Stephen B. Shepard, Knight-Bahehot Anniversary Dinner
November 13, 2000
Tonight is a celebration – a celebration of the 25th anniversary of a program that has made a significant difference in the quality of business and economic journalism. There are Bagehot fellows everywhere in our profession. Tonight is also an opportunity to reflect on what has transpired in those 25 years. And tonight, while I have you, is a chance to muse about the future of business journalism in the Age of the Internet. If you think the last 25 years have been profoundly revolutionary, my guess is that you ain't seen nothing yet.
When I joined Business Week in 1966, – the dark ages — business journalism was a backwater. There's just no other way to say it. Sure, the WSJ had been around since 1889, Forbes since 1917, Business Week since 1929, Fortune since 1930. But trust me … business reporting in those days just didn't have the glamour of politics, the trench-coat intrigue of foreign news, or the social relevance of urban affairs. Yes, there were exceptions. But these were but a few bursts of starlight in an otherwise gray firmament.
In the late 1960s, my good friend Soma Golden began teaching a seminar on economics and business writing at the Columbia Journalism School. In 1970, when I returned from a stint in London, she asked me to join her. The class was small, perhaps seven or eight students. The best and brightest, most of them anyway, took different courses. Then, in the early 70's, business and economics became front-page news. There was the oil crisis of 1973, the near-bankruptcy of New York City in 1974, and the mysterious, simultaneous appearance of both inflation and recession in 1975 – a phenomenon so new, that a word had to be coined for it: stagflation. Suddenly, business news was hot stuff. Our seminar grew – to 15 students one year, 22 the next.
When we realized what was happening, the man who was then dean of the Journalism School, Elie Abel, got a bright idea: Establish a program, similar to the Nieman program at Harvard, for working journalists who wanted to spend an academic year at Columbia. They would study economics and business, drawing on the resources of the entire university – from the business school and the economics department to the law school and the school of international affairs. The program would be rigorous: five courses per semester, at least two of them for credit. Yes, that meant final exams, a novel idea for a Nieman-type program. In addition, the program would be rooted in the Journalism School, with special seminars and dinners tailored to the needs of journalists. We were acutely aware that we were training journalists, not academics. Elie Abel and his wife are here with us tonight. Please join me in a round of applause for the man who invented the program.
Because Soma was in a new job at the New York Times, we all agreed that I should run the program in the first year. Business Week offered me a year's leave if we could get the program up and running by September 1975. That was a tall order, largely because we weren't sure where the money would come from. There was another pesky question: What name should we give the program?
Surprisingly, the money was easier than the name. Elie Abel decided we would not proceed unless we had our finances guaranteed for five years. Rather than doing it in dribs and drabs, he asked only a handful of corporations and foundations for relatively large donations. Among those that responded: Alcoa Foundation, AT&T Foundation, Exxon Education Foundation, IBM Corporation, and Prudential Insurance.
The name? Again, it was Elie's idea: name it after that eminent Victorian, Walter Bagehot, who was editor of the Economist a century ago. But we were worried about the choice. Why an Englishman? And why someone whose name was sure to be mispronounced? Well, we couldn't think of an eminent American, sort of a Walter Lippman of economics journalism. As for the pronunciation, we simply decided the heck with it. Those who didn't know Bagehot's name would just have to learn that it was not pronounced Bag Et Ho.
And so the program was born. We advertised, mailed flyers, did some recruiting – and lo and behold about forty applications came in for ten places. Soma and I were the admissions committee, with Elie looking over our shoulders. Somehow, on very short notice, we attracted a very good group of fellows. I remember Doreen Chu Jagoda, then with the Today Show, struggling with a statistics course until she mastered it. And Phil Moeller, then business editor of the Baltimore Sun, outshining MBA candidates in the Business School. I remember, too, the cooperation we had from Bob Yavitz, dean of the B-school, Professors Gagan, Thomas, and Seneca from the economics department, and numerous guests who came to dinner – from Paul Volcker, soon to be chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, to Frank Cary then CEO of IBM. Not least, I remember how much I learned, too – from the seminars and from the fellows themselves. I'm so pleased that four of the original 10 fellows are with us here tonight. John Holusha of the NYT, Jerry Morgan of Newsday, Steve Dunphy of the Seattle Times and Jim Elsener, publisher of the Business Ledger in Illinois. Take a bow, guys.
By May 1976, it was time for all of us to leave: the fellows back to their original jobs, and I to a new job as a senior editor at Newsweek, where I stayed for five years. It was Soma's turn to run the program for a year. We're all grateful to her for her pioneering role in economics journalism and her critical role in the Bagehot program. And she's still one of my best friends. Soma, please stand up. We were blessed, too, by the directors who followed: Chris Welles, recently retired from Business Week, Mary Bralove, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, Pam Hollie Kluge, a former New York Times reporter who now teaches at Ohio State, Pauline Tai from Money magazine. And for the last eight years, Terri Thompson, a 1981 Bagehot fellow, who had worked at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report. All of them, in different ways, greatly enriched the program. Thank you all.
With the Bagehot Program off and running, I worked at Newsweek, and The Saturday Review, leaving business journalism behind. Or so I thought. When I returned to BW in 1982 as executive editor, little did I know that a golden age was about to begin. The Dow was below 900 and Paul Volcker had just pushed interest rates to 20%, triggering a serious recession. It hardly seemed like an auspicious time.
But then came the Reagan-era tax cuts, the defense spending buildup, and a strong recovery. We argued whether this was old-fashioned Keynesian medicine or some new supply-side nostrum. Either way, the stock market soared, fueled by the takeover movement and the raiders. Not for nothing were the 80s called the Decade of Greed. The insider trading scandals were upon us, starring Dennis Levine, Marty Siegel, Ivan Boesky, and Mike Milken. As punishment for our sins we suffered the Market Crash of 1987, which we worried would usher in a new depression. Instead, the crash turned out to be a big buying opportunity on Wall Street – the preferred form of redemption for our yuppie era.
With barely a pause to check the S&P 500, we watched the 1990s usher in new realties and new buzz words: restructuring, globalization, the technology revolution, the productivity revolution, new eras, new paradigms, New Economy, strong growth without inflation, irrational exuberance on Wall Street, currency devaluations, Asian flu, E-commerce, B2B, B2C. And the emergence of that most unlikely of heroes, Alan Greenspan.
As we enter the New Millennium and the Age of the Internet we business journalists can look back knowing we had front-row center seats at the great events of our time. I feel privileged to have helped chronicle this extraordinary saga.
And it's not over. The Age of the Internet is, to borrow Peter Drucker's phrase, an Age of Discontinuity. This is not just another story to cover. We are part of this story. For the spread of the Internet has the potential to revolutionize the practice of journalism, like nothing since Gutenberg's printing press.
If you have any doubt that we live in an age of discontinuity, listen to this: It was in 1991 – just nine years ago – that Tim Berners Lee invented the World Wide Web. No it wasn't Al Gore. It was in 1996 — just four years — ago that Netscape introduced the first commercial browser. And yet today, 350 million people worldwide are using the Internet. In three years more, there will be 600 million. Every second, seven people come on the Internet for the first time somewhere around the world. No technology in our history has ever spread to so many people, in so many countries, so fast.
This is radical stuff, and it will profoundly change my publication and yours – indeed all of journalism. I spend a lot of time thinking about what my magazine will be in the Age of the Internet? Will there even be a print magazine in five or ten years?
To me, the biggest threat to the editorial role played by the traditional media – that's most of us – comes from the notion of "disintermediation." This fancy word simply means we don't need intermediaries to decide what stories to do and how to do them. We don't need Tom Brokow to be a filter, and we don't need the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post to decide what we should read. In this extreme view, the arrogant, know-it-all elite media that decides what we need to know will be replaced by a fragmented but more democratized form of journalism. In this view, you the user will decide for yourself what you want. Tell your content provider you want all the new information about the Microsoft anti-trust case or an update on the vote count in Florida and presto it will automatically be sent to your computer.
And, of course, there are all those message boards, chat rooms, and online conferences. In these interactive areas, the journalistic role of editor as filter is eliminated. The media is simply replaced by a community of users with a common interest in talking to each other.
Much of this is already occurring and its use will accelerate. And it's often a good thing – a lot of content from a lot of diverse sources. Like King Canute, we can't turn back the tide, even if we wanted to.
Fortunately for us in the editing business, there's more to the story. As information explodes, as everyone becomes a publisher offering expert opinions about everything, as everyone gets their personalized "Daily Me" delivered to their screens, there will co-exist a greater need for someone to be a filter or gate keeper, for someone to make judgments about what is important. There will be a greater need for broader interpretation, context, trend spotting, and understanding. Perhaps on our best days, even something approaching wisdom.
And this is where the traditional editorial role will prevail. This is where the role of the journalist or editor will become even more important – as a screener, analyst, and expert. This is where the editor as intermediary will thrive – bringing you stories you wouldn't have even thought to ask for in your narcissistic "Daily Me."
I don't know about you, but I want to see what the editors of The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal deem important enough to put on the front page. Or what Wired or The New Republic or Fortune or The Economist, or Time decide is significant enough to be a cover story. I want their advice in helping me make judgments. And I'm willing to pay for it – pay for real value added.
This is where the respected brands in publishing become even more important. In an age when anyone can go on the Internet and say anything they damn well please, often anonymously, the respected voices of our best known media brands will be more valuable than ever.
In short, two worlds will co-exist – the interactive, free- wheeling vox pop world of online content, and the traditional world of newspapers, magazines, TV, and books – doing what we all would recognize as journalism – even if the form of distribution ultimately changes. Notice that I said journalism not content. There is a place for both, but they are different.
All this is already happening. Many of the news organizations represented here have robust web sites with original material that attracts new audiences. They're coming for the fresh content that takes advantage of what the Internet can do that print cannot do. This is the crucial point.
Think about it. Think about the things that an online publication can do that a traditional magazine or newspaper cannot. Let me quickly tick off five things.
First of all, of course, online can be multimedia. We all can and do provide audio and video. And with the advent of broadband capability over the next two or three years, the online world will become richly visual.
Second, online can be updated at any time. All of the publications represented here tonight are capable of breaking stories regularly without waiting for our daily, or weekly, or monthly deadlines.
Third, online means that every web page can become its own portal. (Repeat) Suppose you're reading a story about IBM and you want to know more. Do you want a complete set of financials? – P&Ls, balance sheets, 10K statements? Just click on the IBM hyperlink in the text. You then can get just about anything you want Online from company reports or stock reports furnished by Standard & Poor's or someone else. Drill down as deep as you want. You have your own library at your fingertips. This is content with a Capital C.
Fourth, of course, the online world is interactive. You can engage in dialogue. Or you can join a chat room discussion. Or post a message on a message board. Or buy something from an E-Commerce vendor.
Fifth, and finally, online information can be customized just for you. Specify what industry you're interested in, what company, or what stock. The information will be sent to you. Or you can search for it yourself.
Here's an example from my own magazine that shows the potential of all five of these attributes. In the last 12 years or so Business Week has been ranking business schools in the magazine. We do it every two years, and it's quite popular. Well, now we have an even more robust offering online. Instead of the 30 schools in the magazines, we profile 225. Read in-depth reports on any one of them. Or slice and dice the information anyway you want. Want to compare Dartmouth, Columbia, and Northwestern on one screen? Two clicks and it's yours. Want to tour the Wharton campus? Another couple of clicks and you're there on video. Want to watch a video interview with the head of the entrepreneurial program at Stanford? Presto, he's on your desktop. Want to find the least expensive B-schools in the Midwest? Want to find the least expensive B-schools in the Midwest that have the best finance programs? Need a scholarship? Want to talk to other students? Want to download applications? Well, you get the idea. We're talking about an information utility, an enabling device for millions of people.
So where does all this leave print publications? How does an ink-stained wretch like me or you compete in the New World?
Think about it the same way. Ask yourself what print can do better than online.
Right now, of course, print has a lot going for it. A newspaper or magazine is easy to read, lightweight, doesn't need batteries, never crashes, doesn't have to boot up, is very inexpensive. Who among us wants to read a long article on a computer screen? Trouble is, all of these print advantages will either disappear or become less relevant as technology improves – broadband capability, better screens, smaller devices, better batteries, and so on. The E-book tablet is already here and pretty soon you can receive all the newspapers and magazines you want on it in a highly readable format.
No, when I talk about the advantage of a print publication I'm talking about something much more fundamental than battery life or screen resolution. I'm talking about something I mentioned earlier: The difference between content and journalism, the difference between raw data and skillful interpretation, the difference between tons of information and razor-sharp analysis. The difference between sound bites and depth. I'm talking about synthesis, insight, investigative reporting, narrative, context, deep understanding, and yes wisdom. It's the rare web site that offers this.
This requires time. This requires thoughtfulness. This requires somebody sitting down and thinking through the meaning of breaking news or what has been gathered from databases or interviews. This requires writing it down for others to read, understand, and argue with. At its highest level, this is what journalism is all about. We take content and add value.
And the need for this will not go away – especially for the sort of subject matter important to business journalists. Yes, in the future our children or our grandchildren will get this wisdom delivered on an electronic tablet or perhaps to a wireless information appliance implanted in their brains. So be it. We will all deliver it that way. But I believe, in the smithy of my soul, that even if the medium ultimately changes, the human need, the intellectual need for thoughtful journalism will never, ever go away.
© 2000 Stephen B. Shepard. All rights reserved.