Monday, April 9, 2007

Interview with media man and Pulitzer Prize winner John Hughes

Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Hughes, former editor of the Christian Science Monitor and the Deseret Morning News. The interview took place on April 2, 2007.

Scorup: Can you talk about some of the changes you saw in media that made you say “Wow! What’s going on?”

Hughes: Sure. Well, when I started in this business, we used to write our stories on something called a typewriter. And that was hard copy and it was edited at the copy desk by regional editors. Then it would go out to the composing room and there would be these old linotype machines that…well, it was molten lead. You had these slugs of lead and then you melted the lead and put it in and your story was re-keyboarded, and what they were doing was they were punching the letters as they were typing into the molten lead, which then they made the slugs the column width and they lay them in a form and it had a metal frame and then they screwed the frame tight. Then they put asbestos mat over it and transferred all the impressions form the type onto the mat. Then the mat was taken out and put onto a half-cylinder metal plate and then on one plate which made up one page, then the other page would be like that, and that’s how it was bolted onto the rollers onto the machine and then the press would set up. Today, nobody uses a typewriter. They use a computer. Reporters use laptops all the time. It goes right into the computer and [the] home office. It’s edited at a computer and moves from computer to computer around the newsroom. Then somebody presses a button and makes a page and the page is on the computer. Then you send it off.

So the whole process has changed tremendously. And for the better. Except that one of the problems it has created is there really is not much time between the time the story is written and the time it appears, or if it’s on television, it’s live. So the consequences of getting it right are much more important and the consequences of getting it wrong are much more serious because, if you’re reporting for a big network, all kinds of decisions could be made on the basis of what you wrote, and what you published may turn out to be false. You may be wrong. So that’s changed a lot.

Scorup: Were there any changes in media, maybe with new technology, that you saw as a kid or as an adult that you didn’t see coming that maybe would change everything?

Hughes: Yeah. I think none of us editors in my generation—a few maybe—but I don’t think any of us foresaw that the internet would become so pervasive so fast. At the paper I was most recently at, the Deseret Morning News, we had an internet new media group, maybe about nine people, and they were taking stuff out of the paper and putting it on the web and using some other stuff. [Photographers] would go to kids’ soccer matches , so they would not only take pictures of what you wanted for the paper, but they would take pictures of all the players, put them up on the Web, and mom and dad say “oh, I want a picture of Tommy.” Call the Deseret News, [pay] 25 bucks, send you whatever it is and you get a nice picture of your kid. So all that has changed, but it took quite a time for newspapers to figure out how to make money out of it, and that is just beginning to happen. The advertising is just beginning to understand the value of the internet, and the internet is becoming more and more important. So you have a problem with newspapers. On the one hand, they’re losing circulation because guys your age probably don’t read a print newspaper; you get your news on a computer. I’ve got CNN on my laptop here. So newspapers have to learn how to merge into the internet era. It’s causing a lot of problems.

Scorup: Did TV ever make you think news or the whole media game would change?

Hughes: No. I didn’t think TV was going to change it because we had radio before and it was “oh, radio! It’s the demise of the newspaper!” Then they said “TV! It’s the demise of the newspaper!” But I knew it wouldn’t be because it’s a different medium. Television is the medium of images. It’s pictures, pictures, pictures. People will tell you in television if you can’t get pictures, it’s hard to get the story on air. Newspapers, I think, are the medium of ideas. TV does a marvelous job of covering breaking news, and now, instantly. First of all, with radio, the world became wired for sound. Then with television, CNN, it became wired for pictures so that almost anything that happens anywhere you can see on the screen. But I think newspapers survive very well indeed in the TV era because [as] Walter Cronkite, who of course was a TV guy, said, if you count all the words in a 30-minute TV broadcast—which is 22 minutes, because you’ve got 8 minutes of ads—there are less than half-a-page of The New York Times.

I had a good friend, Gene Roberts, who was managing editor of The New York Times, and he said when there has been an amazing event somewhere—like a guy lands on the moon, and you can see that live on television, so the reader has seen the whole story of the guy walking on the moon, and so on—the circulation of The New York Times does not go down; it goes up. People want to read a story to explain the significance of what it was they saw. They want the sidebar and the analysis of what it means. So no, I don’t think television meant the demise of the newspaper; it’s competition. But I think there’s a very real question now as to whether the internet will mean the demise of the print newspaper. I don’t think it’s going to happen next year, but I think it is something we will have to watch.

Scorup: You’ve been the editor of the Christian Science Monitor and the Deseret Morning News. Tell me a little bit about those jobs and how they’re similar and how they’re different.

Hughes: They’re different in that the Christian Science Monitor is a newspaper mainly known for its international and national coverage. It’s not much of a local newspaper, whereas the Deseret News is very much a local/regional newspaper. Where at the Monitor you were dealing with a staff of foreign correspondents you sent abroad and they were in different countries and you had a big Washington bureau, at the Deseret News, most of the coverage you generated yourself was local. We had reporters in Salt Lake City, we had a reporter in St. George, we had a reporter in Washington, D.C. But the Washington reporter's job was to be absolutely focused on anything happening there affecting Utah. Some regional reporters go to Washington, and after six months they’re seduced by the White House and the Pentagon and the State Department. We don’t want that from our correspondent because we’ve got all that stuff. We’ve got the AP, we’ve got Reuters, [and] we’ve got The New York Times service. The Deseret News gets its national and international coverage from [them].

Scorup: You have extensive experience with international media. You’ve dealt with prime ministers and other foreign dignitaries. How has that influenced your life and did you ever picture that happening, say, a couple decades before it happened?

Hughes: No. Actually, I was astonished most of my life that someone would actually pay me to go out there to talk to prime ministers and presidents and cover wars and revolutions because, if you’re a journalist, you have a ringside seat on history in the making. It’s very exciting, so I never felt I had a dull day.

Scorup: They say sometimes the difference between news and history is a matter of minutes…

Hughes: That’s right. That’s right, and the newspaper is simply chronicling an event or an occurrence or an interview as it happened in that short period of time. The historian comes in afterwards and finds out maybe the prime minister lied to you, or whatever. You’re only writing a sliver of history each day with the newspaper, and if you get it wrong you have the obligation to correct it the next day. You have the opportunity to correct it, whereas a historian is looking at the whole breadth of a president’s life [for example] and digging into it and has to produce a biography which is accurate. Hopefully, what you do at a newspaper is accurate too, but occasionally you have [only] a piece of the story.

Scorup: What was it that got you into the media business and interested you in news? Maybe you grew up with the newspaper in your home…

Hughes: Oh, yeah. I grew up with newspapers in the home because in the time I lived in London, there were 5, 6, 7 big daily newspapers, but as a kid I wasn’t particularly interested in newspapers. But in high school, my masters [teachers] in chemistry and physics thought it would be a very good idea if I did not pursue a career in that direction, and by contrast, my master in English said “hey, you know, you really ought to get into newspapers, because you seem to have a flair for writing.”

Scorup: Speaking of schoolmasters, you’ve become one yourself—

Hughes: [laughter] I don’t know that I’m very good at it. I masquerade as being a professor.

Scorup: What do you think about that versus the other careers you’ve worked in?

Hughes: In the newspapers I’ve worked at, you’re probably not being involved with young journalists coming straight out of journalism school. Because of the size of that paper, you’ve probably told them to go away for a couple of years to work at a smaller newspaper, and then come back and try [working with] you. So most of the people working on the newspapers that I edited were fairly experienced. Obviously in journalism school, at a university, people are not experienced, although you have this wonderful opportunity here with the [Daily] Universe lab newspaper to learn something about newspapers and to practice. So I think it’s great. I think what I like about BYU is the interest of the journalism students in ethics, because we’ve had some bad guys—bad eggs—in journalism lately that plagiarized and made up stories and that’s given the profession a bad name. So I think it’s great that people from BYU who have the kind of background and ethics and principles that you do are going into the profession of journalism. Who better to reform it—if it needs reforming—than the people who treasure the kind of principles that you do?

Scorup: Sometimes I think the reporters get a bad rap for being sensationalist or dishonest or things like that. How much of that is fair, and since when have we seen that trend take place?

Hughes: Well, I think since Watergate, which is a big old scandal that shone a spotlight on the press more than it had been in the past. So what I think is that across the country, thousands of journalists are working conscientiously and honestly at their beats. [They are] covering city hall, covering the state legislature, covering activities in their areas—the news of which readers have to have because how are you going to make intelligent decisions about how to vote and how to live your life [and so on] without good information? Across the board, there are a huge number of journalists working probably longer than they should, probably not for the money they should get, very conscientiously. But, I think the competition between cable stations and the tabloids and traditional newspapers has caused, in some cases, a journalist to take shortcuts, or to rush into print with something that hasn’t been fully verified, and sadly, to rush into print—as we know from The New York Times and USA Today—with stories that were totally made up. I think those things create a bad impression across the board for other journalists, and I think those of us who feel very strongly about ethics and honesty and decency in journalism … are getting tarnished by the misdeeds of the guys who went off the track.

Scorup: Is there anything else you would want to tell me about media history involving your career or your experiences growing up?

Hughes: Well, it’s a great profession. If you have any talent, anybody should revel to get into [journalism]. You’re not going to make as much money as if you went to law school or medical school. I think it’s a great profession because newspapers—good newspapers—can be an incredibly constructive force for good in our communities and in our lives, and I think it’s a worthy profession to pursue.

Scorup: Thank you very much.

Hughes: You’re welcome. I hope it helps you.
Scorup: Yeah, I’m sure it will.