On the latest episode of Recode Decode, News Media Alliance CEO David Chavern joined Recode’s Kara Swisher in studio to talk about the challenges facing the thousands of print and online media businesses that the NMA represents — and possible solutions. One of Chavern’s jobs is talking to big platforms like Google and Facebook, but he acknowledged that, historically, “We have not had a good interaction with them.
“They’re our regulator,” he said. “The government can’t regulate the news business, First Amendment. But these guys can … They determine which of our content gets delivered to who, in what priority, how it’s monetized, whether we exist on their platforms or not. They stand between us and our audience and determine everything about that relationship.
“One thing I always try to tell them is, it could be an opportunity,” Chavern added. “We need better technical solutions for the news business, and they could be a way to deliver great, high-quality content to people. If they have a fake news problem, guess what, we’re in the real news business. So why can’t we have a better, more productive relationship?”
Working with the tech sector is one thing. But some people working in tech, Chavern recalled, had told him the media business could just be more like them. He disagrees that that’s a real solution.
“There’s this mental model: When it comes to content, they always say ‘Spotify for,’ right? ‘Spotify for news,’” he said. “A couple things to keep in mind when news is compared to music, though. First of all, our back catalog is not super valuable. You may have listened to Ella Fitzgerald this morning but something tells me you didn’t read about Jimmy Carter. … And trust is a huge part of the transaction. You have to know where it’s coming from and have some trust in who developed it. As long as it sounds like Ella Fitzgerald, you’re kinda pretty okay.”
You can listen to Recode Decode wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Overcast.
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with David.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor-at-large of Recode. You may know me as someone who can’t stand cow impersonators — it’s all fake moos — but in my spare time I talk tech and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media Podcast Network.
Today in the red chair is David Chavern, the president and CEO of News Media Alliance. It’s a nonprofit based in Washington, DC, that advocates on behalf of hundreds of print and digital news organizations from around the country. Previously, he spent more than 10 years at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. David, welcome to Recode Decode.
David Chavern: Excellent, thank you very much.
So, we have a lot to talk about, news. We have to talk about all kind of things, but let’s talk a little bit about your background, because I knew you from when you were at the Chamber of Commerce and we were talking about all kind of things like retail and things like that.
So talk a little bit about your background.
I’m a Pittsburgh guy, born and raised.
Not that far, Dave, just what you were doing … I don’t wanna know your mother’s …
Exactly. I was a lawyer for a long time, represented a lot of strange and unusual people, including … I spent a lot of time at the Export-Import Bank, which was actually a really fun thing to do when nobody knew what it was. It was actually going around the world, working on infrastructure projects, of all things. Then I decided to switch careers and I got a connect at the US Chamber of Commerce, and got into those whole world of, as they say, “advocacy,” here in DC, you know, jumping into the swamp, lobbying and communications. I really love that.
I was the CEO at the US Chamber for almost 10 years. The great thing there was dealing with every different kind of business you can imagine, every industry out there. I reached the end there, I’d done that long enough.
Tell me about what the US Chamber shifted from doing, because we got in touch because of internet stuff, so talk about how that shifted.
Sure. Again, for those of you who don’t know, the US Chamber is the 800-pound gorilla of lobbying organizations in town.
One of the many.
Yeah, a long base of industrial companies, historic industrial companies, and businesses that everybody would think of as being in a “chamber of commerce,” right? One of my tasks was to really reach out to the tech industry and try to find ways to bring them into the fold of that conversation.
One of the surprising things was how much everybody had in common. Like, the tech guys like to talk about how different they are than traditional businesses, how they have different perspectives. Actually, if you look at one of the things they care about …
They care about taxes, right. The best thing, by the way, was on Veep … do you remember when Julia Louis-Dreyfus meets that Mark Zuckerberg character? He said, “We’re post-tax.” For me, it crystallized everything about dealing with the tech business in that they may not have identified with the Chamber, but their issues were very much the same.
Yes, they suddenly seem to like money all of a sudden, right.
Just realized that.
So as part of that, I think you and I met … I was spending a lot of time in Silicon Valley dealing with those folks. I got a call about what was then the Newspaper Association of America, and it was immediately …
Which used to be a very big, powerful organization.
Used to be big, and then it shrank tremendously and was in some trouble, frankly. They asked me whether I’d be interested and I’m like, well listen, I’m a big consumer of the product. The fact of industries being in transition didn’t really scare me very much. I’d dealt with everybody. I spent two years of my life dealing with domestic manufacturers, right, I mean those guys have been disrupted, okay?
What I saw was an industry where, oddly, even though they’d been disrupted, the audience for the product is bigger than ever. They’re not the coal business. The coal business, people … nice people by the way, I met a lot of people in the coal business. Not a great business. People don’t want what they make as much.
Right. My family is in the coal business, but go ahead.
Again, tough business. Nice people.
You’d be surprised how many people still want coal, but go ahead. My brother’s in it.
But people consume the news product way more than ever. Multiples of peak print era. So I was like, well this is something. This is an intellectual challenge, it’s important, it matters to our civic society, so let’s try to figure out the bridge to that future understanding that we have an audience, and that’s a good thing to build a bridge from.
Right, absolutely. So it was called the Newspaper Association, now it’s not. Explain the shift in tone for what’s it’s supposed to … who does it represent?
2000 publishers, from legacy newspapers to now we have some digital-only news organizations. One thing about newspaper is, whenever you said “newspaper,” people heard “thunk.” It was the thing that hit the driveway. Really, I wanted to have a conversation about the future, the news publishing business in the future. As part of a whole range of changes we were making at the Association, I said, “Listen, we’re news media, our connective tissue is we hire and pay reporters, that’s a good thing, and everybody who does that should be eligible to be in the Association.”
And that’s been like … the news media that’s online, it’s sort of been … just the way the tech people have been fractured, there was an Internet Association and then it didn’t … it just went … These people didn’t like to associate necessarily. Now they’ve hired like crazy, and we’ll talk about Google and Facebook’s lobbying power, which was negligible and now is massive, essentially, in Washington, but they didn’t organize. Like, the online news business people didn’t … it was an adjunct to news, from my experience.
Yeah. If you looked at the legacy publishers, they started out having a separate digital divisions-
They did. Washington Post had one across the river so they didn’t unionize and stuff like that.
Frankly, I was also used to businesses … as you said, you know we’re not joiners.
And we’re new and we’re different and we have a different perspective. The bottom line, what’s become clear is that you have some folks that have a print business — a declining print business, by the way — and some folks who don’t, but otherwise we’re all in the mix together and trying to build a digital future for this business. There are very few business model or other distinctions between the two sets.
Talk about the declining part, the newspaper part. How many members had you had? What’s the makeup of it now?
We haven’t had that many declines in actual membership. Despite what the president says, there haven’t been all that many failures in the news business.
We’ll get to that.
What you have is, for a lot of legacy publishers, a declining print business, which, by the way, is still quite lucrative. What people don’t get is it still pays for most of everything.
Yes it does. It used to really pay, but …
A friend of mine does the print at a very digitally-focused news organization everybody would know about, but he does the print part, and they never talk about the print part. He said, “I just want them to buy me lunch every once in awhile and thank me for paying for everything.” People can get very Callous Sophisticate about their digital news consumption, but please understand, for the most part, it’s still heavily subsidized by print products. But those are declining, and declining steadily.
You have a declining business that still makes money, an exploding digital business, where the audience is many times what it was even in peak print era, that doesn’t make nearly as much money.
If at all.
So it’s managing this runway, if you will, and the runway’s getting closer to the end of how do we build a digital future, understanding that this thing that still makes a lot of money is declining clearly?
What about the numbers of news organizations? You just saw Gannett and then the Cox papers and things like that being sold off to hedge funds and things like that.
Yeah, there’s a lot of consolidation going on. Where we’ve lost is super local, community newspapers, and there’s a statistic that 1,300 local community newspapers have gone away. You have not seen broad-based failures, particularly at regional or major newspapers, but that doesn’t mean it’s pretty, right?
If you look at the financials of the public companies, it’s rough, it’s rough out there. So we haven’t yet lost a lot of major publishers, there’s a lot of consolidation and a lot of cutting going on trying to make it to the future.
Well, let’s talk about that consolidation, because hedge fund companies buying newspaper organizations is not a good formula for success, especially when those hedge fund organizations are known for cutting in order to squeeze out either real estate or whatever they’re looking for, often real estate, actually.
You’ll find the people who are doing better have actually invested in the journalism. Obviously people always talk about the New York Times, and yeah, they’re doing great, but Minneapolis Star Tribune, or what’s happening at the LA Times, they’re reinvesting in the news rooms because it turns out that’s what people want to consume. The folks who just cut, cut, cut, that is a circle-the-drain kind of strategy and it’s not building for the future.
But when these companies do consolidate, what happens, then, to an organization like yours? How do you manage it when you think about … where do you see consolidation going?
Well, there’s going to be a lot of it this year potentially, between what’s happening with Gannett and …
… and Tribune, and all the rest. There’s a lot at play currently. Consolidation in and of itself doesn’t scare me so much because there’s two things. There’s consolidation on the business side, and then, do you still have reporters and journalists in these communities? If consolidation on the business side can help sustain the journalism, then great. If it’s just a means to cut everybody and cut more, then I think that’s gonna end up being a losing strategy over the long run. Also, consolidation now doesn’t mean what it did in the ’80s or ’90s, okay, where …
Right. We’ll talk about that.
It is not like these legacy news publishers have monopoly voices or monopoly power in any circumstance. They are folks who pay reporters and trying to do great journalism and trying to make it work economically while their print is declining and the digital isn’t making a lot of money.
So when you have that … you don’t represent broadcasters.
I do not.
You do not. That’s another whole organization, but they’re news organizations, though.
They’re seeing a very big shift in ownership and everything else. So all means of news delivery is shifting really dramatically.
Yeah, and it’s all going online. If you actually talk to one of our members about their primary online competition, it’s often the local TV station’s website. Now the one thing about TV stations, first of all, we’re all converging into this digital space, but local TV historically, yeah, they did some reporting, but a lot of the reporting they did was out of the local newspaper.
That’s right, they did. I recall being at the Washington Post and enjoying seeing my stories on …
Okay, so … yeah. So as we’re all converging in this digital space. I think one of the challenges for local broadcasting is like if there’s been cutbacks in the local newspaper or newsroom, where are those stories coming from?
We’ve been supportive, by the way. There used to be rules that the local broadcaster couldn’t own the local newspaper, and I actually …
I said, “Listen, as an industry, we’re neither dead nor monopolists, but we definitely can’t be both.” So the idea that they could combine …
That was a long-time issue. I mean, mostly because of Rupert Murdoch, as I recall. It was based around the idea of too much influence in a city, in a big city, that they would own the local news and the local paper.
And by the way, you have monopoly power in things like advertising, which now is ridiculous.
Right, exactly. So how would you assess … and then in the next section I’d like to talk about the big Google and Facebook, essentially, which dominates everything, and how you look at them. How would you assess the market right now that you represent?
How do I assess it financially?
Financially it’s very stressed because, again, these declining print dollars aren’t being replaced by sufficient digital revenue. Interestingly, at the same time, though, we’re more central to the public conversation. People are talking about journalism more than they were even three or four years ago, and our president plays a role in that, but …
And we’ll get to that, too.
There’s an understanding of the importance of journalism in society that just people are more aware of. So in a strange way, while we’re financially stressed, we’re also more central and more relevant than we’ve been.
Right. So when you set it up to where it’s going, the big challenge for all these things, besides figuring out their new business plans, is the ascendance of Google and Facebook, essentially, in the digital advertising market, because that’s where they’re heading into, which is big headwinds.
Absolutely. Two things … well, I got a lot more than two things.
Yeah, we’re gonna get to … we have a whole section for you. Well, let’s set that up.
Listen, in the traditional newspaper sense, we had the most direct relationship you could have with a customer. We made a physical product and we walked it up your driveway and handed it to you while you were in your bathrobe.
But in the digital space, first of all, there are now two companies that now sit between us and our customers in terms of the delivery of content, determining everything about that delivery, but who also then absorb an increasing and accelerating proportion of the digital ad revenue, and by the way, are reaching into localities. Google didn’t used to have advertising products for your local florist, who was advertising in the local paper. Now they do, and so the advertising monopoly is expanding.
At the same time, we actually count on these folks as a delivery and distribution mechanism. It’s a challenge.
Talk about them and how you all look at them, because you’ve been pretty tough on them, and they’ve had a pretty tough year. Talk a little bit about how you see them in the atmosphere, what they’re doing to the atmosphere.
They’re our regulator. The government can’t regulate the news business, First Amendment. But these guys can, and what I mean …
That’s a really loaded sentence. What do you mean by that? They’re our …
They determine which of our content gets delivered to who, in what priority, how it’s monetized, whether we exist on their platforms or not. They stand between us and our audience and determine everything about that relationship.
That power is a threat, certainly, and it has been because we have not had a good interaction with them, but one thing I always try to tell them is, it could be an opportunity. We need better technical solutions for the news business, and they could be a way to deliver great, high-quality content to people. If they have a fake news problem, guess what, we’re in the real news business. So why can’t we have a better, more productive relationship?
I wrestle with that all the time. As you know better than I, in dealing with tech firms for a long time, getting their head wrapped around what could be a socially positive thing that’s hard to do technically. Again, they’re the hammer people and the rest of the world’s a nail, and if it’s not an algorithm answer, they have a real problem with it.
For companies that talk all the time about the amazing things they’ve done for the world, the amazing things they can do, mostly what they tell me is they can’t do stuff. It’s amazing how …
Yes, they become stupid.
It’s like, “That’s impossible, I can’t do it.” It’s like, “You guys just said you can change the world in all of these positive ways.”
Well, not that world.
Yeah. News and journalism and the human world is a difficult, complicated, messy place. Right?
And they don’t really want to touch it if they can help it.
But they’re kind of okay if they roll over it and crush it.
What a nice way of saying it.
What I try to say is, I know this is messy and you’re not going to have perfect solutions, but we can help. We produce good stuff. We actually pay people to go out and do journalism.
And if we can thrive with you and you can improve the sweet/sour ratio of good information to bad, that’s good for you too. Right?
And this isn’t impossible.
There’s two parts to this. There’s, one is they control the means of distribution or the current way people get a lot of their news. Facebook is 97 percent of news in the Philippines, for example. They control the pipes, essentially, but then they also want to own the digital advertising market, which is the lifeblood of how you make the stuff that goes over the pipes. But they don’t want to be a media company that makes the stuff.
And so they allow just any old crap to flow over it, pretty much, and don’t regulate it very much or think about regulating it or provide tools for people to do that. And they essentially leave it to the listener or the reader or the audience to determine what’s crap and what’s not. It’s just they take the best, juiciest parts of the steak and then leave the shit behind. You know what I mean?
No, exactly. Here’s what I ask of them.
First of all, it’s always good to talk about money. Money’s a good thing, and they license other kinds of content. They license music. If Britney Spears is playing in the back of grandma’s video on Facebook, Facebook’s paying for a license for that, share of ad revenue. But the algorithm’s hugely important. They could reward original quality journalism from sources who actually pay reporters over Macedonian teenagers, right? Just serve more of our stuff. Brand suppression is a huge challenge for us.
Listen, when we were younger … there’s always been crazy conspiracy theories. Right?
When we were younger, it was your crazy uncle over the dining room table, right?
That source was different from what was on TV, Walter Cronkite or whoever, and the paper that landed. And those were clearly different sources. In the internet blender, all that stuff is delivered to you exactly the same way.
And they, in every way you could imagine, suppress the origin of the information so that it’s very hard. It puts a big onus on the public to figure out, “Is this crazy Uncle Joe? Is this the New York Times?”
So the brand suppression thing, particularly in a business where trust is a key part of what we’re delivering, is a huge business problem for us. But if you increase the brand, the problem is your relationship then isn’t necessarily with Facebook. People say, “I got my news on Facebook,” I think Facebook likes that. Whereas, “I read the New York Times or the Des Moines Register on Facebook,” that’s a brand interfering with that relationship.
So they suppress our brands. And that’s dangerous. That’s bad for us in the trust business and that’s bad for the public, frankly.
Why do you imagine they do that part? Let’s talk about that idea, distribution, wanting to … And contrast Google with Facebook, if there is a contrast.
There is a contrast. So why do they do that?
By the way, I’m only talking about those two because they are the only two that matter. We can talk about Apple News, which is coming up. But go ahead.
I’m happy to talk about that as well. But yeah, this is …
It’s really a Google and Facebook world.
Right. Why they do that, I think they want you to be attached to their brands and they want you to stick around. And sticking around may mean reading whatever. Whatever keeps you interested.
Whatever is viral.
If it is stuff that may not catch your attention for a minute, there’s all the sort of automated disincentives to that. So I think it is kind of the end point of what were probably rational decisions on their part of keeping people engaged. The two are different. Facebook’s been more difficult and I wrestle with why that is.
I think Google is getting a better sense of the importance of news and the news business. They do control discovery and they control what gets surfaced at the top and what doesn’t. So for example, if you do a breaking news story and it pops up at the top of the search results, but guess how long it stays there? It’s your story, by the way. It usually stays there for about six minutes before it’s been copied and screwed over and people pave priorities over top of it.
So they make a huge number of decisions in the discovery process that impact what you get to see and what you don’t get to see. I’d be happy to compare and contrast more, but I think Google seems to be wrestling with these at a deeper level, or at least currently.
And then Facebook?
Facebook’s a tough one. I haven’t gotten the same sense of real sensitivity to what journalism is and the importance of it to society from them. It’s been a more difficult relationship and I think you’ll hear that commonly from a lot of news publishers. They seem less receptive to comments and complaints, but that can improve. That can get better. And you’d understand their internal culture better than …
I think they could care less. That’s what I would say.
I don’t think it’s anything negative or positive. I think they could care less about a lot of things. They don’t think about it at all.
They don’t have any interest in it, obviously.
Did you ever read Chaos Monkeys?
Yes, I did. I know Antonio and I spar almost, very frequently online. I like him a lot.
There was that one piece in there about Facebook’s engineering enterprise, but there’s this thin layer of communications and legal and other things on the outside that most people interact with. So most people talking to Facebook, you’re not talking to people who can change the machine, change the product.
Mark can change the product, and it’s very hard for us to find the people who can change the machine in ways to help journalism.
Right. Then the third would be Apple News. This is just the distribution part. I’m going to get to the advertising in a minute. And there would be Apple News, which is, how do you look at that?
Let me talk about the current Apple News product. First of all, drives lots of traffic. You’ll just see people’s traffic numbers are off the charts from Apple News.
They have no other business but to drive it. That’s why they have nothing else.
But it also produces almost no money for a whole bunch of … There’s technical advertising and they take cuts.
They’re not in the advertising business.
And they only allow certain ad units or whatever so the common refrain is, drives a lot of traffic and by the way, it doesn’t even pay for the coffee. Right?
So, okay. Actually, my one serious complaint with the current Apple News product is it doesn’t have local news in it. It’s a national and general interest. The only local news is stuff that pops up nationally.
And that is both a cause and effect of one of the dilemmas in local news in the sense that Apple is saying “this is what people want.” Okay. But also, you’re not exposing them to local. It ends up being a de facto suppression of local.
A big challenge that local news has had broadly is what I’d call nationalization of news interest. And this was before Trump, but it’s certainly been accelerated by him, where the public spends relatively more time and attention looking at national and general interest stories as opposed to local than they used to.
Right, which is born by online.
Right. That makes it hard for local news publishers, but that trend is also accelerated by things like Apple News and other products that don’t even surface local news for you.
So it’s kind of okay, some good, some blah, Apple News. They propose or they’re talking about a new subscription layer in Apple News where they would take the $5 out of the $9.99. Really, they’ve surfaced very few details about that so far.
And then the digital advertising market.
It’s now pretty much owned by Facebook and Google and now Amazon sort of slipping in off to the side in terms of products, which is always a big mainstay of local news and national news. How do you look at the digital advertising business? Because while they’re maintaining their platform, they’re already sucking all the, like I said, the juicy bits out.
Yeah. I’m coming from an industry that had huge advertising businesses, but online, in the data wars, we’re never going to have the data to compete with Google and Facebook. And as long as advertising online is geared around who’s got the most data about Kara Swisher, then more and more money is going to flow to those folks. You can scream at the weather, but you’re not going to change it. We’re not going to win a data game.
That doesn’t mean we give up all of our advertising products or we don’t have some unique things to offer advertisers. But the trends toward the money going through Google and Facebook and to some degree Amazon are accelerating. Because you know, it’s a data game.
Right. And then what do you do about that?
Well, I don’t know that we, as news publishers, can do anything about it. I think there are anti-competitive and monopoly concerns.
We’ll get to that.
Yeah, related to that. I think what we also forget is how recent the understanding that they were going to take all the ad money is. It’s really the last three or four years. Until then, other people thought they could build ad-based businesses.
Not me. No, they’re vacuum cleaners. They’ll take everything.
But it became statistically very clear like three or four years ago that, oh, wait a minute. They get all of it.
Right. I used to call them the Borg all the time. I remember they said, “That’s mean, Kara.” I’m like, “No, that’s Borg.” They just will wander the universe sucking up everything that’s valuable.
And frankly, in my membership who are digital only, they’ve obviously faced that front and center. All their digital ad dollars are getting sucked away by Google and Facebook. And by the way, they don’t have a declining print business …
To live on. They suck up everything and then they don’t have the responsibility of the platforms. They don’t have to pay for what it costs to do the news, but they get all the benefits. Like, that’s really, it’s a simplistic way of doing it. I’m sure Antonio would say that, but it really is. They get all the good stuff and none of the bad stuff. And that’s why their businesses are so good, because they don’t have the costs.
Yeah. And also, they’re not doing much to sustain the people who are incurring the costs.
Does that feel like charity to you? Some people say it shouldn’t be charitable. I’m like, well …
Do you mean like their $300 million over three years things?
Yes. What do you think of those?
Charity isn’t going to solve this problem.
Right. What’d you think of that? I was like …
Charity is nice. I mean, what the hell? But that’s not sustainable. We need something that is going to actually be a sustainable relationship over a long time.
Suggestions? Because we’re referring to the hundreds of millions of dollars that Facebook just recently put under news, which I was like, “Why wasn’t it a billion?” But that’s just me. It wasn’t a really substantive amount of money.
Yeah. By the way, a lot of that is for using their products.
Yes, of course it is. Are you kidding? It’s like Microsoft and that pad that they were going to use in third-world countries. Oh, as long as you use a Microsoft product, that sounds great. Of course it is.
To some degree, this is similar to the argument, people think that there are going to be philanthropists who are going to fly in and save everybody, or billionaires or whatever. Listen, actually a number of my members are owned by billionaires. One of the things I’ve learned about them is for the most part, they don’t like to write more checks.
No, they don’t.
They’ll write a check, say, “Here you go.” For the most part, they don’t necessarily require a current return. They’ll say, “You don’t have to send me a check every year.” But they don’t like to write new ones. So that means you still have to build a sustainable thing that pays for itself.
And the same way the charity, charity is not going to sustain this thing. We need a business arrangement that provides value to the people who hire reporters. And then by the way, we then provide you good content so you have less fake news problems. That’s money. That’s data. They hoard all the data about our own readers.
At the same time, they always tell us, “You need a closer relationship with your readers.” This is also another Apple News problem, by the way, which is, “You need a closer relationship with your readers. We won’t tell you who they are, by the way, just as long as you’re cool with that.”
Yeah, exactly. We’re here with David Chavern, the president and CEO of the News Media Alliance. He represents news organizations as they continue to figure out how they live in this new digital media environments dominated by Facebook, Google, and to an extent, Apple, and soon Amazon. What to do? You know, you go to them and say, “We want to provide you a better organization.” They don’t clean up the fake news. They don’t clean up. You’re sort of in a dirty city. I think of it as a real dirty city, like I call it, “The Purge every night.” What can be done? First, there are regulatory ways to do this, right?
Where’s that right now?
Here’s what we’ve asked for, which is we’ve asked for the ability to collectively negotiate with the platforms.
So interesting, under the current antitrust laws, and this is based in a precedent from the booksellers and Apple, the antitrust laws protect Google and Facebook from us. I’ll let that sink in for a minute. They protect Google and Facebook from us banding together. Right?
And so we’ve got a bill that was introduced by David Cicilline, chairman of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, that would allow us to band together as an industry and negotiate collectively with them. And what would we negotiate?
This is what you are doing in Europe, they were trying to do in Europe.
Yeah, their proposals, like that.
They’re doing it, yeah.
Were negotiated over money, data, brand suppression, algorithms.
Right. So they can’t keep you separate.
Exactly. By the way, they negotiate with other people. The music folks get a deal. Where’s the deal for news? But the only way we’re going to get there, apparently, is to be able to band together and have one industry voice.
How likely is this bill gonna pass?
Actually I’m feeling, there’s that old saying, first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they get mad at you, then you win. I think we’re moving from laugh at us to get mad at us slowly.
What happens? Because they’ve got lobbyists coming out the ying-yang.
A lot of lobbyists.
Yeah. These are people who used to disdain Washington. I just want to say, I’ve been on so many receiving ends of them going, “We don’t move in Washington,” and now I’m like, “Is there someone you didn’t suck up? Some horrible lobbyist you didn’t suck up?”
We don’t have much leverage, but we have some.
With politicians, policymakers. That leverage comes from the fact that news is important, right? Nobody’s asking for congressional hearings about fake cat videos. That news is seen as important to the republic in a way that is disproportionate to maybe other kinds of content.
Making the argument that we’re at a precipice with the news business. In a world where print is declining and we need to live off this digital world, we need a better deal from these platforms. And by the way, if we get a better deal, we actually can have a sustainable, good business for the country and ultimately one that would endure to the benefit of the platforms as well.
One is collective bargaining with them, essentially.
The second, cleaning up their platforms.
How does that happen, from a regulatory point of view?
Well, I don’t know that there’s a government answer for …
Well, Section 230.
You don’t get immunity. You have to clean up your dirty, dirty, dirty platform.
Section 230, the interesting things about it is my guys are responsible for …
That’s right. Me, too.
What they put in the paper. They can get sued all the time, right? The only actually parts of our business that have a 230 protection are the comments sections.
We would still moderate those. There’s nobody that doesn’t manage those and moderate those. The 230 played an interesting role in helping the whole ecosystem develop.
What do you imagine should be done with them? I’m very interested in Section 230.
The interesting thing is they’re sort of already half pregnant because they have the 230 protection but also Zuckerberg says at the hearings, “We’re responsible for what happens on our sites.”
Those two things are …
Should bigger organizations not get the protections from 230 and keep them for smaller organizations, for example?
They can do that.
Applying 230 to Google and Facebook currently, particularly as they’ve applied them, I think is ridiculous.
They won’t behave because they don’t have to behave.
It can’t be they’re protected and we’re not. The content creators aren’t.
We want the consumer to be protected from all of you. That’s the whole point.
Yeah. I mean, I don’t see a reason why they get those 230 protections at a given size.
Where is that?
Politically, where that is is there was a crack in the door on 230 …
With the porn and the …
SESTA and FOSTA. There are gonna be new cracks in that door. People are gonna talk about opioid sales and other things. But we need to have a bigger conversation about content and the future of the news business and that’s part of what I’m trying to drive.
Okay. What about in cleaning up that fake news, that’s one way to do it. Do you see any antitrust actions being taken on these companies?
On the advertising side. I understand something like Google and the Google ad side, they own all sides.
Yes, they do.
The sales side, the exchanges in the middle, the buy side, and they also participate in all those markets themselves, as their own independent player.
Mm-hmm. They like that game, that’s a good game.
That’s actually a very good thing.
They’re so smart.
By the way, there have been other industries in the past that have been able to do that. You just can’t do it forever.
Eventually, the antitrust authorities come knocking.
Movie theaters, yeah.
They were allowed to acquire a lot of businesses at times when the federal government was asleep at the switch. There has to be some analysis of the role that they play in the advertising markets. Now, do I think that’s gonna win back ad business necessarily for news publishers?
I’m not necessarily willing to make that argument, but I think it’s obvious that at some point, when you’re getting 80-plus percent of digital ad revenue, somebody’s gotta say, “Hmm, that sounds slightly anti-competitive.”
Right. But is there any move on the Hill to do that? There’s stuff going on in Europe, for sure.
Which goes too far, I think a lot of people feel. The [right to be] forgotten, the copyright stuff.
People are … There’s hints about it in the ecosystem and certainly Dave Cicilline in the House is talking about holding hearings on antitrust in the platforms. This is an area where the US government has to put a lot more investment in terms of developing a new policy, researching the impact of these platforms on these markets, and really bringing some regulation to bear. You just can’t sustain this trajectory.
Does the current mood pushed by President Trump and others hurt that, the idea of fake news? He just did it this weekend again in large caps. The “fake news” … How do you react to that as a …
Yeah, but it’s dangerous. You can groan, like what a silly …
It’s really dangerous. Listen, I represent “fake news,” in his calculation.
I think that rhetoric is horrific and what he does to individual reporters is really bad and dangerous. I don’t think it’s gonna impact these debates about the role of the platforms. What I try to use it as is saying, it’s an opportunity for us to talk about who we really are and the value we really provide. He says this, here’s what we really are.
But you’re on his agenda. You’re talking about whether you’re fake or not.
Yeah, that’s a good point. I also try to be very careful not to get sucked into whatever his latest tweet is about fake news.
Do you think it has a real impact, or is it just him screaming?
No, you see the rhetoric picked up by people. Look at on TV about his rallies and stuff, people chanting “Fake News.” We hear it all the time.
Not so sure those are buyers of newspapers, but okay.
No, but it degrades the public discourse in a serious way and becomes this sort of shutdown response to things, “That’s fake news,” or whatever.
Do you have anything to do about it? You have CNN doing things, you’ve got other … It’s not just newspapers and print organizations but it’s also broadcast networks and other stuff.
Actually, we have a whole public education campaign called Support Real News where we’re out trying to …
Is news literacy enough anymore? Is there enough news literacy?
That’s a really good question.
[Walt] Mossberg is working on this.
It’s really important, but understand, in the internet environment, for the reasons I talked about before, we put a big burden on users.
Much more than ever in the past.
The answer can’t be we’ll just keep educating these people while we shove garbage at them constantly. That can’t be the … You’re never gonna have enough news literacy to overwhelm the garbage.
You need a system that rewards the delivery of good, high-quality content. And yes, have news literacy but also have the responsibility in the platforms about what they deliver and to who.
All right, I wanna finish up talking about the ownership by all these internet zillionaires. You’ve got Marc Benioff, you’ve got Jeff Bezos from Amazon owning the Washington Post, you’ve got Marc buying Time. You have Laurene Powell Jobs buying things. Talk about that. There’s more, there’s more rumors. There’s a rumor … Ev Williams buying things. You have Medium, Ev Williams from Twitter doing Medium. How do you look at all this?
There have always been rich families owning media.
Yes, there are. Indeed.
That’s actually not necessarily a new thing.
Bancrofts. Those Kentucky people.
I think you’ve got examples of where it’s really worked well.
Look at the Washington Post.
Where they really make investments …
This is Bezos.
Yeah, and invest for the long term.
Look what’s happened in LA, Dr. [Patrick] Soon-Shiong is doing some great investments.
Couldn’t get worse there, could it? It’s literally the worst.
That’s one kind of owner I have in this industry. What I’m very careful to say is, listen, let’s not wait to be rescued by the billionaires.
Right. “That’s not my policy!”
First of all, again, you still have to make it sustainable. This idea that billionaires are gonna keep writing checks to fund losses at something, that’s not the billionaires I’ve run into over time.
They can provide long-term strategic support, really carry things through, but that underlying business still has to pay for itself.
Why do you think they’re doing it? You ever think about it? Because it’s either hedge funds or internet billionaires doing this. It’s a really interesting … There’s not some new … Well, I guess Patrick, no, he’s a tech person.
He’s a tech guy. I think they’re doing it out of, for the most part, a real civic sense, because I don’t think the billionaires anyway are doing it to make money. I think they care about journalism. They very much care about their communities. Note that you don’t have millionaires buying chains. They tend to buy in some locality that they care about.
I think usually it comes out of a good civic sense. There’s relatively few examples of somebody trying to drive coverage one way or the other. There’s other things and I think that’s a fine model, but again, it’s gotta pay for itself.
We gotta solve these business structural issues because the billionaires are not gonna save us, believe it or not.
You’re kidding. They think they are. They don’t wanna be taxed, that’s for sure.
I literally posted why the Elizabeth Warren thing was a good explainer and ahh, they went crazy. Oh man. Sometimes I’m like, “How rich can you be?” “There’s not gonna be innovation!” I’m like, I’m certain there’s gonna be innovation whether you have another billion dollars or not. That’s my guess.
Again, all your political figures now are talking about we need the power of philanthropy to save journalism. Listen, philanthropy is fine and good. Yay. But that can’t be shorthand for oh, by the way, there’s no business here.
Right. What do you think the big businesses should be, if you think about them, let’s finish up talking about them. What is promising? Give me two or three examples of what you think is promising. Subscriptions, what?
Oh, subscriptions, definitely. I think that’s a way …
Podcasts. It’s super lucrative, I’ve heard.
They are. Shh, no it’s not. It’s the worst business ever. Don’t get into it.
Subscription is where everybody is focused on. We do need actually more technical solutions for journalism. If I could digress a minute …
If you talk to anybody in tech, they always like models from something else that works. Uber for X, right? Uber for dog walking. There’s this mental model. When it comes to content, they always say Spotify for, right? Spotify for news.
Interesting ideas, but micropayments is the other one. A couple things to keep in mind when news is compared to music, though. First of all, our back catalog is not super valuable. You may have listened to Ella Fitzgerald this morning but something tells me you didn’t read about Jimmy Carter.
We’re one-time-only consumption. You usually don’t read news articles over and over again.
You do not.
And trust. The biggest one is, trust is a huge part of the transaction. You have to know where it’s coming from and have some trust in who developed it. As long as it sounds like Ella Fitzgerald, you’re kinda pretty okay.
Right. That’s a good point.
We’re gonna need technical solutions. You can’t just say Spotify for news unless it really invests in this trust component and builds that attachment to the brand. All these ideas that disintermediate people from the brand are disasters.
Right, I’d agree with you. Are you positive or negative, or how are you feeling about your job?
Oh, positive. More people consume our stuff than ever, like millennials.
They do. I think it’s crap that they need it in little bits or snackable.
No. Actually, if you do data around this, the thing people value most is big, deep, enterprise, data.
That’s really what they value. And millennials consume much more than we did at that age because they can. It’s available easily.
Right, in lots of ways. That’s the difference is understanding lots of ways and reaching people lots of ways. That’s the one thing that a lot of traditional news sources these days don’t get. They stick with just print or something like that.
Now, you get people where they are but it turns out people are much more available than they ever were before.
My kids consume tons of news.
When I started this podcast four or five years ago, something like that, so many people in traditional news sources were like, “You know millennials don’t wanna listen for an hour.” I’m like, “Yes, they do,” and they’re like, “No, they don’t. They like it snackable.” I’m like, “Stop using that word.” They’re like, “Snackable.” I’m like, “Stop. If you do it again, I’ll have to hit you.”
I was like, We’re gonna do it now and we’re gonna see.” I bet they do care about longer, substantive … Treating them like they have a different … There’s certain things. How they consume it and where is different than what … You know what I mean?
My kids, this gets anecdotal, but I know my kids consume huge amounts of long-form content.
Documentaries on Netflix. My kids are both in tech, so they’re into computers and they listen to podcasts like eight hours a day. Back a million years ago when I was in Philadelphia, Terry Gross was a Philadelphia interviewer …
Her original broadcast was two-hour interviews.
Yes, they were.
They were fantastic.
Fantastic. She is still fantastic. She remains fantastic. She is the best, absolutely.
Anyway, David, it was great talking to you. Thank you so much for coming on the show.