BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Len Downie, Jr., co-author of the book "The News About the News," what got you interested in doing a book?
LEONARD DOWNIE, JR., CO-AUTHOR, "THE NEWS ABOUT THE NEWS: AMERICAN JOURNALISM IN PERIL": Well, I've spent 37 years of my life working in the news business at "The Washington Post," and in recent years had been accumulating material about the business because I could tell we were coming to a crossroads, with changes in ownership, changes in technology, changes in cultures. And it turned out that Bob Kaiser, who used to work with me as managing editor of "The Post" and is now an associate editor of the paper, had been thinking along the same lines and brought it up one day, said he wanted to write a book about this subject. And I said, "Well, so do I," and we teamed up.
LAMB: How did you go about it?
DOWNIE: We combined research material, which we both had accumulated a lot of files and then we divided up how we were going to do the reporting. And he focused on network news, although the two of us interviewed all the three network anchors together, which was great fun. And we focused together on newspapers, obviously a subject we know well. And we interviewed a lot of editors of newspapers across the country. And then I looked at local television news, going to stations around the country, watching how local television news is actually made, coming to understand that business, and also on Internet news.
LAMB: From your perspective, what's the most important thing that you found after doing all that research?
DOWNIE: I think that we're at a really critical time in the news business in this country and that the American people ought to know that, ought to understand why in order to help make things go in the right direction. In one way, this is the best time for news ever. The best news organizations are better than ever. The people who work for them are better educated, better trained, more expert in the things they cover. And thanks to the Internet, research can go more deeply and further around the world than ever before. And the best news organizations can be disseminated on the Internet around the world, as "The Washington Post" is, for example, and "The New York Times" and CNN, and so on.
But at the same time, too many news organizations -- in fact, more all the time -- in newspapers, the networks themselves and local television stations, the news is getting worse rather than better because of changes in ownership that created these large conglomerates that own many newspapers -- most newspapers now, and TV stations, and the networks themselves -- who don't care as much about news as they do about their next quarterly profits, and also changes in the American culture, where until before September 11th, we'd gone through a long period where I think people felt pretty comfortable, good times economically before the recession, and relative peace before September 11th. And at least the people who run news organizations thought that people weren't so much interested in serious news anymore. And so celebrities and kind of light things became covered more than serious news.
LAMB: Can you remember your first newspaper?
DOWNIE: My first newspaper?
LAMB: That you ever read.
DOWNIE: Oh, that I ever read. Yes, it was the "Cleveland Press" in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Cleveland "Plain Dealer."
LAMB: How old were you?
DOWNIE: Oh, I was probably around 9, 10, because in elementary school, I was fortunate to have an English teacher who started a student newspaper when I was in the fifth grade. And I started working on that and thought this was the greatest thing in the world, so I began reading the Cleveland newspapers more carefully, as a result. And I started carrying them as a newspaper carrier.
LAMB: Why did you think it was the greatest thing in the world?
DOWNIE: That's hard to say. I just enjoyed it so much since I was 10, 11 years old. I guess partly it's the sense of public service, even in school, that you're telling other people something that they want to know. You might be making their lives better through the information that you're giving them, but also the very acts of reporting, writing and editing are just great fun to me. It's a craft.
LAMB: What kind of a family did you grow up in?
DOWNIE: A family of four sons. I'm the oldest. My father was a salesperson. I guess he started as a milkman first, but wound up being a vice president of sales of a number of companies in the food business. My mother was a stay-at-home mother, coping with these four boys. And from my parents I know that I've gotten a really strong sense of honesty and service. They're wonderful examples to me that way.
DOWNIE: It's just -- well, I can remember, for instance, when I was, I don't know, 8, 9, 10 years old, I had gone to the store around the corner for my mother and they'd given me the wrong change, which I didn't know until I got home. My mother was very careful with money, and she counted the change and realized they gave me $5 extra and sent me straight back to the store to return that $5, for example.
LAMB: How old were you when that happened?
DOWNIE: Oh, 8 or 9 years old.
LAMB: Now, what about the family, the other three brothers? Did they get in this business?
DOWNIE: No, no. I'm the only one. My dad would have been a newspaper man if it hadn't been for the Depression, I'm certain. He worked on his high school newspaper in Cleveland, Ohio. He contributed poems and stories to the local newspapers there. But the Depression came along. He couldn't go to college. He had to go right to work. And he's always loved writing sales talks and things ever since. He might have been in the business. But my brothers are -- are -- one's a labor lawyer and -- actually -- excuse me, a labor executive, not a labor lawyer, in a steel company. And my next brother runs restaurants. And unfortunately, my youngest brother, who was a very dedicated school teacher, died a few years ago of liver problems.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
DOWNIE: Ohio State University because they gave me lots of scholarship money to study journalism there and enabled me to work at the university and elsewhere around Columbus Ohio, get myself through school. I was the first in my family to go to college.
LAMB: How was it that you got the scholarship money?
DOWNIE: It was a competition, actually. The Cleveland, Ohio, newspapers then -- they don't do this anymore -- along with the Board of Education, had a scholarship competition for high school journalists. They would pick the most -- what they felt was the most outstanding high school journalist, and they got a scholarship to Ohio State University that paid all the tuition -- not the room and board but the tuition.
LAMB: When you think back on Ohio State and journalism, what did it teach you?
DOWNIE: We had a very realistic student newspaper there called "The Lantern," published five days a week, 30,000 copies every day because of the size of the Ohio State campus, late deadlines, just like a regular morning newspaper. We closed the paper at one o'clock at night. And that experience was invaluable, doing real journalism on a campus.
We also had a faculty that included a lot of ex-newsmen and even some people that had worked in newspapers, worked on the faculty for a while, went back to newspapers, so the instruction was very realistic. And the man who was then the director of the school of journalism, the late George Kienzle, is the person that found me my summer internship job at "The Washington Post." So I'm very grateful to Ohio State.
LAMB: What year was that?
DOWNIE: That was in 1964.
LAMB: Have you ever worked at another newspaper?
DOWNIE: Not another -- not professionally, no.
LAMB: So what makes a great newspaper?
DOWNIE: A great owner, first of all, an owner dedicated to public service in addition to profitability -- as the Graham family has been all along, when they owned the newspaper outright and now that they have the controlling shares in the public corporation -- a set of news values that is shared in the news organization, being dedicated to outstanding coverage to and to community service, and talent, which the owners have to pay for, to try to hire the best and brightest people who can achieve the news values of the organization.
LAMB: How many great newspapers are there in the United States?
DOWNIE: Oh, I hate to put an exact number on it, but we could name a number right now. Certainly, "The New York Times," "The Wall Street Journal," and I like to think "The Washington Post." The "Los Angeles Times" is rapidly improving again under new ownership and with an outstanding new editor and managing editor. There are smaller newspapers that do really good -- good work. In the book we talk about the Raleigh "News and Observer," for example, the newspapers across the country owned by a family whose name I'm forgetting at the moment, are improving the...
LAMB: The "News and Observer" is owned by McClatchy?
DOWNIE: I think they were recently bought by McClatchy. McClatchy's a very good owner. They also own newspapers in California, and they recently bought the newspaper in Minneapolis, as well. And they improve newspapers when they buy them, unlike some large chains, where the newspapers don't improve when they're bought. Instead, they're squeezed for maximum profits, and their journalism gets worse.
The family's name I was trying to remember was the Newhouse family, who owned a number of newspapers across the country for many years that were relatively mediocre. And something went on inside that family, generational change or whatever, but they have dedicated themselves to improving their newspapers, hiring outstanding editors and giving them the money to build good newsrooms. And all those papers are improving, in Portland and Cleveland and New Orleans and New Jersey.
LAMB: A couple days ago -- I brought with me the Howard Kurtz story that -- in your own newspaper. What job does Howard Kurtz have for you?
DOWNIE: Howie -- Howie Kurtz covers the media for "The Washington Post."
LAMB: He writes about your book. By the way, did you talk to him about this?
DOWNIE: He interviewed me. He did the story independently. The way Howard operates -- because we have to make certain that he can cover "The Washington Post" objectively, along with the rest of the news business -- is that by and large, he assigns himself, works with assignment editors who are out of the regular chain of command, so that we don't cause him to write nice stories about us or stop him from writing stories about our shortcomings.
LAMB: He says this. I want to read the whole paragraph. He says, "It's unusual for two newspaper executives" -- Kaiser is now associate editor -- that's Bob Kaiser, who wrote the book with you -- "to assail their own profession while in office, rather than from the safety of retirement."
When you read that, what was your reaction?
DOWNIE: Well, he's right. My wife has been warning me that there may be social gatherings where I'll be less popular in the future than I was in the past as a result of the parts of the book that are critical about various news organizations. But thanks to the support of Don Graham, the CEO of "The Washington Post," and Bo Jones, the publisher of the newspaper, while they don't agree with everything in the book, because they look at sometimes things from a more business point of view than I do, they supported us in doing this book while I continued to work at the paper.
And I should add the views in the book are ours alone and not the Washington Post Company's, even though I'm still working there.
LAMB: Well, your reporter, Howard Kurtz, says, "It doesn't much criticize `The Post.' Indeed, the authors say they are probably blind to many of its shortcomings, except for its embarrassing failure to break the Iran-Contra story."
DOWNIE: That was during the Reagan administration, when they were swapping sales of arms to Iran for the potential release of hostages secretly and then using some of the profits of that secretly to support the Contra rebels in Latin America that were fighting communist regimes there. And all of this was done without telling the American people, without consulting the Congress -- in fact, some would argue in violation of some of the restrictions Congress had placed on aid to the Contras.
And this went on for a long time without the news media knowing what was going on. And even when we began to sniff around it and discover something of what was going on, we missed the main story until a newspaper in the Middle East actually broke part of the story, the exchange of arms for hostages. And then the Reagan administration itself acknowledged publicly for the first time that they had been siphoning money off for this to pay for the Contras. That was not revealed by the media. We were slow to that story.
LAMB: Howie Kurtz writes, "The book sticks it to many news organizations, particularly the television networks." Do you agree with his account?
DOWNIE: Well, I wouldn't like to say it sticks it to it. In fact, some people have noticed that we -- this is not just an attack on news organizations that we don't think are up to snuff, but rather tries to examine from the inside and take our readers inside them to understand how they actually work and to see both their strengths and their shortcomings. And we do conclude that network news has been declining in quality steadily over the last few decades. And at the same time, the audience of the evening network news programs has been declining also.
LAMB: "In fact, the book often drips with disdain for electronic journalism. Most real news,' Downie and Kaiser declare, `comes from the newspapers.'"
DOWNIE: Well, again, I wouldn't -- that's Howie's word, "disdain." I'm not disdainful of the fine folks that I met in television news. However, they are working under very difficult circumstances these days. They have relatively small news budgets.
Most people don't realize that, for instance, here in Washington, D.C., the WRC Channel 4 local news operation, owned by NBC, which is one of the best in the country, one of the best local news operations in the country, has at any given time only about 10 reporters covering Washington on an average day. "The Washington Post" has more than 110 reporters covering Washington on an average day. So there's no way that Channel 4 can cover the city adequately, and yet it makes 50 percent profits, approximately, every year -- it sends back to NBC. It seems to me some part of that 50 percent profit could be invested in giving that fine news organization more reporters to cover the news better.
LAMB: How did you go about interviewing the three commercial network anchormen?
DOWNIE: Well, Bob Kaiser and I know all three anchors, and we told them about this book project. We know that they themselves are ambivalent about what's happened to network news over the last years and are trying hard to keep its standards as high as possible on their particular shows. So Bob had this interesting idea of picking out newscasts, one newscast for each anchor that they had each done 20 years ago, not long after they had taken over their anchor chairs, when the news looked very different.
It was full of much more serious news coverage now. There were more stories in each half hour of news because there were fewer commercials and there was more foreign news. There was more national government news. More of the reporters were beat reporters that, you know, stayed on the same beat day in and day out and were experts on their subjects than now.
So we showed them those tapes, each anchor the tape of that broadcast, at the outset of our interview and asked them to talk to us about what changed. And it turned out to be the great key to unlock their feelings about what's been happening to network news.
LAMB: And how would you characterize that?
DOWNIE: In some cases, they thought that the changes were inevitable because technology's changed and life has changed in the United States. In other cases, they thought some of the changes were good. Tom Brokaw thinks that NBC's focus on a lot of lifestyle and medical coverage is a good change in network news. But there also was concern expressed, I think, probably by each one of them, but particularly by Dan Rather, and to some extent Peter Jennings, about the things that were missing from their broadcasts now, particularly more foreign news coverage and serious government coverage that people need in order to be informed citizens.
LAMB: Were you at all surprised by -- and I'm going to read some of the quotes -- some of the things they said about their own organizations?
DOWNIE: Well, since I knew them individually, I realize that they can -- because they are outstanding news people, I know that they are sometimes self-critical about their organizations, so I wasn't entirely surprised. But since they were on the record and it was going to be in a book, I wasn't certain that they would be that frank.
LAMB: Peter Jennings is talking about some of the shows like ABC's "20/20," and he says that these shows do some very good things, but then he goes on to say, "They now do too much of the same thing. They're very serious bottom feeders, and therefore a whole chunk of the audience has just gone away and done other things." "Jennings said" -- this is what you write in the book -- "he feared that many of those viewers also," quote, "have left the evening newscasts because they're just fed up with television.'"
Explain. I mean...
DOWNIE: Well, first the news magazine shows, the so-called news -- I don't know why they're called news magazines. They do look like magazines, but not necessarily news magazines. All three anchors clearly were not pleased about them because they called themselves news, but in fact, are mostly about celebrities and crime and -- and relatively sleazy kind of news coverage, and that bothered all the anchors.
But it also bothered, for instance, Dan Rather that increasingly, network interest and resources are shifting from the evening news to those programs, which are cheaper to produce and therefore make more money. And he can discern a kind of impatience with his bosses with the high cost of still putting on the evening news. And you just read Peter Jennings's quote. He doesn't really approve of these shows at all, doesn't really think of them as news shows, like his own news show.
LAMB: Did you ask them why they participate in...
DOWNIE: Dan Rather never really told us that. He obviously is on as a host of "48 Hours," which often has the kind of news that he wouldn't want to have on his own evening news show, and he never really did say why he continued to participate. One can imagine that when you're paid a good sum of money by your network to do by and large what they ask you to do that you go ahead and do it.
Each of them also is still able to use their influence, however, to make certain that in each year, they do put on shows that they really want to put on. Peter Jennings, for example, has an agreement with ABC that he gets to put on a certain number of documentaries and town meetings and other kinds of shows that he feels contribute to public knowledge.
And the question we asked each of the anchors is, "What happens after you're gone?" Maybe the Peter Jennings successor won't have the kind of clout he has to make certain he's able to put shows on the air that he thinks are good for the American people, as well as to edit his own news show the way that he wants to. What will happen after they're gone?
And we didn't feel we really got a satisfactory answer from any of them. Obviously, it's always hard to think about your own succession. And when we talked to other people at the networks, they said, "Well, we're grooming" -- you know, "We're grooming other anchors," and so on. But they don't have the same kind of news backgrounds that these three gentlemen have, and I wonder what is going to happen to the evening news when they retire, which probably will happen in 5 to 10 years because they're reaching that age.
LAMB: Here's a quote from Dan Rather. Quote, "We have gone from being the number one priority to being a sort of a bastard child. We cost money. We don't make nearly as much as the others." But you show some figures in here where they were making as much as $300 million every year.
DOWNIE: The NBC News Network itself makes hundreds of millions of dollars, all of NBC News, but that includes those magazine shows, which are low cost and high revenue. The evening news itself, as a part of that, is probably not nearly as profitable, although the NBC evening news is probably the most profitable. It has the highest ratings. But it would not surprise me -- we don't know the internal figures. They don't release them. But it would not surprise me if the evening news shows themselves are not making less money, and it's the magazine shows and the "Today" show in the morning on NBC that are making the big bucks.
LAMB: Tom Brokaw quoted here as saying, "I'm still waiting for one of those Washington talk shows to deal with a fact."
LAMB: But again, I mean, these -- you're talking about people that participate in all these programs. Why would they say that about their own programs?
DOWNIE: Well, they don't participate in the Washington talk shows. Obviously, other people in the networks participate in those, and there might be some disagreement, then, about their quality. I think that each of the anchors feels that they are doing the most they can within their sphere of influence in the network to keep the news as high quality as possible. Bob and I probably would conclude that they don't succeed these days as much as they succeeded in the past because there is such pressure on them to be popular, to have high ratings for their shows.
LAMB: But you also point out that their money that they get has gone up and up. You point out that Dan Rather, when he started, got $2 million, and it's now up to, what, $9 million or $10 million.
DOWNIE: Right. This is a touchy subject with them. We asked each one of them if the high salaries they're being paid doesn't take away from money that could be invested elsewhere in the news product. And you know, while they each thought that they were -- you know, that they earn their money, they didn't disagree that that might be a possibility. But they didn't -- they don't like talking about their own compensation that much.
LAMB: You write some about Tim Russert and the way he does "Meet the Press."
DOWNIE: Not the way he does "Meet the Press." Well, yes, I'm sorry. Some part -- when Tim Russert is asking questions on "Meet the Press," he's terrific. He prepares himself well. He asks really good questions. Our concern about Tim Russert is the other aspects of what happens to a big television news personality like that. The expressions of opinion that sometimes come through on those talk shows by him or the way in which he -- who he might bring on the show, like Matt Drudge, who I don't really regard as a real journalist, or the ways in which -- in his conduct, for instance, of the presidential debates, he would insert himself and his agenda into the news, making himself a focus of the news.
Now, Tim strongly disagrees with this. We let him, as well as the other people we write at length about in the book, see what we wrote about them before publication. And he feels we're being unfair in pointing those things out, which I think actually makes our point, that when you become such a big star, it is hard to remain a news person, aside, an observer on side, as opposed to a performer yourself, which I think Tim has become.
LAMB: You've been at "The Post" since '64, so you were there during Watergate. And then you were there during the movie, "All the President's Men." What role did "The Washington Post" play in the celebrity journalism thing -- Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein?
DOWNIE: Well, I don't think we sought this out. In fact, Ben Bradlee would tell you that it was kind of amazing to him, and he has some almost regrets about it. But yes, certainly, the celebrity achieved by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and "The Post," particularly through the movie, "All the President's Men," and the whole Watergate story, has had a large role to play in the celebrification of journalists since then.
LAMB: Page 240 in your book, you write this. "Declining television coverage of politics and government dragged down the country's civic life. Voters had less information when they went to the polls. National and local politicians complained bitterly that it was impossible to discuss important issues or launch serious new ideas on broadcast television because the networks and stations had no vehicles other than Sunday morning talk shows that permitted extended discussion of political or policy topics. When the medium that most Americans rely on for news reduces its coverage of government and politics, government officials and politicians can safely conclude that the country is paying less attention to them and to what they are doing. That can easily lead them to misbehave."
DOWNIE: I think that's a very, very serious problem. When you watch the network news and local television news during a campaign, you may see the glitter of the campaign, the performances that the politicians want to have seen on television and the backdrops that they want to have seen on television, but in terms of serious discussion of the issues and serious questioning of the politicians about their stands on the issues, very little of that takes place anymore on network television or local news. They devote very little time to political and government coverage.
And so instead, I think that the voters' primary impression of the campaign from watching television comes from the ads, which the networks, and particularly local stations -- most of it's sold to local, bought by local, sold by local stations to the politicians. The ads are everywhere during the advertising portions of the show and bring in a lot of money to the stations. But by their very nature, the ads are misleading and very negative and I think create a distorted impression of the campaign for the people watching them that is not balanced or offset in any way by sufficient news coverage on those stations.
LAMB: But what about the chicken and egg problem? A lot of these candidates won't even submit to questions on television anymore.
DOWNIE: I think if television -- well, television can still go out and cover what they say in their public utterances. Television can still do stories about the issues in the campaign. They can go out and talk to voters. They can do all the things that, in fact, newspapers are doing, particularly the larger metropolitan dailies do when they cover a campaign.
LAMB: Does it have to be done on the three commercial television networks that have been around from the beginning of television, or can it be done on cable?
DOWNIE: It certainly can be done on cable, and to a great extent, the three television networks cede more political coverage to cable all the time. Most of the coverage of the political conventions, for instance, now takes place on cable. Andy Lack at NBC will tell you, "Oh, we cover the conventions," but it's on MSNBC, not on NBC, which would be fine except for the fact that still many more Americans watch NBC than watch MSNBC. That may change over time, but it means that only a small minority of Americans are being exposed to a lot of this political coverage right now. And local television stations are still the primary place people go for local news, and it's -- after all, elections are more important locally than nationally, even, with the local candidates for local office and for Congress, and so on, and for state government. And that is where the coverage is the least. The three television networks cover the national campaign, give more time to that coverage than local stations give to local campaign coverage.
LAMB: Eighty-five million people in this country have cable or satellite, and it's a matter of flipping the dial from NBC over to something else. What's the responsibility there?
LAMB: Why does NBC have a responsibility to keep giving you more and more politics when it's right over here on Channel 12?
DOWNIE: Right. Well, the -- you know, the viewers are watching the networks because that's where the entertainment shows are and the sports shows that they like to watch. That's currently the condition. You know, that may gradually change over time -- HBO, for instance, taking some of the entertainment audience away, and so on. But as long as the networks are presenting and the local television stations are presenting news programs on the air, I believe they should cover the news thoroughly and responsibly, the way all news organizations do. And if there's competition from cable for that coverage, fine, and that will give viewers more choices, as you're saying. But you know, they make a lot of money from those news shows. They should present full coverage of the news.
LAMB: When do you think the American people were served the best by the news business?
DOWNIE: Well, we certainly have seen it since September 11th, beginning on September 11th -- shows how the media can perform at its very best. The network news shows covered the events of September 11th and the impact of them over the next several days continuously, without interruption by commercials, without interruption by entertainment programs. After having pulled back most of their foreign correspondents from abroad, they sent people back out again to cover the story in the field. They've done a very good job of covering terrorism and the war since September 11th.
Chain-owned newspapers that had not been devoting very much news space to national or foreign coverage added space to newspapers for this coverage. I think we saw the news media at its best immediately after September 11th.
I'm afraid we're now seeing people going back to -- the news organizations going back to previous habits now. Most of that extra space is gone from newspapers. A lot of the morning television coverage, in particular, has gone back to relatively frivolous stuff, celebrity news and cooking and fashion, and so on, and away from serious news again. And to some extent, the evening news shows, the balance also seems to be shifting back to less serious news coverage than we saw at the height of the coverage of September 11th.
LAMB: What's your suspicion as to why people are -- why either people in the news business are doing this or why people in the public aren't watching serious stuff.
DOWNIE: Well, I'm not sure that -- you know, if you can't -- you talked about chicken and egg earlier. If you're not given good serious news coverage to watch, you can't watch it. Certainly, there is a belief in the people that run television news organizations and many newspapers that people are no longer interested in serious news coverage. And there may have been that, to some extent, before September 11th. People had forgotten how interconnected they were with the rest of the world and had forgotten that there are economic and other problems to be attended to in this country.
However, I'm not certain that that interest in serious news went as low as the people who run many news organizations thought it had. I mean, I talk, for instance, in the book about my own decisions about the untimely death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. -- certainly, a dashing, interesting celebrity figure, but not somebody who on his own had accomplished anything in public life, who hadn't really contributed anything in particular to the country. And yet his death was treated as top of the front-page news in all newspapers, including ours.
I went along with the flow. As I look back on it, I think that was a disservice to our readers. It should have been somewhere on the front page because people were interested in it, but it should have been in proportion to the other serious news that was occurring at that same time.
So we can't just blame the audience for things. We can't just say, "Oh, they don't want to see foreign news." Dan Rather told us he wasn't allowed to use the word "foreign" on the air anymore because it would be a turn-off to his audience.
Well, I just don't believe that. It seems to me that if you are presenting serious news in an engaging way, people will pay attention to it. If you point out to them that when most of their cars and appliances are made overseas and when a number of Americans jobs have gone overseas because of what's happened to the world economy, there are ways to make international news, for example, interesting and important to people.
LAMB: Go back to the television thing. After all these years, there used to be only three networks, and now there are a couple hundred choices. And a lot of people abandoned the networks...
LAMB: ... and the news. What is it the public sees that we don't see?
DOWNIE: Well, I think the public is seeing, when they see serious news choices and other choices of special interest to them -- all-sports channels, all-financial news channels, etcetera -- that certain parts of the public will follow their special interests off to one of the new cable alternatives. The mass audience is still, however, with the major networks and with broadcast stations, even though they receive them on cable. That still is where they spend the majority of their television-watching time. So I think there's still a serious responsibility there to cover the news well.
Now, over the years ahead, it may be that cable will change this balance and that, you know, these other choices will be more robust for people. One caveat with that, though, is that so far, the cable organizations cannot yet afford the news organizations to cover the news as well as the broadcast networks ought to be. Probably CNN has the largest number of resources, but it's still unable to cover the news in the same sophisticated fashion as the broadcast networks do.
What I like about cable television is how often it will break out of whatever its set programming was to be to show you a news event as it's going on. Now, sometimes it's trivial stuff that -- you know, that bothers me, you know, some shooting of two people somewhere in Kansas, and they're following in a helicopter. They're following some police cars around.
But there are a lot of other significant things, particularly as we've seen since September the 11th -- presidential press conference, Pentagon briefings, things going on in Afghanistan, and so on -- where the fact that they will devote air time to showing you the news as it actually occurs, which the networks -- major networks cannot afford, is a real service to the American people.
LAMB: What's your dream when it would come to television, though, and news? What do you think they should do?
DOWNIE: I would think that they ought to be able to devote more resources to news coverage, hire more reporters with more expertise in the subjects they're covering and do a better job of covering the broad expanse of news that they ought to be covering. Obviously, on a national level for the networks and local communities for local television.
And I do not see the changes caused by cable changing the world soon enough -- that isn't necessary for the networks and local television stations to do. And we saw some local television news operations around the country that do it better, that do not always lead the news every night with the latest murder, that do not insist that every reporter has to be live on the street in front of an empty courthouse building at eleven o'clock at night, but rather use that reporter time in actually reporting another story to present to viewers. And those news organization -- those television stations have good audiences.
We found, for instance, that some of the best local television news had audiences just as large as some of the worst of local television news. So you can't tell me that audiences don't want good local news.
LAMB: I don't remember the figures exactly -- maybe you can help me -- that WRC, the local station here, you say, made something like $120 million.
DOWNIE: I don't remember the exact figure, either, but yes, over $100 million.
LAMB: In news.
DOWNIE: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: And that they are losing audience.
DOWNIE: Yes, they are. Yes.
LAMB: So what's the message here?
DOWNIE: Well, I think the message is -- well, I'll turn to Bob Long, who we quote in the book. He's the news director of WRC television, and a good one, who told us that he went to his NBC bosses after September 11th and said, "We have a lot of new viewers now." Actually, viewing went up after September 11th, after this decline. He said, "And a lot of them are young viewers and they're not necessarily going to stay with us because they don't have the habit of watching local news. But they've been watching it now because something's going on that matters to them. Give me the resources to cover more of the important news like we're covering this story, so we can hold onto those viewers." And we're waiting to see if he's going to have more resources and be able to improve his coverage as a result.
LAMB: Why do you think that the young people are reading less, watching less news, seem to care less about it? What is it about their generation that maybe you didn't (INAUDIBLE).
DOWNIE: I think there are a many different circumstances. There certainly are many more things competing for their time, not just news media, entertainment media, all those channels on television, everything that's available on the Internet, video games, just so much more to occupy young people's time nowadays. And their world is faster. They grew up with computers and MTV. Everything moves faster for them. Their attention spans are shorter, to some extent.
What's interesting is -- however, is that they're beginning to read more news on the Internet. At times like 9/11, they are watching more news on television and reading more news in the newspaper. There are certain subjects, not surprisingly, subjects like employment and technology that are important in their lives, that they do come to the news media for. So I think it -- to some extent, it is beholden on us to make certain that we're providing them the news coverage that they need in the formats that they will watch and listen to in order to attract them to the news media.
I'm still optimistic about them and their interest in news as they grow older, and I think that one of the good developments is the Internet. News organizations like all the networks and all the major newspapers and local newspapers are able to provide on the computer, where these young people live, lively, interesting news presentations now on our news sites. And that is beginning to attract younger people, and I think that might be a way to bring them into news as they grow older.
LAMB: What's "accountability reporting"?
DOWNIE: Accountability reporting's holding the many people and organizations and institutions in our society that have power over the rest of us accountable to us. We're talking about government, obviously, big corporations, big charities like the Red Cross.
After September 11th, we discovered that the Red Cross collected more blood than it knew what to do with. It had to throw it away, which is really sad for the people that thought they were contributing their blood to a good cause. They collected all this money that people were showering on the Red Cross with hopes that it would be properly used for the victims of the terrorist attacks, and initially, there was a lot of confusion over what was going to happen to that money.
Well, "The Washington Post" led the way in writing a lot of stories about what the Red Cross was up to, and they made changes. They made changes in their organization and changes in the way in which they've been handling their donated blood and their donated money as a result of that coverage. We held them accountable to the people that contributed that money and that blood. That's accountability reporting.
LAMB: Well, Bill O'Reilly will tell you on his program that he's single-handedly responsible for forcing the Red Cross to move along with their contributions to the people that, you know, were killed and the families left over September the 11th.
DOWNIE: He may well have contributed to it. I did not see that particular show or know where that fit in with our coverage. But probably a number of news organizations were responsible because in this competitive world, when you notice somebody's reporting something that looks like it's important, you'll want to get into that reporting, too. And I know, for instance, "The New York Times" did good stories about the fund-raising for the victims in New York of the World Trade Center crash.
LAMB: You write about the story that "The New York Times" did, Doug Frantz's story on the Church of Scientology. Is that one that you actually wrote, or did Bob Kaiser write that part of the book?
DOWNIE: Bob Kaiser wrote that particular passage in the book, but I know all about it because we rewrote each other all the way through the book.
LAMB: And by the way, how long did it take you to write the book itself?
DOWNIE: The research and the writing took us about two years because we did it in addition to our day jobs.
LAMB: And when you actually got down to writing it, where did you write it?
DOWNIE: We each wrote it on our home computers, and we would then trade chapters back and forth. So I'd write a draft of a chapter, give it to Bob. He'd rewrite it, give it back to me, and I'd say, "Well, some of this looks good, but some of this I don't like." I'd rewrite it again, till we finally arrived at a draft of each chapter that we liked.
Among other things, that meant that the book had the same voice all the way through, even though two of us were working on it.
LAMB: Do you still have a disagreement left, after all your discussions about what...
DOWNIE: Not really. There might be a few tiny things here and there. I think that Bob probably's a tad more pessimistic about the future of the news media than I am. I'm a tad more optimistic.
LAMB: Well, back to the Church of Scientology. What was that story? And why did you include it in your book?
DOWNIE: We included it in our book because it was not a story that brought about great change. We didn't want to have all the -- we wanted to put in the book a lot of examples for our readers of journalism that makes a difference, that news matters, as we say in the book. And we wanted to give an example of one where you couldn't say somebody went to jail, somebody's life was saved, some money was saved or something like that, but yet nevertheless, people's knowledge about an important subject was increased.
What happened here was that the Church of Scientology, after many years of pushing the IRS to classify it as a church and therefore give it a charitable exemption under IRS laws, finally succeeded in having it happen, and nobody found out why. The Church of Scientology is not thought to be a church by some people, thought to be a church by others. But the struggle it had with the IRS was quite interesting, but most of it had taken place in secret, the intense lobbying that it had with the IRS. Some people might say it harassed the IRS until the IRS made the decision that it wanted.
But at any rate, this was an important story that hadn't been reported very much, was kind of a secret settlement that the IRS just suddenly announced and didn't talk about what they did. So here we had two organizations, Church of Scientology and the Internal Revenue Service, that are very important in our society. Probably little is more powerful than the IRS, and the Church of Scientology is certainly a significant presence in this country.
And both of them are relatively secretive. They don't like having themselves reported on very much. And together, they did something that is newsworthy. And so "The New York Times," the reporter there at "The New York Times," Doug Frantz, and his editor, Dean Baquet, the then national editor of "The New York Times," who's now the managing editor of the "Los Angeles Times," decided to try and find out what happened there and produced a story that showed a great deal of what had happened there.
And even though it didn't change the IRS and how they were going to handle this particular case of how they were going to deal with secrecy generally, and it didn't change the Church of Scientology's approach to its exemption or make it any more revealing about its internal workings, people knew something important about these institutions that they hadn't known before.
LAMB: One of the things that I kept feeling as I read that is that both the Church of Scientology and the IRS -- if they don't want to tell you something, it's hard to get it out of them.
DOWNIE: Extremely difficult. And they're not the only institutions like this in American society, but they're two very good examples of very secretive organizations that make it very difficult to find out what goes on inside them.
LAMB: Why didn't the IRS have to tell you the rationale for making them...
DOWNIE: The tax laws...
LAMB: ... a tax-exempt...
DOWNIE: ... are written in such a way that there's a great deal of privacy that's properly is accorded to American taxpayers, that the IRS uses as its reason for not telling us very much of what they do.
LAMB: John Curley wouldn't talk to you.
DOWNIE: Well, we sent letters to John Curley, who runs the Gannett news organization that owns many newspapers across the country and many television stations, and to Tony Ridder, who runs Knight Ridder, which also owns a great deal -- a great many newspapers across the country. And the book is critical of what's happened to newspapers under both ownerships, and so we sent letters to each of them saying, "We're doing this book. We've focused a lot of attention on your news organizations. We'd like to interview you about it." And Tony Knight said yes, and we had an interview in which he disagreed with a lot of our findings, but his reactions are in the book. And Curley did not respond.
LAMB: Is that unusual, for somebody who runs another major news organization not to talk to somebody from "The Washington Post"?
DOWNIE: I have to say it's relatively unusual. I mean, I'm not normally engaged in that. Howie Kurtz normally is. But yeah, I think it's relatively unusual.
LAMB: Do you know him?
DOWNIE: Yes, I do. Yes, I do.
LAMB: And so you've never talked to him about this.
DOWNIE: No. No, I don't know him that well. We haven't seen each other since we began work on this book. You know, Gannett is headquartered in the Washington, D.C., area, and therefore it's one of our local companies that we cover. And they're not always pleased with "The Washington Post's" coverage of their company, either.
LAMB: On the cover of this book, you have a lot of news organizations that you mention. I'll show the audience what the cover looks like. It's hard to see it unless we get really up close. There is one organization that is missing from the cover I wanted to ask you about, and that is the "Washington Times."
LAMB: Any reason why they're not on there?
DOWNIE: No. The book, you know, covers all news organizations, so there's hundreds that could have appeared on the cover there -- newspapers, television organizations, and so on. And it actually was the publisher who decided which news organizations to list on the cover. We don't discuss the "Times" much, if at all...
LAMB: I don't think they're mentioned.
DOWNIE: They may not be. The "Times" is a special kind of publication. It's owned by a church, the Unification Church, and it has a relatively small audience and, you know, there are many, many newspapers around the country that aren't named in the book, and that's one of them.
LAMB: What role do you think they play in this town?
DOWNIE: They are avowedly a conservative newspaper. They believe that's their mission, to represent a conservative point of view. I think that, as a result, a lot of their reporting energy goes into reporting that sphere of politics and national security affairs, and so on. And for that audience, I think they are kind of like a newsletter for what's of greatest interest to conservative readers. I think that's probably their primary function in town.
LAMB: If that was the only newspaper that you read, would you be reading a good newspaper?
DOWNIE: I'm not going to characterize whether it's good or bad, but it's a newspaper that, because of its relatively small staff, can only cover so much. It has, you know, relatively few local reporters, relatively few sports reporters, for example. And it's a newspaper, as I said, in covering international and national affairs has a point of view. So we'd be more like being in Britain, where most newspapers there are representing a certain point of view in the political spectrum. And you can't read just one of them if you want to be well-informed. You have to read a number of them across the political spectrum. I think the "Washington Times" fits into that kind of pattern.
LAMB: Other than referring to his novel, you don't talk much about what Jim Lehrer does, and he gives us an hour a day of in-depth news.
LAMB: Now, I don't know what their audience is, but it's relatively small compared to the big networks. But people could watch that, if they wanted to.
LAMB: It's there every night.
LAMB: Why don't they watch more of it, if they want in-depth news?
DOWNIE: Well, we should have said more about "The NewsHour" in the book because it's a very fine news show. And in fact, we concentrate a lot on NPR in the book, which is a comparable news organization on radio, as opposed to television. And I think that because we were focused on NPR as a news organization doing a very good job, without commercial pressures, we didn't also mention PBS and "The NewsHour" more than we did.
But it's similar. It's a good news organization. It's limited in its size, but he focuses the show well on those things that they can do well, particularly national affairs -- very, very strong on national government and national politics. And its audience is sizable. In fact, on many nights, as Jim has pointed out to me personally, their audience exceeds that of any of the individual cable networks' news programs.
You know, why still more people don't watch this? I think what I said earlier, which is that the networks -- that the three major networks, and now increasingly Fox, have the entertainment programs and the sports programs that bring people to those networks, to begin with. And despite the fact we all have our little clickers and can change channels easily, we're creatures of habit and we tend to watch the news that comes on the network whose entertainment programs we're watching. And the entertainment and public affairs programs on PBS appear to have a more smaller audience.
However, it's a very influential audience. Their audience is undoubtedly higher educated than the average audience, and so it's good that they have a good news show to turn to.
LAMB: You point out that NPR's "All Things Considered," when you break it down, has 13,000 words in a 90-minute program. Your newspaper has 110,000 words in a day, and "The New York Times" 105,000 words in a day. How'd you go about finding all that out?
DOWNIE: I think ours was 100,000? We say 110,00 for "The Post"?
LAMB: I think so.
DOWNIE: I'd be surprised if we had more words...
LAMB: Yeah, you did.
DOWNIE: ... than "The New York Times."
LAMB: You said 110,000.
DOWNIE: OK. I am surprised we have more words than "The New York Times." Maybe it was the day of the week we picked, but we're about the same.
There's a way of counting words that Bob Kaiser tapped into. Somebody -- keeps track of this, and he went to that source.
LAMB: What's that mean, though, if you listen to "All Things Considered" for 90 minutes and you get 13,000 words, and you read "The Washington Post" -- I mean, but there's lots of sports...
DOWNIE: Nobody's going to read...
LAMB: ... weather...
DOWNIE: ... all 100,00 words in "The Washington Post." And you're right, there's sports in there. There's fashion. There's style. There's health. There's business news, and so on. So we don't expect that anybody's going to read the entire paper from cover to cover. There must be very few people have the time to do that with "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times" because it would take you hours and hours. Instead, people read selectively for the things that they want to find that particular day of greatest interest to them, and then leaf through the newspaper.
That's the great thing about a newspaper. You can leaf through it and spot something that interests you. If you're listening to the radio or watching television, you've got to wait and wait for the thing that interests you, and you might be wasting those other minutes or turn the station because nothing interests you. In the newspaper, you're in complete control.
It's one of the reasons why I don't expect newspapers to disappear any time soon, despite all the new media that have come along, because you have this unique experience of being able to leaf through that newspaper and glance at the things that might interest you slightly, read intensively the things that you want to read intensively. It's a unique way of approaching the news.
LAMB: Go back to a comment you made earlier about Matt Drudge. You said that he is not a journalist?
LAMB: What is he?
DOWNIE: Well, he's two things. He's a gossip, and in his heyday, when he really focused attention on this in his early days, way back in the '90s, he would pick up some juicy gossip, primarily from newsrooms. He had sources inside newsrooms and found out what newspapers were reporting on now and would try to beat them to publication by putting a snippet of this rumor on his Web site before it appeared in the newspaper. And as a result, sometimes his rumors were accurate and sometimes they were completely wrong. And one of the worries I had is that people would go to his site and not know this -- now people, I think, understand this about Drudge -- would frequently see things that were quite wrong and believe that they were true and go through the rest of their day thinking this thing was true when it was false because Drudge was wrong.
The second thing he's become is a link service. He scans through everybody else's on-line news organizations and picks out the stories that he thinks would be of greatest interest to the people that come to the Matt Drudge Report. And actually, in that way, he's a benefit to the Washington Post Company because he frequently links up to good stories on the washingtonpost.com. And he's one of the chief sources of traffic to washingtonpost.com, which I know he likes because when he spotted that we said that in the book, he actually put that up on his site yesterday as a fact.
LAMB: Why does "The Washington Post" put its material on the Web, Internet, free?
DOWNIE: Because right now, people expect things on the Internet to be free, by and large, unless it's a special service being performed for them. So no news organizations except "The Wall Street Journal" have succeeded or tried so far to charge for news on the Web. "The Journal" is able to do it, I believe, because they bundle their Web subscription with their paper subscription, and people are able to write -- business people are able to write that off as a business expense. So they're much more likely to pay that fee to use something on the Web.
Historically, the Web culture has been a culture of expecting things to be free on the Web. I think that's gradually changing now, and I wouldn't be surprised somewhere down the road to see some kind of subscription model begin to come along. But if you remember, the Web-only new site, "Slate" -- actually, it's a commentary site more than a news site -- for a while did charge a subscription and found that its readership went way down. People were unwilling to pay for it. And so they had to go back to being free.
LAMB: You say, though, that a newspaper makes between 20 and 40 percent of its revenues from classified.
DOWNIE: Of its advertising revenues...
LAMB: Classified advertising.
DOWNIE: ... from classified -- yes, it does.
LAMB: And that the Internet's starting to get into this business.
DOWNIE: That's right.
LAMB: What happens if you all, by using the Internet, putting your material on there, begin to get people to use it a lot...
LAMB: ... and then you lose the revenues with your base newspapers?
DOWNIE: Well, that would be one way to look at it. And the other way to look at it is if they come to our Internet site for that classified and for news and for the advertising we put up on it, they're still in the "Washington Post" family and they're still reading "Washington Post" news. And in fact, on the Internet, we have gained hundreds of thousands of readers for "The Washington Post." The ink-on-paper newspaper only circulates in the Washington area, with a few copies going to New York and some other places.
But the washingtonpost.com Web site is available throughout the United States and throughout the world. And we have gained hundreds of thousands of new daily readers of "The Washington Post" on that Web site. And I'm happy about that. I want people to read our news. And if people want to see classified advertising on the Web, they can find it on washingtonpost.com.
The question will be, as we come out of this recession and as classified advertising, as "help wanted" advertising begins growing again as there are more jobs to offer to people, how much of that is going to come back to newspapers along with the Web, or will most of it be on the Web? That's the big question facing newspapers right now. And we don't know the answer to it yet.
LAMB: You write, "The proliferation of news outlets has shrunk the audience of each one and weakened the commercial domination of individual newspapers and television stations and networks, so their owners and managers have been wary of increasing their investment in news coverage or risking unpopular journalism." It also leads to a lot of discussion in your book about money and margins.
LAMB: What is the margin for "The Washington Post"?
DOWNIE: It's in the neighborhood of 20 percent each year. Sometimes it's higher, sometimes it's lower, depending upon how good the advertising sales are that year. Newspapers generally average around 20 to 30 percent profit margins, and sometimes higher. Local television stations average 40 to 50 percent profit margins, and sometimes higher. That makes those really good businesses, in terms of profits, compared to your average business. Your average manufacturing company is very happy to make 5 to 10 percent profits.
And as a result, I think the news media have room to spare in their profit margins. I want "The Post" to be very profitable. That is what pays for high quality journalism. And I want other news organizations to be profitable to pay for high quality journalism. But I want them to plow some of those profits back into the newsroom, as "The Washington Post" does. And I'd like to see more newspapers do that.
LAMB: When Herblock died a couple months ago, it was revealed that he had $50 million that he had made over the years at "The Washington Post."
DOWNIE: He actually hadn't made that money as a salary at "The Washington Post."
LAMB: No, no. I mean, it was the stock.
DOWNIE: Right. Yes. He'd been at "The Post" for half a century. And in the early years -- many people don't realize that in 1933, "The Post" was bought at bankruptcy by Eugene Myer, Katherine Graham's father -- the late Katherine Graham's father, the grandfather of Donald Graham, now the CEO of the paper. And for many years, he had to subsidize the paper out of his own pocket. He was a very rich financier. Tens of millions of dollars he plowed into the newspaper before it became -- broke even, much less made a profit.
And during that time, one of the ways in which he could compensate somebody like Herblock, who was already an outstanding talent in the early days of the Graham family's ownership of the paper, was to give him stock that then wasn't worth much. But over the years, as "The Post" then became profitable, as it bought up a competing morning newspaper and as the afternoon newspaper went out of business and it became the dominant newspaper in Washington and was very well run, it made large profits and its stock price went up. And that's where Herb's fortune came from.
LAMB: Let me give you a bunch of things you've heard before and ask you to explain why there should be special First Amendment treatment for newspapers, this television station, this television network. When people listen, they hear $50 million that somebody generated in stock over these years. All the protection you have of the First Amendment -- the anchormen in New York making $10 million a year. And you're sitting here saying we need better news, better foreign news and all that. And the public out there is saying, "Look, I want my Matt Drudge. Matt Drudge to me is truth more than it is at `The Washington Post.'"
Tell us why we should listen to what you're saying about this versus...
LAMB: ... somebody that's getting the other side somewhere else.
DOWNIE: First of all, I strongly believe in the First Amendment, and the First Amendment makes it possible for anybody in this country at all to give anybody else news. Absolutely. And Matt Drudge is just as well protected by the First Amendment as "The Washington Post," and I want it that way. I don't want anybody messing with Matt Drudge, in that sense.
On the other hand, I think consumers should be well informed. Just as you ought to know whether the cereal you're eating really does have vitamin C in it, you ought to know whether the news you are reading is as good a news as it can be -- or listening to. And in the case of Matt Drudge, his track record is that he doesn't really report very much news himself. And quite often, the rumors he reports are wrong. And then the rest of it is linking onto somebody else's news. If you like that, fine. But I just want you to know what it is.
Whereas the news that you read in "The Washington Post" or "The New York Times" or "The Wall Street Journal" or the "L.A. Times" or the Raleigh "News and Observer" are produced by staffs of really fine news people working to certain high standards, making certain that their reports are accurate and fair every day and who dig as deeply as they can. And I want people to know that's what that news is like. And then you can choose for yourself what kind of news you want to read.
Now, these news organizations should be profitable. They need to be profitable to pay for printing presses and the salaries of all those people and the high costs of newsprint, in television, the case of -- you know, paying for all that technology. But I am saying that the profits are high enough that more of that money ought to be devoted to news coverage, not necessarily to the high salaries for anchors.
And Herblock's a special case in the stock that he got. When you work at a place for 50 years and its stock has gone from nothing to something, you would expect to have some money out of the stock that was given to you years ago. There aren't many $50 million people at "The Washington Post," I can tell you that.
LAMB: Are we better off, as a country, having the news more fragmented than it is now, more fragmented than it was 20 years ago?
DOWNIE: Yes. Yes.
DOWNIE: It's taking us through a transition because having more choices is always better. Having more choices is always better. That's what a free society's about. That's what capitalism's about, having as many choices as possible. And then you choose the best thing.
However, we're going through a transition period in which we may not be well off -- better off necessarily right at this moment because some of the new news organizations are not yet -- don't yet have the experience and the depth to necessarily present the news as well as they could. And some of the old news organizations have been shaken by all this competition, this fragmentation, and by losing audience and by losing advertising. And so they need to find their way to this new parameter.
And one of the things that I think could happen are a couple things we talked about in the book. The profits could be somewhat less modest than they are now, somewhat less large than they are now, somewhat more modest than they are now, and yet still turn a very handy return for stockholders in these companies and put more money into news coverage. And also that the consumers and the news organizations' owners can look at the best news organizations in this country, the ones that spend the most money on news, and they're also the most profitable. So there must be something good about producing good news.
LAMB: It says in the back that you took some money from Pew for a researcher and for travel.
LAMB: And Pew also is the ones funding the "civic journalism."
LAMB: Are you a big fan of "civic journalism"?
DOWNIE: No, I'm not a fan of civic journalism. Again, I think that there's no reason to stop people from trying to improve news, and some people believe -- some people in academia and some people in journalism believe that civic journalism is one way to improve the news.
Certain aspects -- civic journalism -- to try to sum up quickly -- is a belief that news organizations need to cover public affairs more, but also need to essentially force Americans to get more involved in public affairs. The first part of it I totally agree with. Cover public affairs more. Cover elections better. Don't just cover the horse race, cover the real issues. Find out what interests the voters. That's part of civic journalism. It's also part of good journalism. I agree with that.
But the other aspect of civic journalism is make sure people vote. Make sure that people decide if they need a new civic center downtown. Make sure that people are going to do something about poverty in the poorest neighborhood in town. Those are all nice things and proper objectives for people in society, but that's not what news coverage is about. News coverage should not be designed towards achieving certain desired ends. That's biased news coverage, and that's wrong.
LAMB: Our guest has written this book with Bob Kaiser. He is the top editor at "The Washington Post," has been there since 1964 and is a native of Cleveland, Ohio. And the book is called "The News About the News."
Thank you very much.
DOWNIE: Thank you.
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