Norman Pearlstine on Journalism in the Digital Age

​Norman Pearlstine is chief content officer and executive vice president of Time, Inc. and oversees editorial policies, works closely with all Time, Inc.’s editors and seeks growth opportunities for brands across all platforms.

Norman Pearlstine is chief content officer and executive vice president of Time, Inc. and oversees editorial policies, works closely with all Time, Inc.’s editors and seeks growth opportunities for brands across all platforms.

Pearlstine served as Time Inc.’s Editor-In-Chief from 1994 through 2005; was senior adviser to Time Warner Inc. and to the Carlyle Group’s telecom and media team before joining Bloomberg in 2008 as its chief content officer.

Pearlstine began his career at The Wall Street Journal and was executive editor, Forbes magazine. At the Journal, he served as managing editor (1983-1991) and executive editor (1991-1992).

Pearlstine authored OFF THE RECORD: The Press, the Government, and the War over Anonymous Sources, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in June 2007.

​He and Richard Torrenzano met recently to discuss the state of journalism and what the future holds.

Richard Torrenzano: You have been around for some time – tell me the changes you have seen.

Norman Pearlstine: In 1967 I began as a copy boy at The New York Times when they were still using hot type, Linotype. So you’ve got somebody with a lot of years behind him. As a copy boy, I nearly caused a walkout by daring to touch some lead and the topographers’ union at The New York Times, though I didn’t know it at the time, had a rule that if any journalist touched type, it was a chapel meeting—a union action.

Since then, the business has changed so much. As recently as 1985, The Wall Street Journal reporters were working on Royal manual typewriters and using 10-ply carbons. We introduced the first front end system into the Journal’s domestic edition in 1985. And so, if you think about going from that to today where there’s full pagination, where there are digital products with a lot of print products having video components as part of them, those are extraordinary changes in less than 30 years.

We have a clear vision of what we need to do. The secular trends are real. All of our publications are profitable now but if we don’t move quickly that won’t be true.

RT: Historically, there’s always been a separation of the news side and the business side — let’s call it church and state. It seems that is less now. Do you see some of that?

NP: Your question covers many issues. Most obvious and important, which I hope has remained constant with quality publications, is the need for a level of editorial independence from advertisers, and a focus on the customer be it a subscriber, a newsstand buyer, a consumer of digital or video user.
In addition to editorial independence, we need standards to assure editorial integrity. There are times when we need to recognize a separation between the interests of advertisers and the interests of readers. Editors have to be really focused on readers and viewers.

RT: So editors must be concerned more about the business side today?

​NP: I think some understand that if you are perceived as someone who would do anything to chase advertising dollars, you run the risk you won’t be able to attract great talent to work for you and ultimately, your readers and viewers will be suspicious of your content.

And so you really need to balance these competing interests. There are certainly ways to do it. We have to recognize the customer has changed and is a bit more sophisticated, now understanding the difference between editorial and advertising in ways maybe editors have been slow to fully appreciate.

For example, children who are growing up multitasking who are accustomed to YouTube and Facebook and Instagram get their information a whole lot of different ways and are less troubled by banner ads, by slide shows, by things to someone who just grew up in print would find quite intrusive.

RT: Why is that not happening in some instances?
NP: Or on its own. And there are examples of that already. We invested in something called 120 Sports, something Major League baseball is very much a part of. It produces two-minute film segments on games – everything but the NFL. And that’s an important investment for us. We have much more video now.

We are producing a series of stories between SI and Fortune about athletes at the end of their careers and how they stay in shape and remain competitive while pursuing careers in business. That’s been a very popular feature for both magazines.

I could see a conference on the business of sports that might be done with someone like Fortune. We’re very interested in developing stronger capability within our automotive coverage across all of our brands. And you could imagine that SI might do much more with NASCAR, with Formula 1, with athletes and their cars.

RT: Let’s go back to some journalism answers for a second.  Let’s talk about anonymous sources – something you know very well.

NP: Oh, would love to, yes.

RT: In 2007, you had the great book called Off the Record . What has happened since you wrote that book? Has a lot changed? Has nothing changed? Did the book have impact? Is there a different dialogue about this issue today?

NP: Well, I don’t know that the book, per se, had impact but I think there’s certainly a number of changes.

One is that the Obama administration, particularly under Eric Holderas Attorney General, has been much more aggressive in not only pursuing leaks but also, in going after the journalists who publish.

At the same time, with the change in technology, if you will, leaks have become not only more pervasive but more damaging.

When you think that a private first class sitting in a bunker in Bagdad was able to download five hundred thousand files of the State Department and leak them to Julian Assange, you know that’s pretty extraordinary.

When you think that Snowden, a contractor who admittedly had worked with the CIA but had three months in his current job, sitting in Honolulu, was able to download what – this goes far beyond some of the early examples of leaks.

John F. Kennedy was one of those many people who said that the ship of state is the only ship that leaks from the top. You know, there’s been a tradition of both inspired leaks and leaks that have not been for a long time, but nothing of the magnitude of what we see now.

That’s complicated things for some journalists. You have to be very careful you’re not stimulating that leak that you’re not a co-conspirator.

RT: But what about the sources, the leakers?

NP: I think we’ve had to really understand the promises we make to sources when we take information from them, given the laws on the books and the fervor with which they’re being pursued. For example, as I learned, in 2005, when the Valerie Plame case led to the calling of a special prosecutor who wanted our sources that the Supreme Court had ruled in the early 70s in a case called Branzburg that when it comes to testifying before a grand jury, there’s no First Amendment privilege enabling a reporter to keep sources confidential. Most journalists don’t think about that when they’re talking to a source who says, “Are you going to protect me on this story?”

So understanding the difference between anonymity and confidentiality becomes really important. There a lot of times where I’m very happy to say, “Well, if what you mean by, ‘Am I going to protect you,’ is am I going to keep your name out of the publication, am I going to keep this quote anonymous. Will I go to court to defend keeping you anonymous, yes? Will I go to jail for that? Well, let’s talk about that because the answer’s probably no. And if that’s the level you need, you know, then we probably can’t use the information.”

It’s especially difficult when you’re not only saying, “OK, I’m willing to go to jail but am I also willing to have 40 people who might see your name in an email go to jail as well? Am I willing to submit my company – subject my company – to fines that could very well put it out of business?”

It’s an important question. There are certain times when the answer is yes and you would say, “The information I have is in the public interest. The person I’m trying to protect, their life or livelihood may be at stake. And this information is so important that I’m willing to grant that level of confidentiality.”

I think Snowden’s a really interesting case because while Snowden did a lot of things that were probably illegal, I don’t know that it was necessarily treasonous.

He thinks he was a great public citizen. There’s no doubt that if a journalist gets the information about something like PRISM, it is in the public interest to publish.  Our government was doing a level of eavesdropping that goes far beyond anything that I think most citizens were aware of. And I could see as a journalist that you might want to grant confidentiality in a circumstance like that.

At the same time, I think in most cases, the argument is not a compelling one. That you really have to say to your source, “Look, I’m willing to grant anonymity, willing to fight for that. But I’m not going to break a law to keep this information anonymous because it doesn’t rise to that level.”

RT: You faced these issues all the time in Fortune and other publications, particularly on national security and other important issues. What rules do you have? What discussions go on about these kinds of issues?

NP: In the year I’ve been back, I’ve been focused on some other issues but it certainly has come up. There have been a number of stories, particularly in Sports Illustrated, where I’ve sat with counsel and with editors and said, “OK, we’re going to grant anonymity,” one where we did grant confidentiality. “And we’ll take that risk that the district attorney might call a grand jury and if so, we’ll have to go through that battle. But, if we think that the story is in the public interest, we’re going to go with it.”

Government has every right in the world to try to prevent leaks. What complicates it is that there are so many cases where the government actually wants the leak, to put out a trial balloon, embarrass an adversary.

And there is also just so much information that has been classified at this point that it has diluted the idea of what’s classified. When I was working on my book – I came across an example but I wasn’t the first to identify it, but of menus from a submarine of what was being served was classified because it was the activities of the sub that were classified and so forth. I mean, just ridiculous.

Well over a million people have some kind of classification as a “classifier.”   So with that ability to deem information classified almost on whim, it becomes harder to say, “Well, we’re never going to take any information that’s classified,” because often the person leaking it to you is a high government official that’s happy to get that out.

RT: Perhaps for his own agenda…

NP: Yes, for his own agenda. And that’s a separate issue

There is this tendency among journalists to assume information given on a not-for-attribution basis is more credible than information that is put out where a name is attached to it. The idea is that well, you’re spinning me if you’re going to put your name on it. But if you actually have something good, you’ll want to go on record. So trying to train reporters to say, “Look, you really need to be on the record about this. There’s no reason not to be. My readers are going to treat this story as being far more credible if it has a name attached to it than if I have to say that it is an anonymous source.” And you have to push really hard to do that.

At the same time, one of the things you do have to train reporters is to not put yourself in a position where you’re actually abetting criminal behavior on the part of someone to give you information. And we’ve had cases where we’ve gotten awful close to crossing that line.

RT: If you look at the credibility of the media, you know, as the American public today, like most institutions out there, it’s way down. The recent USA Today Gallup show only 36 percent of Americans believe news organizations get it right, where in 1989, 54 percent. How do you regain some of that public trust?

NP: Well, it’s difficult. Some is a function of performance that isn’t as good as it ought to be. Some of it is that as a society, we’re far more polarized than we were 20 years ago and, if you will, ideology has really replaced reporting in an awful lot of places.

So when Fox talks about it’s always being fair and balanced and it keeps saying it’s fair and balanced enough, the people who like what Fox does come to believe it is fair and balanced and everything else should be distrusted. And then MSNBC comes along and it has a different definition but it really wants to be a counterpoint to that. And CNN finally gets up, put in the middle, and says, “Well, if we’re more sensationalists, maybe we’ll get more ratings, more traffic.”

So it’s a far more polarized society today. The reason our government finds it so hard to get anything done is because of that polarization. So that’s one thing that’s behind it and thus hard to regain trust in that environment.

​But second, there’s just such a proliferation of information.

And I’m one of those people who think that bloggers should have all the protections that professional journalists have. I don’t think the First Amendment was written for big media companies. It was written for somebody in pajamas writing for the penny press. But the reality is that there’s so much information now and frankly, so much misinformation that it’s very easy to lose faith in the press, or media.

I was listening to a radio station in San Francisco, a talk show about Ebola. And the misinformation out of the host was just staggering. I mean, beginning with saying that Lagos was the capital of Liberia and then it went on from there to how the CIA had actually created Ebola as a way of poisoning missionaries who were undermining their efforts in developing Africa. I mean, it was just like whoa, where does that come from? And I’m sure there were a number of people listening to it who were shaking their heads saying, “Yeah, yeah that’s absolutely right.” While I’m saying, “No wonder nobody trusts us.”

RT: It all looks the same. How do you break through some of that?

NP: With great difficulty, truly. People magazine invests very heavily in its reporting. It will not run a story that it can’t confirm. It has a lot of competition that, frankly, doesn’t really think truth is particularly important.

RT: TMZ, some of the other daily shows?

NP: And some of the other weeklies. We bid for and acquired pictures on, and did a cover story on the recent wedding of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. One of our competitors has had two other stories over the years saying they were married, including an eight-page exclusive in 2013 with a picture of Angelina on the cover saying, “Yes, we’re married.” And they were bidding for pictures again, which if you believed their story of a year ago, “What are you doing here?”

And they look at me like, “Surely you jest. You don’t understand that truth has nothing to do with what we put on our cover.” Now if you’re People and you’re one of six weekly magazines that cover celebrity and entertainment, at some point, the public has trouble distinguishing one from the other. Despite that, one of the reasons we’re able to charge as much as we do and that we’re as successful as we are is that brand still does mean something.

RT: People is your most successful publication?

NP: It is. It is certainly, financially, our most successful publication. A Time cover still has a weight to it that is different from other publications. But what you point to is that there’s not only a proliferation of content but there’s an absence of standards. The proliferation is healthy. There was a time when you had three TV networks and a couple national newspapers and they were very responsible but they were also pretty dull. If you think back to the history of journalism in this country, a hundred years ago, there were 30 daily newspapers in Chicago alone.

Some of them were fact based, a number of them were really publications of opinion. And people tended to gravitate to the ones that reflected who they were.

RT: There are really only two, truly, national publications in the United States – The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Do you see these hundreds of other publications ever emerging and going in that direction?

NP: But you look at something like the Mail Online, which is a British paper but it has as big an audience in the U.S. as any national paper.

The The New York Times is today as much a national paper as the Journal. The demographics might be a little different and it may not quite read the same, but it certainly thinks of itself in terms of its editorial product as being national.

It remains to be seen what Jeff Bezos does with the Washington Post, but my presumption is that if not the print product, then digitally, it would also be a national or an international product.

RT: Lastly, if you look at, say, the bylines of The New York Times today – just choosing one publication – almost 70 percent of those are male bylines today. If you look across most other publications that are similar, while there may be some differences I suspect it is still male-dominant. There was a time when many women wanted to come into journalism. Is that changing? Is that going to change back? Is there a problem there that you see?

NP: Well, it depends. I mean, here, we have a number of publications that are lifestyle publications geared toward a female audience and those are predominantly women running them.

If you think about the weekly publications, we’ve had women editing People. The current editor of Time, Nancy Gibbs, is female. My predecessor, Martha Nelson, was the first woman Editor-In-Chief.

For me, the bigger issue is that diversity, whether it’s by gender, by race, by sexual orientation, is a place where mainstream media is not reflective of the public it serves. There are very few exceptions to that. Certainly, it’s a place where we need to do more than we have.

RT: The beheading by ISIS of Steven Sotloff. Although not an employee, he was a freelancer for Time. Your thoughts?

NP: He was someone who did a lot of extremely good work for us. He was not on assignment for us at the time he was taken in Syria, but we did very much feel he was part of our family and it was a great loss and a horrifying episode.

There was a time when journalists worked in relative obscurity, meaning if you were working in Vietnam as a reporter, it wasn’t necessarily known what you were doing in the country where you were working. Also, you were perceived as that neutral observer who, in fact, might write a story that would not necessarily be of interest to the government of the country the publication was based in.

Today, with the Internet, with global video, an ISIS is not only trying to shock and horrify Americans for reasons specific to them, but they also recognize the beheading of a journalist is actually going to get even more attention than, say, a contract reporter or something like that.

A second thing that I’ve questioned is whether the practice of having journalists imbedded with the U.S. military may not have, at least in the eyes of the people the U.S. military is confronting, meant the journalists are somehow identified with the U.S. government and whether that played a role. I don’t know that but it’s crossed my mind.​