Robert Magnuson: Journalism in an Era of Advanced Technology and Global Business

Robert Magnuson recently joined InfoWorld as president and CEO, bringing with him more than 23 years of publishing and editorial experience. Most recently Magnuson was a senior vice president for The Los Angeles Times, responsible for circulation, regional editions and the newspaper’s national edition. He established trend-setting marketing and distribution partnerships with leading Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese language newspapers, and launched an ambitious community news operation. From 1990 to 1996, he was Los Angeles Times business editor. Before coming to the Times, Magnuson served as business editor for the Oakland Tribune, Hong Kong bureau chief for the Asian Wall Street Journal, and associate economics editor for Business Week. He earned his bachelor’s degree in political science at UC Berkeley, followed by master’s degrees in journalism (Columbia) and economics (Massachusetts).

Magnuson has been honored with numerous editorial, publishing, and company awards, most notably as a member of The Los Angeles Times staff sharing the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Northridge earthquake, and the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Los Angeles riots. During his tenure as business editor, his staff was twice recognized as finalists for the Pulitzer as well.

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Ethix: You recently moved from daily journalism at the LA Times to InfoWorld, a magazine trade publication. How do you see the differences between the two?

Robert G. Magnuson: There are some real strong similarities, of course. It’s all journalism, all content driven. But the differences are much greater than I thought they would be. It’s a very different pace and the content is very deep and focused in comparison to much of what is done at newspapers, particularly large metropolitan dailies, which do many things very well and in depth but also skim the surface across a lot of subjects.

I’ve done a lot in business journalism but haven’t been deeply involved in technology. Technology is changing the world and I saw the move to InfoWorld as a great opportunity to learn a lot and really try to understand it and help put it to some good use. Clearly, at InfoWorld we want to be as successful financially as we possibly can be. But we also want to have a positive impact on people and see technology applied in a positive way.

Our mission statement actually says that in addition to wanting to be the number one knowledge source in the IT media space and in addition to fostering a positive work environment for our people, the third thing we believe is that technology has the power to change the world and should be done so in a positive way. I think everybody here wants to make a contribution to this third goal, not just do well in their careers as journalists. So that’s why I moved.

How will InfoWorld pursue its mission in the coming decade? Will you invent new products or services? How will you get your product into the hands of those who need it?

We have moved away from the old model where we are primarily a print publication and everything else is an adjunct to that. Now we view ourselves as a content-creating media company using a variety of platforms to reach our audience. This is a much more liberating way to look at our business because it opens up a lot of possibilities the most immediate of which is online.

Online is now the base of our knowledge content gathering. This is a 24 hours a day, seven days a week operation. It is the starting point of our journalistic enterprise. From there we build out the weekly print product, the quarterly supplements for the CTO, and so on. We turn the pyramid on its head, as it were, and create the journalism online — rather than centering on a weekly publication and then throwing things off of that to post on our web site. The way of the future is to be oriented around the immediate.

We’re creating online a lot more ability to go deep and also to have a monetized relationship with our readers so that for a fee they can go in and get the information in-depth. Businesses are built on research and people charge a lot of money for it. We have a research arm and there is value for people to pay, say, $150 to get to see a piece of our research — or, say, $1000 to see it in greater detail and depth.

We recently rolled out a new product which we call Knowledge Link that enables you to highlight words like “storage” or “security” or “web services” on-line and then click on the word and have a whole list of research related to that word pop up that can be accessed. And yes, you can sponsor that word for a fee. Somebody can buy the rights to the word “security” at the InfoWorld web site for a month. Those are the kinds of things I think we’ll see more and more as access to information is customized.

So we’re going to build much more online in terms of both the immediacy and the use of in-depth analysis. About half of our online readers also read us in print so we’ve got a lot of exchange back and forth between print and online. By the way, “online” is for us a kind of generic term since it actually includes wireless and other forms of electronic communication.

“Electronically connected.”

Right. Our web site used to be called “InfoWorld Electric” which was a strange term. In any case, the print product becomes much more of a very high value-added product that you pick up every week because you need to understand the context and the analysis of products in our Test Center research. In addition we want to create more and more peer-to-peer opportunities for people through events and conferences. Increasingly people want to know what their peers are thinking and they want to exchange information and knowledge.

So a real robust business has those three components — plus research. Right now print still brings the lion’s share of our business revenue, but a couple of years down the road it will change.

Should there be limits on the sponsorship of information or research?

As long as information is independently gathered and delivered, I think everybody is better off. We run into this at conferences. Advertisers are better served when the program is independent. Everybody’s better off if the editorial side is independent and sponsorships are clearly separate from the editorial mission and the editorial content of what’s being said. If you go to a conference and you find out later that it was all staged because one particular vendor’s dominance, you will be unsatisfied.

You still want to get people together in the same room at your conferences, so it’s not enough just to have peer-to-peer interaction over the web?

No. There’s no substitute for getting in the same room and talking to people face-to-face as we do at our CTO Forums. I am really struck by the level of discourse among the participants. They are very interesting people in addition to being very good at their jobs. They seem to relish the human interaction, the dinners, the after-dinners. They want as much of that as possible from a conference. In fact they are less interested in the speeches than in this interaction. Here are people who make their living as technology experts in their companies and yet what they really want is to sit down and talk. I am also impressed by how many books they read and the things they’re interested in. They are not narrow in their interests.

At the final panel discussion on the first night of your recent CTO Forum, the announced topic was the future of technology — but it evolved into a discussion about the ethical dimensions of how this technology will impact people. Almost nothing was said about the technology; almost everything was about the technology/people issues.

Does everyone have to learn English to get on board — or are you interested in broadening the conversation to include, say, French- or Farsi- or Chinese-speaking people?

The way you create value is to do things that others aren’t doing. For newspapers, television, or other media, it’s all about creating context and analysis, not just information or data
We are absolutely interested! You can find InfoWorld and ComputerWorld and other IDG publications in countries around the world. From a narrowly business perspective alone we want to sell our knowledge everywhere and we want people to use our information, knowledge, and content everywhere. It’s a global market. It is also the old Adam Smith notion that it is in our own interest to bring along the rest of the world in a positive way. I believe it’s true that if you do capitalism right, people want it and are willing to pay for it. But even apart from financial values, broadening the circle is also enriching and advancing in terms of human values.

You recently wrote that journalists often don’t know much about the business side of journalism and, on the other hand, media business people don’t often understand adequately the journalist’s professional ethos.

For sure, people don’t know enough about other disciplines. I’m a big advocate of a liberal arts education for that reason. I think the best thing you can do is get a broad education and then later specialize in what you want to do.

In journalism school I took a course on business reporting, but I did not have the opportunity to learn about business in-depth. As business editor for the LA Times for six years I got to see how well journalists were versed in business and it wasn’t pretty! It’s great that more and more journalism school graduates are going back for an MBA, but generally there is a lack of understanding among journalists about the realities of business.
The way of the future is to be oriented around the immediate.
Part of the reason historically has been a feeling among journalists that it’s beneath them to understand business. They chose journalism as a higher calling than working in some business to make a lot of money. But when you get into business, after you’ve been in journalism, you realize that it’s not so simple and that business is actually quite engaging intellectually.

Certainly some degree of the global conflict and chaos we experience today is fed by global business empowered by technology — not just in the weapons industry but in the many ways people’s lives, values, and traditions are disrupted or challenged. What is the role of journalism in this context? What should journalists be saying to business and to the IT world after September 11?

It’s important for journalists to hold on to their fundamental values through whatever is happening out there. When you start to move away from that, for whatever reason, you’re in trouble. We’ve got an uneven playing field in that some people aren’t using the media in a responsible way. If propaganda is being distributed by some outlet and others pick it up for rebroadcast … you get into all these tough issues of perception becoming reality and so on.

In the face of that what journalists have to do is just stay true to their values.
I think the drawbacks of the technological media are outweighed by their democratizing influence. When everybody’s got the information and it’s harder to keep things secret, it’s harder for totalitarian regimes to stay in business.
The other day someone accused CNN of annoying people by impatiently driving everybody to act or to explain things right now. The American people, it was said, are fairly patient and understand the difficulty and complexity but the media do not. Judy Woodruff’s response was that that’s the role of the media. Not everyone likes it but society works better when it has different institutions, taking different positions, and a healthy debate. This exposes things that should be exposed and democracy works better. It’s kind of cumbersome and a bit uncomfortable sometimes, especially during a time of national crisis.

Clearly we’re in a situation where news organizations have to make judgments about what to pursue and what to publish. Is it a sensitive national security issue? The administration has to be careful what they say. Clearly they are not going to tell you everything they’re doing and this poses interesting problems for the press. Should they dig and dig and try to find out what the government is not saying? I think generally they should, up to the point where it is in the interest of national security not to go further. Most media institutions understand this and honor this code of conduct and it does not hinder the democratic process. On the other hand, it’s the role of the administration to conduct foreign policy and especially military operations in a way that’s going to be successful. There’s a healthy tension.

Don’t you think technology actually amplifies this problem? Fifty years ago you could guard some secrets but today with the web you really can’t have any secrets and that puts a different pressure on journalists.

In the old days, FDR might call up a newspaper publisher and say “This is about to happen but don’t say anything just yet” — and they would abide by it. It was a much clubbier atmosphere. It is more difficult today in some ways but I think the drawbacks of the technological media are outweighed by their democratizing influence. When everybody’s got the information and it’s harder to keep things secret, it’s harder for totalitarian regimes to stay in business.

Some are using media technology to control and promote a particular message. But, in general, the impact of technology is to free the message up and create more open communication and this far outweighs the negative use. This does put news organizations in a tough position sometimes. When Bin Laden produces a video tape — should we show it even though it’s a piece of propaganda? In a way it’s a moot point because it’s going to get aired anyway. Once it’s out there, everybody will pick it up.

One irony of the new media is that along with the democratization of truthful information, it’s also much easier to lie to people in large numbers. When information is detached from people and from its context it is harder to verify. Maybe some special effects experts should create and broadcast a phony Bin Laden tape showing him urging peace and love for America and its non-Muslim people?

There have been lots of cases of journalism where something has been doctored, whether inadvertently or for a nefarious motive, and it immediately gets exposed. You can’t keep anything secret. If you try to put out a phony tape, someone will show the real tapes before long and the culprit will be exposed. I love that about the state of technology and society today.
In smaller ways that kind of thing has happened already — and every time it happens it gets exposed. There have been lots of cases of journalism where something has been doctored, whether inadvertently or for a nefarious motive, and it immediately gets exposed. You can’t keep anything secret. If you try to put out a phony tape, someone will show the real tapes before long and the culprit will be exposed. I love that about the state of technology and society today.

Should journalists be raising critical questions about businesses using advanced communications technology to put images of Britney Spears hustling Pepsi or Coke in front of Fundamentalist Muslim cultures? Are we saying “Lighten up, Muslim friends, learn to live with it. Here’s Britney and this is part of your life now”? I think we’re hearing them say: “No, it’s not.”

I think the short answer is that it’s unavoidable. Look at it the other way. What happens if you try to contain it? Censorship inevitably leads to problems. Now Coke or Pepsi may be smart enough to see that they are not going to sell much in those markets with this message so they’ll probably self correct for business reasons alone.

But global culture is not just a cliché and people like Madonna really are global icons. They know her around the world. I don’t know if they know Madonna in Muslim fundamentalist cultures like Afghanistan. There remain a few places that really aren’t in the modern world to a large degree and so this stuff really is foreign. So is it agitating ? Could it lead to terrorism? I suppose. But I think that’s just one of the side effects of democracy, technology, and the dominance of modern American culture. You don’t have to like everything about the American culture but it has changed the world for the better and it has been embraced widely across the globe. There are things about it that are crass and distasteful. But it is a culture that operates on the assumption that you have the ability to turn things off. It leaves a lot to individual, volitional action. If you don’t like Britney Spears, turn off the TV instead of getting all worked up about it and doing something crazy.

Do designers, manufacturers and distributors of technologies have an ethical responsibility to guard against their possible misuses? I just saw a political cartoon showing Taliban forces preparing to confront the Alliance forces. Each piece of Taliban equipment had a tag saying “made in the USA,” “made in France,” “made in Japan,” and so on.

Technology enables terrorists to do terrible things. There has been a lot of discussion since September 11 of this point. How would we control it? In a way it should be free and available but how does it get used?

Should journalists keep pushing techies to think about how their technologies might be used or what kind of problems or side effects might come up alongside the positive benefits?

I think we do have a responsibility. We’re asking more of those questions since September 11. I think it’s something that IT professionals should be asking themselves but, really, everybody in society has this responsibility, whatever line of work they’re in. How is something going to be used?

When we are so inundated with information, someone has to stop and reflect and pull it together so that we can turn data into information. Your team must have done this around the L.A. earthquake and riots when you shared a Pulitzer prize. Who is carrying out this task for us today?

The way you create value is to do things that others aren’t doing. For newspapers, television, or other media, it’s all about creating context and analysis, not just information or data. We call it knowledge at InfoWorld. Data or even information are commodities that one can get in many places. Good journalists and organizations constantly ask how they can push themselves to create something that’s really going to stand out and inform people in a way that they’re not going to get elsewhere.
It’s important for journalists to hold on to their fundamental values through whatever is happening out there. When you start to move away from that, for whatever reason, you’re in trouble.
During the riots in LA and the earthquake in Northridge, we won the Pulitzer Prize partly because we covered the news well under very tough conditions, but I think it was also because we were thoughtful and analytical about it, and asked what people could really use from the experiences and how they could deal better with what was happening around them. It’s not just reporting that such and such happened today — looting here and a fire there. Television gives you what’s happening instantaneously and you’re watching it as it unfolds. The newspaper comes out in most instances once every 24 hours so you’ve really got to do much more than that sort of chronicling to add value. The real test is can you add context? Can you get the right experts to talk? Can you analyze? Can you anticipate the questions everybody out there will be asking and provide intelligent answers as much as possible?

I think the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal coverage since September 11 has been excellent in these terms, especially that of the Wall Street Journal. One of the interesting stories of journalism is how the Wall Street Journal has become “must reading” for a lot of people and not just the “Bible” of the business executive.

With the demise of the dot coms over the past year and a half ago some people are saying that all this technology stuff was overblown and technology is really not that big a deal. How do you see the role of technology in business?

Well, they’re wrong obviously! But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been rough on everybody. Some think it’s good that we must now go back to reality and that’s generally true, I suppose. But it’s never good when thousands of people lose their jobs and all that wealth is lost. It’s been eye opening for me to move here and be a part of this experience even though I came after the bubble had pretty well burst.

It’s oversimplified but true that what we’re talking about is integrating technology into business. The dot coms were a kind of aberration or deviation from that. People got off track because a whole new sector of business was created. Many of us used to say “Wait until Boeing wakes up on this!” “When will GE and GM get it?” That is what’s now happening. We’re focusing more and more on how technology can solve problems within the enterprise and how the internet can be used as an instrument of operational efficiency, more than as a source of commerce and revenue.

We do a lot about web services now in every issue of InfoWorld. The use of the internet to improve your business is really going to be a big deal. The way businesses are coming to use it is not what people anticipated. B to C is out and even a lot of the B to B still is far down the road because it’s not secure and it’s hard to make use of short term. What people can use it for inside the corporation is dramatically improved efficiency. Supply chain management, customer relationship management, and all of those things are tangible. We’re seeing technology much more integrated into the function of businesses rather than was the case in the start-up craze.

The enduring value comes not in creating something to sell but in actually changing the way business is done. Longer term that will be the real impact of this technology.

I agree completely. It’s easy to feel that it’s not happening because there’s so much dissonance in the atmosphere around the dot com failures. We see InfoWorld as the voice of the serious technology professional, focusing on how the technology professional can make the right decision, the best decision about how to use technology in their company.

Too many business leaders leave these decisions to the technologist when in fact if they don’t understand the technology, they can’t make the right business decision. How do you get business people more engaged in understanding not how to put the technology together but what it could do for them so they can create the right strategies?

That’s where the CTO comes in. The CTO brings to the table the deep technology knowledge that other executives in the company may not have. Increasingly we’re going to see CEOs learning more about technology and also having around them better people able to make complex decisions about technology. I think we’re seeing a change in the relationship between the CEO and the technology executives, managers, and technology teams in companies. CEOs are getting better at it but also their technology people are getting more sophisticated. What used to be a pretty simple decision to buy this system or that is not the case anymore. As you go out onto the web and start developing more relationships on-line and develop services on-line, it becomes even more complicated. Some vendors want you to just buy their whole package but more and more what is needed is a combination of things that fit your particular enterprise.