Whether you’re new to the Alliance or a long-time member, chances are you’ve heard from our president and CEO, David Chavern. But we want you to get to know him — and us — a little better. So Vice President, Innovation and Communications, Michael MaLoon sat down with David for a chat about his media education, what it’s like leading an organization of more than 2,000 publications, and what the future holds for the news industry. Take a listen, or read the transcript below.
TRANSCRIPT (Has been edited for clarity)
MICHAEL MALOON: David, before joining the Alliance you spent decades in law and business, most recently as COO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. What made jumping into the news business so appealing at this point in your career?
DAVID CHAVERN: Oh, a lot of it. First of all, it was a learning experience for me. I really didn’t know a lot about the media business before I got into it, and it’s a fascinating area of the world, super important, and I love the mission. It’s a really mission-driven business. There’s a good reason to get up in the morning and that’s to fight for the future of journalism, and the energy that comes with that purpose and the drive and the feeling of accomplishment is just really hard to replicate. You know I respect businesses of all stripes, but actually having something from the First Amendment to fight for is really exciting.
MALOON: You mentioned the kind of learning curve and picking up on that, what have you learned about the news industry in your past four years?
CHAVERN: I think the biggest thing that sort of struck me right from the beginning was our audience is bigger than ever, and I think people don’t realize that, don’t think about it. There’s always this idea of the “Golden Age” of news, which was some hazy pastime when you got the newspaper and watched Walter Cronkite, but actually now, more people consume more hard news – by a lot – than they did back then. And I think news and journalism is much more central to people’s lives than it was then because you can consume it all the time… including all age groups by the way. People say millennials don’t consume news – that’s garbage. They consume a lot more news than I did at their age, mostly because they can, it’s available, it’s present for them. So, I think what I didn’t realize is how big the audience is, how fast it’s growing and how central it is to people’s lives in a really fundamental way. And actually much bigger and more central than it was even in some hazy Golden Age.
Now, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of problems. Our business models are broken and need to be rebuilt. But this isn’t one of those things where we don’t have customers. We have more customers than ever. We need to build new bridges to them as a way to financially support journalism, but man, the customer base is out there like crazy.
MALOON: 2019 is shaping up to be a pivotal year for the news industry. Can you talk about why this is such an important time?
CHAVERN: Yeah, probably three big trends. First is the most obvious one, which is we’re in the run-up to a presidential election, and particularly by the time the fall comes around, the public’s attention will be very centrally focused on news and journalism because there’s going to be a whole lot of politics going on. But what people may not appreciate are two other things, which is there’s a lot of business activity in the news business, a lot of potential mergers and acquisitions, new businesses, other businesses trying to reformulate themselves, there’s a whole lot about the structure of the business that’s undergoing change. As part of that, what people don’t understand is, there’s been a lot of talk over the years about media consolidation. Actually, the news business is not very consolidated, I mean we have 2,000 members. It’s still a pretty distributed business. But there’s going to be a lot of M&A activity where there’s going to be new consolidations, new companies, new strategies.
The other thing is the platforms with whom we both cooperate and have conflict are, I think, working harder to offer us new products and strategies as a way to satisfy the news business. Now, you know, we’re not satisfied yet [laughing], so we’ve got a ways to go, but I think between, the example is the new Apple News product that came out, Google News updated recently, I think there’s a whole variety of initiatives technically coming out that are again experiments in terms of how we relate to our audience. So, politics, business and M&A, and technology are all going to be big this year.
MALOON: So, speaking of technology’s impact on the news business, Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island recently introduced the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act…
CHAVERN: Cosponsored by Doug Collins from Georgia.
MALOON: …something the Alliance lobbied [heavily] for. How will this Act actually help publishers?
CHAVERN: So people know, what the bill would allow is for news publishers to negotiate collectively with the major platform companies. It is our way of getting at this tremendous imbalance between news publishing and the technological platforms. You know, historically, we had the most direct relationship you could have with a reader. We produced a physical product in the morning and we walked it up your driveway and handed it to you in your bathrobe, right? It couldn’t have been more intense. Now, digitally, there are two companies primarily, Facebook and Google, who now stand between us and our readers, and I often say they’re our regulator, you know the government can’t regulate us, but these companies can, cause they determine everything about that news relationship: who gets to see what news when, how it’s monetized, if it’s monetized, and ultimately that arrangement isn’t working for news publishing. We’re being starved of revenue, and revenue to pay for journalism. We need a better deal, and a better deal is about revenue, a better deal is about data, it’s about our brand, it’s about the algorithms, but we need a better deal for the future of the news business.
Now, you can get at that a couple different ways. We have not asked the government to regulate them, we have not asked the government to tax the platforms. All we’ve asked is to allow news publishers to negotiate collectively; it’s a safe harbor from the antitrust laws that would allow us to negotiate collectively and try to even out some of the bargaining power and get a better deal for news. So, Chairman Cicilline was a supporter in the last Congress. He reintroduced it in this Congress with bipartisan support from Doug Collins of Georgia. We’re going to be moving forward with hearings and we’re looking forward to [getting] this bill passed and to getting a better deal for news.
MALOON: In addition to the safe harbor bill, the Alliance recently worked with European publishers to get the new Copyright Directive passed. The EU statute includes a Publishers’ Right that allows news producers to protect their content online from search and aggregation platforms that profit off free use of news publishers’ original content. Do you see this impacting us in the U.S.?
CHAVERN: Our legal regime is different than Europe, so we haven’t been asking for exactly the same thing, but I think it’s part of a worldwide movement to give news publishers more rights on their content and allow them to have a chance of getting a better economic deal.
CHAVERN: And there’s the old saying, “Information wants to be free.” Information may want to be free, but reporters want to get paid, right? Professional journalism costs money, and until we get to systems that allow for financial return to journalism, you know, you’re gonna see cutbacks and dangers to journalism. So while we wouldn’t ask for the same kind of thing that they did in the EU, we supported it – and strongly – because it’s part of a worldwide effort to get a better economic deal for news.
MALOON: What other government or regulatory issues do you anticipate members will be concerned about in the coming months?
CHAVERN: First of all, we’re always focused on copyright and IP protection and we will continue to do that. You know, we need more rights in our content. Reporter protection is unfortunately getting to be a huge issue, physical protection, other protection for reporters. The crazy world we live in where reporters are threatened constantly all the time is something that needs to be addressed. Access to information, whether it be through FOIA or… I mean, just look at what the White House recently did, taking people’s press passes. I mean, listen, there’s a reason why the press is in the First Amendment. It’s not just a business. It plays a role in our civil society that leads us to be able to sustain that civil society, and we need reporters to be protected and to allow them to do their jobs and to get access to information they have to do what they do, professional journalism, sometimes even if it’s uncomfortable, or especially if it’s uncomfortable, if we hope to sustain this common civic endeavor we have here.
MALOON: So, is there anything you’ve done in terms of your work with the Alliance that you’d like to have done differently? Any changes you’d make in the path you’ve taken to help promote quality sustainable news?
CHAVERN: You know, actually, relatively little. You know, this is a great job and I’m fighting for a great cause and… Listen, I am a fighter for the news business, and that means I go out there and be tough at times, but it’s for a great cause, and there’s relatively little about that I’ve ever regretted or felt the need to go back on or apologize for. I’ll tell you one weird one was right when I got the job, I was in a piece where I was quoted about the coal business, of all things, and it was edited in a way that came across as very dismissive of the coal business, and first of all that’s not what I intended and secondly, I don’t like sort of the implication of being dismissive of anybody or any business who’s out there trying to make a living, and, you know, the coal business still keeps the lights on in a lot of places, including here, so that one kind of stuck in my craw that I never really liked. And weirdly, it came up again when I did the Kara Swisher Recode Decode podcast she appropriately corrected me about whether people are still buying coal or not, so yeah, that one, it just wasn’t me, and I don’t really like it and it’s not how I approach anybody who’s out there making a living … But other than that, I do love fighting for this business and that’s what they pay me to do.
MALOON: You’ve said you view the future of news as bright. What changes are you seeing in the industry now that give you that kind of hope?
CHAVERN: Oh, I think the journalism we’re doing now is extraordinary. I mean, we’re in extraordinary political times, but the, you know, the news business, even given the financial restraints, has responded spectacularly. I mean, the reporting we’re seeing these days about the whole range of issues is just incredible. We are informing the public about the world and their communities in ways that we should all be very, very proud of. And that makes me optimistic about the future, ultimately. We create something that’s critical and people like and appreciate it. We have problems to solve, we need to fix the business model, but again, if you come at it from a perspective of we provide something valuable and people appreciate it and like it, that’s a good basis from which to try to rebuild a business model. So, I’ve been, I’m ultimately quite optimistic. We do something important and people appreciate it, so let’s build a business around it.
MALOON: Great, alright, thanks a lot, David.
CHAVERN: Thank you. I liked talking to you.