Ken Chandler Discusses Journalism Today & Its Future

Ken Chandler is executive editor at Newsmax Media, a leading independent online news site and magazine. Before joining Newsmax, Chandler spent 29 years at News Corp. in the United States, where he was editor-in-chief of The New York Post and editorial director of the Boston Herald.

Ken Chandler is executive editor at Newsmax Media, a leading independent online news site and magazine. Before joining Newsmax, Chandler spent 29 years at News Corp. in the United States, where he was editor-in-chief of The New York Post and editorial director of the Boston Herald.

He and Richard Torrenzano met recently to discuss how journalism and media have evolved and what it’s like to operate in the current political environment.

Richard Torrenzano: You are well known for being the publisher and a journalist for The New York Post for many years. Can you tell us about your news career before the The New York Post?”

Ken Chandler: As you’ll probably discern from my accent, I was born in London and I spent my first 27 years of my life there before coming to the States.

I was in the newspaper business from a very young age. I started as a training reporter when I was 18 years old on a suburban community weekly newspaper. And I finished up on Fleet Street, went to work for Rupert Murdoch, he owned a newspaper there called The Sun. It’s the biggest selling newspaper, was those days, selling five million copies a day … one of the largest newspapers in the English-speaking world.

In 1974, he asked me to come to the United States. He’d begun to make investments in the newspaper business here. He started off with a small newspaper in San Antonio, Texas, eventually bought The New York Post, The Boston Herald, The Chicago Sun Times, then Fox.

RT: Did you start at The New York Post as a journalist?

KC: Yes, I started as an editor and then became managing editor. I then went to The Boston Herald as editor-in-chief in 1986.

I came back to New York and did a little work with Fox television. I was the executive producer of a show called “A Current Affair,” which was like the granddaddy of the tabloid TV shows. So, blame me for tabloid television.

I came back to The New York Post as editor-in-chief then I became a publisher. I retired from News Corp in 2002.

RT: How did you end up at Newsmax?

KC: I was fortunate enough to reconnect with Chris Ruddy, founder and CEO of Newsmax. He and I had worked together at The New York Post, he’d been a columnist when I was the editor. So right now, we have a little role reversal. Chris founded Newsmax in 1998. And it’s been profitable, ever since. And there’s not a lot of web news organizations that can say that.

RT: Tell me about what you do as editor-in-chief of Newsmax? Is it print, is it television, is it a combination of things?

KC: One of the fortunate things about this job, which I really love, is the fact that it’s a bit of everything.

We have a monthly news magazine, we publish about 17 newsletters every month on financial and health issues.

We also have a huge website that reaches almost sixty million Americans every month with political news, health news, financial news, and we’ve just recently started a 24-hour TV channel.

So, I’m lucky, I have my foot in everything. As executive editor of “Newsmax,” I’m responsible for the editorial content across all those platforms.

RT: What are the opportunities for Newsmax in the next five years?

KC: There are other opportunities that are going to be out there and we probably don’t know what they are at this point because technology’s evolving so fast.

RT: In the last five years, we’ve seen a lot of pressure on journalism as a business. Margins, advertising, technology, journalism ethics. You were the editor and publisher of The New York Post in its heyday. What has changed with print? Is there a role for it going forward?

KC: I think that newspapers will continue. But will be severely diminished. I don’t think there’ll be so many of them.

But, you know, it’s like when television came along, people said well, that’s the end of movies. Well guess what, movies still survived. They had to adapt, they changed, they had to be more targeted in who they were appealing to, but they are still there.

Newspapers, if they’re smart, will be able to adapt. But it will be much more challenging, because traditionally newspapers had two forms of revenue. They had the 50 cents, the subscription that you forked over, and they had advertising. Advertising has pretty much gone away.

RT: Well, as newspapers are changing, is the influence they have greatly changing?

KC: It is, and unfortunately, it’s a generational thing.

People of our age may still be clinging onto the habit of reading a print newspaper. Most young people read it online, but they never read the print edition.

RT: Let’s talk a little bit about the influence of media. What Donald Trump has done is dramatically change the influence through the use of technology, through things like Twitter,  and so forth. Is that something you see? Will that change? Will it continue to move in that direction?

KC: In different ages, Presidents have looked for a way to communicate directly to the citizens – remember the Fireside Chats with Roosevelt.

Donald Trump realized how useful it could be, because you get the message out there, it doesn’t get filtered by the media, it doesn’t get edited, and it’s out there for what it is.

RT: If you go back in American history, you see this kind of mudslinging that’s really gone on. During the Burr era, we had fake print news, but today we have fake Internet news, which obviously can be seen by many more people. What should journalists be doing now to address this, and how are they going to recapture perhaps some of the credibility loss in terms of the American people?

KC: You just used the very important word, credibility. And maybe I’m old school but to me credibility counts for an awful lot. It’s really the only currency we  have as journalists.

You can fool people once, maybe fool them twice, but the third time they’ll say that that website doesn’t know what it’s talking about.

So, for an organization like Newsmax, credibility is absolutely crucial. And when we see a story like the one that came out with Trump and security services, we take a very cautious approach to stories like that, because there’s just no prize for being wrong.

One of the issues for me with the Internet is that it’s a work in progress. It’s very democratic, anybody can get on there. In the old days, you used to have to own a newspaper and buy the ink by the gallon, and you had to be rich. Anybody can get on the Internet now and say what they want. There will be a sorting out process.

And so you can’t get caught up in this fake news stuff. I mean everybody makes mistakes, but you know, fake news is a danger.  ​

RT: One commentator was recently talking about the spiral down of CNN. They’re obviously in their crush years right now. What should the editor do, or what should a newsperson do, to try to give credibility back to CNN, rather than just a new ad campaign?

KC: Once you make a mistake it sticks for a while. They’ll get over it, and CNN’s a pretty good news organization.

Let’s go back to when I came to the States 40 years ago, when you really just had CBS, ABC and NBC. And let’s suppose a story like the Trump security services story had come up then. You know, there’s no way that Walter Cronkite would have broken that story without being 100% sure of it. And he would of sat on it and sat on it, because he knew that the other two wouldn’t do it either.

These days, you don’t know that if you sit on a story, somebody else isn’t going to break it. So you have competitive challenges that didn’t exist previously. And there’s a lot of so- called journalists, who really aren’t journalists and do not have any journalistic background or journalistic training. They don’t really understand what they’re doing in some cases.

RT: All of these new websites, whether they be as elaborate as yours or as small as maybe a blog by somebody, are beating out newspapers and television to a great extent, perhaps even radio, because they have the ability to post things quickly, if indeed they check out. Can traditional outlets play?  ​

KC: It’s really very simple. When I was editor of The New York Post in the 1990’s, before the Internet really took off, every morning you paid me 50 cents to buy the paper and I told you what happened 24 hours earlier.

There has been a sort of see change in the way we consume news. Now, I pull out my phone, I can see what happened 24 minutes earlier or 24 seconds. And I don’t have to give you 50 cents.

The whole thing has changed and it’s one of the reasons why newspapers are not doing well, because it’s old news by the time you get it.

RT: It seems newspapers and magazines are becoming more analytical than the news itself. The news is out there for sometimes six, eight, ten, twelve hours, it’s been announced, and they need to go in and analyze it and provide a different service than just giving me the news I was able to read on my phone. Is that reasonable?

KC: That’s true, the Internet has been this huge disrupter. It used to be we’d all come home at night and watch Walter Cronkite. We no longer do that, then we viewed CNN, MSNBC or Fox for breaking news, but we really don’t do that anymore, because we get this breaking news on our phone.

So the cable news networks have had to adapt. If you remember CNN originally, it was really just rolling news, and remember they had that channel “Headline News,” nobody needs that anymore because it’s on your phone. So they’ve had to change – that’s why you have so much analysis and commentary in the evenings, because by the time people turn on TV at night, they know the news, they want to hear people’s opinions of the news.

I was talking to someone the other day who works for one of the news stations in New York. Their ratings are suffering because it used to be people would turn on the news in the morning to find out the weather and the traffic and stuff like that, and then maybe they’d go to an FM station for music. But they’d go to the AM station to start with. They don’t need to do that anymore, because they look on their phones. Their phone is their alarm, it goes off, it tells them what the weather is, and tells them if the world has exploded overnight while they were sleeping.

RT: Let’s look into your crystal ball. Where do you see all this going over the next few years?

KC: The big players will be around, especially those that have big corporations behind them, because they have the means to withstand the ups and downs and they can rebrand themselves, and if they get into trouble, they’ve got the resources to get out of trouble.

You will see a lot of consolidation among the smaller players on the Internet. And of course, we don’t really know what’s going to happen to the Internet, how it’s going to be regulated, what the future is for that – that could have an impact.

RT: Given the changing landscape and some recent incidents, is there a discussion amongst the journalist community about ethics and credibility and an approach?

KC:  I would say that there is discussion, but it’s not a very effective discussion. People who are in this business, are fearful of losing their jobs particularly in the print business, there are cutbacks all the time. We’ve talked about the Internet’s effect on print, but let’s talk for a moment about the Internet’s effect on broadcast television, because broadcast stations are in a squeeze at the moment, because they’re seeing their advertising revenues move to the Internet. A lot of local news stations are questioning the need to have expensive news operations, although traditionally they were profit centers, but maybe not so much now with the Internet and video-on-demand and YouTube. So there’s always been a lot of sort of navel gazing in the business about ethics. People think that – I want to keep my job – is now more of a concern than it’s ever been. Because there are not a lot of good journalism jobs. There are a lot of entry level positions, but if you’re an experienced journalist, your options are very few and far between at the moment, because newspapers are not hiring. And they were traditionally, the biggest employers of journalists. TV stations may still be hiring but, as we know from the TV business, your journalism experience isn’t necessarily what counts to getting in front of the camera.

RT: Today you can go online almost immediately and listen to a presidential speech or something similar without having to listen to much additional commentary. What effect did this change have?

KC: I’m actually convinced that that was a contributing factor to the growth of Newsmax because when I came onboard here, six years ago, we had a very small group of people who would video record interviews with politicians, and we would post the video on the website, together with the story. So people could read the story, but they could also watch the video. And the video is unfiltered – and we always made a point at Newsmax of not interrupting politicians, letting them say what they wanted to say, whether they were republicans or democrats. So they knew, the reason they would come on Newsmax is because they knew they were going to get a fair shake, and they would be able to get their message across. And I think the public really appreciated the opportunity to see politicians talking without being interrupted by some smart-aleck overpaid, over pampered, overdressed reporter in an elite New York Studio.

RT: Who do you compete with at Newsmax?

KC: There’s no one competitor, because we’re in print, we’re in television and we’re a website. What makes Newsmaxa little different is that we identified a market that we feel is underserved, and that’s age 45 and older – the baby boomers. Madison Avenue has typically been obsessed with 25 year olds through advertising. Chris Ruddy, the CEO and founder of Newsmax, looked at this baby boomer generation and said here is a group of people that have a lot of disposable income, they’re not being catered to, and we see a real opportunity in the market. So, that’s why our political coverage is very popular. As I said, we’re reaching up to almost 60 million   Americans every month now on our website.

ComScore, which rates websites, rated us as the third biggest conservative news website in the country. So, we’re reaching that demographic. But, of course, they’re also interested in health, it’s a big issue for baby boomers now, as is financial issues, retiring, planning, investing, and stuff like that.

So, we are absolutely laser focused on appealing to that demographic, that’s what we do, and that’s who we do it for. And you know, I like to describe “Newsmax” as sort of a one stop shop to come to for the baby boomers where they can find out what’s going on, and they can find out lifestyle stuff that’s of interest to them.

RT: As the baby boomers get older, and as a new generation moves into that space, will you try to change your format to engage that new generation?

KC: We will adapt, we’ll have to. I think traditionally, when people do get to that age group, they all have the same interests. Our parent’s generation probably had the same interest at that age, health – different times but the same interest so that won’t change.

RT: Let’s talk about, the difference in the way news is delivered today. Many, are reading the news digitally on their iPhones, on their iPads, on their computers, versus the way we all grew up reading an actual newspaper, getting our hands dirty. Talk about your experience with this, and where this trend is going?

KC: Well, I had this sort of hallelujah moment about four years ago. I commute to New York City on the train from the northern suburbs. I was on the train one morning with my armful of four or five newspapers that I buy at the newsstand. As I was looking for a seat I just happened to notice, probably a couple hundred people in the car on the train, there was only one other person reading a newspaper – he was older than me. And I thought to myself, oh my God, I’m a dinosaur. I don’t want to be a dinosaur. So I got to the office, I got out my iPad, and I started subscribing to newspapers online. I don’t think I’ve picked up a print newspaper maybe a couple of times since then.

When you get your news online, you tend to bookmark stuff that’s interesting to you, so you’re kind of in your own bottle. If you buy a newspaper and you flick through pages, you’re going to come across stories that you didn’t know you were interested in and things you didn’t even know existed. So to me, the print newspaper reading experience is a great experience, and I’m very sad that the younger generations aren’t going to have that experience.