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September 29, 2003

Special to PressThink: Interview with Merrill Brown

The news business has always been a closed field that "embraces change and innovation when itís in crisis," says the former editor-in-chief of He also says the walls are coming down.

Few people have had the kind of career Merrill Brown has at the intersection of news, commerce and technology. He was a newspaper journalist for ten years, including Wall Street correspondent for the Washington Post. I met him in the 1980s, when he was editor of Channels, a magazine about television. Steven Brill later hired him to help create Court TV, where he was a senior VP. After consulting gigs with Time, NBC, US West and others, he was named the first editor-in-chief of, when that operation got off the ground. Last year he moved to RealNetworks as a senior executive in charge of online content. (He left that job recently.)

That’s a lot of angles covered. Not only has Brown done journalism at a high level, been a boss of journalists, and built big news operations from zero; he gets paid to think about the news industry along the value chain: from extraction, through processing, to packaging, marketing and distribution. That’s why I wanted to interview him; he just knows a lot. He also published some of my first pieces of criticism in a real magazine. Here’s our exchange. (Fair warning: it’s around 2,00 words.) :

PressThink: Five years ago, I found you saying this: “Salon’s efforts at real original journalism are to be lauded although fundamentally I think they’re merely using the Web to create a publication, rather than pushing Web journalism forward in dramatic ways.” Thinking backwards in Net time, what did you mean, in 1998, when you spoke of “pushing” Web journalism forward, fundamentally?

Merrill Brown: I donít want to come across as critical of Salon or any of the other credible Internet publications, but at the time I was referring to new formats, storytelling techniques, applications, and creative use of multimedia. Their view for the most part has been to use the platform of the Internet to publish timely, provocative journalism. To be sure, they use email and other alert features, encourage community, do real time coverage when feasible and use other techniques that use the Webís unique capabilities in worthwhile ways.

My view however is that at that time and today weíre in a reinvention process, a process of creating new forms of journalism that will engage and inform the web audience. Itís worth acknowledging that when print publications move into video and audio production and when television news organizations produce great print stories for the web, what weíre seeing are expanding horizons for journalism. And when news organizations, writers, bloggers and others utilize inventive applications weíre breaking new ground.

PressThink: That was five years ago. A lot has happened since then. Was web journalism pushed forward in the dramatic ways you spoke of then? Are the fundamentals different? Has realization dawned?

Merrill Brown: Thereís some great work underway in 2003. Itís disappointing that the so many journalism organizations felt they had to cut back post-bubble but at the same time some are still quite expansive. But this is a slow evolutionary process. If you think back to the first five to ten years of TV news youíll recognize slow, steady development of that medium. If you look at this one in 1995-96 and assess it today, there have been many important developments more original, thoughtful coverage, more multimedia, better, more user friendly sites, more large news organizations making their journalists available for Web work, increasing round the clock updates, far better design, and increasing, smart use of interactive applications.

PressThink: You mentioned breaking new ground, expanding horizons for journalism, and reinvention. It seems to me this puts intellectual pressure on journalists and their employers. Of course there are many other pressures—big, real and here now—but this one interests me. First, you have to get smarter about technology, and “become multi-media” in your skills, but that’s relatively straightforward. There’s another part that involves opening your mind to forms of journalism that don’t work like the old forms, with the weblog as a leading example.

Merrill Brown: I have no doubt that the journalism community is assessing and now finally embracing weblogs in interesting ways. While thereís conflict about the role of editing and about separating reporting from opinion, thereís certainly progress. To be sure, itís taken some time. But thatís just one example. I also donít think use of technology is quite so ďstraightforward.Ē The relationship of video to text and how newspaper reporters, for instance, use video and audio to tell their stories is a complex matter. And itís not so simple to learn what flash and other tools can do to enhance storytelling and engage readers and viewers.

PressThink: I stand corrected. It is not a straightforward matter to learn what technology can do for storytelling. Which brings up newsroom learning and the staff’s intellectual capital. Journalism the American way presents some major hazards for the worker’s mind. Newsrooms have never known as good learning environments. They’re too busy! Professional development and training have never been priorities in the news business. This is strange because human capital is increasingly important there, as it is everywhere in the knowledge fields.

How much R and D money goes into the journalism itself, as against the technology for delivering it or marketing of the product? Very little. There is no question that journalists have gotten smarter since Walter Lippmann died in 1974. They have better tools, better educations, better SAT scores. But is journalism, the general practice of it, that much smarter? Certainly if we took local television news in the Los Angeles market and examined it, we would say, no, the news is dumber than ever, but it costs more to make.

Is journalism as a profession ready to open itself to ideas coming at it from the new horizon? Is it open to the people who are not journalists and who suddenly have more information power? Does journalism value its own intellectual capital? You’ve been in executive positions in various news environments, you must have worried about some of these things… so what do you think?

Merrill Brown: Surely important issues. Iím on a number of boards that deal with journalism education and in particular with mid-career education. And the issues revolving around employers and their commitment to this critical priority often produces lots of frustration. But there are many newsroom managements that are committed to education and to creating new opportunities for their teams.

But neither of us can precisely quantify how much good journalism is produced today versus some other period of time. My point of view is that consumers have access to more good journalism than they ever have because of satellites and the Internet. If youíre interested in economics or the Middle East or films or sports and you canít find quality work youíre a lazy news consumer. Newspapers, TV and radio networks, original Internet sites, blogs, news portals, columnist sites and more all provide global, generally free access to an enormous amount of journalism. I read the next days papers in London at dinnertime, Pacific Time. One can listen from anywhere to all news radio from a host of markets.

In terms of new ideas, what news organizations arenít using software, new media forms, wireless services and other innovations more and more every day? Just imagine how much technology innovation is going on in newsrooms today in terms of publishing tools and application development.

Some of whatís going on would have been inconceivable a decade ago. Itís important to point out that newspapers today produce video and audio, expanding staffs to do and offering cross training. Broadcast and cable news organizations are in effect in the print business through their creation and distribution of text stories on the web. You donít often think of NBC or CNN in the print business. They are. And, itís a good thing. Many but not all newspapers and television networks break stories 24 hours a day on the Internet.

Nonetheless, itís enormously frustrating that these changes take time, often too long. Itís taken years for national and regional newspapers to tiptoe into 24 hour a day updates. But increasingly news organizations are embracing outside thinking and ideas. It is historically a closed field that generally embraces change and innovation when itís in crisis and even then only from within the ranks of the industry. But todayís competitive realities, revenue challenges and new distribution opportunities are bringing down old walls.

PressThink: That’s a key point. Even in crisis, the field looks within. My last question is about audience empowerment, but it’s more of a rant I’d like you to react to. Tools and technologies that were once so capital intensive only media companies could afford them are now within practical reach of the people formerly known as “the audience.” Look what file-sharing has done to the music business: chaos. There, the industry is in the position of restraining new technology via legal challenge while the audience pushes forward with what’s now possible.

Everywhere we look we see something at least similar. Cheap digital cameras and desktop editing systems are pushing the entry costs way down in TV production, and the Web is there as a potential distributor. The weblog is like a personal news magazine, available to anyone who wants one, and the potential audience is worldwide. While journalists and news companies try to get their minds around multi-media and “convergence,” typically they are still thinking of the people at home as consumers, who, it is universally acknowledged, have a far wider range of choices.

But the radically new thing is that the people at home can be producers of content. This seems to me a different puzzle, and trickier. You could have your eye on new competitors in the industry, and overlook entirely that the industry itself has competitors: the great volunteer army of content providers emerging on the Web. You can tell yourself, “there will always be a need for trained gatekeepers, and that’s us.” But this could be complacency on a cosmic scale. True, gatekeepers are needed in an age of instant information abundance. That doesn’t meant people will want you swinging the gates, especially if you’re still seeing them as “consumers,” like in the previous age of media. You could remain head gatekeeper at a news park that no one visits any longer because a better one opened up. It’s possible.

You, I think, are more optimistic than I am about the news business learning to see the world differently. Can it adapt to technology? Yes, and it will become multi-media as a matter of course. But when the tools you once commanded are down at Radio Shack, that isn’t about adapting or adopting. That’s an overturning. Do I exaggerate? What am I overlooking? And how do you assess this side of “new” media?

Merrill Brown: Youíre exaggerating a bit, yes. I donít believe the fundamentals of journalists reporting the news from City Hall, world capitals, combat zones and ballparks is going to be replaced by a new form of fact gathering. Experience, resources, and access will continue to have value. That said, what those reporters do with the facts and how theyíre presented will change. And how that reporting is processed and ultimately supplemented, analyzed, corrected, challenged, and shared is changing very rapidly.

Low cost cameras, cell phone camera capabilities and the like are bringing an enormous amount of content into the news flow. A robust public Internet exists today to bring that content as well as blogs and other news material directly to the public without requiring intermediaries and without the historic distribution systems and costs which previously bottlenecked information sharing. There are today many voices in a position to be talking about city council meetings or congressional debate with the news coverage just the starting point. To be sure, more coverage, more debate, more multimedia.

I will continue to believe that the empowerment that will accompany all that new content and discourse will reinvigorate both media and democracy. Nevertheless, the creative process of producing a two minute video story for television, or of writing a comprehensive 800 word news story creates real value for consumers. That work wonít simply disappear into a maze of sites or networks.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 29, 2003 9:11 AM