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So What Do You Do, Merrill Brown, News21 Editorial Director?

A media jack-of-all-trades describes 'pushing the boulder up the cliff and solving hard problems'

- May 16, 2007
merrill_brown_051607.jpg No matter where your media interests lie, it's probably safe to assume that at one time or another, Merrill Brown has had your dream job. Reporter at a big-name paper? Check. (He covered finance for the Washington Post.) Magazine editor-in-chief? Of course. (He was nominated for a National Magazine Award when helming Channels.) TV executive? You bet. (He was one of the original founders of CourtTV.) Publishing strategist? Sure thing. (He was a consulting editor at both Money and Time, as well as several other media companies, and now runs his own consulting firm.) New media visionary? Been there, doing that. (He was the founding editor of MSNBC.com, the launch director for DesktopVideo, and is the chairman of Now Public, a Vancouver-based Web company that could change the face of news reporting. "It wants to be the premium acquirer and distributor of citizen journalism around the world," he says).

So is there a method to Brown's resumé madness? "My career switches are more based on exciting opportunities that were presented than on some clearly well-developed plan," he says.

Brown's also looking toward journalism's future by helping to train tomorrow's reporting superstars. He's editorial director of News21, a news initiative sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation and the Knight Foundation. In that role he ensures that student journalists from five journalism programs -- Columbia, Northwestern, Berkeley, USC, and Harvard -- have the tools they need to produce investigative content on issues relevant to American democracy in principle and application.


Position: National editorial director of News21; Chairman of NowPublic.com; founder and principal of his own consulting business, MMB Media LLC
Education: BA in political science from Washington University, St. Louis, 1974
Hometown: Born in Philadelphia, grew up in Silver Spring Maryland
First full time job: Newspaper reporter at the Winston Salem NC Sentinel
Resume: Senior vice president of RealNetworks; founding editor-in-chief of MSNBC.com; SVP of Court TV
Marital status: Married
What's your favorite TV show: Curb Your Enthusiasm
Last book read: The Greatest Story Ever Sold, by Frank Rich
Most interesting media story right now: The accelerating decline of the American newspaper
Guilty pleasure: New York restaurants
First section you read in your Sunday paper: "The reality of reading the Sunday paper is that it begins on Saturday with the inserts, so I guess Arts and Leisure."


You've moved back and forth between reporting and publishing -- you were a finance reporter for the Washington Post, then the director of business development for the Washington Post Co., and then went on to being the editor-in-chief of Channels. Why and how did you make the switch back to editorial?
I've gone back and forth as interesting opportunities presented themselves, because I'm passionate about both media products and the business components that make them successful. The other part of it is I consciously decided that I wanted to leave the business of daily reporting because I wanted to be more of a participant in making things happen than acting as just an observer. I wanted to be one of the people pushing the boulder up the cliff and solving hard problems, rather than observing other people doing so and reporting on it in journalism.

You helped create Court TV. How did that network come about, and what was your role in creating it?
In the late 80s, I was quite exited about the opportunity to develop new things in cable TV because the industry was booming. I wanted to be part of the early stages of an exciting cable opportunity. I got to know, socially, the guy whose idea it was, Steve Brill. He called me with the idea and said, "What you do think?" It sounded like a great idea, and I went off to do it. I had covered antitrust litigation as a business reporter, and I was comfortable in a courtroom, even if I didn't have any real legal training.

You seem to be involved in almost all aspects of media -- from Web sites to magazines to newspapers to television. Which medium is doing the best job evolving?
That's pretty easy. The Internet was a blank screen in the mid-90s, now it's evolved in a short period of time to a very specialized delivery mechanism for news, and it's the best delivery platform for news that's ever been invented.

But has it found a way to make money?
The New York Times continues to report rising and significant amounts of revenue on their digital operations. The MSNBC and CNN sites are significantly profitable; evaluating the profitability of a lot of newspaper Web sites is hard. When you see the revenue of the Philadelphia Inquirer or the Boston Globe's site, you see their revenue number and the cost of operations of the Web site, but you don't see the payroll that involves hundreds of journalists who write the content. But the biggest standalone kind of news sites are showing good revenue growth and margin. Internet news is making significant amounts of money in many places.

Do you think your career path is an anomaly, or do you think future media players are going to have to do it all -- whether it's editorial, programming or business development?
I don't hold myself up as an example of anything in particular. However, in helping journalism schools develop curriculum, I've realized that it's important that journalists think of themselves not just as people creating content but as entrepreneurs. In the brave new world, the opportunity to start things and create business models exists for journalists. People in journalism need to have serious knowledge about how the business works and what the entrepreneurial opportunities are that the business presents. It's really important for today's future journalists and young journalists to understand.

Where has your diverse background better served you: does your business knowledge better help your journalism skills, or does your journalism background make you a more creative businessman?
I guess my journalism skills have made me a fast study and have given me the ability to understand the art of analyzing challenging issues in a very helpful way. On the flip side, in helping develop MSNBC.com as editor-in-chief, the fact that I could assess the business opportunities of starting from scratch on the Web was enormously helpful in making MSNBC.com successful.

I don't think it's inappropriate for ad sales people and editors and reporters to intermingle, as long as they know where the lines are. One of the failures of media today is the way "church and state" is implemented.

Is there danger in crossing over from business to editorial and back again? Did you ever feel undue influence from one sector over the other, or that your loyalties to either the news or the bottom line were affect your ability to do your job?
No, because job definitions are just that, and when you play one role, your commitment is to precisely that role. Although when you're the EIC of a media property these days, especially on the Web, you need to both influence the business process and figure out how to adapt to the changing nature of the newsroom in ways that didn't exist in the past. I don't believe in the traditional interpretation of what church and state means. I don't think it's inappropriate for ad sales people and editors and reporters to intermingle, as long as they know where the lines are. I think one of the failures of media today is the way "church and state" is implemented. Journalists with good ideas and sales staff with good ideas should be able to collaborate in a creative process. I'm for a complete breakdown of what church and state means, as long as ethics remain. I've walked that line, and I'd like to think that I haven't crossed it. Editors need to understand the right place to draw that line, especially in the current environment.

You were the first editor-in-chief at MSNBC.com. What was the site like then? Was it a very planned out, focused-group effort, or like the Wild, Wild West?
Much closer to Wild, Wild West. We did research about users' interests and how they were using the site and so forth, but the challenge of getting pictures and words on an Internet page in 1996 was not insignificant. The mere act of publishing had challenges in itself. Think about how easy it is to start a blog today compared to what it took to start a Web page in 1996. One of the challenges was to create work that took advantage of the capacity of the Internet as a medium. It was really important to turn stories around as quickly as possible -- to be really good at breaking news. So if you hear something happen, you come to the Web site and get the story, and your experience is satisfying. Something happens in Congress, a plane goes down, war breaks out -- it was with those situations as a premise, creating materials for the medium was important, and with those premises we set off.

Back then, mainstream media thought that Internet news was trivial, and thought it was a passing fancy and would never be a major competitive platform. Lots of friends couldn't believe I moved my life from New York to engage in this odd thing of delivering news to a machine on a desk. The public was curious but not engaged. We had real small number of people in 1995 and '96 using the stuff, but there was already a community of early adopters into it, and their communications with us helped the whole category develop.

In your career, you've done a lot of consulting. Is there a common problem in media environments that arises from the same team working together for too long, and which can be easily solved with a fresh pair of eyes?
The print business in general has moved way too slowly to embrace and implement the cultural change that the digital era requires. Only now with profit and loss issues so dramatic are they waking up to the reality of the changes that are required. Across a lot of my work, one of the things they talk to me about, and I try to help them with, is how you can rapidly change the old culture of print and turn it into more of a digital environment. People have a lot at stake; it's hard, but the process of doing it is accelerating and managements need to do it more aggressively and add more resources to it.

Why are they so slow in embracing it? Is it a sense of superiority, that print and old media is better than print? Or just unfamiliarity with the medium?
There are a number of issues: one is the fact that for lots of media companies, the bulk of revenue produced comes from print and that needs to be protected and developed and not ignored. This is issue number one -- the traditional media business remains very large and can't be ignored. Number two is that there are still many executives and editorial people in key positions who are not yet comfortable with new technology. There are executives who rarely look at video online, and who certainly don't have a strong engagement with Web 2.0 issues, like social networks, and who still see the Internet function as being about distributing conventional programming rather than developing new content. If you go to any number of newspaper and magazine Web sites for large publications around the country, basically what you get is re-edited and republished work from another platform put on the Web. That is totally wrong.

How did you come to work for News21?
I developed a project with the Carnegie Corporation of New York to do a research paper on young people and how they use the news. So I started working with them to develop that paper, which got a lot of attention when it was completed. In engaging with Carnegie and in the context of my relationship with them, I learned they were part of developing this initiative with a bunch of journalism schools, and they asked me to sit in on some meetings and participate in thinking about the initiative. When it finally came together, I had a relationship with them, had been an adviser, and had been networking for both the Carnegie and Knight Foundations. The initiative came along, and the opportunity to run the program was part of the grant, and they asked me to help put it together, and I was happy to. It was a natural extension of the work I'd been doing.

My role is to help the universities and the faculty and the fellows to set up a summer program -- we have four newsrooms that allow the fellows to create important stories around a given topic. The program starts with a course in the spring or winter semester on the topic of the summer program. Students then go out and report for ten weeks over the summer and with a goal of creating high caliber content about those topics. I make sure that they get what they need to create those newsrooms and the accompanying Web sites -- the appropriation of resources like cameras and Web application software. I do what I can to help pull that together.

Obviously, the students get a lot out of the experience, but what do they bring to the project that more seasoned journalists don't have?
They bring a sense of what digital media can do to improve storytelling that certainly many of their older colleagues don't have, because digital tools -- whether it's flash or Internet video or animated applications -- a lot of that is second nature to many journalism grad students. They understand the world of the Web, and have a somewhat different approach to conventional storytelling. They see the world through a completely different perspective. That's really helpful in seeing and creating stories that work across multiple platforms.

What are some of the projects that have come out of News21 that have impressed you?
Last year, the first summer, the project was on liberty and security, the tension between the traditional American view of civil liberties and the need for national security. We broke it down into topics and products. We developed a deep relationship with the Associated Press, got seven or eight stories on the AP A wire, one of which won awards and got lots of attention. It was about the education department improperly going through college funding reports and taking out data about students. When we revealed the program, they discontinued it.

We did great investigative reporting, doing work about topics like that, or like how outsourcing worked in military intelligence. I mean, really terrific investigative stories that got a lot of attention. We did an hour-long documentary for CNN on the lives of U.S. military men and women abroad. They reported on immigration in Southern California, what immigration is like there, the drama and the challenges people face. We had stories in many major publications and TV shows -- we did a series of stories on immigration on California public television. We broke stories. It was precisely the kind of media opportunity we were trying to create for them, and we hope to repeat that success this summer.

Many journalists struggle with going back to school and learning journalism versus just jumping in the mix, pitching and writing and reporting. What benefits to journalists come from a formal education in journalism?
The benefits of journalism grad school include access to the best teaching they could possibly have. Journalism organizations are rarely known for their ability to mentor people. Students are getting training from world-class experts. There's also value in allowing journalists to expand the nature of their skills, and expand the level of those skills, whether it's in TV production or writing or new media. Journalism school can also give students exposure to lots of different media opportunities. They get to engage in these opportunities and mediums while they're in school, which is valuable in shaping career decisions. World-class teaching, skill development, and exposure to media -- all of this can do a world of good for the right kind of students in journalism school.

Traditional media is at risk in part because younger people don't consume news the same way their parents did. How is the media industry going to have to change as a result -- and will the face of the media industry change when it's Yahoo and Google who provide people with most of their information?
There is no evidence that Yahoo and Google are going to be major original sources of news content. They remain distinct vehicles for the work of mainstream media organizations. No matter how many people go to Yahoo and Google for their news, their work is going to come from someone else. Yahoo News has a few dozen people on staff, and most are in producer roles, not fact gatherers. Readers still depend on wires and newspapers and TV networks for content, and that's why it's so important that the business models evolve quickly. They remain the principle source for what people read every day. The blogosphere is healthy and getting healthier, and citizen journalism, like the site I'm involved in, Now Public, is really taking off. But the news that we get from sites like Google and Yahoo comes from old line, organized, mainstream media organizations, and that's not going to change.

In addition to Now Public, you're also an adviser to BackFence, which is a Web-based, community journalism project. Leasing out news coverage to citizen journalists is almost the opposite of the work being done at News21, where students are given very specific training and guidance. Can both models co-exist?
It's critical that the two coexist and work as collaborative enterprises. In order to make the newspaper model work, newspapers have to, because of their declining resource base, use citizens to help cover large metropolitan areas and communities. Around the world, Now Public has 90,000 registered contributors in 150 countries. NowPublic has the opportunity to fill some of the void left by some of the major media organizations who are feeling like they have to close down bureaus around the world. Now Public can be eyes and ears in lots of places around the world not covered.

Figuring out how to make the old and new work together is critically important, so I'm excited about Now Public. Now Public is a great opportunity and a great enterprise. Now Public takes material in real time, whether it's from a camera phone or notepad or digital camera or computer and brings it into public consciousness in ways conventional media isn't and can't. In the presentation we just gave to investors recently, we showed pictures from Heathrow Airport when Heathrow was closed after the liquid scare. The airport was closed off, and media couldn't get in, but we had pictures from citizen journalists who could get there when the media couldn't.

All of that needs to be put into a journalism and news content that makes sense for those of us surrounded by a cacophony of stuff, and we now have a public forum that is going to make that happen. It's very important that the journalism community get this right.



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