Journalism Disrupted: An Interview with Lisa Krieger

By Dan Clendenin

Lisa M. Krieger is a journalist for The San Jose Mercury News, covering science, medicine and the environment. Her coverage of the California drought earned the 2015 Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism and the 2014 Scripps Howard Award for Excellence in American Journalism. She was named 2013 “Journalist of the Year” by the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Prior to joining The San Jose Mercury News in 1998, she was the medical writer for The San Francisco Examiner. She graduated from Duke University with a degree in Biology.

Dan Clendenin: Wow, over thirty years as a journalist. It’s hard to imagine the changes and disruptions that you’ve experienced.

Lisa Krieger: I started out on an aging Royal typewriter at The Coastland Times in rural Manteo, N.C. — three reporters covering seven counties in the entire eastern part of the state.

You needed to ask permission to make a long-distance phone call. Every time you needed to correct a word in your story, or if you hated a sentence, you’d have to pull out the paper, toss it, and start all over again. It was unbelievably tedious.

Photography was stressful. I forgot a Kodak film canister in the car one summer day and it baked to death. Ruined. Another time, a canister got lost. It rolled under the seat and vanished. A whole day of work, gone. I worked in the darkroom for awhile and it was nerve-racking, on deadline, because of how much could go wrong. And lots of chemicals.

So…Sometimes life does get better! In general, it’s much easier to write and shoot photos/video for digital.

Let me be practical. How has “a day in the life of Lisa” changed in just the last ten years? What was it like back then; and now?

Here’s what has changed: Speed. Scope. Accuracy. And the demands of many platforms.

Ten years ago, you might write one story a day, or every two days. You might even spend a week or two of research and reporting. We had so many writers that there was competition to get in the paper. We had a philanthropy reporter. A religion reporter.

Now, staffing is way down. There were 3 of us on the ‘health-science-environment’ beat, with our own dedicated editors. Now there are 2.5–3. Our staffing is a fraction of what it was. You can fire a cannon through the newsroom and not hit anyone.

Beat reporters work weekend, holiday, and “Night Cops” shifts. Our pay has essentially been frozen for years. Last year, for the first time in a decade, we got a 3 percent raise. But that was after 8+ years of no raises, and loss of purchasing power due to inflation. We’re in contract negotiations now and just proposed a 1 percent annual bump. Management isn’t responding.

The pace is far faster. We’re asked to write something short for the Web between 8 am and 10 am, then move onto your daily or weekend story, which has a 5 or 6 p.m. deadline. So you need to put out calls and emails early, then pester people.

The scope of the job has expanded. We’re asked to post the story to the web, then ship it out for print, write headlines, and attach photos. Our regional copy editing desk just got killed, so there’s less of a safety net. They’ve hired folks down in Monrovia — go figure — and they’re not nearly as good.

But here’s the great news: What we do still matters. I get grateful emails and phone calls from readers all the time. And: What we write is more accurate, because readers immediately catch stuff — and it’s very easy to fix a mistake online.

Finally: Thanks to the Internet, my work has a ‘reach’ that it never did before. We get more eyeballs. And it can influence policy. That’s thrilling. My audience isn’t just the Bay Area — it’s the nation, and sometimes the world. Everyone cares about what happens in Silicon Valley (particularly in the sciences). We’re a smart place, and people read what’s happening here.

I still like getting up and going to work every day. As long as it feels that way, I’ll keep doing it.

But we’re losing a lot of talented young people. Ryan Kelly, The Daily Progress 30-year-old photographer who shot that iconic image of the Charlottesville car hitting protestors, just started his new job: at a craft brewery. He’ll be their digital and social media coordinator.

I’d like to quote a Washington Post article by Margaret Sullivan (July 23, 2017) about The Atlantic magazine, founded in 1857: “A decade ago, like most traditional publications, the monthly magazine got 85 percent of its revenue from print advertising and circulation. It was losing money, and with print ads plummeting, it could have gone the way of the dodo or of, say, the Baltimore City Paper, which folded this month. Now the Washington-based magazine is profitable, with more than 80 percent of its revenue coming from digital sources, live events and even a consulting business. It is growing: adding staff, and vastly increasing its digital audience.”

Image for post
Image for post
Lisa Krieger.

I can’t speak for The Atlantic, but everyone’s trying to figure it out. Anyone who claims to have a one-size-fits-all new business model for journalism is lying.

It’s really, really hard. There’s no one stream of revenue, like before. So companies are patching a bunch of products together. Saying something comes from ‘digital sources, live events and a consulting business’ sounds nice, but stop for a moment and think about what that means.

For SF Bay Area papers, the resources aren’t there to become a non-journalism multi-discipline business apparatus. The San Francisco Chronicle has had luck creating an in-house agency, but that’s not a reach; advertising was already in its wheelhouse.

Speaking of The Washington Post, that’s an interesting story. It’s been transformed by Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO and e-commerce visionary. Prior to Bezos, the Post’s technology operation consisted mostly of a help desk, fixing computers and software-bug patches and such. With Bezos, the Post built its own software. This gives it more control over things like load speeds and reliability, as well as deep insights into its users — what they read, which headlines draw traffic, etc. They beta-test photos and headlines. The Post nearly doubled its IT division to 250 people.

Any predictions about the future of newspapers?!

The rest of us aren’t so lucky as The Post or the NY Times, with deep pockets, vast influence, and generations of family ownership and commitment to journalism.

The Mercury News and other Bay Area News Group properties (East Bay Times, Oakland Trib, Santa Cruz Sentinel, etc.) are all owned by a hedge fund out of Connecticut, called Alden Global Capital. They’re not journalists. They’ll extract what value they can, then sell us.

Regional papers like the San Jose Mercury News, Denver Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, etc. have been hit the hardest. The big guys are buying solutions; small rural town dailies have been a bit sheltered, at least for now.

Here are the trends: Print is crumbling, both in terms of advertising revenue and circulation. All those classified ads that used to support us? They’re gone. Thanks to Craig’s List and everything else about the Internet, that business model is broken and it’s never getting fixed.

Think about it: If you were to invent a publication today, you’d never say: “Hey, here’s an idea! Let’s go cut down Canadian forests, load trees onto trucks, drive them somewhere for pulp processing, deliver all that paper to another plant to be covered with ink, then fold all that paper and load it back onto trucks to drive all over the crowded Bay Area — to deliver yesterday’s news.” You just wouldn’t do it.

But here we are, stuck with this print product. Every day, we’re cranking out two products — print and digital — and that’s super inefficient.

Discontinuing most of the print business would be a huge cost saving.

But there’s a catch: Right now, print advertising still pays more than online advertising. And a lot of our most loyal readers still love print.

Over time, of course, those readers will die or go away. Then print advertisers won’t want to come to us anymore.

So what do you do? Online advertising isn’t enough to support a newsroom. That mythical ‘cross-over point’ — where online ad revenue would replace print ad revenue and life would be grand — is really, really far away. Too far away. We’d die first.

That’s why you’re now seeing an increasing shift to ‘pay walls.’ I think the time is right. Unlike, say, 15 years ago, people know that nothing that’s good is free. And their time is valuable. They want curated and edited digital stories, not a fire hose of unvetted garbage picked up and packaged by some algorithm.

Do you value a free and healthy press? Then it’s worth paying for.

What is the role of the free press in a civil society?

Without fair, balanced, and accurate information, how can we hold our leaders accountable? How do we document events? It’s essential to a well-functioning democracy.

We’re the only business with rights granted under the Constitution.

That 22-minute Vice video called “Charlottesville: Race and Terror” has been viewed 28 million times on Facebook and almost four million times on YouTube — and gave us a chilling view of white supremacy and its deadly aftermath.

At The Toledo Blade, it was a sharp-eyed copy editor named Tommy Gallagher who recognized in photos that the car that drove through the crowd in Charlottesville had an Ohio license plate. Then he blew up the image and saw that the registration tag bore the number “48.” That meant it was registered in Lucas County, where Toledo is the county seat. The Blade scored an interview with the driver’s mother, and also reached folks in Florence, Kentucky, where the driver grew up. That’s local journalism adding important insights to the exploding national narrative.

I wouldn’t want to live in a place where you can’t scrutinize, examine, and criticize leadership and government agencies. America also has cultural norms that support that — where you don’t have to be afraid of retaliation. That’s wonderful.

This president is a test of all that. Animosity toward the media was a centerpiece of his campaign. He called journalists the “lowest form of humanity.” When that apparently wasn’t enough, he called us “the lowest form of life.”

Trump says he wants to “open up” libel laws. He proposed harassing unfriendly media outlets by suing them. The White House press briefings have been off-camera. It’s unbelievable.

It would seem that whistle blowers play an important role in civil society, and that they should enjoy some protection.

It took whistle blower Jeffrey Wigand, former director of research for Brown & Williamson — who released so many internal documents — to bring Big Tobacco to its knees. The Pentagon Papers helped turned the tide on public opinion about the Vietnam War. There are numerous smaller but invaluable examples.

Some of the White House “leakers” are insiders who are worried; they’re reaching out. Others are creepy aides who are writing and leaking creepy memos to the alt-right media, especially those who don’t like H.R. McMaster.

Here’s the thing: We want to ensure that the national security apparatus continues to function. North Korea is building bombs like bottle rockets. That’s a hard problem. We needed the NSA before Trump; we’ll need it after Trump.

But it is terrifying that Donald Trump helms it. Because he has no capacity to properly process this information. I want to know what Donald Trump is saying on these phone calls, because I don’t trust him.

We hear a lot today about the media being biased. Is there anything different going on today compared to what we’ve always had, like a conservative National Review founded by Bill Buckley in 1955, or the newer Weekly Standard, founded in 1995 by Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes, and a liberal The Nation, founded in 1865, all sparring in the public arena? It sure feels like we’re in a different space.

I can’t speak to that. But Fox News feels like state-run media. Its our version of TASS. The president watches it to form his opinions. Bannon came from crazy Breitbart, and now he’s back again.

The thoughtful Buckley-era conservative publications — National Review, Weekly Standard, editorial page of the WSJ — have no traction in today’s White House. They were social moderates and economic conservatives. The Breitbarts are economic moderates and social conservatives.

Is there any such thing as “neutral” journalism? Doesn’t every story have a point of view, a bias, if you will?

To a very large degree, you have to set aside your opinion. You work for your employer.

If I ever have a Lisa Krieger newspaper or channel, I suppose I could bring my own political notions into it. But you really have to set that aside — to keep faith with your audience. They will not believe the things you say if you are, as the great radio host Ray Suarez said, “pulling one side of the rope in a great war of ideas.”

I don’t want to do anything that would undercut readers’ trust in my reporting.

When researching, interviewing, and reporting, I’m the proxy for my readers. I feel keenly the responsibility of any reporter to be the audience’s eyes and ears.

That being said, I’m unapologetically pro-science. Data, testable theories, experiments that can be replicated — that’s how society moves forward. I covered the March for Science with great enthusiasm.

I was encouraged when you mentioned to me that your journalistic colleagues around the country are taking their roles in civil society very seriously, and that they remain confident about American democracy.

Real journalists do what they do because they are fiercely committed to it. It’s not for the money or hours.

In the sciences, particularly, I feel deeply that readers must be educated about all the really complicated issues headed our way, like gene editing, climate change, etc. Society has to play a role in guiding NIH/FDA/HHS/DOE and all science policy — and how on Earth are people going to do that, if they don’t know what a gene is, or can’t wrap their head around carbon emissions?

It is critical that readers know what’s at stake if we don’t hit our Paris climate change targets, if NASA isn’t funded, if the EPA quits regulating chemicals, or if the Department of the Interior rolls back wilderness protections.

Here’s where my confidence comes from: We’re now in a time of great push-and-pull among the three branches of federal government, as well as tensions between the feds and states. All this drama was anticipated by the founding fathers, but it’s been a long time since it’s been tested.

I think our brilliant three-legged government model is durable enough to hold — but only if it’s an open and transparent process. The founding fathers knew this. They saw the press as instrumental to the birth and growth of democracy. They knew that sunshine is the best disinfectant.

But it only works if you have a business model to sustain you. If we’re not willing to support journalism, our governance is just a big black box. And then we deserve whatever we get.

See here for our Journey with Jesus weekly webzine for the global church. All free, all the time.

Written by

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store