SF Chron’s Phil Bronstein: “I’ve Always Been a Student of Insurgency”


In the ongoing conversation about the future of media, there are few in a better position to talk about it – and Google, Rupert Murdoch, and the SF Chronicle – than Phil Bronstein, the Executive Vice President in charge of Content Development and Editor-At-Large for the Newspaper Division of The Hearst Corporation.

Phil’s also known as a celebrity, but my feeling going in was that I want to focus on the more substantive issue of media’s future with someone I work with, and that I wasn’t interested in adding to someone’s caricature of “Phil Bronstein.” We met at Phil’s office at San Francisco Chronicle headquarters in San Francisco.

Phil Bronstein

(The text picks up after the video introduction. The blog post breaks down the most interesting parts of the discussion with summaries in between. The video below is over 27 minutes long.)

Zennie Abraham: You having fun?

Phil Bronstein: Yeah. Most days at least interesting if not fun. I get the opportunity to talk to people who are doing things that are outside the normal scope of journalism, but that may have an application for journalists. It’s that intersection that interests me and probably interests everybody.

Zennie Abraham: That why I wanted to talk to you about the future of media, but also wanted to say something. A lot of people I talked to in preparation for this (interview) say you should have got the Pulitzer (Prize for his coverage of the Philippines) not the finalist. Wikipedia got it wrong.

Phil Bronstein: Well, (Wikipedia founder) even Jimmy Wales will tell you Wikepedia’s not perfect. But that was a long time ago and I had a great time as a foreign correspondent. Almost 10 years. I was very happy with my experience there and had a great time doing it. I don’t care at the moment; but thank you. (Laughs)

Zennie Abraham: What’s the future of New Media? I kind of jumped the gun but I could not think of a better person to talk to from your perspective because you span journalism..

Phil Bronstein: I’m old.

Zennie Abraham: Nah.

Phil Bronstein: I’ve been around a long time.

Zennie Abraham: You’re not much older than me Phil. (Well…)

Phil Bronstein It’s a much more complicated question than it seems. I think that everybody’s grasping. There’s a little panic going on; sometimes a lot of panic. I think as I told you before you started videoing, I’ve always been a student of insurgency. I like that.

Zennie Abraham I think I’m the insurgent.

Phil Bronstein: No. No. I mean, I think there are a lot of insurgents around. Some of them technically have nothing to do with journalism but what hey have is they have the ability to plug in what they’re doing into journalism. Journalists don’t necessarily have the time, even if they have the interest in figuring out how to make that happen. For instance the Twitter phenomenon.

Twitter has ways in which they can have a verification process for all of that giant pipe of information they have every second. And verify it in ways that can be useful for a journalist.

So if you’re a journalist, and you find out that 50 people are tweeting about an explosion in Lower Manhattan, Twitter has the ability or will have the ability to geocode those responses to see if those people are all part of the same social network or maybe not, which indicates that it may be a hoax, maybe not . There’s a process that they can do (in) real time to analyze this data and then be able to say to journalists, out of the 50 words or so, here are the ones that are real.

Bronstein is working to determine what role the professional journalist can play in information technology. Bronstein sees the journalist as a fact checker of the future. A person or persons who ferret out the bad information from the good in a sea of it. He says that there’s been a big change and that ultimately there’s going to be a bigger one. The question is ‘What’s the future of journalism.’ Not what’s the future of ‘newspaper.’

Zennie Abraham What’s the future of journalism?

Phil Bronstein The future of journalism is that there will always be value in someone filtering information professionally…Sort of a nose for things.

Bronstein says ‘Citizen Journalism’ has been a disaster. “The idea that you go out and give everyone a Flip camera”, he says, “You can call that a journalist, I suppose. But the idea that there would be this seamless relationship between citizen journalists and journalists is not working.”

Bronstein says social media gives citizens the chance to contribute, but the results must be verified. There was a push in the recent past to use what newspapers called “user-generated content”, but it didn’t work out because of the information accuracy problem.

The picture he gives is of the news organization as information shaper; “That’s what professional journalists can do. That’s what a lot of professional journalists do very well.”

In a world dominated by opinion and issued by blogs and vlogs, and where some information consumers only go to “certain sources” that fit their political leanings, Phil Bronstein asserts there’s a need and a desire for information that’s been “cleaned and verified” by pro journalists.

The nature of the interaction between the citizen journalist and the professional is where the person uses a camera to capture something happening and the news organization (like the SF Chronicle or CNN iReport) uses the video once its affirmed.

Revenue concerns in media

“How is all of this monetized” was the question that defined the next phase of our talk.

Phil Bronstein – Well, that is the big question that no one has answered yet, unless you’re Google, Yahoo or MSM. In terms of news and information. You perform a service; people are going to be willing to pay for it in some fashion. That may not be true. I hope it’s true. Ultimately I think we’re relying on some truth to it. The more value we create the more we can collect on that value. The desktop screen or the laptop screen may have past us by already because we’ve made everything free.

Zennie Abraham – Are paysites the answer?

Phil Bronstein – Or maybe it’s the handheld device. I don’t know. I don’t know. What the answer to that question is and I don’t know that anyone have the definitive answer “(does). The Chronicle’s now jumping to embargoed content – We’ll see how that goes.

Zennie Abraham Can you explain to my viewers what that is?

Phil Bronstein Yeah. It’s key stories in the Sunday paper. People are being encouraged to go out and buy the paper , the Sunday paper, where they would have seen it on SFGate for free – or get an e-subscription. They’ve seen some action. It’s only embagoed for a few days then it appears on SFGate. Now I think what’s going to happen is very news company is investigating some kind of paygate.

I asked Bronstein about the failed Newsday paygate, where it gained just 35 subscribers in three months. “Times Select is a disaster. The LA Times had a pay wall and that didn’t work. There are theories that if you get enough media companies doing it at the same time people will have less opportunities.”

He’s not advocating for a cartel. “Rupert Murdoch has threatened to withhold or just kill Google. Not allow Google to use his stuff; the Wall Street Journal, for example. I asked a Google executive all the newspaper companies decided to kill Google, how much would that effect them; he said three percent (of total revenue). They’ve come up to talk to news people at the SFGate; I’ve went down there to talk with them. Everyone’s willing to talk, but I don’t think we have a lot of leverage with the Murdoch threats.

Warren Helman’s Bay Area Project

Bronstein and I talked about The Bay Area News Project. A new “non-profit” news organization that’s financed by San Francisco investor Warren Hellman, that’s upset some local traditional journalists who feel that it’s taking the “news market” away from them since it relies on students in the Berkeley journalism school and partners with the New York Times (not the SF Chronicle). “It’s a high end demographic. We’ll see how it goes. KQED dropped out. We’ll see how it goes.”

The future of media

Bronstein thinks this change will, as I put it, shake out in some way in the future. “Things are happening. Momentum is there. What Murdoch’s doing. They’re all trial balloons he’s testing Rupert just may have something we don’t know about..”

On the matter of celebrity news site TMZ.com, he describes it as “a wonder” and thinks “It’s great..an experiment that’s worked pretty well. “We’re in an interesting time” Phil says, and offers that there will be an interesting tension between the people they cover and what they do.

The future of the San Francisco Chronicle

“The Chronicle’s not closing down anytime soon. I don’t say that because I make the decisions, that’s just my belief and my observation. I want to make that clear. And anything I tell you could be completely wrong or change tomorrow.” Bronstein says that technological change may cause the Chron to “look completely different” than it does now, but it’s still and institution that’s been around for a long time.

The video is uncut and has more of the details behind his comments and my reaction. But it was an enjoyable experience that I’d like to create a follow-up to, especially after the iPad’s been in the market for about six months.

Meanwhile, I’ll talk with more interesting people about the future of media.

Stay tuned.

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