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Dear Editor, Ken Whyte Says You're Boring

The Hearst biographer on biased snobs, media barons and the real reason newspapers are dying.

By David Ravensbergen 20 Feb 2009 |

David Ravensbergen is a Vancouver journalist who frequently contributes to Tyee Books.

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Ken Whyte, MacLean's editor and author of 'The Uncrowned King.'
  • The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst
  • Kenneth Whyte
  • Random House Canada (2008)

It's no secret that the newspaper industry is sick. Hardly a week goes by without some new pronouncement of doom: job cuts at the Globe and Mail or the imminent demise of the New York Times in print.

But if you think the Internet is to blame, think again. One of Canada's leading editors says the deep roots of the problem with papers go back nearly a century.

According to Ken Whyte, Maclean's editor and recently crowned Canadian Newsperson of the Year, the news industry isn't reeling from the effects of the web or the economic crisis so much as from its own lack of innovation. In his first book The Uncrowned King, Whyte chronicles the rise of one of the most controversial newspaper barons in history -- William Randolph Hearst -- and makes some observations that today's papers would do well to note.

Perhaps best known as the inspiration for the maniacal Charles Foster Kane in the film Citizen Kane, Hearst has already been the subject of numerous biographies. The son of a U.S. senator and a two-term congressman himself, Hearst has long epitomized the nepotism of the American upper crust. Yet Whyte found omissions in the scholarly record. "A lot of what had been written about him was just based on the recollections of old journalists who'd written their memoirs 40 years later," Whyte explains. "Journalists have always self-aggrandized and aren't entirely objective or reliable in their memoirs to begin with, and with Hearst there was more myth-making and more inaccuracy than usual."

Eager to set the record straight, Whyte returned to the old papers themselves, especially the New York Journal, purchased by Hearst in 1895. There, Whyte found solid investigative journalism, dynamic layouts and design, a paper that seized attention. Looking further, Whyte pored over copies of Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, Hearst's fiercest competitor in the saturated New York dailies market. The archives showed both papers in constant flux, as the ongoing "granddaddy of newspaper wars" compelled the two magnates to pursue new editorial strategies in their quest for audience share.

"It was probably the very height of newspaper competition, the moment when the medium of newspapers was really coming into its own, still growing very rapidly and adding new features all the time and expanding their audiences markedly," says Whyte of the period. "They were very, very good at competing for readers. It's one thing to compete for advertisers and another to compete for readers."

Survival of the slickest

Hearst's strategies proved to be highly effective, earning him the envy and derision of his competitors. Some of his gambits, like dramatically lowering issue costs and wooing Pulitzer's staff over to his own paper, were just cutthroat business. But others, including the Journal's brazen political slant and tabloid appearance, have made Hearst a suspect figure in the annals of the journalistic profession. But for Whyte, it was all just healthy competition.

"You hear about the criticisms they leveled at Hearst, for the style of journalism he was doing, for being very forthright in his political views and letting it color his coverage, and that was supposed to be evidence of his low standards. But that was just what everyone was doing at the time," says Whyte. "He started doing bigger headlines and bigger pictures and everybody started doing bigger headlines. Not because it was sensationalist or because he had bad taste, but because it worked. And that's why he is disliked."

Whether newspapers should be serious, sober outlets for the facts or attention-grabbing sources of infotainment is still up for debate. Hearst was either an editorial wunderkind or a sleazy, "yellow" journalist. Either way, he certainly figured out how to sell a lot of papers. Although Whyte claims the criticisms stem from rival publishers jealous of Hearst's success, yellow journalism also entails more serious charges: fabricating stories, misquoting sources and fear mongering. At stake is the integrity of the news; if papers aren't believable, they cease to be a viable source of information and a check on power. As other biographers such as W.A. Swanberg claim, Hearst outright invented sensational stories to sell papers, including staging triumphal scenes during the Spanish-American War.

Whyte insists that the accusations leveled against Hearst are not credible, and that Hearst has no more lies on his hands than any other publisher or businessman. "Yellow journalism was a slur on popular, mass-market newspapers by elite conservative newspapers that couldn't compete with Hearst and his audience and his enterprising journalists," says Whyte. "So they wrapped themselves in this cloak of moral goodness and called themselves respectable papers, and said Hearst was pandering to the mob, producing a yellow paper. I think it was a phrase borne of paternalism and condescension and a low opinion of the average man."

You do your thing, I'll do mine

When I suggested to Whyte during our conversation in Vancouver that Fox News is the greatest source of yellow journalism in our time, he immediately disagreed. "There are people who think about the world the same way that Fox News does, just as there are people who think about the world the same way The Nation does or the New York Times does. Why shouldn't they have a media outlet that speaks to their sentiments?"

For Whyte, the more viewpoints reflected in the media, the healthier our democracy. Rather than pretending to occupy an objective middle ground, Whyte advocates each paper or news network actively reporting according to its bias. He cites Keith Olbermann and MSNBC as the "anti-Fox News," indicating that both sides of the ideological spectrum have their champions.

In Hearst's day, the populist Journal and Pulitzer's World inhabited the left end of the spectrum, while their high-brow competitors were decidedly conservative. Today that dynamic has largely reversed itself, with right-wing news outlets routinely accusing the left of "elitism" and of failing to understand the causes of the average citizen. But the principles remain the same. Biases are always part of the news, and ideally the presence of reporters and writers from multiple ideological perspectives means that outright falsehoods don't find their way into print.

The real test of a good editor, then, is whether he or she is able to make a newspaper that truly attracts readers -- a task many of today's stagnant and faltering papers have largely forgotten how to do.

Here in Vancouver, the two major dailies are both owned by Canwest, an empire spanning newspaper, television and website holdings in most large Canadian cities. It gives its audience, all across the land, syndicated content and editorial homogeneity. And if the recent application to share newsrooms between television and newspaper holdings filed by Canwest to the CRTC goes through, expect media diversity to plummet still further.

Start a newspaper? Are you kidding?

In fact, with the notable exception of The Independent in the U.K., which clawed its way into a crowded London news market in 1986, virtually no major English-language papers have started up in the last 75 years. The industry locked itself into place close to a century ago.

In Canada, of course, there has been one newcomer: The National Post. Founded by former media mogul and current jailbird Conrad Black, The National Post was edited by none other than Ken Whyte during the initial years of its battle with the Globe and Mail. While dismissing the Post as a propped-up conservative mouthpiece is a commonplace in Canadian left-ish circles, it's hard to deny that Whyte was extremely successful during his stint as editor there. When you think about the stasis of the market, the Post's rise does seem like more of an accomplishment, even if the paper is maintained by the Asper family at an estimated loss of $15 million annually.

It's no wonder then that Whyte's book emphasizes the young Hearst's editorial acumen, and how it led to his rise to prominence in the hectic New York newspaper industry. Notably absent, however, are considerations of Hearst's later life, and the gradual creation of his massive media empire. But you can't separate the two, especially since Hearst's stated ambition, right from the beginning of his foray into publishing, was to become a newspaper baron.

Whether cynically or just plain realistically, Whyte asserts that newspapers "were toys for rich people, then as now." Whether the owner is Conrad Black, Rupert Murdoch or William Randolph Hearst isn't important for Whyte; it's how well the editor can ply his craft. Yet as newspapers continue to decline and independent online content proliferates, Whyte may not enjoy the consensus of as many readers as he had hoped.

Here's what else we talked about...

On his motivation for writing 'The Uncrowned King':

"I just wanted to show that there was another way, and a good way, to do meaningful journalism that appealed to people and attracted readers and grew your audience. That it wasn't illegitimate and yellow and sensationalist, but it was actually good intelligent journalism. And if we think of it as being disreputable, it will never get back to a point where we can do journalism that's actually interesting to people."

On being a sympathetic biographer of Hearst:

"I thought a lot of [the work] of the other biographers was colored by hostility or condescension, or both. It's very deliberate. Although I found him much more sympathetic a character than they did, I still wanted to make sure that I pointed out instances where he did bad work. And there were some moments when the paper was ridiculous in its hyperbole and self-promotion. He was by no means perfect, he was just very good."

On the Hearst that the other biographers didn't see:

"He had a sense of humor and a real sense of social and political purpose. He cared about people and the world he was in, especially common people and the less fortunate. Which was somewhat unusual at that time for a man in his position, born into wealth and with a father who was a senator. But he didn't have a paternalistic view, an Andrew Carnegie kind of view, towards the poor. He embraced their causes and their politics and spoke to them in their own language."

On the qualities that made Hearst a successful newspaper man:

"He was a great editor. He had as expansive an idea of what a newspaper could do as anybody who's ever worked in the trade. He knew that his job was not only to inform, give people new information, great stories, but to lead and to crusade and to right wrongs, to tell the truth to shame the devil."

On how to make the news both informative and entertaining:

"A study that came out a couple of years ago said four per cent of Americans consider their newspapers to be entertaining. And probably 16 per cent of Americans think George Bush is brilliant. Four per cent is really, really low. But Hearst didn't believe that there was any real conflict between being intelligent and informative and entertaining -- you can do all of that. I think he was right about that.

"We're starting to see some of it come back in media now, when you see what a lot of young people really respond to in journalism. So many people get their news from Jon Stewart, who is probably an entertainer first, but you have to be really well informed to get a lot of his jokes. You have to be following the news. It's the same thing you get with Saturday Night Live. They presume a certain level of political sophistication. Possibly more than most newspapers do."

On the golden age of journalism:

"It was far more competitive. Because newspapers were hot, they were exciting, they were rich businesses and they paid really well and they could make you famous -- all the brightest, most energetic, enterprising young people coming out of university wanted to work in newspapers, and it was hugely competitive. But if you made it, you really made it big. Editors were paid like bankers, and journalists were compensated like TV stars are now. You had enormous access to your sources. You could call the Queen of Spain and demand an interview and expect that she would return the call and grant you an interview.

"There's one wonderful scene in the book where one of Hearst's reporters James Freelman is covering the Spanish-American War in Cuba, and he walks right into the battlefield and interrupts the general in the middle of the battle and conducts an interview. They stand there with the bullets flying around them and they talk for a few minutes, then Freelman thanks him and the general returns to fighting the war."

On the CRTC and the Canadian media environment:

"I think there's something kind of dangerous happening right now in Canada in that most newspapers are owned by a company that is also in the broadcasting business. And the broadcasting business is heavily politicized. I think anyone who's looked at it -- I know people on the business side and you talk to people on the union side -- they all believe that the CRTC is subject to political influence. Certainly people in the broadcast industry I know believe it's important to have political friends, and they're very cautious about keeping their political friends. And the fact that these guys also own newspapers I think makes the newspapers very timid about how they cover the government.

"You don't want something appearing in your newspaper that's going to affect whether or not you keep your license or whether or not a CRTC decision like the recent one on cable fees is passed. That's $75 million up for grabs, and you don't want to do anything that might jeopardize that. In that respect I think our newspapers are a huge measure of freedom and I worry over time that they won't feel at liberty to do their very important job of scrutinizing and criticizing freely the government of the day. I think that's a real dangerous problem and something that the government should look at.

"I don't have a problem with one guy owning a lot of newspapers, but I don't like the idea that he also is subject to a very sensitive relationship with the government."

On the future of the newspaper:

"I read these reports from some analysts in the U.S. that say newspapers will be extinct by 2012. I don't believe that it's that dire. I think it's important to distinguish between what's happening in the U.S. and what's happening in Canada. They're seeing double-digit declines in circulation and in advertising and they have been for years and we're not. Circulation in most of the major Canadian papers has been flat and their advertising has been flat for the last couple years -- it hasn't been declining. We've still got a lot of three-newspaper cities, in Toronto and Montreal, three or four newspapers. We have healthier trends here than in the U.S.

"That said, I do think newspapers ceased to innovate at the end of this period. Everything we know in newspapers today -- the sports page, the women's page, the op-ed, the columnists, the Sunday supplement, the funny pages, the advice columns, obituaries -- all of that was there at the end of the 19th century. They've added nothing in the last hundred years except advertising sections, like the travel section, homes section, and that's catching up to them now.

"They just relied on people having to get a newspaper for basic information for the last hundred years. Whether or not their columnists were interesting, could start a conversation or change a debate didn't really matter. Whether or not their funny pages were funny anymore didn't really matter. They could just keep grinding it out and making all kinds of money. But now they're going to have to compete. I really worry whether or not they have that in their blood anymore: a willingness and an ability to go out and make themselves relevant to the point where people would actually pay real money to buy a paper.

"For so long now they've been discounting subscriptions, giving away tons of papers to keep a certain level out there, to keep getting the advertising to keep making money. That's all going to change now. Newspapers will be around for a while, but they are diminished and they'll diminish more if they can't respond and change the way they approach their content."