John Huey, former Time Inc. editor-in-chief: Research chat
John Huey was the editor-in-chief of Time Inc. from 2006 until December 2012, overseeing the editorial content of all Time Inc.’s U.S. magazines, websites, and other digital content including Time, People, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly and Real Simple. He has held senior executive positions at Fortune and the Wall Street Journal. Previously, he worked at the Atlanta Constitution before joining the Dallas bureau of the Wall Street Journal in 1975.
A Shorenstein Center Fellow in spring 2013, Huey has been working on a history of how the Internet has reshaped journalism. Journalist’s Resource researcher Alex Remington talked with him as part of our ongoing “research chat” series. The following is an edited interview.
Journalist’s Resource: Among the great reporters you’ve seen and managed at the Wall Street Journal, Time Inc. and other places, what are the key common attributes?
John Huey: One is perseverance. Not easily discouraged. The willingness and ability and energy to press on to get a story. Now, sometimes that can be a liability if people are so determined to get a story that they’ll do anything to get a story. Then you get into ethical issues. So I wouldn’t consider that a great attribute, if you’re willing to go too far. But the ability to just come in every day and look for another brick to put in the wall to build your story, that’s one attribute.
Another attribute is great listeners. The ability to know when to shut up and let the other guy talk. Being willing to sit and listen to a pregnant pause and then that great answer comes after the pause. Reporters come in a lot of different categories, but I’d say another common trait is the ability to see the forest. Not get hung up on all the trees, but be able to see, “Ah! What’s really happening here is this. This is really the story.”
And I guess the other attribute is that some people — it’s not any different from a great hunting dog, or a great venture capitalist, or whatever — just have a nose for news. They see event A over here, they see event B over here, they see event C way back there, and they go, “You know what? Somehow these are all related. There’s news here. I am going to explore this subject and I am going to find a story.”
Finally, probably the single most consistent and universal trait of all reporters is that they are curious. They’re infinitely curious. And if you’re curious about what’s going on around you, you probably have some of what it takes to be a great reporter.
JR: How should reporters in the digital age keep and build on those core attributes and values?
John Huey: I don’t think that the attributes and values of being a great reporter change very much at all in the digital age, except that your tactics are different and the tools that are available to you are different. For example, if you are an investigative reporter who likes to dig into complicated situations, the ability to analyze data now is much easier and much more accessible to you than it was 20 years ago or even 10 years ago. You can not only get to the data digitally, you can also scrub it digitally. So there are so many resources available to the next generation of reporters; you need to be very conversant in those tools and skills. Being digital is almost essential. But the values and the intuitive skills aren’t really any different.
JR: What should every young reporter be doing in order to thrive in the digital age?
John Huey: I think every reporter should be reading everything they can get their hands on, about not only what’s going on today, but what’s going on in the past, so they can begin to see some patterns and understand the world around them. I think they should be trying to be published as early and as often as they can.
Look, what’s broken in contemporary journalism is mostly business models. It’s not the idea that reporting, gathering and presenting news is an outdated and unvalued skill, that’s very valued. What’s broken are the legacy institutions that used to be able to fund much more significant opportunities for people to learn: internships, apprenticeships. My view of journalism has always been that it isn’t really a profession — it’s more of a craft. It’s not a profession, in that you don’t have to have any particular credentials. And more than ever, in this era, anybody can stand up and say, “I’m a journalist,” and you can even publish yourself. But it’s a craft in that it’s best learned through some sort of apprenticeship. So if I were going to tell somebody in journalism today what to do to get started, I would say: Find the place that will publish you the most often with the most opportunity for you to learn.
JR: You have been studying the key technological and business decisions of media organizations as they entered the digital age. What have you been learning in the course of your Shorenstein research with Martin Nisenholtz and Paul Sagan? Any key takeaways yet for those in the media business?
John Huey: I’ve had a lot of takeaways. One of them is, there’s a big difference between reporting what’s going on at the moment and reporting it accurately and fairly and out front of everybody, and actually understanding what’s going on. In looking back over these last 30 years I’ve realized that it’s just human nature that most people don’t really focus on the larger meaning of what’s going on around them.
And journalism does tend to move in a pack. When a phenomenon comes along, journalists tend to latch onto a storyline, and often, everyone sort of follows that storyline with some variation. But it’s always worth stepping back and saying, “Hey, wait a minute. Is that really what’s going on here, or is it possible something entirely different is going on?” Because when you look at this history that we’ve compiled, you can conclude that a lot of people were really right about a lot of things, but they were wrong about some of the bigger issues.
One of the big revelations that I’ve had on this project is that there really aren’t very many new content ideas. It’s just all about how they deliver them. And we’ve had some amusing looks at early videotex and teletex. But when you look at them, what were they offering? They were offering these amazing promises of the future: “Imagine if you could live in a world where you’ve got real-time sports scores, real-time stock quotes, restaurant directories in your home! Real time! Unbelievable!” Well, they were right that everybody wanted that stuff, they were just completely wrong about how it was going to be delivered and what the capabilities of the technology they were dealing with. And yet they bet hundreds of millions of dollars on that and it all crashed and burned, and they drew exactly the wrong conclusion. Which was, they said, “Oh, people don’t want that sort of thing.” Well, yeah, they do. They’re just waiting for the Internet to be developed.
There are storylines that are very different from what they were back then. When people who were online began to favor the World Wide Web, AOL became very out of favor and unhip and uncool and unloved by the digerati. But when you look back at the history of it and really analyze it, if I had to pick one person who had more to do with putting everyone online — the Henry Ford of the Internet, if you will — it was Steve Case. Could you have done it without Tim Berners-Lee? Probably not, but America Online had people online before they could even use the Internet. When you look at his vision, it wasn’t particularly technically cool or anything, but it was all about community and interactivity. I was surprised, when I looked back on it, that he stands out.
And that’s just one of many revelations like that. I did not realize till we did this how thoroughly forward-looking Tribune and Knight-Ridder were. And, of course, the reason nobody realizes that today is because they both crashed on the rocks and had very unhappy endings, so everybody tends to think, “Oh, well, they just slept through the digital revolution.” Au contraire! They were out in front of it.
JR: When you think about the decisions news people got right versus what they got wrong, what separated the things that they were able to correctly perceive from the things they totally missed the boat on?
John Huey: There are probably several things that factor into that answer. One would be that they saw technology as part of their toolkit to get into this world of digital delivery. They saw it as a means to an end; they saw it as overhead; they saw it as capital expense. They never really saw it as an enabling part of the creative process. They saw that we’re entering into a technology age here, that this is going to change everything — that we really need to have technology people and partners right here in the center of things.
And yet there are paradoxes to that. Take, for example, Alan Spoon at the Washington Post. He was president of the Post and had come from MIT — he was highly technically skilled. So you ask yourself, what happened there? It wasn’t that he failed to see what was going on, but the journalism culture of these companies was so strong. And I was very much a part of that, I was always on the side of the journalism part of the culture, I was always a defender of the journalistic ethics and values. I think Tony Ridder told us in an interview: People think of journalists being radicals and revolutionaries and liberals and whatnot, but they’re actually personally and institutionally among the most conservative people in the world. They don’t want to change anything.
JR: In your career, what did you get right and what did you get wrong about this digital revolution?
John Huey: I was never anyone who was viewed as a strong force regarding the digital revolution one way or another. I covered it more than I participated in it. As the editor of Fortune, we covered it aggressively, and I got that part right. I understood that it was a very profound topic and subject. Not just as it applied to journalism. You know, we covered the PC era, we covered the online era, we covered all the [venture capital] activity, we covered the personalities, we covered the strategy.
In terms of covering it, hiring and keeping really good people to cover it, and presenting useful information to our readership, I’d say I’d give myself an A. In terms of being any kind of a visionary or somebody who pushed for great ways for us to take advantage of all this, I would give myself a “fail to show.” I was really faced with a lot of other issues and problems, and I concentrated on maintaining the part of the business model that kept as many journalists as possible there and kept them telling stories.
Time Inc. has a digital business in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and I certainly was supportive of the first efforts to get on [tablets], and I was part of a grand tour that one of my people led of Silicon Valley to get everybody plugged into that world before even the iPad came out. So we were ready, we were prepared. But I can’t say that I was either particularly right or wrong, or all that involved in big digital decisions. And to be honest, at the more crucial points of that era, no one cared what we thought or what we wanted to do. It really was like a tsunami coming over our digital strategy and our digital world. We were a tiny little [piece]. So I was sort of taken out of the game early, in that respect, and never really re-engaged in that part of it.
JR: What are the lessons learned? How can people be less wrong in the future about the unknown, either corporate media managers or young journalists?
John Huey: Here’s my advice for young journalists: If you’re really serious about getting into this field, get in it to satisfy your curiosity, don’t get in it for the money. That doesn’t mean you can’t eventually make some, but you probably won’t initially. Don’t expect a whole lot of institutional support. You get in it for the excitement, the curiosity, the mission, the feeling of wanting to afflict the comfortable or comfort the afflicted or whatever it is that draws you there. Do it for the love of it, and it will all probably work out. But if you try to over-plot your career in journalism, it probably won’t work out, because it’s too unstable and too in flux and too hard to figure out where the puck is going to be right now.
In terms of companies and corporate strategies, I think you should start by reading our [forthcoming] Shorenstein Center project — which we’ve titled “Riptide” — the digital history of the last 30 years. The one big takeaway that you will get is that there is a pattern that takes place over and over and over. And that pattern is that technology creates new opportunities for both distributing information and business models to support it. Based on the last 30 years of history, they appear to be pretty inevitable.
There are two things that aren’t going to happen: One, there is not going to be some stable island where everyone lands and says, “OK, here’s the new model, here we are. We loved that old model, now here’s the new model, this is going to last 50 years like the old model.” This is going to keep changing and changing and changing. And the other thing that isn’t going to happen is the erosion of the old model is not going to just suddenly stop for some reason and we can say, “This is the floor. This is the bottom. We’ve hit rock, now we can go from here.” That isn’t going to happen either.
So, whether you’re a company or an individual, you’ve got to get up every day and sort of look at the wave and figure out how to surf it.
JR: From a business standpoint, how do you see the crisis in journalism playing out over the next decade? What will it look like in 2023? What will Time look like then? What’s the future of the magazine business?
John Huey: I’m going to respectfully decline to answer that question other than to say that I really have no idea. I think many strong brands will survive in different forms, and many will die for failure to find different forms. We’ve seen examples of that in recent years. You can see big crashes. As we say at the end of our project, the next full moon, the next high tide, we’re going to lose some more players here. There’s going to be a continued consolidation. There are going to be continued efforts at new business models. I’m not convinced that we’ve seen much example of new business models that work at scale with large profitability. But right now, all the big profits in the media business are going mostly to Google, because they’re getting most of the advertising business; and then in distribution, you see Amazon, Apple. The big stack companies are going to have some involvement, some of them. But I disagree with the people who believe that they’re going to go back and buy some of these legacy media companies. I agree with the people who say, “Why would they go after a slow growth or no-growth business? They don’t need it.”
JR: By “they,” who do you mean?
John Huey: Google, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon. People with a lot of money and a lot of distribution clout and some interest in distributing news. I don’t think they’re going to do that.
JR: So the new AOL wouldn’t buy the old Time Warner in 2013?
John Huey: No. Since they do fashion themselves as a content player, it’s conceivable that they could want some of Time, Inc. When they spun off from Time Warner they wanted all of Time, Inc., but it didn’t happen. Maybe it should have, maybe not. I don’t know.