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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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.

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