Alberto Ibarguen

Journalism in a Snapchat Age

Air Date: August 22, 2015

Alberto Ibarguen discusses disruption and innovation in the contemporary media landscape.


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. A year ago, we began anew this nearly six-decade-long broadcast – the longest in the history of public television – with John Palfrey, chair of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Today we are so honored to welcome its distinguished President and CEO.

The former publisher of the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, Alberto Ibarguen has been a singular driving force of journalistic innovation. There is no individual more committed to a robust fourth estate, and vast digital experimentation.

Under increased economic duress, Ibarguen has invested in the revitalization of American democracy, from urban centers to university journalism departments, always with the mission to inform and engage communities.

Over the next half-hour, we’ll probe his insights into contemporary journalistic culture, sustainable formulas to meet our information needs and the new “war on journalists,” as he described it, and its chill on freedom of expression.

Ibarguen told graduates of Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication last year, “It’s troubling that we could end up with a licensing of speech on the Internet, unless we firmly establish, while still at the beginning of Internet age, the applicable law should be like that of newspapers.”

More proof of Ibarguen’s premise — Mark Zuckerberg tacitly admitting with his choice of The End of Power for the first Facebook Book Club selection, that an ad-driven Internet jungle has meant an upended old-school civic norms.

Now let me turn to Alberto, whom I thank for being here, and ask him what he considers to be the most pressing challenge for journalism in the contemporary age, and in the Internet age.

IBARGUEN: I am first of all really happy to be here because my first invitation to be on Open Mind came from your grandfather, before I left for New York, but then I took the job as … publisher of the Miami Herald and we never got the show done. So, I am happy to be here and wherever you are, Richard, I finally made it to a taping of Open Mind.

HEFFNER: We’re delighted to have you. Thank you for saying that.

IBARGUEN: Thank you. I think …it’s hard to say just one because the challenges are so serious and so varied. First of all, there is the economic challenge, of the business model that used to support the feeding of the middle, the feeding of the news report that while it was human, it always aimed to be impartial. I’m not claiming that any of us are ever truly impartial but that was the goal of newspapers in the second half of the 20th century…to provide communities with an impartial report and I think it has everything to do with the ability to be able to compromise when you can agree on a set of things that we have in common and then we can disagree about…um…um… the extremes.

You can be anti-Castro and then we agree, we are anti-Castro. Now, let’s talk about how we should deal with this and whether we should lift the embargo or not. You are for Israel and then you can argue about Likud or about Labor, etc. That’s one kind of challenge of the three I would mention.

The second is in fact this business of everything is going to Internet. It is the Internet of things on steroids and if that’s going to be the case, we have to decide how are we going to deal with free speech. How do we interpret free speech in the next decade, two decades. In the United States, the First Amendment as applied to newspapers is different that the First Amendment as applied to broadcast. In broadcast, you speak because you have a license to speak. In newspapers or in .. or in… real life you speak because you have a right to speak. The Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law.” It’s not that hard, and that gives print, and that gives actual speech enormous rights that are not … afforded to broadcast. As we go into Internet, we don’t’ know whether the legal regimen is going to be free speech or licensed speech. I think you can see the consequences could be significantly different, depending on how we decide to go. And then the third thing is in fact, this new war against journalists. I … use that phrase – it was in a speech that you have got reference to in front of you – but just before Thanksgiving –

HEFFNER: Of 2014 –

IBARGUEN: Of 2014 – And …

HEFFNER: And while we are recording this in the aftermath of the attack against French journalists

IBARGUEN: Charlie… Right… Obviously, I had no idea. Except that we all have an idea of this because the difference is that it used to be that people would attack journalists to stop a story, and now the attack is to create the story. That’s a very different way of looking at the attacks on journalism. It is not merely to silence, it is to create a story and to create an opportunity for recruitment, it is to create an opportunity for fear and for havoc.

HEFFNER: And these terrorists now are armed with a form of propaganda.

IBARGUEN: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: And that’s your point. And I was curious. I was looking up in the 2014 rankings of U.S. Press Freedom Index, we have some work to do, ourselves.

IBARGUEN: In the United States.

HEFFNER: In the U.S.


IBARGUEN: My view is you take care of your own business first. We have to… I think the First Amendment is still as Alan Rusbridger the editor of the Guardian once referred to it – The First Amendment is the gold standard. He told me, he said, “Your responsibility…” We were actually talking about whether we should be funding international programs based in the United States that deal with free speech some place else. And he said, “The First Amendment is the gold standard. Your responsibility is to make sure it is preserved, it is healthy, it is robust. If you do that, then that allows the rest of the world something to aim at. It is the ideal.” And so, do we ever reach the ideal? Of course not. We didn’t reach the ideal even in the time that I was just referring to in the second half of the 20th century when you had incredibly successful newspaper companies, when PBS and NPR, there was lots of radio coverage, when television news was at its zenith, all of those, so time passes, things change.

We’re now in a completely different news environment. We’re almost, I don’t know of a single one of those organizations that used to deliver news to Americans, that isn’t troubled in one, in mainly the economically, or isn’t stressed, even if — assuming they are still here. Times-Mirror, Knight-Ridder, don’t exist any more. So, given the difficulties that the disruption of the business model that occurs as a result of, first cable, then especially, Internet, simply requires that we find a different means. I think that this is an unbelievably exciting time for people to be in the business of providing reliable and consistently reliable news to a democracy.

HEFFNER: Newspapers operated with advertisements, and have. But, as you were suggesting, in that medium, there is a kind of instilment of values, there is a reinforcement of values in approach that is different from the approach that might be more capricious or random in the form of an aggregated news source. You invest a lot of…

IBARGUEN: Alexander… maybe.


IBARGUEN: Maybe. I can’t. You have to look at the editor, you have to look at the … I don’t think the aggregator Huffington Post is the same as the aggregator Gizmondo or … or… any of the others that will give it a different… you can find the ten best and seven worst of almost anything, and that’s different than the kind of stories that you’ll find in the Huffington Post. There is a range. We’re not there yet to talk about definitives.

HEFFNER: I was just going to… emphasize though that you invest a lot of capital in the gentrification of cities as hubs … where newspapers, when they’re embedded in the culture of a township or a city … they have the opportunity to thrive.


HEFFNER: People are informed, and …and newspapers like you said in your Arizona State commencement, convocation speech, there is a certain …civic pulse, charge… I’m not denying we can get that through the Internet, we’ve engaged with our own experimentation in the past, but what’s the road map to get there where the Huffington Post and every other aggregator treat their content, because we’re in a content universe now, as opposed to a news-centric universe… because we have a metric-driven economy, we have a click driven economy, that’s the reality.


HEFFNER: How do we get those values that you foster in these independent communities, how do we transfer them over to the Internet?

IBARGUEN: I think. I’ll say it again. I think we still don’t know. I think the experiments. I haven’t learned anything that makes me change my mind in the last 15 minutes. It is… We are still experimenting with what people will use, how will they use it, and how will they value the information, depending on the medium.

HEFFNER: You’re at work on this, on a daily basis.


HEFFNER: And these experiments are leading you to answer questions…. for example from the 2009… The Knight Commission Report. Some of the key questions you were asking. What are the information needs for a mass audience in a democracy? How do you maximize the available relevant content, pertinent information that people will actually absorb? How do you enhance to capacity for people to actually sustain that knowledge in a Wikipedia news environment, where you can, as you said, Google practically anything…and have an immediate answer, and finally how do you promote kind of the social welfare, public engagement, civic discourse as a way that we operate definitively going forward.

IBARGUEN: All wonderful areas of exploration.

HEFFNER: Exactly. So, I’m wondering in the present news milieu, in this space now, … you said before that there’s not one single challenge that you are most tackling, you kind of have a multi-faceted approach at Knight. But if you were to try to evaluate the progress from now, what would be your benchmark? So, we’re talking in 2015, we’ll have a Presidential campaign underway in 2016, which will certainly kind of deviate the news apparatus from the traditional forms of news to an obsession with a political campaign.


HEFFNER: And so, I’m just thinking about if we meet together, as I hope we do in 2016, what will be some of the benchmarks that you are looking for to judge progress?

IBARGUEN: I guess the benchmarks are not going to be significantly different – in my view at core than they would have been if you’d asked me the same question fifteen or twenty years ago. They will have to do with audience. We support easily 30 odd online news operations. By we support, meaning we are a contributor to them, some of them quite a lot, some of them not quite so much. We’re interested in the things they are doing to grow audience. We are interested in the content that they do. We’re interested in the … the … whatever marketing they do to drive audience. To the extent that we begin to see, for example, tomorrow I’m going to the fifth anniversary of the Texas Tribune, which I think is probably the most successful online, strictly online news operation. And, when you look carefully at what they’ve done, it resembles very much like what the Knights did or the Pulitzer did or the early Sulzberger family did. They focused on reliable and consistently reliable content. They had the best editorial product they could find. They had business – a business guy actually running the business as opposed to somebody in the news room who says, all right, I’ll sell the ads. Well, no. And they had a technologist seated at the table from the very beginning, who says, that’s interesting, so you’ve got this woman who is … filibustering about reproductive rights in the legislature, yeah, we’ve got to do this story, somebody said, but it’s the technologist who says, you know I can get that feed because it is public information and we can just put it up on the Texas Tribune and so all of a sudden everything in Texas politics is about this woman’s filibuster of Governor Perry’s initiative. It was a phenomenal moment to prove the point that you really need to do what the people who built the great news operations of the past have always done. Create a business-run way that allows you the time to develop a product that people will appreciate and deliver it in smart clever ways that people want.

Yogi Berra had it right. If the fans don’t wanna come to [out] to the ballpark, nobody can stop ’em.” And if the fans have decided that they want their information in a different form than the way we used to deliver it every morning, nobody’s going to stop ’em. So, wring your hands all you want, it was a different experience. I really liked it. And now it has changed. The monks in the Middle Ages had the same problem with Gutenberg as we’re having now, and they found a way through it and so will we.

HEFFNER: When I had Sue Gardner and Mitchell Baker on this program over the last year, they were quick to note that they are the exception, not the rule insofar as being successful as a browser and in Wikipedia’s case, the only non-profit web property among the top 5 visited or trafficked websites. And, they are the exception in that they may acquire and process Big Data, but that’s only a piece of the overall assessment that they make to serve the public interest online. Is that important?

IBARGUEN: I think it’s hugely important. I think, first of all the fact that they are the I’d say, you could say more than five – they are really the exception to the –to the – I guess you could call it the rule – that as in everything else in this society, it’s the for-profit efficiency and focus on market, focus on the customer, that for-profits tend to have, that lead to great … great commercial success. Wikipedia has been able to do it as an exception. Does that mean it’s the only one? No, of course not. I don’t know whether the winners – whether it matters ultimately that the winners be for-profit or non-profit. But here’s the thing, there was in the model that we have as a consumer society … have walked away from, that is the old newspaper model, the old commercial television model, there was a commitment to mission as the way to drive the business. If there is only a commitment to the business, the mission piece is lacking and that’s why we have a growing interest in whether there should be non-profit organizations that are committed to the mission.

The irony of course is that the non-profits can’t make it unless they operate as if they were businesses…


IBARGUEN: Because the First Amendment guarantees free speech, not … not sustainability. So – and you don’t create trust with readers unless you consistently …and reliably and consistently reliably deliver information that I know I can believe because I read that you said the sky was blue and it turns out, there it is, the sky is blue. It is really important to be able to develop these models.

At Knight, at Knight Foundation, we’ve supported many experiments from people coming straight out of MIT – the MIT media lab is one of our biggest journalism grantees. We’ve supported non-profits and we have also, out of our endowment, invested in for-profit start-ups. It’s actually one, a part of Knight Foundation’s activity that gets the least attention because it’s a relatively new effort on our part, but we figured, there, who knows what the rules really are? So let’s – if we find smart people – who are doing things that could lead to the better informed community that we seek, and they’re set up as for-profits, let’s go with them, so we have made actually, … some… some interesting investments that are brand new start-up organizations and we’ll see where that goes, at the same time as we’re funding lots of non-profit news organizations and mainly and probably the most attractive part of what we do is the funding of disruption. It is still a moment when we have to disrupt. You mention the talk I gave at Arizona.

HEFFNER: “Accelerate the disruption,” you said.

IBARGUEN: “Accelerate the disruption.” This is the generation we’ve been waiting for because – I actually told the Dean, “You have what no editor in America has.” The Dean of a school of Communications has a bunch of digital natives who want to tell stories. Fantastic! No editor has that. The editor has a bunch of digital immigrants. People of my generation who had to learn, not people who breathed it as they were growing up. This is a phenomenal moment and those people are now you, you and everybody else in this room in now taking over, or is going to take over, and so our grant to the University of Arizona was, when the crusty old editor tells you, “Hey kid, you know, I don’t want to do this,” and finally you beat him down because you’re as persistent as Alexander Heffner in asking your questions or…

HEFFNER: Laughs.

IBARGUEN: Or proposing and you say I want to do it, he says, “Yeah, but we don’t have the budget for it…” well then you dial up your old Dean at the University of Arizona and he gives you a Knight Foundation grant and you go back to the editor and say, “Here’s the money, let’s try it this way.”

HEFFNER: I think, of all the foundations, the most pro-social in trying to – as you say – mold this adaptation of the Internet into something that’s a vehicle for good. Is that how you think about it?

IBARGUEN: I think… I so believe that … I so believe in the Internet as a vehicle for good, I so believe that Internet is the enabler of true small “d” democracy. I think there is a delicious irony in the … in that the organization that Jack Knight founded, who, he being a patrician Republican of the early… the middle part of the last century, a fabulous icon of that, but he so believed and his favorite speech that I’ve ever read is one where he talked about … he so believed in democracy, in small “d” democracy, in the purpose of a great newspaper, he said in a speech in Akron, to the Chamber of Commerce sometime in 1950-something, “The purpose of a great newspaper is to inform and illuminate the minds of its readers, so that the people may determine their own interest.” This is a guy who says in another tape, he wants to be known as a guy who prints good newspapers, is fair, open-minded, and opinionated. He’s not interested – in on the one hand this, on the other hand… but he is interested in a fair exploration – in… in honestly trying to deliver a set of facts, and now lets have a debate. You have a right to your opinion, I have a right to mine. Let’s figure out what is best for this community.

HEFFNER: When you say, “Accelerate the disruption,” in what seems to be increasingly disorder… we talked earlier about the terrorist attacks in France… What order do you want to preserve.

IBARGUEN: What a great question … the… the …I think .. I think… I just gave the answer. I think the order I want to preserve is the …is the possibility of delivering the neutral set of facts…the …

HEFFNER: And a certain value system associated with that…

IBARGUEN: There is clearly a value system associated with that. When I talk with my friends in European news organizations, this is a conversation that we’ve been having for forty years in my experience, and I remember time I went for the first time to El Pais in Spain and the guy asked me … this is back when I worked at the Hartford Courant and he asked me, “Well, what is the political tendency of your newspaper?” and I said, “Oh, no. We tell the news straight down the middle.” And he laughed out loud and he said, “This is an American conceit. How can you possibly think that you’re not biased in the way that you see the news, you interpret the news, you write up the news, it’s much better to have a system like we have in Spain,” he said. “El Pais writes from the left, El Mundo writes from the middle, and ABC writes from the right. And we think it’s fair. We think it’s more honest. We think it’s more transparent.” And I said, “I still hold to my ideal.” I’m not saying, God knows as a publisher how many corrections were run on my watch. I’m not saying that we didn’t make mistakes and didn’t get it wrong, any number of times, but the ideal was to be able to feed the middle so that… so that you can actually have compromise in this middle class of nations, in this mix of nations, that is the United States. I think that’s the genius of this country and the way forward. And one of the things that most concerns me is that starved middle. There’s so little disinterested information that is being produced, that it’s hard for the kind of compromise that used to be possible between right and left, that was relatively common in the past.

HEFFNER: Thank you for being on the Open Mind today.

IBARGUEN: Thanks for the invitation. And thank you, Richard for starting this program, sixty years ago.

HEFFNER: Thank you to him too. And thanks to you too. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

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