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In Conversation with Mary Kissel: “I have such scepticism of state broadcasting in democracies”

Wall Street Journal editorial board member Mary Kissel says she isn’t concerned about a decline in quality journalism. AAP/Alan Porritt

Despite the gloom surrounding the future of media, technological changes present new opportunities for quality journalism - but should call into question the role of state broadcasters such as the ABC, says the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board member, Mary Kissel.

A guest at the Public Knowledge Forum in Sydney on November 4, Kissel says media is being failed by its business model, not by the quality of its journalism and criticises state-supported media as being detrimental to innovation.

The largest newspaper by circulation in the United States, The WSJ is published by Dow Jones & Company, part of the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp. The paper has won numerous Pulitzer Prize awards, and is regularly ranked as one of the most influential in the US.

After starting at WSJ Asia and serving as an Asia-wide finance correspondent, Kissel edited the WSJ Asia opinion pages.

She speaks to Andrea Carson about her views on print paywalls, philanthropic journalism, the troubles with public broadcasting, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post takeover, and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar committing $250 million for a new online journalism venture.

Read the full interview transcript here.

Andrea Carson: What are you intending to say at the Public Knowledge Forum at Sydney’s Opera House next week?

Mary Kissel: I think there is a lot of concern about the decline, or the death, of good quality investigative journalism and I think the media business is undergoing a difficult time. There is no doubt about that, it is a wrenching transition, and we are seeing that, not just in the United States, but everywhere around the world.

Companies are trying to figure out how to provide news that people want to pay for because ultimately media is a public service. It is protected in the United States’ Constitution. It is the only industry that is. But it also has to be viable. And the internet, I don’t think there is any question, that the internet has fundamentally transformed the delivery of media, the immediacy of it, and the availability of it. There is a lot of choice now.

Part of what we are going to speak about, I hope, at this conference is what are successful ways that news is getting delivered, how is the quality improving – because I believe it is improving – and how might it change.

Andrea Carson: Do you not subscribe to some of the more negative commentary that quality journalism is in crisis?

Mary Kissel: No, I don’t. I think that the business model is in crisis, for sure. You can’t have your advertising base fall away and not have some sort of crisis. It is very difficult I think now to make money, however, I think that competition should be welcomed in the media business just as it is welcomed in every other industry that we cover and that we write about.

I always found it odd that there is this idea that you need a state to back your media in order to have quality media. I have never subscribed to that. I think competition is an excellent thing. I think in the age of the internet when you think about media there is a tendency to think about media’s traditional means like newspapers, magazines this kind of thing.

But we have infinite choices now and I think that is good for consumers and it is good for information. In some respects it might even benefit brands like ours at the Wall Street Journal because we have already developed a brand that is trusted, that people can turn to. They know when they read our news or editorials that they are reported and that they are trustworthy. I think that competition, even for us, is an excellent thing.

Andrea Carson: Looking at the revenue model of the Wall Street Journal, it was one of the first, if not the first newspaper to set up a hard paywall back in 1997. From my research it seems to be a successful model with over 800,000 digital subscribers and a reach of about 2.4 million combining with print. Why are readers prepared to pay for your content online? Is it because of the specialised nature of some of your business reporting, or is it more than that?

Mary Kissel: That is a great question. A couple of responses to that. The first is people are willing to pay for quality of any product. They are willing to pay, for example, for our editorial page which provides them with a point of view that they can’t really get anywhere else. It is reasoned reporting, reported editorials and commentary from news makers about leadership. People are always willing to pay for that. If, of course, you are writing on topics that are meaningful for them.

I don’t think that anybody would pay for editorials on my local hometown of Jupiter, Florida, except people living in Jupiter, Florida. But that is not what we are editorialising about. Secondly, in terms of the kind of content, we have actually become a more generalised publication in the last couple of years.

That doesn’t mean that we have abandoned the business/finance focus. That is always the heart of a newspaper, but I think the idea was, and if you talk to Gerry Baker, our editor-in-chief, he would probably say that what we have done is apply the rigourous kind of journalism that we do on the business and finance topics to other topics: to general news, to local New York news to leisure and arts and these kinds of things, and we have found that that has been very successful.

We have also had to innovate. We were not only the first to have a paywall, we were also the first out with a quality news product on the iPad. That launched very quickly after the iPad came on the market, and that has also been very successful in a large part because it gives you a range of choices. You are not just taking the print edition and throwing it on the iPad, you can get our Asia edition or our European edition with video content now.

Andrea Carson: There is some criticism of hard paywalls, less so of metered paywalls – and I note that the US now has over 400 daily newspapers with paywalls and most are metered paywall of some sort – and yet the Wall Street Journal seems to be a great example of where the hard paywall works. Why is that?

Mary Kissel: I don’t think there is any one business model that is the business model. A metered paywall might work for a smaller publication, or a niche publication that is trying to attract more readership that wants to give a bit more access. For us, particularly at the editorial page – that is what I am familiar with because that is where I work – we attract more provocative thought leaders than many other publications do. I think people are willing to pay for that. There is demand for what we do.

We also have a very different point of view. We are the only really consistently pro-free market, classical liberal editorial page in the country. So if you want to know that point of view there is really nowhere else to go but to us. That has been an advantage of ours for decades. We have had that point of view for a very long time.

I think it would be a mistake to say, and I don’t think this is what you are saying, that gosh the Journal should adopt the New York Times approach or vice versa. I think it is a transitional time and these companies are trying to figure out what works for them.

Andrea Carson: Because the Wall Street Journal adapted to the paywall so early you have vast amounts of information about your subscribers…

Mary Kissel: Right.

Andrea Carson: And a repository that other publications perhaps envy, does that allow for more strategic advertising because you understand your subscriber base so well?

Mary Kissel: You know that is probably a question for the business side. I don’t see those statistics. I do think that the ability to understand your subscriber base and either sell advertising that reflects that or if you look at – and I put this in an article I did for the American Review – a place like Rappler in the Philippines, they have basically started a separate consulting arm and are using anonymous information about their subscriber base.

We are more informed and connected in the United States today than we were even five years ago. I am not persuaded by the idea that we are less informed or not as well informed. I would argue just the opposite.

I think journalism is the only business where there is increasing demand for it, almost infinite demand for what we do and this is why I have such scepticism of state broadcasting in democracies. Nothing against them, I think there are plenty of very fine journalists. I have friends at the ABC and the BBC and they do great work, but I am inherently suspicious of state funding. I think it introduces a tendency for bias or for political influence that as a reporter I am quite suspicious of.

Andrea Carson: Would you venture as far to say that Australia should be without its publicly funded ABC?

Mary Kissel: No. I think if a democracy decides that a majority wants to pay to start some sort of broadcaster, well good on them. If you want a public broadcasting model like PBS in the US, largely supported by philanthropic donations, well good on you. I think, though, it is interesting that the most competitive media market is in a place that does not have that kind of influence.

If you look at the media landscape in Britain, as opposed to the US, again there are differences in size and population and all of those things, but I think if you look at the vibrancy of the innovation and the competition, it is far more competitive in the United States in the absence of state influence.

Andrea Carson: Some journalism, of course, is being funded through philanthropy, particularly in the US. This month we saw Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar committing $250 million to a new journalism venture and working with seasoned investigative reporters such as Glenn Greenwald, do you see that as part of the future of investigative journalism? That, as a society we will need to rely on philanthropy for quality investigative journalism? That funding has moved beyond a market model?

Mary Kissel: No. I don’t think you need philanthropy to have successful investigative journalism. I think this idea that you have to be separate from a point of view and somehow a ‘Switzerland’ to do good investigative journalism, I would strongly disagree with that.

That is not to say that there is not a place for ProPublica, which is a similar kind of model, that’s a non-profit, they are based in New York, that they won’t do very good work.

But let’s be honest, every kind of journalist comes to their story with their own personal bias. There is no such thing as a neutral point of view. In fact, I argue in the [American Review] piece that in some respects trying not to have a view in some ways promotes very lazy journalism because you will get “he says this” and “she says that” and then “here are five caveats” and that is our story. It prevents searching for the answer that we try to do.

Look, I think there is a place for outfits like the eBay founders’ company, and a place for CEOs like [Amazon’s] Jeff Bezos who want to buy a paper and try and preserve it – although I think it will be difficult for him. But I think there is no reason that investigative journalism cannot also be a financially vibrant enterprise.

Andrea Carson: Do you foresee a time when the Wall Street Journal might be a digital-only publication?

Mary Kissel: I don’t know. Clearly we are migrating towards digital, but will print every completely disappear? Well, I think that depends on the price that people are willing to pay for it. It is like any other product in the market place. Maybe print becomes a very niche product, and it is double or triple or quadruple or ten times the price that it is now. We may get to that point. But clearly the digital transition is well under way.

Mary Kissel is a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board and is in Australia as a guest of the US Studies Centre to speak at the Public Knowledge Forum at the Sydney Opera House on November 4. The Public Knowledge Forum is an international seminar examining the nexus between today’s rapidly changing media landscape and democracy.

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