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Talking The Washington Post And Newspapers Generally With Mark Steyn

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Yesterday I laid out a dozen suggestions for putting the Washington Post back on the top of the newspaper world. Columnist to the world Mark Steyn joined me on Thursday’s, and after a conversation about Mr. Abbott, we ran down my list of suggestions, picking up Steyn’s observations on the newspaper business generally along the way.  Read the whole thing:

HH: On Thursdays when we are lucky, we begin with Mark Steyn, Columnist To the World. You can read everything Mark writes at Mark, welcome, and a good beginning to August to you.

MS: Yeah, Happy August to you, too.

HH: I want to cover with you in detail Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post, but before I do, I had Davis Gaines in studio with me last week, and I think I committed the most sinful of all Broadway expressions of ignorance. I didn’t know who Mr. Abbott was, and I blame that actually on you, because you never wrote an obituary of him.

MS: Oh, I did. If you read my book, Broadway Babies Say Goodnight, the final chapter of that book is all about Mr. Abbott, who died at the age of 108 about 20 years ago, I think it was 1994 or ’95. And Mr. Abbott, I didn’t get to know him until he was a comparative whippersnapper of about 102. And I knew him in the last eight or nine years of his life. He was a great Broadway showman. He produced all the great Rodgers and Hart musicals. He did the first Broadway shows, a lot of great writers from Frank Loesser, the Guys And Dolls guy, to Kander and Ebb, who did Cabaret. I liked Mr. Abbott very much. He was a very vigorous man until well past his century. He was directing a very famous Broadway actress at, I don’t think I can say who it was now. It was like Maureen Stapleton when he was a whippersnapper of 97. And he was always going on to her girlfriends about how terrific he was in every way. And eventually, one of them said rather exasperated, oh, has he got an older brother?

HH: Well, I’ll tell you, that’s the only one of your…

MS: But he was…

HH: …Broadway babes, the only one of your books I have never read, because I have read Passing Parade, and I didn’t see the obit in there, so I said to Davis Gaines, I’m turning you over to Mark Steyn and Larry O’Connor, talk radio’s Broadway experts. So expect them…

MS: No, no, no. I love, I can talk about Mr. Abbott for hours. The first time I went to see him, years and years ago, Betty Comden, who wrote the movie Singin’ In The Rain, and worked with Mr. Abbott, Betty Comden said to me, always remember, she said, Mr. Abbott was too old for World War I, and that’s true. The first time he was kind of incredible, and he was still rhumba dancing with showgirls three nights a week, but he was too old to serve in World War I.

HH: Oh, I think that is, now I have to go read that book just to read about him. But Davis Gaines’ first job in Broadway was as his assistant.

MS: Oh, that’s pretty impressive. That’s a fun office to work out of.

HH: Now I want to move over to the Washington Post. First, your uber-reaction to Jeff Bezos, founder, $20 billionaire, his purchase of the Post, what did you think upon hearing that news?

MS: Well, my first thought was a comparative one, that the day before the New York Times had unloaded the Boston Globe, finally, for $70 million, for nothing, they paid over a billion for it, but also thrown in with that sale was the Worcester Telegram. For many of your listeners will not know that Worcester is a town in Massachusetts, and it has a newspaper that the New York Times also bought in 1999 for $295 million dollars.

HH: Wow.

MS: The New York Times paid $295 million dollars for a paper called the Worcester Telegram, which is for a town called Worcester, which is somewhere in Massachusetts, and fourteen years later, the national newspaper, the establishment newspaper of the capital city of the world’s superpower is only worth 80% of what the Worcester Telegram was worth 14 years ago.

HH: Isn’t that remarkable? It does tell us so many things. What a great illustration. Now do you think Bezos can resuscitate the brand and the influence of the Post?

MS: Well, I think he’s got to sort of go from start to finish. I mean, everyone has used the excuse now, throughout this decade and a half decline, that it’s all to do with the internet transitioning to new delivery systems and all the rest of it. That’s not true. Canadian newspapers, Australian newspapers, British newspapers, all over the world, newspapers face that challenge. And what’s happening in America is a scale of collapse that’s entirely different. The most read newspaper online in the United States is the Daily Mail, which is a Fleet Street newspaper, and which is doing so well in the United States that it has in effect a sort of disguised American homepage full of stories about American celebrities and what not. And it goes, and I think it gets to the heart of the problem, that American journalism, the horrible guild mentality has actually destroyed the art of American newspapering. These papers, and the Washington Post is no exception of this. If you read its sort of inert coverage of its path down the hands of the Graham family, the sad, lame, dull, unreadable columns written by elderly courtiers mourning the extinction of the royal dynasty, they get to the heart of the problem, which is that most of these newspapers are not very good, and no one will miss them when they’re gone, unless this guy is serious about a complete overhaul.

HH: Now I did my 12 suggestions for Jeff Bezos today, and I am going to run through them and get your quick reaction to each of them this segment and next. And you’re mentioned in one of them, so you can always say I decline to state. But number one, make Bret Stephens your editor. What do you think about the editor’s job and how important it is?

MS: Well, Bret Stephens was my editor at the Jerusalem Post where my column appeared for many years, and I think he’s a terrific and a talented guy, and a serious guy. I would have no problems with that one.

HH: Number two, pay Mark Steyn whatever it takes to get him to write a daily Our Town column opposite a daily Our Town column by Mark Leibovich of the New York Times, who of course must be pirated away from the Times. And you know what I have in mind. I have in mind the old sort of, the guys around town who write up everything, but with tongue in cheek, and they used to be a staple of every newspaper, and they were worth reading.

MS: Right, right, and I think, and again, that’s something that is virtually extinct in American newspapers. I always used to like those four item columns, which are actually the toughest things to do, where the items get smaller in length as you go down. But all four of them pack a punch. Nobody has the verve to pull that off here. As to my own participation, I did write for the Washington Post once. I think it was 1988, so that’s what, 25 years ago. And I’ve never been asked back. Oh, actually, I tell a lie. They once, a few years ago, they tried to sort of poach my Atlantic obituaries column away from me, but it wasn’t a serious pitch. And the whole thing about it, what I found interesting about it, was that it was done from the oh, we’re doing you a favor.

HH: Yes.

MS: They got into the mentality that a lot of institutions get trapped in where they don’t want to have a serious negotiation about the talent, “the talent”, but they think that simply they’re the talent, and simply by letting you have access to their pages, that’s good enough. It doesn’t work like that anymore.

HH: That’s right. The Yankees would never field a team if it was just for the honor of playing in Yankee Stadium. No one would do it.

MS: No, no.

HH: Number three to Jeff Bezos, pay what you have to, to keep Dan Balz, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Chris Cillizza, Ezra Klein, Jay Mathews, Jennifer Rubin, Philip Rucker, Greg Sargent, Del Wilbur and a few others with obvious talent and followings. They do have some talent, Mark Steyn.

MS: Yeah, they do, and this isn’t really a partisan thing, either. I mean, what I find interesting about what’s going on in newspapers here is the number, I mean, in your part of the world, for example, the number of Hollywood lefties who tell me that last thing at night, they read tomorrow’s edition of the Guardian or the Independent online from London, because even if you’re a lefty, left wing journalism is better than other places, and they’ve got more readable and livelier left wing writers. And you’re right there that what they need to do is actually encourage voices, and encourage good writing. And the system doesn’t work to that the way the whole multiple layers of editing and the rest doesn’t work in favor of that at the moment.

HH: Last one before the break. Go to Politico and the Washington Examiner and the Weekly Standard and Townhall and steal their best people. Does that go on at Fleet Street all the time?

MS: Yeah, well again, what’s interesting, I was reading Ruth Marcus, who’s been a columnist at the Washington Post, she’s a lifer there. A lifer. You know, it’s like the mines in West Virginia. You join at 14, and you’re there until you retire or you drop dead. And that’s not how it should be in a competitive market. In a competitive market, and I don’t just mean London, but it’s true of Toronto and Sydney and other places, too. A good columnist, the paper has to work hard to keep his services, because the other newspaper across town is going to poach him with a better deal or whatever. And the fact that nobody’s poached, nobody’s poached from any of these papers, because they’re essentially mono-dailies, is why they’ve gotten boring.

HH: A sign of sclerosis. I’ll be right back with Mark Steyn.

— – – – –

HH: I’m marching through a series of possible innovations that Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, could bring to the Washington Post with none other than Columnist To the World, Mark Steyn. And I had a dozen which I’m getting Mark’s reaction to. Number five, Mark Steyn, send a car to ESPN to kidnap Nate Silver. And I mean specifically Nate Silver, but he also stands for something. He stands for a complete outsider to journalism who brought a skill set that revolutionized and attracted enormous eyeballs to the New York Times when he was there.

MS: Yeah, and I think that’s also what’s important to understand, that the whole kind of journalism school model delivers a kind of bland, homogenized staff of generalists to a paper, and that sometimes, you are better just to look for someone who’s got unique gifts, unique talents, and finding out can you, in what way could you use that in a daily news setting, which I think, I mean, which I think gets to the other point. We’ve been talking mainly about writing, but I think the other striking feature of the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and most of the other properties we’re talking about is that they’re actually also stylistically dull and visually dull. It’s not just the content, but there’s a kind of tired and worn look to the whole product, and that at some point, someone is going…and again, the internet is part of that. No one has quite figured out a way to deliver up a newspaper front page in an electronic form, yet. But that’s something that the new owners should certainly be thinking about, because that lack of style, that lack of polish is one thing that makes these things such an unattractive product.

HH: Number six, I said find Mike Murphy, the fabled Republican consultant, make him your assistant and do whatever he says. By that, I mean bring in political consultants who are used to a world of constant change, and not sitting around on their hands. It just seems to me that newspapers change at the rate of a tortoise crossing a desert.

MS: Yeah, they do. They do, and that’s a separate, I mean, we can disagree on Mike Murphy or whoever. But again, that’s to do…one of the things, and again, I’ll say this. I speak as a foreigner, so with a certain circumspection and a certain modesty. But the fact remains that newspaper salaries in Washington and New York, compared to competitive markets around the world, are extremely low. And it’s not often that America in some ways is the least attractive. In most industries, you want to get to America and get a job with an American company. Not with newspapers.

HH: Oh, that’s interesting.

MS: And you go all over the world, and you will find Australian editors working in London, and you’ll find Canadians working in Australia newspapers. And there’s a kind of sealed, there needs to be a way of opening up this terrible closed shop where they’re all, where their topper is only matched by their ludicrous self-regard. There needs to be a way of opening this up to a bigger talent pool.

HH: Number seven, hire a half dozen of the best foreign correspondents in the world from the other bigs, and turn them loose to go where they want to go – Dexter Filkins, David Kirkpatrick, William Dalrymple. And you know, foreign bureaus are expensive, Mark Steyn, but correspondents aren’t. You just let them pick their spots.

MS: Well, and that’s the critical distinction there. Yeah, it’s not about having a big bureau somewhere. It’s about putting a guy on a plane and sending him off to somewhere on the other side of the planet, and letting him find real stories as opposed to just those expensive bureaucratic bureaus, which again, is, I would argue, a last century approach to the way you cover these things.

HH: Number eight, he wouldn’t do it, but whatever he wants and wherever he wants it column by John Fisher Burns would be gold, and I way that because he’s actually got the experience that people like Thomas Friedman and many other people on the 5th floor of the five floor buildings don’t. When they write their columns and their think pieces, they’ve actually been out in the world.

MS: Well, I think that’s a problem generally here. A lot of the time, being a columnist is a very particular thing, and it’s not always the same as being a great reporter. And I think you need, I do think you need to get out of the house. You also need to be able to write, and you also need to have a worldview, but one that is sufficiently distinctive to enable you to come up with a few surprises. And again, I think the American system of promoting reporters to columnists is again one of the sort of structural defects in the U.S.

HH: I encourage them to cover all the cable nets daily, every show within them with satire and without mercy, people like Dave Weigel and others, who have grown up cutting their teeth making fun of people, because the cable world is watched by millions, but critiqued by few.

MS: (laughing) That’s true. I mean, I’m slightly wary about that, because I think eventually, you have too much commentary upon commentary upon commentary upon commentary, and it eventually, it all circles down and disappears into its own drain. And at a certain point, you’ve actually got to, it becomes, you’ve actually got to have people interacting with something real. I mean, if you think, if you look at one of the real problems with the Washington Post these last few days is that they’re all retelling these absurdly bland, boring stories about Katherine Graham, who is a figure who is of no interest.

HH: No interest, zero.

MS: …to 99.99%.

HH: Yeah, zero. All right, number ten, this goes to the new talent you’ve been talking about. Find out who’s got a ratio of 1,000 to 1 on Twitter followers. So if they’ve got 100,000 followers and they’re not following more than 10,000, that’s a person with pull. Hire them as well as the big indie bloggers like Powerline, and there’s some on the left. There’s talent there. They built their own brands. These are the people who made it happen and in an era of low barriers to entry. Michelle Malkin comes to mind.

MS: Yeah, and you know, again, you’ve got to be careful what happens there. I mean, I saw, there’s a blogger in Saskatchewan of all places who I love to read called Kate McMillan. And she had a one-line comment on Obama cancelling his meeting with Vladimir Putin this week. She just put in one line. He’s also sending back the bust of Lenin.

HH: (laughing)

MS: Which I thought was a great line. Now Kate McMillan is just sitting there in the middle of Saskatchewan doing this for free, and it’s actually better…

HH: That’s very good.

MS: …that what they’re paying huge salaries and pensions and health benefits to people clogging up the building in Washington. And you’ve got to find a way. And so the trick there is to access that talent, but find a form. In other words, don’t take a unique talent and then try and turn it into the J school bore.

HH: No.

MS: Try and find a form that will show off that talent.

HH: Last two. I wanted them to hire the women at 7 Second Strategies, because I think media is losing younger women. And I want them to cover talk radio, because it’s an alternative world of which they know nothing, and on which a great deal happens. I don’t think that Rush has been covered, or Sean or any of my colleagues at Salem seriously, and other than a critical mode, in the 15 years I’ve been doing this. They just ignore the conservative media.

MS: No, and that’s very familiar, because as you well know, that they’ll write about Rush. Most of the people who write about Rush in the newspapers have never listened to the show.

HH: Exactly.

MS: And again, that gets back to this thing of just existing in a very closed world where there are certain procedures. You know, somebody, in other words, Rush can have 20-25, whatever it is, million listeners, and because they’re not the kind of people that the guy at the Washington Post goes to dinner with, they’re not part of his world.

HH: I hope, I really hope that Bezos is to newspapers what he was to Barnes and Noble. We will see. Mark Steyn of, thank you.



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