Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Nick Goldberg: Are Billionaire Newspaper Owners Bad for Journalism?

The veteran editor discusses how what happens to local news outlets reaches far beyond their markets and into everyone's backyard.
Nick Goldberg, the editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times, discusses print journalism, its financing, and the challenges it faces.
(Photo Credit: Joshua Scheer)

Is print journalism in its death throes because of the ravages of targeted Internet advertising that reaches readers directly, and will that deprive us of the most reliable source of responsible journalism?  Or can a new crop of billionaire publishers such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who bought the Washington Post, and pharmaceutical mogul Patrick Soon-Shiong, who recently purchased the Los Angeles Times, save the newspaper industry despite its broken business model?  And if so, at what cost, if any, to the standards of responsible journalism?  That’s is the question that Robert Scheer poses to his former Los Angeles Times colleague Nicholas Goldberg, currently the newspaper’s editorial page editor.

Scheer, who worked at the Times for nearly 30 years, compares today’s LA Times with the “old days” when the newspaper had the greatest impact among all media, even now wonders if they will soon be extinct.  Goldberg states, “I don’t think newspapers are an anachronism. I think we, the serious mainstream newspapers in this country, do the bulk of the heavy reporting.”  They also discuss the impact diminishing financial resources have had on reporting, which Goldberg suggests may be mitigated by newspapers being owned by the wealthy.  Scheer also questions how billionaire ownership of the newspaper may impact coverage of income inequality or the concentration of economic powers. 

Photo credits: Joshua Scheer.


Robert Scheer

Joshua ScheerRebecca Mooney

Editor’s note: Transcript follows below:

Robert Scheer: Hello, this is another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it’s Nick Goldberg, who’s really had an incredible journey through journalism. I knew him when I worked at the LA Times; in fact, full confession, he was my boss when I wrote columns for the paper. But let me go back to the beginning. You graduated from Harvard, I guess it was in 1980 or something of that year–

Nick Goldberg: Correct.

RS: Correct, and instead of going to Wall Street as so many of your contemporaries did, and messing up the economy and enriching yourself and all that, you in fact decided to go into journalism–

NG: Still kicking myself.

RS: No, you’re not. And you ended up working for what was then the Times Mirror; for people who don’t know it, the Times Mirror is the company that came out of the Los Angeles Times, and they ended up expanding, not as big as some other news organizations, but they had the Baltimore Sun, they had Newsday on Long Island, and other papers. And you worked on that paper, and what I know from your history, you covered the police, you covered lots of things, but you also covered war, and–

NG: Yeah, I worked my way all the way up. I started as the most local possible reporter on Long Island for Newsday; I covered town halls and village halls and schools, and then I moved my way up and I covered county government, I covered state government in New York under Governor Mario Cuomo. Then I covered the presidential election in 1992; I was on the Clinton plane. And then I went overseas to the Middle East for four years. I covered not only Israel and Palestine, but the whole Arab world, North Africa, the Islamic world.

RS: Right. And then when we had the Gulf War under George W. Bush, you also went for the LA Times, as I recall, you went over to–

NG: I spent time in Iraq after, after the war, not during the war, yeah.

RS: OK. The reason I’m bringing that up is you’ve, going from this elite university of Harvard–were you on the Crimson, or were you–?

NG: I was not.

RS: No, OK. But still, the elite university, and you went into journalism at a time when journalism was still, print journalism was still very, very significant. Yes, we had television, but newspapers like The New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, Wall Street Journal had enormous influence, credibility, and so forth.

NG: They had enormous influence, but also I felt those were the, that’s where I wanted to work, because that’s where the serious work got done. You didn’t want to go work on TV for some crummy local news station; you wanted to work for a newspaper.

RS: Right. And for younger people who don’t remember this, because when I came to–we’re doing this from USC, where I also teach. And when I first started teaching here, I was working at the LA Times. And the LA Times was all over campus, and students knew what you were talking about; in fact, they took your classes because you worked at the paper, you might know something, and so forth. Now, it’s an anachronism, sorry to say. I mean, the LA Times is still a very good paper, but the fact is, the newspapers are not present, and very often students who read stories in newspapers don’t even know they’re coming from the newspaper, because they’re reading it on some feed on their phone or what have you.

NG: You know, I think there’s a lot of truth to what you say; I would push back on, I don’t think newspapers are an anachronism. I think we still do the bulk–newspapers generally, the serious mainstream newspapers in this country do the bulk of the heavy reporting that is what you see when you go on Google News or Yahoo! News, or when you watch TV news; it’s all coming from The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal.

RS: Now, because of the internet, advertisers can find even current readers of the LA Times without putting ads in the LA Times. They can get it through third party, they can get it through targeted advertising. And I don’t think it’s too much to assert that the business model for print, the big print newspapers, was severely damaged, if not obliterated.

NG: Look, I’m not on the business side of the paper. It’s not my job to sell ads, it’s not my job to boost circulation. I’m on the editorial side of things. I mean, I agree with some of how you laid this out, and I disagree with some. The LA Times, like all big papers in this country, has been hit by the internet, has been hit by the shaking of the business model. It is true that our circulation has dropped significantly, although more people than ever are reading us online. But it’s true our ad revenues are way, way, way, down, and we have to, we have to figure out what to do. But you know, over the years, the LA Times, as it suffered cutback after cutback after cutback, in my opinion, we did a remarkable job under the circumstances, given the shrinking resources, of continuing to cover the community, of continuing to do a good job, of continuing to bring in readers where we could of continuing to break news. And I think, really, the story of the LA Times is a heroic one. Now, as you say, people are very enthusiastic. People are hoping that perhaps we figured out, you know, a way to save ourselves from some of these problems. Because a very wealthy man who lives in LA–he’s a local owner, unlike the Tribune Company which was based in Chicago. He’s a local owner. He’s buying the paper, he says, because he wants the city to have a great newspaper, and he wants to make sure we’re doing the kind of work we should be doing, and that we have the resources to do it. He doesn’t want to spend his entire fortune on it; he still wants the paper to find a way to make money and to at least break even, I assume. But you know, it’s encouraging to have as the owner someone who says his goal is not to squeeze the company for profits and to pay off shareholders at every step along the way, but to do great journalism. And he’s brought in an editor, Norman Pearlstein, who has, you know, a background as editor of the Wall Street Journal, as the chief editor at Time Inc., he was a senior editor at Bloomberg, he’s a very serious guy with journalistic chops who knows how to run a news organization. So, yeah, people in the newsroom are very excited that maybe what’s been a long, slow depletion of resources is going to, is going to turn around. We would love that, because there are still great people at work in our newsroom who are utterly committed to doing serious journalism, investigative journalism, accountability journalism, opinion journalism, which is the part of the paper I’m in, arts coverage, all this stuff, we want to–business, sports–we want to be able to keep doing it. And it’s gotten difficult.

RS: Right. And by the way, I think there are very few people in this community or any other community that don’t want to have their legendary newspaper continue and do a lot of your, what I call eat-your-vegetable journalism; cover stories that are important, may not be sexy, may not get a lot of clickbait, and so forth. And so we wish you well. But the point is that even taking into, well, taking the Los Angeles Times, maybe new resources will be pumped in, as Jeff Bezos has done at Washington Post. But let’s just look at some of the figures. Your staff, your foreign bureaus, and so forth have been very much reduced. Just give me the numbers. I mean, when you came in, how many foreign bureaus did the paper have? They’re very expensive to maintain.

NG: Yeah, I’m not sure the exact numbers. I mean, I think we had probably 25 foreign bureaus in 2003, and now we’re down to, I’m going to get it wrong, but I think we’re down to six or seven people based overseas, maybe it’s more than that.

RS: Yeah. And one of the great things about the LA Times, along with the Washington Post, is they could give The New York Times a run for their money with these foreign bureaus. So we were getting reporting around the world from different sources, right? And when you went to the Mideast, even for Newsday, which was a Times Mirror paper, you had your eyes, which were different than the guy from The New York Times or somewhere else.

NG: Well, let me tell you one thing about that. Because this isn’t an LA Times issue, this is the whole newspaper industry. When I got to Jerusalem, I was based there, I worked on a floor of a building, and across the hall was the Baltimore Sun, and on the other side was the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Boston Globe was there, and La Republica was there, and the Chicago Tribune was there, and the Toronto Star was there. And I’m just naming a few. It is my belief now that none of those newspapers still has a bureau in Jerusalem. I believe only The New York Times, the Washington Post, and maybe The Wall Street Journal have bureaus there now.

RS: Right, and then taking it from the foreign, there were lots of newspapers in California that had a state capitol reporter. And now you go up there and you’re lucky if you find even one full-time print reporter or television reporter–

NG: Well, we still have several people covering Sacramento, that’s important to us. We have several people in City Hall. We still have hundreds of reporters. I just want to push back against the idea that there’s, that there’s nothing left; that’s simply not true.

RS: I understand that.

NG: We don’t know exactly why Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the paper. We don’t know exactly what he’s going to do or how he’s going to treat it. He has said repeatedly that he wants to, he wants the city to have a great paper, and he hopes to help the city have one. He’s said that he understands that the role of a publisher or owner is not to meddle in the news-gathering or the way that news is reported. He understands that he has to leave reporters and their editors alone to go out and get the news. I think everything he’s said has been encouraging, but of course, he could do all sorts of horrible things. We have to, we have to wait and see what he does. I think the early signs have been very encouraging. And remember, for a long time the LA Times was owned by an out-of-town company; everyone thought it was bad that it was out-of-town, and it didn’t have a local connection.

RS: That’s the Tribune Company, Chicago Tribune.

NG: That’s the Tribune Company. It was owned by–

RS: And it was bad.

NG: And it, yes it was.

RS: They basically milked the paper, and–yeah.

NG: And it was owned by a profit-making company that had responsibilities to shareholders, because it was a public company. Those all come with negatives. You know, the possibility now is that we’re in the hands of a benevolent billionaire who, as he says, wants to make the paper a great paper again, comparable, you know, to The New York Times and the Washington Post, build back up some of those foreign bureaus, build up our reporting staff, enable us to have the resources to do the kind of investigative reporting that we like to do, that we continue to do, but that we want to do more of. So I’m, you know, so there are always potential pitfalls with any form of ownership, but I’m encouraged.

RS: Right, and then there’s obviously, hopefully, a bright side. [omission for station break] We’re back with Nick Goldberg, the editor of the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times, which has either a great moment of optimism or challenge, we don’t know. The paper, which was for 18 years under the tutelage of the Chicago Tribune–or the Tribune Corporation, [which] changed its name to Tronc, which caused a great deal of humor and ridicule in circles here in Los Angeles. But basically, I would argue–I think I’m being objective–I think, basically, that hurt the paper very much, and the paper was in serious decline, even though individual reporters did very good work. And I want to take my hat off to the people at the paper; I worked there myself for 29 years one way or another, and I have great respect for people like Nick Goldberg, who I’m talking to, who stayed with the paper. The paper won a lot of awards, did very important breaking stories. In fact, we’re broadcasting from USC, the Annenberg School, and you know, you caused, the newspaper caused some turmoil here for the leadership of USC, but I think it was very good journalism. You exposed problems with our medical school dean, you exposed problems with how we deliver health services, and so forth. And you know, it’s an example–

NG: Well, we–I think, you know, we broke the story of behavior so shocking that it forced the president of the university to have to step down just a couple of weeks ago because of really remarkable reporting about, well, about a number of things, but one of them was about a campus gynecologist at the university health center who was mistreating women, behaving in sexual ways that he shouldn’t with patients, there are like 400 complaints out there against him. I mean, it was an extraordinary story that I don’t think ever would have come out if we hadn’t continued doing our investigative reporting.

RS: No, and I should just mention, there were a number of other very important stories; the paper won the Pulitzer for exposing corruption in one of the communities, government corruption and so forth. So, yes. OK, let’s stipulate that under really adverse circumstances, with declining circulation, cuts in funding and so forth, a really brave band of journalists, quite often younger journalists coming into it, did terrific reporting. And there is something about the ethics of journalism and the ethos of journalism that gets people to do great stories, whether they’re working for small, little throwaway newspapers, or alternative newspapers, or big newspapers. You know, getting the story, serving the community, you know, drives journalism under all sorts of adverse circumstances. I’ll stipulate that, and I think the LA Times and you, Nick Goldberg, deserve credit. I should mention, by the way, that one of the gutsier things you did is you wrote a series of editorials that maybe the Tribune Company wasn’t happy with, I don’t know. But you wrote a series of, when Trump came in, very controversial, “Our Dishonest President”; what was it, six editorials?

NG: It was six editorials about the president, which we did just a few months into his term, expressing our deep, deep, deep concerns about his presidency, and just what was wrong with it. And, no, we didn’t have any trouble with the Tribune Company. Everyone was very supportive of it. It hit a nerve, went viral, in just the first day alone went out to, was read by about six million people. So it was really a huge thing that we did, and I got nothing but support from the paper for it.

RS: Good. So this just supports your point, that journalism will continue, and good journalists will do their job. And I want to ask you something, since we touched on this question of our own campus at USC and so forth. I think one of the things that disappointed me is why did it remain for The Los Angeles Times to tell us we had something rotten in Denmark? You know, that there was something corrupt. I happened to be over at one of the medical facilities where this gynecologist is accused of having acted horribly, but he was acting horribly for 19 years. And while I was sitting there waiting for my own exam a couple hours ago, I just looked around and I thought, wait a minute. How do you conceal this for 19 years? Or how did the medical school dean conceal what he did? And–

NG: Can I answer that?

RS: I know that, I’m going to ask you to answer that, but also, we’re talking from a school of communications and journalism. And I wonder, what is it about journalism and the way we teach it now, that our student journalists, who must, some of them must have heard some of this going on. Why didn’t, why wasn’t that story broken by a campus publication and so forth? Do you have any insight into that?

NG: I’m not sure I can answer the second part about campus organizations, but I think you’ve touched on something that gets to the heart of what we’re talking about today. Which is, why is journalism, and newspapers in particular, so important. And the answer is that institutions hide things. They protect themselves. Their natural reaction is to cover up. So you have this gynecologist who is mistreating women, as you say, for decades. And there are, it’s not like there were no complaints; there were complaints, and the complaints started to work their way up the, up through the system, and somewhere along the way, they get stopped, they get squelched by someone who would rather protect the institution than protect the people who are being harmed. And that is why, you know, complaints just got ignored and ignored, and finally, complaints made it to the newspaper. And this is what newspapers do at their best. They bring things to light that are otherwise lost in the shadows and hidden, and where there is no other mechanism for it to come through. So I’m not sure exactly how the story of the gynecologist got to the LA Times; it was a tip of some sort. But someone recognized it as potentially true, as potentially scary and bad, and someone spent a tremendous amount of time–not someone, many reporters were devoted to this, to spend an awful lot of time proving these things, going back, finding women who had been mistreated. And when we put this one Page One, it rocked the university. And as we said before, it ultimately led to the end of the administration of President Nakias here. So, you know, I just think that’s something that newspapers ought to be proud of, and that outsiders ought to realize, this is why we can’t allow investigative reporting to disappear. This is why we can’t allow local newspapers to stop covering their local communities. I mean, we talked about foreign reporters, and that’s true, too; you need people covering Jerusalem. But you also need people covering LA City Hall, and LA County Board of Supervisors, and USC, and UCLA. The community needs to be covered.

RS: Right, but also, there’s a real key issue here. And that is–like, there are different slogans to define good journalism. One of them is “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”; another is–I forget all of them, you know, but there are a number. And really what you’re talking about is a culture of critical thinking, dissent, worrying about the victims, justice; these are all things. In the modern media environment, there’s a lot of emphasis on sales, careerism, apps, you know, marketing. You know, and it seems to me the real lesson here is that even as the LA Times–it’s interesting, because as the LA Times lost resources and so forth, you still had a dedicated band, largely of younger journalists, really interested in finding out what’s going on. And I wonder whether we teach that enough, that that’s what journalism is all about. It’s not a big career, it’s not making a lot of money, it’s, you know, not playing to power; it’s not just having access. Because we have bad times, too; when you first came, the LA Times had a scandal of its relation to Staples Center and the building of a new sports complex and so forth. And there was corruption built into that, benefitting from advertising and so forth. The New York Times right now has a reporter who was having an affair with the person who takes care of national security, or security for the Senate Intelligence Committee. A three-year affair, and they ran major stories, not–they didn’t run those, she went to work after, but she had an affair with another person, and they had a long, tortured article the weekend that we’re doing this interview about what that was all about, and so forth. So there’s a lot of–you know, yes, there’s idealism in journalism; there’s also corruption.

NG: Yeah, but when at their best, journalism organizations, when they find that kind of corruption, they look into what happened, they figure out what went wrong, and they try to be transparent about it. So you talk about the Staples scandal that the LA Times was involved in, you know, a couple of decades ago; my recollection is that David Shaw, then the media reporter for the LA Times, spent months uncovering exactly what had happened, figuring out who was to blame, we reported it all to our readers. And that’s, when you say The New York Times had a long, tortured story the other day about this Ali Watkins, who was sleeping with her source–same thing, they were trying to get to the bottom of what happened. So of course things go wrong, of course–of course there are Jason Blairs, who you know, he was a New York Times reporter who made stories up. I mean, there are lots of things like that; people have to get fired, the way we do things has to be changed. But at its best, journalism tries to correct that stuff. I also want to say, you said something about a focus on apps and sales, and that’s all true. But newspapers have always wanted to sell copies. We’ve always wanted to write stories that people want to read. Some of those are entertainment stories, some of those are lighter stories, some of them are feel-good stories. And we have always tried to do a mix of that with the, what you also called your eat-your-vegetables stories, the stories that are essential for people to read, because people need to know certain facts if they want to live as intelligent, informed citizens of a democracy. So it’s our job to do all of that, and to find the proper balance. We don’t want to be publishing clickbait or stupid stuff or–

RS: Right, but let me, let me–because we’re going to run out of time, and I just want to be clear about, because we’ve presented a pretty rosy view of what’s going on. One thing that kept newspapers and television stations straight was competition. And when you were working for Newsday, it was a vital paper. And there were, I suspect, when you came out of college in 1980, there probably were five or six vital newspapers in New York City, weren’t there?

NG: Sure, we competed with the Times, the News, and the Post.

RS: Yeah. And there were vital local television news organizations, and so forth. So if you didn’t get the story, someone else would. And if the story affected corruption at your own newspaper, others would get it. So there’s a certain safeguard. And now you have a situation where ownership is very concentrated, certainly in the television industry. There are a few surviving large newspapers, but they’re sort of still dominant in their market. And you know, the question is then, who watches the watchdog, or what motivates them. And one concern–and I want to conclude on this, because there’s so much we could talk about–it goes back to the question of billionaire ownership of these organizations. Where newspapers, from my point of view, have failed miserably is in covering income inequality, covering the concentration of economic power, covering capitalism, frankly. We had the housing meltdown, and I know I covered this for the LA Times as a reporter when we were doing, when Bill Clinton was doing his deregulation of Wall Street, and you know, the Financial Services Modernization Act, and Commodity Futures Modernization Act–all this stuff, and the Telecommunications Act, and then how it played out. Covering the big business stories, whether it’s pharmaceuticals, the world of your new publisher, or it’s the banks, Wall Street. Or in the case of The New York Times right now, I don’t know if it’s still the case, but Carlos Slim, I think the richest man in Mexico, came up with some of the money that has allowed The New York Times to continue, and maybe they’ve bought him out by now. Bill Gates might be a very well-intentioned, or Soros–they might be well-intentioned people, but they are people that have benefited from a certain kind of capitalism. Global, multinational, billionaire-class, and so forth. And this very class which has benefited from globalization, has benefited from the concentration of economic power and so forth, is actually the class that now, more than ever, is controlling media. Because after all, in the old days, local papers were controlled, yes, maybe by a wealthy person or people in the community, but they weren’t multinational giants. And there is a perspective that comes from that, OK? Favor of a certain notion of trade, and certain ideas, you know, of what is modernization, and so forth. And I, it’s a question I have to put to you: isn’t there a danger in these newspapers that you’re valuing so much, or television or what have you, being the plaything of billionaires? Because that’s really what we’re talking about, whether it’s Jeff Bezos or it’s Patrick Soon-Shiong. We’re talking about people–whatever their intentions, it’s still their plaything. And they’re able to play because they were very good in this world of globalization and super markets and concentration. That’s the story of Amazon. Right? And that’s the story of this large pharmaceutical operation that the current benefactor has.

NG: These guys are billionaires, no question. They have a lot of money. Whether this is their plaything or something they take very seriously, depends on the person. I don’t think it’s necessarily true that, you know, because Bill Gates is a billionaire that means he doesn’t care about the poor. I think there’s a lot of indication that he does care about the poor. Look, at the LA Times we cover–first of all, Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire who is taking over the paper, has said over and over and over that he understands that his role is not to meddle in the news decisions being made by the editors. He is not going to come in and say, “I’m a big”–or he asserts he is not going to come in and say, “I’m a big, wealthy capitalist and I need your paper to report stories the way I want to see them, that’s in line with my view of capitalism.” And besides, I have no idea what his views are on that. The LA Times covers–and The New York Times, and the Washington Post–they all cover lots of stories that have to do with poor people, with mistreatment by corporations. You know, we just did a big editorial series of seven pieces that we worked on for six months on the absolute crisis of homelessness in Los Angeles, and the failure of the city and county and state to address it. You know, we’ve done series on agricultural workers in Mexico that have won awards. We’ve done immigration stories. I mean, the notion that we are somehow ignoring the problems of the poor or the destitute because we’re under the control of corporations or billionaire owners, I’m not sure that’s true. Do I think we need to cover more of that? Absolutely. Of course we do. And as I said before, we’re always doing this mix; on any given day, you know, the full paper is not taken up with stories of inequality, injustice, and unfairness. We’re also running, you know, movie reviews and book reviews and–and sport–

RS: I understand that. As a serious student of society and everything. And you look at Los Angeles, whether in the good old days or now, and you see a city where on street corner after street corner, and for miles–now you’re moving, they’re moving the LA Times from downtown to El Segundo. Maybe the situation is not quite the same in El Segundo. But when you sit at where the LA Times is, you are surrounded for miles of homeless people living in tent cities on corner after corner, and entrances to freeways, or what have you. And whether we blame the current ownership or the past ownership or so forth, isn’t there something depressing, that in this city, where both of us worked for the major newspaper, and with all the prosperity of the American economy and so forth, that we now live in a city where there are tens of thousands of people living in cardboard condos on the street, whether it’s raining or not, living under pieces of cardboard, living under tents and so forth, on a scale that I don’t think we’ve seen since maybe the Great Depression?

NG: It’s shocking, it’s tragic, it’s catastrophic. And I shudder to think what would happen in this city if you didn’t have a newspaper reporting it, showing pictures of it, explaining it, holding politicians to account for it. That’s what we do. And if, I mean, it sounds almost like you’re suggesting that somehow this is the fault of the newspapers that we have a giant homelessness crisis–no, it’s the responsibility of the newspapers, one we try to live up to, we don’t always succeed at living up to. It’s our responsibility to call that to the attention of everyone who can possibly hear it, and scream it as loud as we can, that something’s going on in this city that is entirely unacceptable.

RS: Well put. And thank you, Nick Goldberg, for being willing to come in at a time of transition for the newspaper, a newspaper with a great tradition and hopefully, as you indicate, a great future. Our producers for Scheer Intelligence have been Rebecca Mooney and Josh Scheer. Our engineers at KCRW are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. And here at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Sebastian Grubaugh has been our producer. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.

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