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Extra! Extra! As newspapers struggle, panels surmise future of print journalism

At symposium, panelists agree: Despite grim times, newspapers can adapt to new landscape

L.A. Cicero Joel Brinkley joined panelists Harry Chandler, Bill Keller, Marissa Mayer and Gary Pruitt

From left, moderator Joel Brinkley joined panelists Harry Chandler, Bill Keller, Marissa Mayer and Gary Pruitt to discuss the future of newspapers in the digital age at the 41st annual McClatchy Memorial Symposium.

BY MICHAEL PEÑA

It was a familiar premise probed at a symposium on the news media last week in Cubberley Auditorium: that the printed newspaper is seeing its relevance erode as more people turn to an online world—by desktop or laptop—filled with free content and alternative providers such as bloggers and other so-called citizen journalists.

Titled "Pressing Times: Can Newspapers Survive in the New World of Journalism?" the 41st annual Carlos Kelly McClatchy Memorial Symposium featured a panel that included Gary Pruitt, chief executive officer of the McClatchy Co.; Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times; Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience for Google; and Harry Chandler, former executive at the Los Angeles Times and member of the family that privately owned the paper for 120 years before selling it to the Tribune Co.

Moderating the discussion was Joel Brinkley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent formerly of the New York Times and currently the Lorry I. Lokey Visiting Professor of Journalism in the Department of Communication.

Named after the founder of the Fresno Bee, the Carlos Kelly McClatchy Memorial Lectures and Symposia were established in 1964 to bring to Stanford distinguished national and world leaders in the field of journalism, in order to give students firsthand insight into the responsibilities of journalism in a democratic society and to stimulate critical thinking about the performance of the mass media in the world today.

Symposia also are open to the public, and on May 14, the 400-seat venue was for the most part filled. But if audience members were looking for a clear drawing of battle lines, what they got much more of was a blurring of them. The newspapermen spoke of welcoming web surfers into the fold as circulation numbers plummet and of the need to package the news—for instance, with video—for the online world.

"We take comfort from Charles Darwin's observation that it's not the strongest species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change," Pruitt said. "We just need to be adaptable."

Meanwhile, Mayer, as the lone panelist from a purely web-based company, spoke of depending on trusted content providers like those seated beside her and of having a stake in seeing their news organizations prosper financially so reporters and editors can continue to be paid to produce quality stories.

(A symposium sponsored by the Knight Fellowships Program on Monday in Kresge Auditorium explored specifically that issue. Please see story on page XX.)

Mayer described Google as not being the nemesis of newspapers, but defined her organization for what it is: fundamentally, a search engine and, aside from that, an advertising company. Google News simply aggregates content generated by existing news organizations, she explained, adding that the feature also provides reporters with an ideal platform for breaking news and for presenting end users with various perspectives on the same story.

"We're computer scientists; we're not journalists," said Mayer, who graduated from Stanford with a bachelor's degree in symbolic systems and a master's in computer science. "For us, it's really about partnering with content providers and ultimately finding distribution and monetization channels for them."

And while Keller said his career on the editorial side of the fabled wall separating journalists from the business offices meant that words like "monetize" were not in his vocabulary, his colleagues on the panel agreed that the traditional revenue model must change.

But even Keller, a Pulitzer Prize winner himself, characterized the symposium's introduction by Brinkley as dire but accurate. In that introduction, Brinkley asked why anyone would subscribe to a newspaper when its most important features—and anything from recipes to real estate ads—are available online for free. He also spoke of flagging online ad revenue for newspaper websites and the laying off of staff and closing of news bureaus throughout the industry.

"Analysts generally estimate that it will be 10, 15, maybe 20 years or even longer before the day comes when a newspaper website can provide even half of a newspaper's revenue, when newspaper websites can pay for the newsrooms that provide their content," Brinkley said. "Will newspapers continue to wither and eventually die waiting for that day?"

Chandler, another Stanford alum who oversaw new business development and held other positions while at the Los Angeles Times, was clearly more pessimistic. Classified ads, display ads and subscriptions—major revenue streams in the traditional business model for newspapers—are all drying up, Chandler said. Because of websites such as Monster.com and Cars.com, newspapers eventually must figure out how to survive without classified ads, he said.

Even though both Pruitt and Keller "cited that there are more readers of their papers, vis-à-vis the Internet, the monetization of them is way down," Chandler said. "The paid readership is the number that sustains your business, not the unpaid."

As for the future, Chandler listed several business options for newspapers. One he mentioned was offering paid subscribers exclusive services such as the New York Times' "Times Select." He also suggested that newspaper companies find opportunities to diversify at the corporate level in the way that the Washington Post Co. did by acquiring Kaplan, one of the world's leading providers of educational preparatory classes.

Another option that Chandler said he learned from personal experience was for newspapers to seek out "benevolent billionaires," a term he described as a trend already evident in the industry.

"One of my beliefs is that newspapers are going to be a bit more like sports teams," Chandler said, "where the ownership of them is best held by private citizens or families who are more interested in the communities they serve and the prestige they bring than in the annual or quarterly profits."

Editorially, Chandler suggested that newspapers prioritize their resources according to their strong suit, such as mid-size papers leaving the reporting of the war in Iraq to the New York Times so they can concentrate on local coverage. Another idea was to have trained journalists act as aggregators and editors of bloggers and citizen journalists that now fill the Internet.

This touched on a possibility voiced by Mayer, that the avalanche of content contributed in the open-source age—whether it be an entry in Wikipedia or a video on YouTube—might somehow lead to exotic brands of news. "I mentioned before, MySpace reporters or Facebook reporters," Mayer said. "You'll also see the rise of new editors online, taking all that contributed content, packaging it, giving it an interesting viewpoint, fact-checking it."

An opinion echoed by every newspaperman on the panel was that what they are facing is not irrelevance, but just another painful evolution akin to the adaptations that were necessary in the wake of radio and television.

But perhaps the most eloquent observation that held promise for the survival of newspapers was one offered by Keller—that, "in this new frontier of information overload," traditional journalism holds sacred the values of accuracy, transparency and judiciousness based on experience and intelligence.

"There are bloggers who file firsthand reports of their experiences in distant places, including Iraq, and sometimes their work is enlightening or intriguing," Keller said. "But most of the blog world doesn't even attempt to report. It recycles, it riffs on the news, it reasons or sometimes it rants, which is not bad. It's just not enough."