Great minds think

John Carroll

Former editor of multiple award winning newspapers.

Former editor of the Baltimore Sun, Lexington Herald-Leader (in Kentucky), Los Angeles Times, and metropolitan editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Newspapers under his editorship have won numerous Pulitzer Prizes.

Q: What is your anxiety around journalism in the digital age?

A lot of interesting things are going on that have been made possible by digital technology. But the economics of the business are not providing livelihoods for the number of professional journalists we've had in the past. You can't make a good living at it.

You look at a place like where I live. I live in Lexington, Kentucky. The paper here at its peak, which came in the 1990s, was up close to 150 in the newsroom. Now, I think it's below 90.

There have been a few little things that the digital phenomenon has provided that have maybe mitigated that. For one thing, it has provided great tools for reporters. It allows reporters to find out things more efficiently than they could before. So, maybe a post-digital reporter is worth 1.3 times a pre-digital reporter. It extends the reach of a reporter.

There have been a few blogs and websites in our area that have added a little-bit but I stress “little.”

It's a net loss. There are far fewer reporters going out and turning over rocks and looking underneath and seeing what's happening.

There are a lot of newsrooms that are like tombs now.

Q: You've called journalism's predicament a “crisis of the soul.”

When corporations first started owning newspapers, the people running them came out of newspapers. Like John S. Knight. John S. Knight wrote a column for 40 years. He was a journalist. He believed the work he and his company did in journalism was of much greater consequence in the big scheme of things than the money they made. He knew he had to make money. But in his heart of hearts, he believed the public service was more important.

Then you had a change in the type of people who were CEOs of newspapers than the early ones like Jack Knight. They were out of business schools. They were MBAs. They had a different view of the world. There's a certain logic to their viewpoint. Milton Friedman taught them that it was an ethical imperative to maximize shareholder value and to basically do nothing else. So it became commonplace to think that people who thought it was important to do public service journalism were basically indulging in a hobby and not in a business that puts money towards the bottom line. You'd make an argument for public service and they thought you were some kind of a dreamy-eyed idealist. But under people like Jack Knight and the people who owned local papers, the idea of public service was part of the deal. Some of them had misguided ideas about what public service was. But the point of newspapers was not strictly the dollars that come out of them. There were other reasons for owning a newspaper. That got erased. The whole ethic of newspapers and the social purpose of newspapers, which was pretty much something dreamed up in the 20th century, is not faring well, because people don't care about it that much, and it's in conflict with business goals.

Journalistic values are facing a struggle for legitimacy.

I can't be 100 percent against corporations because they've certainly done good things for my lifestyle, but it's gone way too far: the seizing of the American mind and American youth by business and business values. Which wouldn't be bad if they tolerated other values. But in the case of journalism, a newspaper is kind of an odd thing, in that you have two distinctly different value systems under the same roof. You have the business values, in which everyone is supposed to serve the shareholder. Of course no journalist ever cared about the shareholder. And the journalism side, which considers the reader and the public as sovereign above all else.

T

hey are two very distinct ethical systems, which spring from different roots. The business one is ascendant, and dominant, and a kind of Philistine in that it almost doesn't know, doesn't understand, what it's crushing.

Q: Do newspapers and journalism go hand in hand?

Although I'm sentimental about newspapers, it doesn't make any difference if newspapers exist, as long as somebody performs the function newspapers aspire to do.

But I do think there is something about newspapers that should occupy a higher place in the hierarchy. Journalistic ethics, for instance, were invented at newspapers in newsrooms. They weren't invented on the radio. They weren't invented on TV. The first code of ethics came out in the 1920s or 1930s. It was from there that the beliefs about what journalism should be spread to the other media. To the extent that you still have a core of true believers, they exist primarily in newspapers.

Q: What's distinct about this disruption period?

The earlier ones like radio and television represented new competition for ad sales and competition for audience, but it didn't really attack the newspaper business model. The newspaper model remained pretty much the same, but the Web rips it to shreds. It attacks it from several different angles. It not only takes readers away, it takes advertising, which is well over half the revenue at any newspaper, and makes it a very inexpensive commodity. So newspapers, with their high cost basis, can't compete. And they can't compete with companies that are technologically superior and can target ads to individual people the way, say, Google can. The form of advertising in newspapers is old-fashioned and inefficient compared to what has come since. Now we can attempt to get in that game, and attempt to win, but it's pretty hard to get in the same game against Google and Yahoo and win against them.

The Web is far more radical and devastating than anything newspapers have seen before.

Q: Have newspapers contributed to this plight?

We got torpedoed by a new technology that is vastly better than the one we've been using. But newspapers are not blameless. Newspapers certainly have plenty of faults. There has been a tremendous competition for marketing in the new electronic world and everybody who's jockeying for position, all the upstarts - that would include cable news as well as online news - have attacked newspapers as backward and biased and incompetent, as part of their marketing. Newspapers may be biased and backward, but they still are the best source of news there is. Daily journalism is inherently flawed. If you're a perfectionist, you shouldn't be in daily journalism. But newspapers still do it better than anybody else.

There are other ways in which newspapers have torpedoed themselves. One is, it has been a very, very easy way to make money, until recently. For most of my life, anyone who ran a newspaper would make money. There was no way not to make money. They were goldmines. And that kind of enterprise may not attract the most dynamic leaders in the business world. So when this towering challenge showed itself, newspapers didn't have a lot of dynamic people in these CEO jobs and these publisher jobs, and editors were not equipped to deal with technology and business questions. As an editor, I had more than I could handle just in getting the paper out every day and in trying to improve the journalism. To take on this new challenge would require huge focus, and a great amount of time, not to mention a very creative mind and a lot of determination. So there weren't not enough people applying themselves to this challenge.

When I was at Harvard for a year doing interviews on the challenges in journalism, I was really taken aback at how primitive the newspaper people were. They didn't seem to know any more about what was happening to them than I did, and I considered myself far from an expert. They were so beleaguered, and so absorbed with making the next quarter's financial goals, they hadn't had a chance to sit back and examine this thing that was attacking them and figure out a way out of the trap. I didn't get a whole lot out of interviewing newspaper people.

Q: How will the missional aspects of newspapers - informing the citizenry, holding powerful interests accountable, exposing wrongdoing, etc - be carried out?

That is a difficult question. It's at the heart of what I'm concerned about.

In some circles, if you raised that question, they would just laugh and say newspapers have never been any good at that. I'm the first to acknowledge that the everyday newspaper is a highly flawed product. Over time, on any given subject, a good newspaper will correct its errors and add the things that should have been added in the beginning.

But the way newspapers are run now, it's a business. To the people who own them, it doesn't make any difference to them whether those things happen. It's not a social crusade.

One of the positive side of things about the Web is the expanded conversation that exists there. It has given voice to many, many people, some of whom know things and add facts and add thoughts to the conversation. And who also are very good critics of journalism and put people to shame if they do it wrong.

They also add a lot of stuff that's bad. A lot of propaganda. A lot of deception. So it's a two-edged sword. But there is something about it that is positive.

Q: What new journalistic experiments do you see that are doing good work?

I certainly like ProPublica. There are things in a number of states like Bob Rosenthal's Center for Investigative Reporting in the Bay Area, which does California stuff, that are smart. But I don't think as a matter of overall strategy for the nation that they're adequate.

There are a lot of people who are interested in journalism but are not pros and they want journalism to succeed. They're good citizens, they're enlightened citizens, but they don't quite know how things work. They say: “Well, if we can just keep the investigative stuff,”-and you get things like ProPublica. But what they don't understand is that investigative work is an echo system that involves all people in all aspects of journalism.

For example, a lot of the investigative stories I've been involved with did not start with an investigative reporter. It started with some poor underpaid wretch who went out and covered something on a Saturday that somebody else saw and put together with something else they saw, and next thing you know someone who knows how to do investigations is looking into it. A number of the best stories I've had anything to do with came up that way. These routine reporters provide gigantic databases.

The New York Times won a Pulitzer several years ago for a story about deaths at railroad crossings. I don't know how they did that story, but my guess is they got a lot of information from individual incidents that many other newspapers covered. Watergate happened because The Washington Post had guys who went down to the police station.

That type of routine reporting is really evaporating. And that's part of the echo system that produces investigative work.

In addition, the vast number of reporting entities provide a gigantic labor pool from which the very best places like ProPublica can draw their talent. It trains them. It allows them to make their first big horrible mistake. Which is a necessary part of becoming good. So if you don't have those places, you have a much smaller pool to draw from and the caliber of the people you draw from will be less.

So, the very best investigative reporting is at the high end of a food chain. Without the rest of the food chain, it's not going to be as good.

Q: What is a personal journalistic highlight that is meaningful and illustrates journalism's value?

When I was in Philadelphia working as the Metropolitan Editor of The Inquirer, Frank Rizzo was mayor. He was a tough ex-cop. The city was completely polarized between black and white. There was a lot of violence. Rizzo was kind of fanning the flames for the white people. The police had become almost like a white man's army and they'd beat you up if just looked at them. Didn't matter if you were black or white. They were a bunch of tough guys. One of our young reporters, Bill Marimow, covered courts. He covered a case of a racially-motivated fire bombing in which a man was convicted of five murders. He was mentally retarded. Bill was highly suspicious of the case and he believed he didn't do it. This guy did not have a very good lawyer and he got five life sentences. Bill and a partner of his, Jonathan Newman, went and investigated. They became convinced the guy was innocent, that he had confessed because he had been beaten, and that his neighbors had been coerced by police to make statements that were in keeping with the theory of the crime that this guy had done it. They wrote some stories. He was vindicated. And the two guys who actually did the fire bombing were convicted, but on federal civil rights charges. The reason the two guys were not convicted on murder charges was that the state had granted them immunity to testify against the other man in the first trial.

But then what blew my mind is these two reporters figured out that if it could happen in one case it could happen in other cases. They went to courthouses. The courts had records of what they called “suppression hearings.” A suppression hearing is whether a confession or a statement could be admitted. There were several hundred hearings about these statements. Again and again, if you read the transcripts they were the same. The people who were murder defendants would say the police beat them up. And there was a pattern in the details. For instance, over and over the murder defendants would say the homicide detective took me into a room and put a telephone book on my head and beat on the telephone book with a table leg. So, when the reporters started hearing this from multiple people who don't know each other, they started thinking, maybe this was actually happening. To make a long story a bit shorter, they were able to prove that the homicide squad was beating up people and beating confessions out of them. It was a matter of routine. So, some cops got sent to jail. It got cleaned up.

I remember thinking to myself, we've actually helped restore constitutional protections to the city of Philadelphia. The rule of law had been preserved.

Spring 2011

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