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Former 'Post' Editor Details The 'Rules Of The Game'
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about newspapers on today's show. Later, we'll hear from John Yemma, the editor of the Christian Science Monitor, which will soon replace its daily print edition with a Web site-only edition.
My first guest, Leonard Downie, just retired from the Washington Post where he was the executive editor for 17 years, during which time the paper won 25 Pulitzer Prizes. A summer internship first brought him to the paper back in 1964. During his long career at the Post, he was also an investigative reporter, supervised much of the Watergate coverage, was the London correspondent, national editor and managing editor. Now he's the vice president at large.
We're going to talk about changes he's seen in the business and some of the most difficult editorial decisions he's had to make over the years. He's written a new novel which is about morally ambiguous conflicts between journalists, politicians and lobbyists. It's called "The Rules of the Game."
Leonard Downie, welcome back to Fresh Air.
Mr. LEONARD DOWNIE, JR. (Former Executive Editor, Washington Post; Author, "The Rules of the Game"): Thank you very much, Terry.
GROSS: In your novel, a Democratic presidential nominee decides to choose an inexperienced young woman senator as his vice-presidential pick, and she's seen more as a People magazine kind of person than vice-presidential material. Did you see any parallels when Sarah Palin was nominated?
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: Terry, this was eerie. I wrote that backdrop for the novel about four or five years ago before the rest of the plot was fully realized in my mind, and then suddenly, you know, unexpectedly, of course, John McCain became the nominee of the party. And then it was so shocking when he picked Sarah Palin. It was very eerie for me and actually a little frightening because I know John McCain, and in the novel, of course, this ticket is elected. He becomes president, the older senator does, but he dies within the first year of office, and the young woman vice president becomes president. And well, I was a little worried for John.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Oh, right, like if you had powers of prediction that would be a really dangerous thing for...
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: Right. It felt a little like voodoo there for a while.
GROSS: Tell us about one of the journalistic ethical dilemmas that you've put in your novel that parallels something you faced as a reporter or editor.
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: I was an investigative reporter as a young man myself, and how you deal with your sources, particularly sources that have axes to grind - in fact, I've also come across this as an editor in directing other reporters because most - many sources operate out of altruistic motives. They're very concerned about something that's going on. For instance, the sources for Dana Priest's reporting about the secret CIA prisons around the world where terrorist suspects were being held and questioned and we now probably know that in some cases were probably being tortured - these were people that did have altruistic motives who were worried about this kind of conduct on behalf of the United States' government.
But at other times, sources have their own motivations that are not so altruistic. They may be out to get somebody else. They may be trying to protect their own hide when they've done something wrong. They may simply want to, you know, manipulate people around them or a situation in their workplace. And so sorting out those motivations and figuring out whether or not they're telling you the truth, and particularly where they're telling you the whole truth or not is, as I think you can see in the work of the investigate reporter in this novel, quite often you pick up these bits and pieces from people but you don't know what the whole picture is. In some cases, you don't even really know who exactly they are. I mean, you know, they have a name and they have a job, but where are they really coming from?
GROSS: You were executive editor of the Washington Post during the eight years of the Bush presidency. Now that you've retired and the Bush presidency is coming to an end, I'd like you to reflect on covering the Bush administration for eight years. It was a presidency with very little press access, a presidency that relied on secrecy a lot. Can you discuss some of your greatest frustrations as a journalist during the Bush administration?
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: It actually was more of a challenge for us than frustration, and over time, we were able to overcome the barriers, I think, that were put up. But it was an administration that began with very strong message control. It was a small group of people that by and large came up from Texas, surrounding the president and insisted that the entire administration - it picked Cabinet members who by and large toe the line on message control. They also instituted a lot of secrecy, made secret a lot of things that had been open before, used 9/11 as an excuse, I think, for increasing government secrecy, making it more difficult to find things through the Freedom of Information Act, classifying things that had not previously been classified, conducting meetings that, you know, were not made public where, for instance, the vice president's -group the vice president assembled in order to discuss energy policy was never - members of that group were never even named, much less the minutes of their meetings being released.
This sort of thing just continued throughout the administration, but as happened with every administration, over time, there were fissures within the administration itself. Obviously, the disagreements between the State Department and the Defense Department over the conduct of the Iraq war and its aftermath, for example, gave rise to the kind of leaks, if you will, that will come out of an administration when people find themselves frustrated trying to communicate within the administration. They carry out their communications through the media. And so over time, we were able to crack open a lot of the secrecy of the administration.
The interesting thing, I think, about the new administration - it's something I'm going to probably want to write about - is that message control is quite similar, actually, amongst the Obama people to the Bush people - for the - as it was for the Bush people at this stage, you know, on the eve of taking office. During the campaign, the Obama campaign, I think it was No Drama Obama was the slogan, which meant let's not air our disagreements in public. Let's stick to our message.
And I am concerned about whether or not this administration will really be as open to the media as a lot of people expect it to be in contrast to the Bush administration. They have promised to provide more government information to the public via the Internet, and that's a good thing, but we'll see how open this administration really is.
GROSS: One of the stories that was published while you were executive editor of the Washington Post was Dana Priest's stories on the secret CIA prisons. And this is something the Bush administration really wanted to keep secret because in these prisons, you know, the quote "extreme interrogation techniques" were being used. So were there pressures on you to not publish the story about these secret CIA prisons?
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: Yes, there were. It's not unusual. It's happened in the past, as well, that we are working on a story that the government will say threatens national security and you either shouldn't publish the entire story or at least shouldn't publish certain details that they think would be particularly threatening to national security. And as always the case, we listen carefully to the government, and we did so in this case. We listened to intelligence officials and ultimately officials in the White House to their arguments about why they thought we shouldn't publish anything about this or if we were going to publish anything about it, details that they thought we should leave out. We would ask for explanations about why they thought it would be harmful to national security.
In the end, we have to make the judgment ourselves. I had to make the final decision as executive editor. People often ask, who are you to be an expert on national security? The answer is, of course, I'm not, but I do have to make decisions every day about what goes into the newspaper, what does not go into the newspaper. And this is one of those. That decision has to rest with me, not with the government.
In that case, after hearing the government out in great detail, we decided the only thing we would eliminate from the story - two things we eliminated from the story. One, which we had never put in the story in the first place, were other arrangements that our government had to fight terrorism with these countries where these secret prisons were located. And that was not part of what we were looking into. They remain secret. We did not publish anything about them.
But they also didn't want us to name the countries themselves, and I became convinced that in fact it would open up the possibility of these other very proper, anti-terrorism arrangements being exposed if we named the countries in Eastern Europe where these secret prisons were located, and we did not do so. That was not the central facts of the story. The central facts of the story were the existence of these secret prisons and the kinds of interrogations that were going on in them and the fact that people in the intelligence services were very worried that some things were going wrong there. And the story succeeded in doing that. The president shut down the secret prisons, moved the prisoners to Guantanamo. They're now being dealt with in a legal fashion.
GROSS: You know, in talking about Bush administration reaction to Washington press stories, I'm thinking here about Tom Ricks, who was the Pentagon correspondent...
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: Yes.
GROSS: For a long time for the Washington Post, recently left that position. And he wrote the book that basically gave the title to the war in Iraq, the book "Fiasco, " which was a bestseller and was filled with interesting information about how we got into the war and how we mismanaged it once we started the war and got into Iraq. Did the Bush administration get back to you about that book and then say, well, he's so critical of the war, you can't let him cover the Pentagon anymore?
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: Actually, we did - we have several Pentagon reporters, and we were careful about which stories Tom pursued after he wrote that book so that there wouldn't be conflicts between the views he expressed in the book and his coverage. And then he segued out of the Pentagon beat and is now doing other things. He's doing a blog for us, and he's going to write more books, and so he's no longer a full-time reporter in our newsroom.
But in general terms, no, I did not get - I got pushed back, actually, on another book that Rajiv Chandrasekaran did about the Green Zone, which I did hear more about. By the time that Tom Ricks' "Fiasco" book came out, if you recall, he quoted an awful lot of generals by name who were concerned about the mismanagement of the war so that the issues he was pursuing were already very controversial and even controversial within the administration itself. So it was not something that the administration would, you know, would say, you know, you never should - that book never should have been published, you should take him off the beat.
But there did come a time late in the presidency when senior officials complained to me about a general negativity that they felt was in our coverage of the administration. They did cite some of the books our reporters has done as further examples of that negativity, in addition to what was in the newspaper. And I listened carefully to what they had to say.
GROSS: And then ignored it. Is that what you're saying?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: I never ignore it, but I - we do want to make sure that when reporters write books that do express views on what they've been covering, that if those views are strong enough to create conflicts in their reporting that we recuse them from that coverage afterwards. So for instance, Rajiv Chandrasekaran was not any longer covering Iraq or the Green Zone after that book was published.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Leonard Downie. He recently retired from his position as the long-time executive editor of the Washington Post. He first joined the Post in 1964 as an intern, and he is now a vice president at large for the Washington Post Company. He's written a new novel, and the novel's called "The Rules of the Game." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of music)
If you're just joining us, my guest is Leonard Downie. He recently retired from his position as the long-time executive editor of the Washington Post. He's written a new novel called "The Rules of the Game."
What's another story that was difficult for you to decide about whether you should publish or not from the Bush or any other administration?
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: There's a whole other category of difficult decisions, and that involves the private lives of public figures. And there are two good examples of that. One is when Bob Dole was running for president. Towards the end of that campaign, we and other news organizations were given information that he had had an affair 28 years earlier with a young woman who was raising money for him. She was not on his staff. She just was a fundraiser. They knew each other. And the question was, do we publish that story within the last I think it was three or four weeks of the presidential campaign?
Well, the first thing you have to do is decide is this true and could we prove it? And then you decide is it relevant to the public person or to the campaign or to the job that they have?
And in this case, we discovered it was an affair when his first marriage had disintegrated to the point that he was living in the basement of his home. He was divorced shortly afterwards, and the affair was consensual. Her friends knew about it. His friends knew about it, which is how we were able to confirm it. It was out in the open. It was not utilizing his government position. I think he was a congressman at the time. And of course, later, the affair ended, and later he met and married Elizabeth Dole. And the marriage, as far as we know, was without incident all these years. And so there were debates in the newsroom, debates at meetings that I conducted with editors and reporters about whether or not we should publish this story.
And on the one hand, I'd always said that everything about a presidential candidate is fair game, that voters need to know everything. On the other hand, I had the feeling that there's like a statute of limitations here. This was 28 years ago, had no impact whatsoever on his current conduct as senator or his conduct as the candidate for president, and decided ultimately not to publish that story.
The National Enquirer - which impressed me with how accurate their reporting was - did run the story, and interestingly enough, no other newspaper, no other news organization, no TV network, no radio network ran the story after the National Enquirer story. They must have come to the same conclusion that I came, so that made me feel a little better about my decision. And then of course...
GROSS: Let me stop you right there.
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: Yeah.
GROSS: That leads me to the John Edwards story, which...
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: Exactly, that's where I was going next.
GROSS: OK, great. Which the National Enquirer broke...
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: Right.
GROSS: And then other mainstream media had to decide, are they going to go with this story or are they going to not go with it? So what went through your mind when the National Enquirer broke the story and did you already know about the story?
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: We had heard rumors. The National Enquirer clearly had an informant that none of the rest of us had.
GROSS: And I should say - I didn't say what the story was.
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: I'm sorry.
GROSS: The story was, you know, that he had had an affair with another woman, and then what was questionable also was whether he - that woman had carried his baby or not.
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: We had heard rumors about this relationship. She had worked as a videographer for his campaign, so she had been directly employed by him at one point, and this was while he was running for president, which made it more relevant than something that would have happened 28 years before. It was very current, and he had denied at once the National Enquirer stories. It was a series of stories in the National Enquirer, and he had denied them, which raised the question, of course, of whether or not he was telling the truth. And at that point, it was a question of whether or not he was going to be considered for vice president by Barack Obama, who had been assured of the nomination by the time this story had broke.
So we did feel this was relevant to - particularly to his candidacy as vice president if Obama was going to choose him. But first, we had to see if the story was true, and that was the problem. The National Enquirer had an informant that nobody else had, and everybody else associated with it had clammed up, and so we weren't able to prove that it was true.
However, we continued our reporting, and I actually had a conversation off the record with John Edwards in which he denied everything very cleverly. And he also told me during that conversation that he was not being considered to be vice-presidential candidate, that he had told Obama that he wouldn't accept it if he was considered and that he had not been vetted for it. And I realized that he had told me that because he wanted to make - he wanted to make clear to me that there might not be a relevancy case - he's a good lawyer - that it might not be relevant for us to publish that story to his political future.
But we continued to work on it, and then, of course, he decided - I guess because so many of us were working on it and had not agreed with his arguments, he decided to make it public himself.
GROSS: You left your position as executive editor at a time when newspapers are in crisis. They're losing money, they're cutting back or eliminating foreign bureaus, losing revenue, there's plummeting stock shares, big debts, and confusion about how to deal with print versusInternet publication of the news.
The Tribune Company, which publishes the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune, filed for bankruptcy protection in December. The New York Times has about a billion dollars in debt on its books. According to an article in the Atlantic magazine, newspaper stocks fell an average of 83.3 percent in 2008. Do you see yourself as having left your position as executive editor at the Washington Post at the end of an era in newspaper history?
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: It's definitely the end of an era, but it's not the end of time for journalism. It's the end of an era in which - actually, my entire career traces the arc of this era, beginning in the mid-'60s, probably to roughly the mid-'90s. It was the era of the big, strong newspapers. All their staff has expanded, they made lots of money, their circulation reached a peak. It was the golden era of American newspapers. And the Internet has changed all of that - the way the audience reads the news and gets their news, and it has changed the way in which news is paid for. Newspaper circulation has gone down. Newspaper advertising revenue has gone down.
But at the same time, we have acquired this huge audience on the Internet of 10 to 20 million unique visitors a month. So more people are reading Washington Post journalism than ever before. The series of articles we did on how soldiers were being treated - wounded soldiers were being treated at Walter Reed Hospital had 5 million page views and an extraordinary response from people across the world over the Internet that forced the government to take immediate action to change things at Walter Reed, fire the Army secretary, et cetera. None of that would have been possible without the Internet. So that's the good news.
The bad news is that the economic models in which newspaper newsrooms that did all this work were built have been shattered, so we're going to have to reinvent the economic models for news gathering. It does mean that newsrooms have to be smaller than they were before. In the cases of some newspapers, they may be becoming much too small, and I'm worried about whether or not some cities around the country are going to have sufficiently large newsrooms to cover their communities well enough.
Or in the case of newspapers like the Post, they're in a better situation. I had built the newsroom so large as executive editor that there's room for it to get smaller and more efficient. We are merging the newsrooms of our Web site and our print newsroom, which it's time to do for journalistic reasons as well as financial reasons. So I believe we're going to find a way ahead here that's going to keep Washington Post journalism alive and well, but it does require a lot of change, and that's what's going on.
GROSS: You've retired as executive editor from the Washington Post at the same time that Phil Bennett is leaving his position as managing editor. Jim Brady, the executive editor, is soon stepping down. Last year, a new publisher took over, Katharine Weymouth. It sounds like there's a lot of changes happening at the Washington Post, and I was wondering if it's any coincidence that there are so many personnel changes at the top happening at the same time.
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: No, it's probably not a coincidence. It's partly a generational change, as well. I was 66 years old when I retired last year. My successor, Marcus Brauchli, who came from the Wall Street Journal, is nearly 20 years younger - is 20 years younger than I am. Katharine Weymouth is a generation younger than her uncle, who's Don Graham, the CEO of the Washington Post, and Bo Jones, who'd previously been the publisher of the newspaper, is now vice chairman of the corporation.
And we are, as I said earlier, merging these two news operations. We have a separate news operation for the Web. It's highly successful. We have one of the most visited Web sites among American news organizations. But it needs now to be merged with the newspaper newsrooms so that we have a newsroom that is a multi-platform, multi-purpose newsroom that is actually platform agnostic. So in making that drastic change, it's not surprising that some of us that were leading the ships and were in a different formation are now stepping aside for people that will have new ideas about how to reorganize us for the future.
GROSS: Leonard Downie, Jr. will be back in the second half of the show. He recently retired from his position as executive editor of the Washington Post. His new novel about journalism and politics is called "The Rules of the Game." I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross, back with Leonard Downie, Jr. He recently retired from the Washington Post where he worked for 44 years, 17 of which he served as executive editor. He's written a new novel about journalism and politics called "The Rules of the Game."
You tried so hard to be fair in your work as journalist that you haven't voted during what - during your whole career as a journalist?
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: No, starting when I became managing editor in 1984 because when Ben made me the managing editor he also put me in charge of the newspaper day to day. I had the final say on what went in the newspaper every day unless Ben wanted to overrule me on something.
So I realized that I was the final gatekeeper for fairness for the paper. And I decided that I did not want decide, even in the privacy of my own tiny mind or the privacy of a voting booth, who should be the president of the United States, who should be mayor of Washington, D.C., whether we should raise or lower taxes. And I wanted to keep my - I wanted to keep completely open-minded to all sides of everything that we were recovering, and as a result I stopped voting then and continued not voting until my retirement. The day after I retired, my wife registered me in the District of Columbia. She wisely registered me as having no party because she knew that I would be independent.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: And when the next election rolls around, I'll vote.
GROSS: I didn't know that a spouse can register you. I thought you had to do that yourself.
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: I had to sign something. She went online. You can register online in the district. So she fills it all out...
GROSS: Oh, I see.
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: And then she gets a document back, and I had to sign the document to make it official. But as soon as she had filled out the forms, even before I signed the document because this is a public site, it immediately was available on the Internet, and a few blogs that had been fascinated with my not voting over the years immediately posted my registration form.
GROSS: I have to confess to you, I have very mixed feelings about your not having voted all those years. On the one hand, I have just enormous respect for the seriousness in which you take your obligation to be unbiased and to be fair and to keep an open mind and to do whatever it takes to keep an open mind. At the same time, I am a member of this democracy, and I feel like anyone who's as informed as you should have a vote. I want anyone as smart and informed as you are being a voter, and you know, having equal say with people who don't read the news at all and vote anyways.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: Well, I know this is a dilemma for people, and in fact, there are some people who get very angry with me about it - and including my kids, by the way, when they were young and in school, and they went to these schools that were very civic-minded. And they'd all be asked, you know, who are your parents voting for? And my kids would have to say, my father doesn't vote, and the teacher would come down on them pretty hard about that.
(Soundbite of laugher)
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: So it was kind of embarrassing for them. But at the Washington Post, we take seriously the fact that we exercise very vigorously our First Amendment rights as a newspaper. And we, for instance, fight subpoenas for our reporters. We try to protect confidential sources. We do lot of things that really stretch our First Amendment rights, and as a result, the people who work at the paper give up some of their own personal rights to work at the Washington Post.
Other staff members are certainly allowed to vote, but they are not allowed to engage in any other political activity. They can't sign petitions, march in demonstrations, contribute to political campaigns or even contribute to organizations that lobby the Congress. Nothing like that. They give up those rights to work at the Washington Post. So I felt it was important as the final gatekeeper that I give up my right to vote when I was exercising these very profound rights that I had as executive editor of the Washington Post.
GROSS: Well, in addition to giving up your right to vote, you also gave up your right to read your own papers op-ed page because you didn't - the editorial page, I should say.
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: The editorial page.
GROSS: Because you didn't want to know what the editorials were saying. You didn't want them to influence your own thinking and your own ability to maintain an open mind. Are you reading the pages now?
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: Yes, I am. And I don't know if the editor of the editorial page is going to regret that or not because now I can kibitz what I couldn't kibitz before. We had a very strict - we have a very strict separation here at the Washington Post between the editorial page, which we call the church, and the news-gathering operation, which we call the state, and the separation between church and state is absolute. The editorial page members have nothing to do with the coverage and the rest of the newspaper, and I had nothing to do with the editorial positions of the newspaper. So I did not want to be influenced by them, and as a result, I did not read the editorials.
GROSS: You're going to start teaching journalism soon. What are you going to tell your students in this time of transition and uncertainty in the news world?
Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: That this profession is a calling and that it is so very important to the American people to provide them the information they need to run this country properly as citizens and voters. And it's not going to go away. It's going to take different forms. You're not going to probably be able to work for the same news organization as I did for 44 years. You're not going to be certain which platforms you're going to produce which journalism for. There are going to be technologies that we don't know about now that will be very important 10 years from now - change the nature of your jobs. That the work is very long. You have to be very dedicated to it. I didn't have dinner with my families over the years most nights when I was working. It's an anti-social kind of job, but it is very, very rewarding in what you provide for the American people and that it's worth sticking it out and joining this great adventure in figuring out how we're going to present the news in the future.
GROSS: Leonard Downie, Jr. is the former executive editor of the Washington Post and author of the new novel, "The Rules of the Game." The Christian Science Monitor is about to become the first daily paper to give up its daily print edition and publish daily only on its Web site. We'll talk to the paper's editor, John Yemma, after a break. This is Fresh Air.
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'Christian Science Monitor' Shifts Focus To Web
TERRY GROSS, host:
If you want a good example of how the Internet is changing the newspaper business, consider the Christian Science Monitor. After 100 years of publishing, this spring, the Monitor will begin publishing daily only on its Web site and abandon the daily paper edition. It's the first daily to make this change, and other papers are likely to be watching closely. The Monitor will maintain a newsprint presence through a weekly edition.
My guest John Yemma is the editor of the Christian Science Monitor. He rejoined the Monitor in July after 20 years at the Boston Globe, where he most recently was the deputy managing editor for multimedia. He was a reporter and editor at the Christian Science Monitor from 1979 to '89.
The Monitor is a highly respected paper that emphasizes international news and has an international circulation. Although it was founded by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science church, it's not a religious publication, with the exception of one daily article about religion.
John Jemma, welcome to Fresh Air. Why was the decision made to publish the daily edition of the Monitor only on the Web?
Mr. JOHN YEMMA (Editor, Christian Science Monitor): Terry, the Monitor had been thinking about this for several years because the Monitor's circulation - print circulation had been falling, really, for several decades had been falling. But the lack of growth in print and the extreme growth that we were experiencing online really meant that we should move our resources online, plus we felt as though it would save some costs by moving out of daily print and just publishing in print once a week. So in the spring, we'll also be moving from five days a week print to one day a week in print, in addition to our Web-first Christian Science Monitor.
GROSS: And the one day in print will be a weekly edition separate from the daily stuff on the Internet.
Mr. YEMMA: It will.
GROSS: Do you consider this move a vote of no confidence in the newspaper as we know it?
Mr. YEMMA: You know, I think it's pretty hard to look at the newspaper industry right now and feel very confident about the future of print. The future of print certainly has a daily - you know, print is - has a distribution problem. It has a production problem. It imposes artificial deadlines on the news. You know, we back up everything to meet our print deadline, just as every other newspaper does. It has a pretty lousy carbon footprint, too, and so I think increasingly in this economy and this age where people are much more environmentally oriented, print is seen as a luxury item. And while there's a place for print because it's a unique reading experience, it's pleasurable, it may also be slightly more leisurely reading experience, not quite as immediate, and therefore maybe makes more sense on the weekends.
And that's what we're targeting our weekly for, and that's where I think, in fact, in the world of newspapers at large - I just came over to the Monitor from the Boston Globe during the summer and joined the Monitor - and at newspapers like that and the New York Times and other big newspapers, probably the migration, whether it's soon or later, will be to much more online on a Monday-through-Friday basis and then probably still print on a weekend basis.
GROSS: The model that most newspapers have been using is if you want the print edition, you know, the paper print edition, you pay for it. If you want to read it online, it's free. Is that a model that makes sense to you? Is that a model that's sustainable?
Mr. YEMMA: I think it's the only model that is out there. I don't think that there is an alternative. The experiments that have been done with pay walls, as they're called on the Internet - time select, for instance, that the New York Times has tried - they had failed. It turns out that the expectation online - and you know, we'd have to go back in the time machine to try to change this - but the expectation online is that news is free, and that expectation won't be altered. That's where consumers believe in how they believe they should get their news.
So it's a difficult economic model, and it's one that's sustained only by having relatively large traffic, that is, a large number of unique visitors and page views, and that means that you don't want to have a subscription model online. There is one exception to that, and that's the Wall Street Journal and financial news organizations, which can, because of this - the special nature of financial news which can charge subscriptions, but most others don't.
GROSS: Well, the Christian Science Monitor is in a kind of unique situation in the newspaper world because you're funded in part by the Christian Science church, so some of your finances are spoken for. But you still do have advertising, and on the Web site you have advertising. But what's your revenue model now? Like, where's the money coming from if it's not coming from people paying for the print edition?
Mr. YEMMA: Well, we still hope people will pay for our weekly print edition, but the revenue will be coming from the Web, through growth of our traffic online. The advertising that you've seen on the Web site, we expect to be able to grow traffic by putting more editorial resources against our Web site, draw more users to it. It becomes a kind of a destination site, not unlike - I mean, our own version of the BBC or the New York Times or USA Today.
If we can invigorate our site much more, we become a destination for people who care about the human dimension of global news. That's our mandate. And we feel that over five years, we have a - you know, a strategic plan that has been developed over the past couple of years, has been refined recently. We feel that we can grow our traffic five-fold in five years, and that that will move us toward a sustainable model. At the same time, we'll be decreasing the subsidy we receive from the Christian Science church, which has, for 100 years, very generously subsidized and invested in the Monitor, but you know, long term, it's not sustainable to just continue to do that. So we're trying to move things into more of a balance.
GROSS: So what you're saying is you think if you have a lot more readers on the Web, you'll have a lot more ads or be able to charge more for those ads?
Mr. YEMMA: Yes, both. We'll be able to charge more but we'll also have more ads. We'll have more page views, more actual ad impressions, and if we can sustain the cost per impression - that is, the CPM, at a relatively, you know, decent level, we can actually grow our revenue.
I mean, this is not going to be a gold mine, and it's going to be a very tough thing to do. The alternative, though, is really not tenable. The alternative is a declining print circulation with a very poor reach and very poor deadline problems. Terry, right now, on a given weekday, we put the paper to bed at noon on a weekday, and then it goes into a printing process, and it then goes into the U.S. postal service and possibly, if you're in a big city, you would get it the next morning. More likely you would come home and get it the next evening in your mail box.
And so, that's just not a good way to be doing the news. Even analytical news, which we specialize in, needs to be delivered within the news cycle in which somebody's trying to grasp the importance, say, of the conflict in Gaza right now.
GROSS: And this is another example of how you're different from most daily newspapers because you're subscription and because it's mostly through the mail, your deadline is earlier and people receive it later. You know, at least in most dailies, the deadline is like late afternoon, early evening, and people can get it early the next morning.
Mr. YEMMA: True, and it makes most dailies still - I think most dailies are still tenable. Although, you know, every daily, even at the Globe where I worked, every daily goes to bed at, say, midnight, and for six or seven hours until it arrives on your doorstep, there's no updating of it. So if events happen around the world, it's an old artifact of what happened the night before.
GROSS: I'm interested in hearing what you think the Web site is going to look like once the daily edition is Web only. And before you comment on that, let me read you something Jack Shafer wrote in January on Slate, which is, of course, a Web-only publication.
And he wrote: "From the beginning, newspapers sought to invent the Web in their own image by re-purposing the copy values and temperament found in their ink and paper editions. Despite being early arrivals, despite having spent millions on manpower and hardware, despite all the animations, links, videos, databases and other software tricks found on their sites, every newspaper Web site is instantly identifiable as a newspaper Web site. By succeeding, they failed to invent the Web."
What's your reaction to that?
Mr. YEMMA: Well, Jack Shafer's very colorful. And Slate, by the way, is a site that, you know, doesn't look unlike a lot of newspaper Web sites. It's a good site. I think he's right that a lot of newspaper Web sites started out looking like, as we call it, newspaper.com, basically put the newspaper online, and that was because the journalism was first published in print and then was simply sort of shoveled over to the Web site. That's changed. That has been changing much more rapidly in the last few years as newspapers have converged their newsrooms and their online operations, and there's a lot more Web-first journalism that goes on.
I think his critique is brilliant and snarky and it's very Slate-like, and it's not necessarily true, though, because I think there are some very good and very successful newspaper Web sites. And I think he's looking at the past, that most news organizations right now are really thinking Web-first in many ways, and they still are somewhat hindered in their thinking because they have a print product to do first.
It - the Monitor, we're moving away from that. We're going Web-first, and I think what we'll be able to see is how that significantly changes the way the Web site looks, feels and interacts.
GROSS: Do you expect that once you go Web-only on a daily basis that the stories will be shorter...
Mr. YEMMA: Yes.
GROSS: Or will be written in a different tone of voice? Because the common wisdom is people don't read long stories on the Web and that people expect Web-based stories to be more personal than the type of reporting we're used to in newspapers.
Mr. YEMMA: Yeah. I think that many of our stories will be shorter. I think we'll still have some longer stories. And it is true that there's a different tone of voice. The tone of voice for journalism coming out of the reporting of the conflict in Gaza right now is not going to be personal. It's going to be straight-ahead journalism.
But there is the voice of the blogger, and the bloggers tend to be somewhat like columnists at traditional news organizations. They can report news, as we know, you know, famous columnists all over the place have often broken stories. William Safire and others have done and still have voice. We expect our bloggers to do that, and we expect to, you know, fairly clearly label that for our readers. So there will be shorter pieces. There'll be faster pieces. There will be bloggier pieces. But there will also be traditional pieces.
GROSS: Are you going to lay off a lot of people?
Mr. YEMMA: We have, like every news organization, we know that we're going to have to do with less, and we've announced that in this coming fiscal year, which begins for us in - I think it's in May - we have to take our staff down by 10 to 15 percent. We don't have a specific number of people that that will represent. We're trying to decrease our costs so that we can meet our targets - our cost targets as we also hope to increase our revenue online.
And you know, it's no secret that everybody in the news industry, and frankly, everybody in the world is going into a very tough economy right now. So that - those kind of, you know, cost containment measures, which involve real human beings and which pain me to talk about it, but you know, it really is a loss of resourses - those are the kinds of things that every news organization has to face. We have a relatively modest cut but it's going to hurt us. It's true.
GROSS: Is the Monitor unionized, and are there any union issues pertaining either to, you know, the print part, the printing presses part or the journalism part?
Mr. YEMMA: No. The Monitor is not unionized, and the printing has been outsourced for, I would say, probably 20 years to a remote printing plant, so we don't even have our own presses. We don't even have our own trucks. So in some ways, this transition has been going on for us for a lot longer. We've been getting a lot of the costs out of the system in ways that a lot of news organizations are just now grappling with. And those that have tight union contracts, they will be faced with a harder time changing, you know, their cost structures.
GROSS: My guest is John Yemma, the editor of the Christian Science Monitor, which is preparing to publish its daily edition exclusively on the Internet. We'll talk more after our break. This is Fresh Air.
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GROSS: The Christian Science Monitor is preparing to quit publishing its daily print edition and publish daily only on its Web site. We're talking with the Monitor's editor, John Yemma.
Now, another change that you're making at the Monitor is that you're combining coverage of several foreign countries with McClatchy - the McClatchy chain, which owns around 30 dailies. So you'll be sharing reporters in some countries. I assume you're doing that for economic reasons, to save money.
MR. YEMMA: Well, it's actually for reach reasons. We are not reducing the number of foreign correspondents we have, nor, so far as I know, is McClatchy reducing the number of foreign correspondents. But in areas where we don't have a correspondent based - so, for instance, we have a correspondent in New Delhi. They don't. They have a correspondent in Venezuela. We don't. We will use their copy from the correspondent in Venezuela. They'll use our copy from New Delhi, and we'll just coordinate a little bit more closely.
I think these are the kinds of relationships that a lot of news organizations will be getting into and are getting into, in which they're sharing resources so that they can extend their reach. But it's also true that, you know, one way to think about that is that it will save on costs - it could save on costs in the future if there was a desire to expand. And if we ever have to cut back - which I hope we don't have to, but you know, the world we live in says that we might have to - then that kind of a relationship would be beneficial.
GROSS: There's always been a firewall in journalism between editorial and advertising. On the Internet, it seems like maybe it's going to be a little harder to do that because the interplay of ads and editorial material is so much closer. I mean, just in terms of the design. There's the question of whether the ads are going to be pop-ups, whether they'll be that kind of like video that you have to watch before reading the article, you have like no choice of getting out of it. And so I wonder if you find yourself making advertising decisions that you never would have been included on if you were doing a print-only newspaper?
Mr. YEMMA: Well, yeah. I think there are different - there's a different way of thinking about that wall - that so-called wall between advertising and editorial. Not necessarily just because we're doing things on the Web, but in the last few years, because of the great difficulties that news organizations have had in keeping their revenue together so that they can keep their news organizations whole, there has been much more cooperation in general between the, you know, the business side of the operation and the editorial side. And that has meant that lines have been crossed, as you've seen, as recently as, say, the New York Times, which has just very recently begun running a very large ad at the bottom of page one. An ad, by the way, that doesn't have, you know, a little designator that says advertising. And when I first saw it, it looked like what in newspaper terms are called, you know, sky boxes or teasers at the bottom. This was an ad for CBS.
You know, no criticism of it. It's the kind of thing that newspapers have to do, but it's also an example of the line that is now being crossed. Similarly, online, the placement of ads - you're right, the pop-ups, some of the more intrusive, you know, the push-downs, the take-overs, all of these different terms that we have - all of those are advertising - types of advertising that in the old days, when print was king, when it was essentially a monopoly in the city, you know, they could - they had the luxury, really, of having a much tighter wall of - between editorial and advertising, and that's eroding everywhere.
GROSS: Young people who have grown up with the Web are used to getting news for free on the Web, whether it's from Web-based publications like Slate and so on and Huffington Post, whatever, or from newspapers that also have a Web-based part. And I'm wondering if that ever makes you angry because, I mean, somebody's got to pay for the news.
And people who grew up with newspapers grew up expecting to pay for the newspaper, and that, of course, paid for the newspaper's ability to operate along with its advertising revenues. But does it ever upset you that a generation or more of people have grown up just assuming that the news they read doesn't need to be paid for?
Mr. YEMMA: Well, I guess I've probably gone through most of the stages, you know, of accepting that.
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I've gotten to acceptance of that. It's been a long process. I don't think I'm upset by it. I think that it's an inevitable migration based on the Internet, which is the great disruptor in all of this. And you know, there's no turning back the clock on that.
That said, you know - and I think you'll hear this from any number of journalists and increasingly a lot of other people - you know, the demise of the independent news organization, if that happens - and we're seeing that through attrition - through the laying off of reporters - my particular worry is not in the world of global coverage because we're committed to it, and the New York Times and a number of other news organizations are committed to covering international affairs.
My worry is when a newspaper in a small state shuts down its operations and no longer has, say, a bureau in the capital city, it no longer watches the state legislature or no longer watches the county commissioners, all of which have taxing authority, and you know, easily have politicians who put their hands in the till. That's a function that no one else has filled other than professional journalists.
I mean, gifted, dedicated bloggers - yes, God bless them, but I don't think you can count on them to fill that role. So that's the big danger, I think, in our society, that corruption could spread because there aren't independent watchdogs out there.
GROSS: John Yemma is the editor of the Christian Science Monitor. The Monitor plans to give up its daily print edition and publish daily only on its Web site starting in the spring.
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