A Newspaperman’s Nostalgia

TIME's Michael Grunwald remembers life at his two former homes, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe, both sold this week. Their challenge: How do you get people to pay for stuff they can read for free?

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BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP / Getty Images

The Washington Post building in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 5, 2013.

A memory from my first journalism job: I was a 22-year-old cub reporter at The Boston Globe in 1993 when The New York Times bought us for $1.1 billion. I looked around the newsroom at all the middle-aged hacks—a feature writer who crawled under her desk to call sources, a night-desk editor who cursed under his breath in German—and thought: Seriously? But I didn’t know anything about the media business. I figured the Timesmen knew what they were doing.

They didn’t. They sold The Globe last week for $70 million, 6 percent of what they paid two decades ago. They didn’t even get to unload the Globe‘s pension liabilities.

A memory from my second journalism job: I was a 29-year-old staff writer at The Washington Post in 2000 when AOL bought Time Warner to form the world’s largest media company. By that time I knew enough about the business to think: Whoa. I had assumed the Graham family would run the Post forever, but now that crazy dot-com money was buying real content, I assumed some Internet startup would own us within a year. I remember a newsroom debate over whether it would be Yahoo! or Microsoft or even AOL, clearly a media giant on the rise.

(MOREVanity Fair: America’s Newspapers Are Getting Bought Up by Billionaires)

Wrong again. The Grahams held on for 13 more years. It’s Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos who’s taking it off their hands this week. An AOL email address has become digital proof of Medicare eligibility.

I was stupid. But in my defense, The Times and Time Warner were even stupider. And in their defense, what seems obvious in retrospect—the rise of the Web, the dot-com bust, the gradual decline of print, the collapse of our business model—was less obvious at the time. I remember during my orientation tour at the Globe, I saw a huge room full of old ladies with thick Boston accents talking into headsets, and learned they sold $1 million worth of classified ads per day. I didn’t think: Uh oh, the Internet will make all that free and searchable. I thought: Cool!

Now I’m just another middle-aged hack, a 42-year-old correspondent for the last surviving newsmagazine—and it almost goes without saying that Time Warner is spinning us off, just as it eventually spun off its AOL deadweight. I don’t want to sound too nostalgic or elegiac about the financial pressures on our industry.We just haven’t figured out how to sell our product for more than it costs to produce.

(MORERana Foroohar on Why the Bezos Deal Is Reason to Cheer)

Let’s face it: The old MSM had a lot of bloat. That German mutterer at the Globe had no apparent talent for anything but verbal abuse. (I was too dumb to see it at first, but the under-the-desk lady was actually a real pro.) I once did an internship with a cast of thousands at the Los Angeles Times, then known as the velvet coffin; I remember writing stories about youth golf tournaments in the San Fernando Valley that couldn’t possibly have been read by anyone who didn’t have a kid participating. Local papers used to print money like the local cable monopolies of today; with a lock on department store ads, they could afford to send reporters to press conference to duplicate stories on the AP wire. Being a cub reporter was a wonderful education for me, a constant opportunity to learn about things I knew nothing about, but it was incredibly inefficient for my employer and my readers.  I later spent time as the Globe’s “national rover” and the Post‘s New York bureau chief, two awesome jobs that no longer exist. If I had to explain to a profit-maximizing shareholder why they should exist, I don’t know what I’d say.

Another unoriginal observation: The MSM has been laughably slow to adapt to the brave new digital world, where economists and doctors and other experts who actually know stuff about their topics are blogging and tweeting for free. What exactly is the value-added of a 700-word op-ed  in the modern era? Why do scores of reporters still attend the same press conferences and trials and sporting events to write the same day-old stories about stuff their readers heard about live?

The basic problem, I’m afraid, is that change is hard. Don Graham was a great owner, and he was smart enough to befriend Mark Zuckerberg and Bezos and other new-era visionaries, but when a couple of my Post colleagues came to him with the idea that became Politico, he whiffed. It’s hard to blame him. The Post made a lot of money until it didn’t. And when The Washington Post Company became an testing conglomerate with a nonprofit media subsidiary, Don was a stand-up guy, continuing to invest in quality reporting—although, inevitably, less of it.

The real problem, of course, is that it’s hard to get people to pay for stuff they can get for free. My current media diet—mostly links from my Twitter feed—is more interesting, more substantive, and more up-to-the-minute than ever. When I was at the Post, Warren Buffett, a board member at the parent company, once joked that we were the first business in the history of business to assemble an audience and fail to make money from it. We were pioneers!

(MOREDavid von Drehle: A New Age for the Washington Post)

The trend lines, as everyone knows, have not improved. There seems to be money to be made in listicles and aggregation and other clickbait, but nobody has figured out a long-term profit model for the kind of accountability journalism the Post always prized—and the prize committees always prized—the kind of stories that inspired Don to send his famous Donnie-grams to reporters through interoffice mail. It’s not clear how much readers value those shoe-leather stories today, if they ever did; in our polarized political climate, they often seem less interested in new bias-challenging information than new bias-confirming ammunition. Journalism’s difficulties are not all on the supply side.

All that said, my former employers could have ended up with much worse owners than John Henry and Bezos, rich guys with money to burn. I hope my current employer finds a similar white knight; having to answer to shareholders presumably means having to boost revenues or slash costs in the short term, and so far nobody has figured out how to boost revenues. The idea that we should worry about how the Post will cover Amazon is hilariously quaint; Amazon doesn’t care how it’s covered by one of a million media outlets. We should worry whether Bezos can keep the Post alive in some recognizable form until someone—maybe him—can figure out how to make money selling something that’s widely available for free.

Hey, the world’s oldest profession figured out how to do it. There is still presumably at least some demand for what we provide, too. As we used to say at the Post, we may be dinosaurs, but dinosaurs walked the earth for millions of years.

MORECBS Calls Time Warner Cable Proposal a ‘Sham’ — and Blackout Continues

20 comments
RobertBrooks
RobertBrooks

I am sorry, Miami boychik, but the anti-semitism you lament may well be justified...or you may be just another Jewish scribe who cries wolf everytime someone criticizes anything a tribe member does...even when he has called for a drone attack on someone who has done him...nor his ethnic group--any harm. 

j.petergunn
j.petergunn

You should make it to Time's "Person of the Year" after your Assange death wish fantasy.  What a guy. 



reinertorheit
reinertorheit

No-one would pay money for your infantile war-mongering trash, Grunwald,  Nothing you've ever written has been worth $0.02.  

reinertorheit
reinertorheit

Die in a traffic accident, Grunwald. You're trash. 

jonathannen
jonathannen

Grunwald's view is that other journalists should be extrajudicially murdered because he doesn't agree with their views -- despite these views being inherently underpinned by traditionally journalism and facts. It makes this article and his whole view of journalistic "nostalgia" completely monstrous. 

Time journalists are facing real threats to their lives in Egypt right now. It abhorrent that a Time journalist cheerleads violence against other journalists.

He deleted his tweet. You should be deleting his facile articles. 

JamesR.Simmons
JamesR.Simmons

Dude, you're now a middle aged hack, who has never written anything relevant in his life. The reason these magazines and newspapers are struggling, is because most people are becoming more interested in the truth

MonStrocity
MonStrocity

Thankfully I long ago understood that Time was no longer a print media source of relevant news however Mr. Grunwald has taken the publication down to a new low.  If Time keeps a man employed as Editor who uses his platform to publicly advocate for the murder of a private citizen their disgrace will be complete.  In Canada we have anti-hate speech laws that would have landed Mr. Grunwald a criminal indictment for his comments.  Time should either ask for this mans resignation or they should simply fire him.

jasmine311
jasmine311

You suck.  I wish you would get fired.  You are a dictator's dream writing for the media. You make everyone in this country look like barbaric morons.  Who'd you pay to get hired anyway?


Did I mention you really suck?


aphinton
aphinton

Grunwald, still a 22 year old cub reporter, and now an ass.  May I never buy another Time magazine again.

DavidHamilton
DavidHamilton

 As a supporter of government transparency and Julian Assange, may Mike Grunwald rot in hell.

Leege
Leege

Also, if you were wondering why the general public doesn't care about these newspapers or TIME going under, your tweet is one of the biggest reasons for it.

Leege
Leege

 The reason people are not reading your garbage anymore is because they know that you have been long coopted by the very institutions that you are supposed to be watching. When did you forget that they were your sources, not your friends? That tweet you sent about Assange just proved what everybody should think about the MSM - that they'll give support to whoever's in power. So much for socially liberal media.

If you had any honor, you would resign your position now and never call yourself a journalist again. I am sure the White House or the Republican National Committee would have appropriate employment for someone like yourself.

BFrank
BFrank

Grunwald is just another perceptive corporate sycophant. He learned at a young age that it was more important to be liked than good and has governed his career accordingly. Even this piece overflows with the butt-kissing you'd come to expect from a mediocre writer in a dying industry that knows, since his talents would never be able to carry him, he will need the favor of greater men and women. In this piece reminiscing about the almost complete destruction of the newspaper industry, you'd be hard-pressed to find any sort of critical analysis of the decisions that rendered the industry impotent and nearly extinct. But, hey, keep patting your masters on the back and they'll keep ignoring what you write and handing you the occasional knick knack. 

And, perhaps, if we're really lucky, you can reflect on why the public has abandoned these publications in twenty years (Can't wait for that hard-hitting piece!). I can only assume we will bear witness to the impressive degree of introspection and fair-minded analysis that characterizes your work so far. 

I started reading magazines and newspapers at a young age. I long for the days when men and women who worked at these publications were real people, interspersed with the populations they covered, and not private-schooled, corporate lackeys that wax poetic about their time at Harvard or Columbia in between drinks and affairs. These people maintain an army of adjectives but not an ounce of insight.

And, yes, I too am annoyed about your Assange quote. It's the kind of quote a man makes when he no longer feels he needs to be accountable for his words. Which, for a journalist to even be able to think that, is telling as to the kind of institutional influences and incentives that surround you. 


travisbgreen
travisbgreen

The Assange tweet brought me here. I think I've had enough of the "say it just to get your voice heard" brand of alleged journalism. I had held Time magazine in high regard, but it seems they've joined the ranks of "info-tainment" publications if this is the type of writer they have as a senior national correspondent. 

doyoucopy
doyoucopy

Is the assange / drone thing the end of mr grunwalds career now?


PaulDirks
PaulDirks

It's obvious to me that Bezos was simply waiting for me to pony up for the paywall, before moving in.


PaulDirks
PaulDirks

Information wants to be free!

Unfortunately the only information that's REALLY free is what people want you to believe who DON'T have your interests in mind. (Including advertisers as well as politicians)


stevek77536
stevek77536

Humorist Dave Barry: "The typical newspaper staff has been reduced to one editor, one managing editor, 14 assistant managing editors, 39 deputy assistant managing editors, and one reporter. The editors spend their days holding meetings to think of new ways to cut costs, while the reporter (who, for budgetary reasons, is not allowed to leave the building) looks out the window, in case news occurs in the parking lot."



TheInsomniac
TheInsomniac

@stevek77536 Sounds like the top-heavy infrastructure of most American bureaucracies, with maybe an exception for the perpetually youthful Silicon Valley. At least part of this has to do with demographics, with a a large glut of employed Boomers who feel they deserve to be at the top, and not a whole lot of young, new blood being hired.

stevek77536
stevek77536

Yes, reminds me of my company's eight man rowing team, which lost to a rival company's team.  Of course, an investigation took place which concluded that the rival team had eight men rowing and one coxswain.  Our team had eight coxswains and one man rowing.  The rower got fired.


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