McClatchy’s Gary Pruitt Scales the AP Mountain

Posted on March 22, 2012

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Associated Press board members — the newspaper CEOs who populate the board — opted for one of their own when they picked McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt as their new leader .

By historical measure, it’s a strange move. A large newspaper company CEO is captain of his own ship, at a pinnacle of American company life and compensation. The Associated Press, on the other hand, has been something else indeed, a wire, about as unsexy as a news company can be. Retiring CEO Tom Curley came over to AP from his role as publisher of USA Today almost nine years ago. It’s been a helluva nine years of transformation, of turning the quite traditional company he inherited from long-time head Lou Boccardi into a modern news company. He got it part way there.

Now Pruitt takes the baton, as most reports paint a picture of night falling on one of America’s oldest industries. The Council of Economic Advisers has reported that the press is “America’s fastest-shrinking industry”, measured by jobs lost,” and the Financial Times headlined its recent newspaper round-up, “Bleak outlook for US newspapers.”

Why do it? Why trade in the sleepiness of California’s capital city (Sacramento is McClatchy’s headquarters) for the bright lights of Broadway, a long walk from AP’s NYC offices?

Number one on list may be McClatchy fatigue. Pruitt and his CFO, now-successor Pat Talamantes, have rowed the third-largest U.S. newspaper company oh-so-gingerly around the bankruptcy shoals that have grabbed more than dozen of their peers. They’ve had to make devastating cuts in staff and other expenses along with other companies, but get some points for greater efforts to keep newsroom size and spirit going in the face of that bleak reality. It’s important to note that McClatchy has found no special sauce in transforming itself for the digital age, performing on par, sometimes better, sometimes worse, than its peers. Pruitt is getting this job not on the basis on being a proven transformative player, but on being a known, highly respected news exec who understands the challenges of the times.

Almost exactly six years ago, Pruitt seemed like a big hope for higher-quality, newspaper journalism in the transitional print/digital age. On March 6, 2006, which seems like two eternities ago, McClatchy bought Knight-Ridder, then the second-largest newspaper company in the country, and my work home for 21 years through 2005. Though Knight-Ridder’s quick demise was shocking, Pruitt’s commitment to journalism was reassuring. I remember the conference call the company did to tout the purchase, and the optimism and commitment in Pruitt’s voice:

“Opportunities like this come perhaps once in a company’s lifetime, and we’re thrilled to have this chance to extend McClatchy journalism and our proven newspaper operations to 20 high-quality newspapers in high-growth markets. Our two companies operate in the finest traditions of American journalism, devoted to independent, public interest reporting and the highest ethical values. Combining the two creates a company particularly well-positioned to lead the way in a changing media landscape. It’s truly a chance for McClatchy to do more of what it does best.”

We hoped Pruitt would become a strong public leader for those values in this difficult age. Fending off bankruptcy, challenged by new non-family shareholders and consumed by month-to-month survival, that leadership went underground. There was little percentage in asserting journalistic values in that environment, it seemed.

So now: AP. Certainly, the company owns its own set of life-and-death challenges. The non-profit cooperative, owned by newspaper companies, is still somewhere betwixt and between a wire and a global media company.

One thing Pruitt trades in: a non-national company of diverse properties for a worldwide media play. In a word: Scale.

AP is one of the Digital Dozen companies I wrote about in the Newsonomics book. The digital business is all about scale: do something better than others and then take it out, at very low incremental costs, to the rest of the world. The Wall Street Journal, BBC, the New York Times, Bloomberg, Guardian and a half dozen others fit that definition; many will be the winners when we look back from 2020. Yet AP isn’t in that league.

Though only about 20% of its revenues these days (down from 40% when Tom Curley arrived in 2003) are paid by member newspapers, those newspapers control the direction of the non-profit company. Understandably, member/owners haven’t wanted AP to directly compete with them in the digital, death-of-distance age, but they’ve often been far stronger in what they didn’t want AP to do, than in what they wanted it to do.

AP’s been essentially a B-to-B company, with one of its prime customer revenue bases eroding so quickly. AP has made up part of that deficit by selling national content to web portals and upped its broadcasting and global businesses, but, like its owners, it has had to cut. The company’s made smarter investments in mobile lately, revamping what had been ho-hum, if early-to-market, iPhone and iPad apps. Those products offer glimmers of hope that the power of AP, and its members, can be realized by consumers. Mobile is the only area in which AP is going direct to consumers, with the goal of being the go-to site for news in the U.S. That’s a tall goal, with lots of competition.

So what should be at the top of Gary Pruitt’s to-do list?:

  • In one word: Leadership. Yes, a sky (print) is falling. Yet, we’ve never more needed strong, courageous leadership in the news industry. What journalists — and not just those employed by daily newspaper companies — do is hugely importantly to their democracies and their communities. Tom Curley tried to make those points; too often his comments were received as those of the Old Guard simply trying to hold on. It’s not easy to change the conversation, but before the public, Congress and the industry, Gary Pruitt must step forward with an optimistic, inclusive view of the future of the news business.
  • Embrace Big Story storytelling: Check out the new Big Stories section on the new AP Mobile app. It only contains five topics now, but its larger principle is important. AP is probably the second-largest company, by staff, in the world, with about 2700 journalists, second to Reuters’ approximate 3000. It made its reputation of getting it first, globally. That’s still vitally important. Yet, its ability to move beyond a commodification of sorts — for publishers, taking AP’s first story, then come behind it with a deeper story — is essential if it’s going to climb the mountain of value and charge more. As AP escapes from the age of Last In, First Out into a web of greater contextual value to its business and consumer customers, the more it can claim a place in that Digital Dozen.
  • Master advertising: McClatchy is an advertising company; AP’s not. AP, if it is to be global player, needs to develop and bring in-house — quickly — advertising chops. Yes, its content-buying customers will sell their own advertising, but AP needs capacity to do that same, and not be wholly dependent on those buyers to create — and share value.
  • Leverage global connections: The world’s news agencies employ 10,000 or more journalists among them. Collectively — if they were working even more closely together — that would be the largest journalistic workforce on the planet. Finding ways to leverage more and more any journalistic synergies (technology can help here) is an opportunity AP’s competitors don’t have. Some of those news agencies have found more alternative funding sources than others, though all are struggling with their core businesses. Learning from them is essential.
  • Play paywall pool: With Lee’s embrace of paywalls, we’re now seeing pay systems become the default at U.S. dailies. Paywalls aren’t only a digital circulation revenue move; they reconfigure customer relationship and should force re-thinking of product portfolio. Consequently, figuring out where AP fits into the new paywalled world (and as more than in-front-of-the-wall, bulk-up-the-free content) has suddenly increased in priority.
The Newsonomics of This American Life and Mr. Daisey’s Media Blur

Posted: 22 Mar 2012 05:09 AM PDT

First published at Nieman Journalism Lab

Was it journalism, performance art, political provocation, or just a hell of a good story? Was it a great truth, a great lie, or somewhere in between?

This American Life’s retraction (good NPR explainer here) of Mike Daisey’s January piece on Apple’s factories in China has unleashed a cascade of reaction and rethinking. It’s been a chain reaction, with the episode connecting up all our next-era hopes and fears.

The much-decorated (Peabody, Polk, DuPont-Columbia, Murrow awards) This American Life is 16 years old now, and fundamentally a radio program. But the “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” show showed real new-media power, becoming TAL’s most downloaded podcast ever at 880,000 downloads — a sure measure of its virality. (In that follow-on impact, it reminds us of the power of Katie Couric’s 2008 interview with Sarah Palin — an interview whose web afterlife made many more waves than the initial broadcast.)

Why are we seeing such a fuss? The two big reasons, I believe: the impact the story had, and our increasingly uneasy footing in the blurring media landscape.

The 39-minute Daisey piece did what dozens of previous stories on Foxconn’s massive manufacturing of our Apple (and other) wonders hadn’t accomplished: It captured listeners’ imaginations.

Why? Daisey turned our portable pleasures to guilty ones. Talking with Chinese workers, he connected our pleasures to their pain — 18-hour days, chemical poisonings, suicides, and more. He tempered the guilt with a decent pro and con discussion of how even odious sweatshop jobs have long lifted generations into the bottom rungs of middle class existences in many nations.

TAL pricked the consciences of 1.8 million This American Life listeners, a group you’ve got to expect includes a disproportionate number of Apple users. Then, within two weeks, The New York Times began publishing a series on Apple, China, job creation, and Foxconn. Where Daisey made Americans care anew, the Times did what it does best: It hammered at the Foxconn record, detailing it with exhaustive reporting and all the data it could uncover.

Tales of Foxconn abuse go back years, but never seemed to pique the public’s imagination. The combination of This American Life emotionally tinged story and the Times’ work — seemingly on the heels of Daisey’s tale, but with reporting that had been months in the making — pushed the issue to new heights. We saw a high-voltage online public interest campaign ignite, producing a quarter of a million signatures. Congress joined the fray, indignation rising and providing good opportunities for photo-ready public outrage. Finally, Apple, reaping huge profits (and now granting bonanza dividends) by punting around the issue for years, seemed to take it more seriously, engaging with the Fair Labor Association “to end sweatshop conditions.”

That’s a lot of impact, and Daisey’s piece played a clear role in the chain of events.

Now we understand that Daisey included some reporting, some surmising, and some conflating in his Foxconn tales. Maybe that’s not a huge surprise, given his long career in performance, in storytelling, a craft in which the moving around of facts to better tell a story is the how the art form works.

Of course, that’s not how journalism works. When you hear talk about a new “ecosystem,” a word that understandably drives some people in the news business nuts, we can see its uneasy and only partially charted taxonomy in the Daisey story.

Which brings us back to the second big reason we’re hearing such debate: We’re having a hard time defining the journalism — and the other stuff — that digital media either creates, or amplifies.

It’s a bigger and bigger media blur out there, and the tablet has only further softened our vision. On an iPad, does NPR qualify as radio, audio, or a news site, with half or more of its stories text-only? Is The Wall Street Journal still a newspaper with its all-but-devoid-of-text WSJ Live video news app? Are the NBC Local sites broadcast websites or city sites that look awfully like newspaper ones? You can’t tell the players apart like you used to; there’s no new scorecard.

We’ve seen other hand-wringing twists on this storyline. Are bloggers journalists? No, not most, but some. Are journalists bloggers? Yes, some. Can we believe what bloggers write? Yes, some of the time, depending on who they are, for whom they work, and what we know about them. We’re still coming to grips with these overlapping lines, and we can the same kinds of issues here in the Daisey story and retraction. In a sense, TAL’s dilemma parallels that gap in our new taxonomy, our new way of explaining ourselves to ourselves and to others.

In his strongly worded retraction, TAL host Ira Glass, of course, tried to parse this still-being-charted landscape. Glass attempted to get ahead of an avalanche of “new media” criticism now falling. “See, you can’t trust those guys,” is the sentiment, both public and private, we can expect to hear from many quarters. “That’s not journalism.”

Offered Glass: “We’re horrified to have let something like onto public radio. Our program adheres to the same journalistic standards as other national shows, and in this case, we did not live up to those standards.”

Note that the New York Public Theater, in standing behind its decision to complete its current run of Daisey’s stage show, said in its statement: “Mike is an artist, not a journalist. Nevertheless, we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience in the piece.” Daisey himself, caught between several worlds, “stands by his work,” but notes he “not a journalist.”

The two statements from Glass and the Public Theater seem to define two separate things: theater and journalism. Yet, by the nature of the revolution TAL has spawned, theatrical storytelling aids the journalism. In fact, it directly excerpted its Daisey program from his still-playing one-man show. Consequently, that line between journalism and theatrical storytelling isn’t as easily defined as Ira Glass’s statement would make it seem. In fact, when Glass talks about “other national shows,” we’ve got to wonder which ones he means. “Show” is of course an old show business term; newsies tend to go beyond the Anglo-Saxon to the more serious-sounding “program.” Where do we place Radiolab and The Moth, both of which owe legitimization to TAL?

Complicating our understanding is that TAL’s habit of reaching out to non-traditional storytellers is one of its greatest strengths.

It’s funny, though, but I never expected This American Life to adhere to the same standards as The New York Times. In the stories of David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, and David Rakoff, and in providing a forum for non-journalistically trained storytellers, as well as journalists, we’ve seen the bounds of our understanding expanded on everything from the financial crisis to infidelity to what happens when humans and fowl collide (in its “sort of annual Poultry Slam!”). That seminal financial crisis story — “The Giant Pool of Money” — won lots of awards and forced more people to take TAL seriously. Its co-creator Adam Davidson now co-hosts NPR’s (and TAL’s) Planet Money, which we hear from more and more on All Things Considered and Morning Edition.

What has distinguished This American Life through 459 episodes has been its breadth. It could be haunting, horrifying, or hilarious, and often some combination of emotions that one-note traditional media often keep in check. I was entertained while I learned about something. I can’t recall being bored.

So, yes, let’s debate the definitions. Let’s try define the turf, as we see in such recent initiatives as Simon Dumenco’s Council on Ethical Blogging and Aggregation. Let’s remember that the Internet is a remarkable, if gawky, self-correcting organism. (It was the reporting of Marketplace’s Rob Schmitz that uncovered the Daisey inaccuracies. It’s worth pointing out: public radio is helping clean up a mess created by…public radio.)

Let’s not, though, retreat to our traditional corners.

Was Mike Daisey a liar, or merely deeply disingenuous? (Poynter’s Craig Silverman does a good job of picking apart the trail of words.)

As an artist, he deals in truths. As journalists, we don’t have the poetic luxury to rearrange facts in time and place. That’s always been and should be an essential boundary of our craft. Yes, it seems strange having to explain that facts shouldn’t be rearranged for the sake of dramatic power or clarity — but, then again, as journalists we’ve never explained quite that well how what we do is different.

The key here is not to build a wall, but to disclose the blur — explain to listeners, viewers, and readers who did the work, and within what bounds. Just last week,Greg Smith’s explosive Goldman Sachs piece in The New York Times made its own news, and no one mistook it for journalism — it was interpreted through a set of conventions we worked out long ago called the op-ed page.

Our times call for recognizing The Big Tent that the digital world has popped open. We can better define its rooms, but for the sake of all traditional media, from newspapers to yes, 40-year-old public radio, best to make that tent big and wide. That’s what we as an audience want, and that’s what will help pay the bills for the news-gathering itself.

Posted in: News-Trend