Warren Baird memorial dinner for K-O News editors
West Hartford, Conn. May 16, 2011.
I was invited to give this 20-minute speech at my old high school. I used it to reminisce a little about my high-school-newspaper experience in the era of typewriters and glue pots. Then I moved on to warn the high school seniors about the grim outlook for the newspaper industry.
Thanks a lot for inviting me. Even though my 37 year career with the Wall street Journal ended at the end of 2009 in the great newspaper meltdown, I am still practicing journalism as a freelancer. I’m also doing a lot of ghost writing, and writing for businesses, and I’m managing to support myself as a writer.
Tonight I thought I’d start by telling you a little about my career, and explain how that reflects the way the newspaper business used to be.
Then I’ll talk about the newspaper business today and where it’s going over the next ten years -- nowhere good, I regret to say.
And if there’s time at the end I’ll give you five tips about non-fiction writing that I’ve found helpful.
When I went to school here, it was still a boy’s school.There were 52 boys in the senior class. Then as now, it was the best country-day school in the area. About 15% of the class went to Ivy League schools.
My memory is that Warren Baird joined the faculty when I was in third or fourth form. He became advisor to what was then the Kingswood News in 1967, when I started my senior year. He quickly accelerated the move started by his predecessor, Tony Dominic, to turn a fusty, text-heavy, newspaper into one that featured compelling photography and was competitive nationally among the best secondary school papers in the country.
During my senior year, I was on the News board, although I wasn’t an editor. I wrote sports stories and news stories and the occasional editorial.
I covered the Varsity soccer team, for which I also played. We weren’t very good. I still remember my lead on the season recap -- “The Varsity soccer team completed a perfectly symmetrical 1-11-1 season with a loss to Suffield Academy.”
In those days, we used devices called typewriters to write stories. Just curious -- raise your hand if you’ve ever typed a page of text with a typewriter.
I remember the baseball team manager -- who wrote our varsity baseball stories - couldn’t type. He would submit handwritten stories that one of us had to type up at the layout meetings we held.My memory is that we did layouts on large sheets of paper, measuring the length of each story (no way to count words, then) and fitting it into the space. The layouts and stories were then driven to the West Hartford News, which type-set and printed it.
The photo editor developed pictures using chemicals in a darkroom behind the chapel. Printing pictures of the exact size needed was a challenge. One day he dropped a glass bottle of acetone. The fumes forced evacuation of the building.
At the time, most of the editors had desks in a senior study in the basement of one of the houses around the green. The same core group of people also put out the Wyvern literary magazine and the Black and Crimson, the yearbook. We spent a lot of evenings in the study, especially working on the News.
One of the big issues then was the Vietnam war. I don’t recall that our editorials criticized the War, but we did strongly advocate the right of eighteen year olds to vote, since they were the ones being drafted.
Of course, by “right to vote”, what we really meant was “right to drink.” We got both in the next couple of years.Believe it or not, I think we also editorialized in favor of allowing seniors to smoke cigarettes on campus.
I remember once going to the state capital with a photographer to report on a protest over voting rights that had been organized by a recent Kingswood graduate. It was raining and there were only a dozen protestors. But I was determined to have a story. I ended up marching with a sign in order to create a better picture. I later learned this is not acceptable journalism.
After I graduated, I kept writing for newspapers. I got a summer job as a copyboy at the Hartford Courant, which didn’t have an internship program then. At Yale I started writing sports for the Yale Daily News; I moved on to news coverage and eventually became the chief editor. Because of that job I got an internship with the Wall Street Journal. And after I graduated from college, they offered me a job that sounded like a lot more fun than going to law school.
During the years I worked for the Journal, it was usually the best selling paper in the U.S. It was the first national daily newspaper, and until USA Today came along it was the only one. In the past couple of years, the New York Times has made a commitment to being a national newspaper as well. But now it’s easy to be a national newspaper on the Internet. The Daily Beast, Drudge Report and Huffington Post all aspire to be that. So do Yahoo News and Google News.
Newspapers never paid really well -- but they provided a nice lifestyle. At many newspapers, salaries were comparable to school teachers or state government workers. by the 1990s, a lot of Journal and Times and Washington Post reporters were making over $100,000.
With that kind of potential newspapers attracted a great bunch of reporters. Newsrooms are a great place to work because you work with very smart people who are really engaged in what they’re doing. A daily deadline provides an adrenaline rush every day. Catching PR people, public officials and business leaders lying is surprisingly satisfying.
And reporters sometimes actually make a difference. I wrote a story once about a Harvard Business School course where students were graded on their performance in a class contest that involved negotiating a sale price on a piece of property. Someone I met told me that she was really uncomfortable, because the students who got the best grades in the class had won the contest by being the most convincing liars in the negotiating process. After talking to a lot of other students in the class, I wrote a story, that ran in the Journal under the headline: “For some at Harvard, Lying becomes a Mater of Course.”
After I wrote the story, the dean of the business school announced he was starting a campaign to get me fired. But the Journal backed me. And a year later, Harvard started requiring the Business School to have an ethics class.
Eight years ago, I wrote a story about how IBM was firing people in the U.S. and replacing them with people in India. I quoted some IBM documents about how managers should explain to U.S. workers that they might be training their replacements when they helped out visiting colleagues from India. A few months after the story, IBM announced a new policy for helping U.S. workers transfer to other departments when their jobs were moved overseas.
Of course, as a reporter, you can’t take yourself too seriously. Lets face it, ethics in business hasn’t exactly become universal. And IBM continues to move jobs overseas. But I like to think that awareness of the issues has some value.
I spent the last thirty years of my career working in the Boston bureau of the Journal. Because Boston was a high tech hotbed, I got to write about the PC revolution and the birth of the Internet. I got to meet and interview many of the figures who created the technology revolution that is shaping our lives, from Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to Lou Gerstner, the man who saved IBM and Ursula Burns, the first black woman to become president of a major U.S. company -- Xerox.
The PC revolution was really exciting to cover, because it was being created by people my own age, and unlike the oil and auto executives, like Henry Ford II, that I’d dealt with in the past, they treated me as an equal. Bill Gates was particularly enjoyable to deal with because he was willing to engage reporters intellectually. I was once at a conference where everyone was drinking beers around a swimming pool. Gates came up to me and poked his finger in my chest and said “Your paper doesn’t know what it’s talking about.” I don’t remember the issue, but I sure remember the incident.
I also got to write about the demise of a lot of computer companies like Wang Laboratories and Digital Equipment and the virtual death of Kodak. Business is a pretty dramatic subject. (I’m chagrined to admit that two of the biggest tech stories ever started within five miles of my home, and I never wrote about them. Napster, which went down in flames, but took the music industry with it, was created in a dorm at Northeastern. And Facebook was created in a dorm at Harvard).
I don’t know how many of you hope to have careers in non-fiction writing. But I do know that there’s no clear career path. I’m pretty confident that people will continue to want to read accurate and interesting accounts of our world by people who have expertise in asking questions and presenting information clearly.
They’ll want to know whether political leaders can avoid raising taxes while continuing to keep teachers in schools. They’ll want to know why UConn’s point guard was suspended. They’ll want to know how the Navy Seals conducted the raid on Osama bin Laden’s house. They’ll want to know if a company they invested in is going to be wiped out by competitors.I think that paper magazines will probably survive for some time to come. And stories will also be delivered on tablets and cell phones.
I don’t see a long future for metro newspapers either online or on paper. The problem is that newspapers require advertising to support the broad reporting they do. And they require readers to attract advertisers. Or else the readers need to pay a lot more for the information they now get free.
Metro newspapers like the Hartford Courant and the Boston Globe have been losing readers for a long time. When I was growing up, there were actually two Hartford papers, the Courant and the Times, and four Boston newspapers. The decline in national readership has been pretty steady for 40 years.
The decline really accelerated in the past three years. We all hoped it was due to the recession, but it increasingly looks like the readers and advertising won’t be coming back. Newspaper advertisers spent just $22 billion in 2009, less than half the $49 billion they spent in 2000. And advertising is 60% to 80% of most newspaper’s revenues.
Advertising is going away because metro newspapers aren’t a very good way to reach an audience. Until 1998, they were the only way. But once people began building web sites, it became clear just how poor an ad medium newspapers are. First classified ads went away. CraigsList let people advertise stuff for free. And instead of a few cryptic words, people could describe things in detail and show photos. Then Monster.com destroyed help-wanted advertising; cars.com destroyed used car advertising; zillow.com and realtor sites replaced most real estate ads.
Classified ads were the most profitable part of most newspapers. And while they have tried to take them on line, most buyers aren’t going to look at them on the newspapers web sites because they will figure, correctly, that they’ll have a much better experience at the sites that specialize in those subjects.
Display ads are also suffering. Advertisers still pay more for ads in the paper than they do for ads on the paper’s web site. That may be habit or it may be because they are willing to pay more when they can’t measure results the way they can for online ads.
But the paper newspaper is really expensive to print and distribute. (It’s also environmentally inexcusable). As the number of subscribers in a neighborhood decline, it will get too expensive for newspapers to keep distributing papers there. Probably within five years, newspapers will start boosting prices sharply for most paper copies in an effort to drive readers to their web sites.
Will the Web sites get people to pay? Some will, but I think local newspapers won’t be very successful. People who are most interested in national news won’t read it on the local paper’s web site. They will pay for the New York Times or Wall Street Journal or get free news from Daily Beast or Yahoo.com.
People aren’t likely to pay for local papers to get restaurant reviews or book reviews -- they’ll get those crowd-sourced through Yelp and Amazon. For sports news, there are likely to be lots of alternatives to the local metro paper. If the Courant cost money, a lot of UConn fans would probably discover that the UConn student paper maintained a free site, subsidized by tuition money.
People will still want to know about local and city political developments, zoning changes, local business news. And someone will figure out a formula for covering them at low cost and either getting ad revenue or getting a grant from a non-profit foundation or getting subscribers to pay.
But the metro newspaper as it used to exist, with a smorgasbord of expertise on culture, politics, sports, cooking, education and lifestyle isn’t a viable business any more.
In a way, you all are lucky to be going through college as these new models will be emerging. You can develop the writing skills and areas of expertise, and then sell those skills to whatever emerges next. But it’s a shame that the newspaper that hit your doorstep while you were in elementary school won’t be around for you to work for.
Before I stop, I want to share five tips I’ve picked up about non-fiction wriitng. Maybe you’ll remember one of them and it will help you.
Beat writer’s block. If you don’t know how to start a story, write down the key piint you are trying to make in a simple sentence. Then write the next aragrah. then the next one. You can always go back and craft an anecdoatl lead or a clever pun. Just get started.
Two: Great reporting is more important than great writing. You may be proud of your writing skills. I know I was. But one thing I learned quickly was that you need to do a lot of reporting, which is hard work, -- calling people who don’t want to talk to you; examining boring documents, learning everything you can about a topic. If you’ve done great reporting, the writing is easy. If you haven’t no amount of writers craft will overcome it.Three: Follow the money. That advice was coined by Jack Anderson, a Washington investigative reporter. Among other things it means understand who’s paying thebills for the people you interview Ask who’s funding the experts you interview. Even people you think of as neutral like doctors and professors and consultants often get stipends or retainers from organizations you’re asking them to comment on. And those payments, even if they’re small, definitely influence their comments.
Four. Use active voice. Every time you write something, before you turn it in go through and in every sentence ask if you can make the statement using the active voice. It makes the writing more interesting. And it forces you to report better. Its much more useful to tell the reader that “Joe made a mistake” than it is to say “mistakes were made.”
Finally: Never assume. Make sure that if you had to, you could attribute every single factual statement in your story. Even if you're sure World War I ended in 1945, check to make sure your memory is right.
That’s it. Thank you very much.