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Management in Practice

Can Trusted Brands Beat ‘Fake News’?

As old media companies struggle to find a business model that works in a digital age, the norms of journalism have become unmoored and facts have become partisan. Yale Insights talked with Alan Murray, the chief content officer of Time Inc., about the role of Facebook, “fake news,” and the future of journalism.

Time Inc. was once the largest media company in the world. Then a digital meteor ended the age of old media without fully defining what would come next, leaving journalism searching for a business model while society tries to decide if facts get a thumbs up or an angry emoji.

Time Inc. was the Google or Facebook of its day. Through much of the 20th century, magazines held great cultural cache, and the company held iconic brands: Time, Life, Fortune, People, Sports Illustrated, and many more. From 1989 to 2001, with an eye on the 21st century, Time became a media behemoth through an extraordinary series of acquisitions and mergers, as the New York Times recounts. The resulting megafirm included Warner Bros., HBO, CNN and the other Turner Broadcasting channels, and, tellingly, the doomed AOL. Time Inc. was not alone in its digital missteps. Many key players from the earlier era of journalism and media had a hard time moving nimbly onto a world of social, mobile, and platforms. 

In under two decades, new world-beating firms emerged—Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook. And new terms—FOMO, viral, and fake news—described the short-attention-span audience addicted to quick hits of content, largely available for free. Shedding jobs, but pulled inexorably along, even old-school journalism has more reach than ever before, but with advertising revenue falling away, the viability of the venture is uncertain. 

In 2014, Time Warner spun off Time Inc. along with $1.4 billion in debt. The standalone publisher traded under the ticker TIME for just a few years before it was gobbled up in early 2018 by the lifestyle magazine company Meredith. The new owners announced plans to keep the Time Inc. titles that align with its focus and sell the rest.

Yale Insights talked with Allan Murray, the chief content officer, for Time Inc., about the organization, media in the smartphone era, and journalism’s future role in society.

Q: You’ve been the chief content officer for Time Inc. during a period when the organization and the industry are in great flux. Would you explain the role and how you’ve worked to help the organization adapt?

The chief content officer is a re-creation of the editor-in-chief job at Time Inc.; the name changed when the mission shifted from just print magazines to digital content. The editors of Time Inc.’s 24 publications reported to me. In the final days of Time Inc., we were producing a thousand pieces of content every day. We had close to eleven billion views on our videos. It was a huge content machine. I was responsible for making sure it was running smoothly and the quality of content was high. 

When I joined the company three and a half years ago as editor of Fortune, it was principally a print magazine. Time Warner was very siloed. Video was done at Warner Bros. Digital happened on CNN, which worked for a while—CNN became a massive site. But Time was just left to do magazines, which was a death sentence, basically. 

It wasn’t until the spinout that we could really start to invest aggressively in digital and video ourselves. It’s all built up over the last three and a half years. It has felt like a startup sometimes. 

Q: What did that look like?

We made real progress. At Fortune, the journalists had to completely relearn their trade, to go from writing once every couple of months to writing three times a day, from five thousand words to maybe three hundred words. 

When you move into the digital world, and particularity mobile, people are reading on their phones and they have a minute or two while they’re waiting on someone to meet them for lunch and they’re trying to grab some information. Look at what Axios is doing—they call it “smart brevity.” These are people who know their subjects, but they are giving it to you in 200-word bites.

Journalism is more fun than it’s ever been. It’s more interesting than it’s ever been. Our reach is bigger than it’s ever been. At the time of the sale, Time Inc.’s websites had 135 million unique users every month. We never, in the 100-year history of the company, had an audience that large. It was one of the 10 largest internet companies in the country. In terms of its digital footprint, it was bigger than any other legacy media company with the possible exception of CBS. But we’ve got a couple of big problems that have to be overcome—the economics and the trust.

Q: What is the business model?

Right now, the economics don’t work.  With most of the brands, the print magazines still bring in the majority of the revenue, though that revenue is declining each year. Fortune is an interesting case, and probably unique among the Time Inc. brands, in that it crossed over and gets most of its revenue and profit from non-print sources. The print magazine is only about 40% of its revenue. It gets another 20%-25% or so from digital, which has grown very rapidly, and then another 35% or so from its conferences and executive communities which have become a very big part of the Fortune business. 

But broadly for journalism, it’s tough. I’ve spent the last 10 years of my career helping print organizations transition to digital. First the Wall Street Journal, then Time Inc.. As a journalist, I went into it thinking, if I could get the journalists to understand the rhythms of people reading on their phone, understand how to write shorter and faster, understand how to deal with video and interactivity, if I could get them across that culture change, there’d be a business model waiting for them at the other side. But there’s not much of one. 

In part that’s because 80%-90% of the increase of digital advertising every year goes to two companies—Facebook and Google—leaving scraps for those of us who are actually creating content. 

I think the one ray of hope out there is companies that have succeeded in getting more digital revenue directly from their consumers. The New York Times has reported adding a million digital subscribers in the last year. The Washington Post has added a million digital subscribers in the last year to year and a half. We’re starting to see, particularly among newspapers, some progress in that regard. Magazines have had less success.

Q: If Facebook is the world’s largest media platform…

Mark Zuckerberg still hasn’t quite said that, but go ahead.

Q: Where does Facebook fit as a force shaping journalism?

It’s the two issues we’ve already talked about, trust and economics. I think they’ve failed society on both fronts. Obviously, I’m biased; I come from the traditional media industry. On trust, Facebook has stuck to this notion that they’re simply a platform and therefore they don’t have to take responsibility for the content they put out the way a front-page editor has to take responsibility for what he or she puts on the front page. I think that’s a faulty conception. 

I spent a couple years running the Pew Research Center. We did the research that showed that more than 50% of Americans are getting their news from the Facebook platform. That news is largely determined by a Facebook algorithm. I can’t see why the people who write the Facebook algorithm shouldn’t have to take the same responsibility that the editor of the front page used to take. They’ve been very slow to recognize that and recognize they need to help people sort out what’s fact, what’s fiction, what’s the result of serious reporting, and what’s somebody sitting in the pajamas in their bedroom just popping off. That’s the trust issue, where there’s a long way to go.

The economic issue is that most of the increase in advertising revenue is going to Facebook and Google. They don’t bear any of the cost of creating the content. For the publications that do bear that cost, frankly, it’s not working. Robert Thompson, the CEO of News Corps, which owns the Wall Street Journal and who I worked with closely while I was there, has suggested that maybe Facebook and Google should be paying fees to the media companies the same way cable companies pay carriage fees to networks. Rupert Murdoch suggested something similar. That may make sense, but I don’t see it happening any time soon. 

Q: With clicks driving revenue, do you feel pressure to create content that is going to go viral? 

It’s important to be careful with the pressure to create content that goes viral. Our readers are our customers; we’d like to create content they like. Particularly Facebook shares—when somebody shares something with their family, it means they saw something they thought was valuable, and they passed it on. We love that. 

The most viral piece of content that Time has created over the last two or three years was a piece about the solar eclipse. You could put in your zip code and see what the eclipse would look like where you lived. It went viral to millions of people. I think that’s a service. I don’t feel that’s the result of pressure. 

Also, I’ve been in the business a long time. For years, I sat in rooms where editors would say things like, “Our readers want more of this,” and “Our readers don’t really like that.” The truth is, they didn’t have any idea what their readers wanted. Now we have that data. Now we see it, and if we can provide people with information that they like, I think we should. The caveat is, it has to be accurate; it has to be reliable. That’s where the system is falling down. 

Some outlets are going for the click. One of the things about Time Inc. was its adherence to accuracy. We don’t print rumors, we don’t print gossip, we don’t print half-truths—even a publication like People, which was Time Inc.’s strongest publication. When you walk into a grocery store and look at the array of personality magazines and tabloids available, People stands out as the one that you can believe. No aliens from Mars, no rumors about Jen’s pregnancy. We don’t report it until we’ve confirmed it’s true. Maintaining that commitment to factual accuracy across Time Inc. has been an important part of my job.

“The economic issue is that most of the increase in advertising revenue is going to Facebook and Google. They don’t bear any of the cost of creating the content.”

Q: Have the norms of journalism changed?

With digital platforms, anybody can be a journalist. The standards that were common 15 to 20 years ago are no longer common. I’ll give you an example. When I was at the Wall Street Journal, we started a video operation, and at one point we were doing up to five hours a day of live video from our news desk. It was very low budget with a staff of 11 people. Gawker wrote a story about it, saying that, in typical old-media fashion, we’d hired 60 people to do it. 

I called the reporter and said, “I don’t know where you got this 60 number, but it’s not right. We have 11 people in total working on the whole video operation.” And the reporter said, “Oh, good. Thank you for telling me. I’ll go and post it on the site right now.” 

I said, “Wait a minute. Why didn’t you ask me the question before you posted it in the first place?” This reporter says to me, “Oh, this is the way it works now. We get information, we post it. Someone gives us new information, we post that.” 

It’s never worked that way at any journalistic organization that I was a part of, but this was a reporter at a pretty respectable, money-making news organization saying this is the way it works.

Standards have fallen. At the same time, the need to provide constant information has caused reporting depth to suffer. On the other hand, I believe you can be deep, and you can be knowledgeable, and you can also fit the information habits of people working on their smartphone. 

Q: How does journalism function in a time where we can’t agree, as a society, what constitutes a fact?

I think the biggest problem we face in journalism and a problem we face as a society is that there’s not agreement on factual accuracy. I’m not going to tell you there was no bias at newspapers years ago, but at least we all understood certain responsibilities. There were just basic rules of the road on fairness and accuracy, and there aren’t anymore. 

I understand why people are confused and feel like they can’t trust what they read in the media. It’s not helped by the fact that we have a president who uses the words “fake news” not to distinguish things which are factually incorrect, but to distinguish things which he doesn’t like. That confuses people even more. 

Q: Where do we go from here?

I think it’s going to drive people to trusted brands. I would hope over time we can convince them that there are brands that they can trust. 

I think the technology platforms can play a role here as well. This is one of the tricky things about the current conversation with Facebook. 

When I read a story, I look for a publication that has a standard for accuracy and fairness and is willing to write both sides of stories. I look at the record of the journalist. Is it a full-time journalist or somebody who is getting paid by a vested interest? I look at the story itself for indication it involves real reporting. This is all subconscious for me because I’ve been a journalist my whole life, but technology is powerful enough now to be able to tell you the same kinds of things about a story.

Facebook could go through that process and provide some badging. Other platforms do. Apple News has become a very important source of readers for Time in recent years. They only use qualified new sources. Somebody is sitting there making decision about whether things do or don’t belong on Apple News. I don’t think they do it technologically, but down the road technology could help readers and citizens make those kinds of informed judgements.

Q: Since Time Inc.’s magazines have been sold to Meredith, what do you expect for the publications going forward?

Meredith has been very successful in women’s service content—Better Homes and Gardens, Parenting, Family Circle. Some Time Inc. magazines—Southern Living, Food and Wine, Travel and Leisure, and to some extent People—fit very nicely with that. They’ve said other titles—Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, and Money— don’t fit well, and they’re going to sell them. I’m pretty optimistic that the orphans will find a good home.