomes 10% and from there on it's a freefall. Yes, that's quite correct. And it gets more widespread as the conglomerate that owns you gets more diversified. Take General Electric in the US: It owns NBC. What kind of coverage can NBC possibly do when it comes to what GE has an interest in? And what does GE not have an interest in? What does it mean to be independent? It's one thing to be independent of the state, everyone accepts that as a foundation of a free press. But you need to be independent in the marketplace, as well. You need to be independent of the interests of your owners. But unless you're the BBC, you can't do that. [The BBC is owned by the British license fee payer and the British government. Although it is state-owned, the BBC Trust runs it to guarantee its impartiality.] That's the model we need to be taking more seriously. The current model we see in most places is not working. We need a new model. Equating a free press with free enterprise is dangerous. We need to turn to the state without inviting the state to control things. That's a difficult argument to make. Most people see the state as onerous, as overbearing, as a threat to a free press. And under the wrong circumstances it is. You have to guard against that. And yet Army Radio in Israel, the BBC in the UK, NPR in America, these are good models. NPR is the best of any radio in the US, it outcompetes any radio on the commercial networks. How do you keep good journalists at these places with diminishing salaries, diminishing prospects for advancement and alluring competition from commercial networks? That's the problem. NPR is underfunded by the state, so it's being pushed more and more in the direction of the marketplace. It's running sponsorships that look more and more like advertisements. If it keeps going in that direction, it's going to be no different from the commercial networks. And that's too bad, because we as a society don't take public broadcasters too seriously. The British do, and so do the French. Western Europe takes it much more seriously than America and Israel do. We need to treat journalism the same way we treat libraries, public schools and museums. No community can live without it. And we don't view journalism that way. We view it as something that "if it survives in the marketplace fine; if it doesn't, well that's okay too." And that's exactly the crisis we face now. Journalism is not surviving in the marketplace. We're watching excellent newspapers disappear. We're watching big newsrooms dwindle to half their size. It's just shocking. There are topics and issues that just don't get covered, that don't get taken seriously anymore. And most of the people in journalism are standing aside, wringing their hands and saying, "Oh this is awful" and not proposing a way out. And charging for [content] on the Internet is not going to be the solution? Really? That's alarming, as most publishers seem to be heading in that direction to save their titles. First of all, I doubt it's actually going to happen. Unless everyone does it, it's not going to work. And if they do, that would be collusion, an antitrust violation if they [the publishers] got together and agreed on a premium for on-line content. There is this culture surrounding the Web, this belief in the Web being open and content being free. You mean technically there are ways to get around it too? Exactly right. Because of Google and Yahoo [and so many other social network platforms] people are still going to go the source that's free, and there will be sources that are free. [Charging for content] is going to kill papers like The New York Times, but I could be wrong. We've seen big papers across the US close down. The Rocky Mountain News for example. Now the Boston Globe is in serious trouble. That's a big paper. Where is this going? The Globe is an important paper historically. It's owned by The New York Times, that's the hard irony here. Who would better appreciate the importance of the Globe than the publishers of The New York Times? But there's nothing they can do. Could others start buying up American media? Say Arab sovereign funds? They don't seem to have a problem losing money on satellite TV stations. That could happen. A long time ago there was a concern in the States about oil companies buying newspapers; Exxon and Mobil thought they were being treated unfairly. There was this fear that if you annoy somebody long enough, they'll simply buy the paper and portray themselves in ways they want to be portrayed. I don't know what we would say if an Arab country wanted to come in and buy a newspaper. That's the nature of free enterprise. What are we going to say, that it's "un-American"? What could be more American? What happens to Western media, and culture, as its news media model implodes, while at the same time Arab media seem to be sprouting without being held back by financial losses? This idea that losing money implies a marketplace model is one that I think is obsolete. We say a newspaper is losing money, but we don't talk about libraries losing money. That's not how you calculate the value of a library. The Stanford Library is as great as it is because it doesn't think in terms of losing money. It will buy a book for $10,000 that three people will read because it's an important book. And they're not going to calculate based on the popularity of the book. That's not to say they're oblivious to popularity, they'll have all the popular books too. They're aware of popular demand, but they're also aware of value and the role a library plays in the university community. In America, network news doesn't play the role of public media anymore. No two people are reading the same thing, so how can you build a sense of community? My neighbor and I have nothing to talk about. The last time we had something to talk about was 9/11, when everyone was everyone's friend for about two months because that was the basis for everyone's conversation. And now unless it's the World Series, there is no common conversation. That was always the role of journalism, and it's not there anymore. How do you put together a different model for public media? We need to create a national endowment for journalism where a large pot of money is made available to fund new initiatives in journalism. The pot of money ought to be created through a cross-subsidy system so that we're taking the profits from Yahoo and Google and returning them to new opportunities for journalism. There will be a tax on these companies and telecommunications companies like AT&T, Microsoft - not exorbitantly, I'm all in favor of them making a good profit. But if you tax their profits 2% or 3% you would end up with a big pool of money. Even if they go out of business or the stock market tanks, the endowment is still there. By law you're only allowed to spend the interest on the endowment, not the endowment itself. That's what journalism needs; it can't be subject to the vagaries of the economy. The other thing to do is create local models of tax bases so that we can treat local papers in the same way we treat local schools and libraries, which we completely insulate from the marketplace. There are several institutions that every community needs: a police department, a fire department, a hospital and a newspaper. That's the argument I would make: A newspaper is as important as a fire department and a police department. A community that expects to govern itself can only do so if it receives an adequate supply of public information, public commentary, public discourse and public debate, and that's what journalism provides. It doesn't need to be elaborate or gigantic, but we need to take journalism seriously and not say to ourselves, "wealthy communities will have newspapers and poor communities will have no newspapers," which is what we have in the US now. But why would anyone read a public newspaper when the commercial version is so much sexier? That's like saying nobody's going to libraries, they're all going to bookstores to buy trash, so let's close our doors. Keep them open and people will pay some attention to them, there will be some content to attract people. But there will also be recognition that there could be very few stories in our newspaper that people will read, but the policy elite will read them, and they'll only read them because they were published, if they think others might read them. And that can only happen if the press feels free to publish stories that no one reads. I think you can make that argument to a community and say, "Look, this paper is going to devote front page after front page to material that you're going to find boring, and we hope you'll agree it needs to be there." It's a tough one to sell but any number of those stories, if they're well written, are interesting. The challenge is taking a dull topic and making it interesting. Who runs the endowment? I don't have that level of detail worked out, but it has to be run in a way that is completely insulated from political pressure. Local politicians can't get near that money and influence its allocation. It needs to be run the same way you run a local school board. You have an elected group of people who decide what journalism projects need to get funded, and then they have to take a hands-off approach. The Israeli media scene is also in turmoil. Ma'ariv is millions of shekels in debt, always cutting costs, hemorrhaging staff, and always on the verge of closing. Its two chief editors recently quit. Yisrael Hayom, a free daily closely allied with Binyamin Netanyahu, has leapfrogged Ma'ariv and is now the second most-read newspaper in the country. Channel 10 is millions of shekels in debt and on the verge of closing. Hardly anybody watches IBA's Channel 1, and it has to pay huge sums to keep its top talent from migrating [many of its other staff moonlight at other publications.] The reform at the IBA has stalled, most of its managers have quit, it is hundreds of millions of shekels in debt and there is no telling if and when planned reform at the public broadcaster will commence. Ha'aretz has lost several of its leading reporters and editors in the past six months as management has cuts costs. The Jerusalem Post is bucking the trend somewhat with a new New York edition, but life here is very hard, too, and not getting any easier. The list goes on. This has turned out be great news for journalism faculty. We just hired in the last four years people from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. Enrollment has never been higher. Young students see opportunities in journalism that we never saw before. They see opportunities in companies. There are Web sites that need content producers all over the place, and they'll make more money working for Yahoo than they will working for a newspaper. But that's not journalism, is it? No, but they define journalism much more broadly than we do. But Stanford is also struggling with this. In the past few years we've spent an enormous amount of time helping people gain skills we never anticipated five years ago. Everyone has to be able to work video, edit audio and work on-line. But it's also a big distraction. We spend all those hours teaching people how to edit video - those are hours not spent on the legal and ethical issues, the history of journalism. Our reporters are working harder now than ever, with senior reporters having to rush to cover as many as three or four stories a day. They get up earlier in the morning and go to sleep later at night. Their salaries are not growing, while the demands on their time and professionalism are. They are increasingly being replaced by younger reporters who are willing to work for much less money. What is the long-term impact of this on journalism? It's awful. Experience matters. This is why The New York Times remains The New York Times, because it's continuing to pay people a lot of money to write one story every two days. It makes a difference, you get a quality of writing and reporting at the Times that you just don't find anywhere else. It still has the money for this. It's more of a national paper now than it's ever been before and it has a solid core of readers. The price of the newspaper just went up again. But it's not a mass circulation paper. It's very elite and upscale and so it appeals to advertisers others aren't able to reach. The tabloids are the ones that are in danger of going out of business. In the free papers, everything is free and there is no advertising base. They have a tremendous amount of readers, but demographically unattractive readers for advertisers. These are the blue-collar, working-class people who don't spend any money because they don't have any money. It's not The Wall Street Journal where you can advertise for private jets. So in the end you're only going to get quality newspapers for rich people? That's exactly the crisis in the marketplace. The marketplace caters to the rich. American journalism has contributed enormously to the disenfranchisement of the American citizen. This crisis is getting worse every day and the only papers that can survive are the upscale papers like The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The New York Times. Aren't journalists at these papers then abdicating their responsibility to guard democracy? If you look at the groups that were dedicated to that - the Newspaper Guild and the unions have all but disappeared. They don't argue anymore about the quality of journalism. All they argue for now is higher pay for their members. So is there a way out of this? Can journalism survive all this? I am optimistic, and in some ways I think this is an exciting time. We tell our students that now they have a chance to reinvent journalism. I'm not sure exactly what it's going to look like. What concerns me is this claim that everybody is a journalist. That's so misleading, because the institution needs to survive, not just the individuals. You need an infrastructure. That's where I think the state needs to play a more important role. But the state can be supremely manipulative. It can release very important information just before deadline, not allowing a paper enough time to fact check. This is only one of many tools. Just like in Washington, they know when to call a press conference. But it's getting more and more difficult to do that, as the news cycle has become immediate. Things we never anticipated are changing the landscape so rapidly. No one anticipated Twitter, blogging and YouTube. These things are changing the standards of journalism. When The Wall Street Journal ran a front page picture of the Iranian girl that was recently killed in the riots with the caption: "unconfirmed photo" - I've never seen that in a mainstream newspaper before. They were essentially saying, "We don't know if this photo is real, but everyone's been viewing it, so we're going to run it too." That's an incredible thing for Murdoch to do. I understand why they did it - you can't ignore what everyone is watching, but on the other hand you don't know whether it was staged or edited. Also, when a journalist links to something, does that confer status onto that content? This is also a fascinating subject. Do they link only to sites they can verify? Or will they link to anything? Would you not link to a site whose material you would not put in your newspaper? We don't know what to teach [at Stanford, he says chuckling] because there are no standards in the industry. Newspapers on-line are doing all sorts of things they would never do in print. They're changing the standards by doing that, but they're not prepared to defend the change. Why would anyone want to go study for a masters degree in journalism anymore, as Stanford is offering? I think that people are coming now because the job market is so bad. What else are they going to do? We're getting a lot of applications for our Knight Journalism Fellowships too. A lot of newsrooms are letting people go and they're not sure where to go, so they're coming to Stanford to reinvent themselves. We're a small program so we're able to place people in internships and jobs after their studies. We have people working at Google News. You know that wasn't a job a few years ago. There are all sorts of opportunities for people interested in journalism. What role do you see Google playing? Their spokespeople say they are not in the journalism business, but in the business of disseminating information as widely as possible. They keep denying they do journalism when in fact their algorithm is the definition of journalism. So whatever the Google algorithm places top of Google News is the most important issue? This is not all. Google now has in Beta an opportunity for sources to comment on the news. It's just a matter of time until that creates its own news stories. People who have been quoted in news stories now have the opportunity to comment, through Google, on how well they were portrayed in the news story, whether their quote was accurate or taken out of context. That's quite a good thing isn't it? I think it's a wonderful thing, but Google's denying that it's doing journalism while they're doing this. That's the unnerving part because you can't talk to Google about journalistic issues because they keep denying they're doing journalism. On the face of it, that contention is just ludicrous.