A Walrus Q&A with Ken Whyte

Jared Bland, managing editor of The Walrus, recently spoke with Maclean’s editor and publisher Ken Whyte about journalism today, the future of newspapers and Whyte’s new book about Randolph Hearst.

In the book Whyte suggests newspapers are losing their grip on the hearts and minds of mass audiences. When asked by Bland if this trend is reversible, Whyte replies:

“I’m not sure. There are publications out there, mostly in the magazine industry, that are really hitting an audience and doing very well with their readers and deriving a substantial portion of their income from their readers. Very few newspapers, though. And I watch what all the newspaper publishers say about how they’re going to address the challenges ahead, and almost all of them are looking for advertising-based solutions. You know, they’ll do it on the web, or they’ll start providing events and other services for advertisers, make ourselves available on the phones, virtual trade shows online, things like that—we’re all looking for ways to please the advertisers, which I’m not against, but it surprises me that nobody looks at readers as a potential source of revenue given that, historically, for the first two centuries of the three centuries of the North American newspaper, readers were a very crucial part of the revenue model. And while I’m not certain that you can turn back the clock, and say, ‘Okay, now we’re a reader driven business, and that’s how we’re going to improve our finances,’ I think they could certainly do a lot better in that regard, and at least slow the decline.

The problem with newspapers is that they’ve relied for so long on delivering the public service, or the public utility elements of journalism—everybody has to get the newspaper in town to get the sports scores, to get the grocery ads, the basic headline news, the showtimes, to read their horoscope—and now that you can do so much of that online, what can newspapers deliver for readers that’s going to make them want to pay for it? Probably they can deliver better journalism, better stories, more interesting and compelling stories, because people still like to read print. And they’re still buying a lot of magazines, and, in Canada, a lot of newspapers—we’re a bit different than the US. This is a long answer to your question, but I guess I mean that it certainly couldn’t hurt if newspapers improved what they deliver to readers, and I think it’s worth a try. They don’t have a lot of the talent, though, that they used to have, used to attract. And that may be a taller order. So many of the bright young people who can write funny, who have a sense of where public taste is out, go into television now and don’t even consider print. The rewards are so much greater.”

Read the interview on Bland’s blog, The Shelf.