Earlier this summer, I had the fortune of speaking with veteran journalist and editor John S. Carroll ’63 on his experiences in journalism and view of the industry today. Carroll has had a long, distinguished career in journalism – as a reporter in Vietnam, editor of The Lexington Herald-Leader, The Baltimore Sun and, most recently, as editor of the Los Angeles Times. During his 5-year tenure, the Times won 13 Pulitzer prizes. Carroll resigned in 2005 (more here).
How did you get involved in journalism?
My father was in journalism. But I really wasn’t interested in doing that. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I didn’t work on the student newspaper at Haverford. I was not the most mature kid at school and wasn’t thinking much about careers. Of course back then it was a lot easier to get a job; that’s probably not the case right now. When I finished college I had no idea what I was going to do. I was pretty good at writing papers, at writing them fast – last mintue jobs. And so I got a job as a reporter, and I discovered I loved it. I was completely motivated and worked night and day.
Did the Honor Code and the kind of Quaker ethics you absorbed at Haverford influence how you view the role of a journalist, then or today?
I think the honor code and other aspects of the Quaker atmosphere at Haverford tend to encourage idealistic thinking. And I can’t say that everybody who comes out of Haverford proves to be a saint. But I think that they do think more about large questions of right and wrong. And the atmosphere at Haverford and the Quakerism…tends to make you want to do something not just for yourself, but for the broader community and for the world. And it teaches you not to be greedy and selfish.
It seems the popular political rhetoric is fond of talking about the decline of journalism and the mass media. What do you think of that assessment?
I think it’s changed a whole lot, and probably will continue to change for a good while. A good part of it is economic. The economics of the web has really torpedoed the old media. And they simply can’t afford to put as many good journalists on the street. The number of professional journalists in the country has declined steeply. On the other hand, the web has given us a lot more tools for doing journalism and distributing it and there’s a lot that’s good about it. I’m assuming or hoping that people will continue that people will continue to develop web-based journalism and exploit it to the fullest – and so maybe 10 to 15 years from now we won’t lament the decline of the old media. But right now I think coverage is not as good as it was. And I think opportunities for people to have careers in journalism on which they can live a decent lifestyle and send their kids to college are not as good – the chances of doing that are not as good as they were. I think there is a decline.
You’ve spoken out a lot about the role of newspapers in doing original, in-depth reporting. Now newspapers are trying to produce the same content online. Has the internet eroded the moral credibility of journalism?
I think it has, because – theoretically, it’s great. It gives voice to people who never had a voice before. But as I’m sure you know, much of what they put on the web is trash. And some of it is shoddy and some of it is deliberately misleading. Some of it is propaganda. And it’s very difficult for the consumer to tell one from another. So it’s opened up the floodgates for all sorts of information that purports to be journalism but really isn’t – because it’s not principled. So I think that the advent of the web has definitely subjected the public to a lot of very bad information. On the other hand, its subjected the public to some good information too. It’s not all bad.
Organizations like ProPublica have served as a model for award-winning reporting conducted entirely online and funded by donors. Of course, they also have a limited audience. Do you think that’s a viable model for online journalism to rely on in the future, or do you think it’ll be limited by its inability to generate profits?
I think it’s a positive thing, I’m involved in a very marginal way with ProPublica, and I think it’s a very good thing. They’re not entirely online, and very often form a partnership with a newspaper or magazine to give wider distribution to their reporting. They’ve had material in the New York Times and the New York Times Magazine and other publications. It’s worrisome that it doesn’t have significant income other than charity, because charity’s fine and it’s fine for ProPublica to be like that, but it’s not a model that can replace the many tens of thousands of journalists who are being lost because of the change to the economics of the business. It’s a drop in the bucket. And it’s still praiseworthy, so it may be a part of the solution, but it certainly isn’t the solution.
You’ve spoken out quite vocally against Fox News. How do you think Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World scandal bodes for his media empire. Do you think it’s likely to have any effect on how Americans view their own news sources?
It’s interesting to see whether this thing will bleed across the ocean. I think it has to some degree. The head of Dow Jones – which publishes The Wall Street Journal – lost his job over this, and is apparently in some trouble in England. He was working in London for Murdoch before he came to run Dow Jones. And Murdoch has got Fox News, which is not a commendable journalistic organization, but he also has The Wall Street Journal which is an excellent paper… and people expected he might damage it. He’s changed it, and there’s some changes that I think have been good…and by and large I think he’s taken care of that. But the whole question of corporate integrity is a very big one….and it just casts a shadow over everything in the company. And the WSJ is one of the gems of American journalism and I just hope that it can continue to be a first-rate operation. I think it is one of America’s best papers, and I just hope this corruption – which appears to have existed at a very high level – doesn’t taint the Journal.
Along with staffing cuts on newspapers, the unpaid internship has become an increasingly popular way for newspapers to produce content while letting students get their foot in the door. For a lot of students this kind of work is all that’s available. What do you think of this trend – do you think it’s problematic for the professionalism of journalism?
I think it is. Although it’s been around for awhile, when I was the editor of the Lexington Herald Leader in Kentucky, we had a relationship with Northwestern University and they would send us students who were part of their program and we wouldn’t pay them..in fact they were paying to go to college and so it was costing them money. But it wasn’t just a typical internship, it was very closely supervised, and their professors would come down and visit, and we wouldnt put them on any work that they couldn’t get a lot out of. This can be very helpful to somebody.
But [the trend] makes me uneasy. I think that some people get exploited. When I think about The Huffington Post and these websites that pay nothing or very little to people, I realize people are willing to do it to get a foot in the door, but it doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel right if the company is profitable.
What kind of advice would you give to an aspiring young journalist? What kind of values do you hope journalists today would embrace?
A couple things on that score. One is that although there’s a lot of uncertainty for anyone who goes into journalism about how much money you’ll make and where you’ll be working and what kind of work you’ll be doing, this is a tremendously important period for journalism and really for American democracy, because democracy depends on journalism. And this generation will reinvent it and make it something different and, I hope, better. And it’s a great opportunity to achieve even though it may not be a great opportunity to get rich – although people will get rich off of it too, I imagine.
You mentioned values – and one of the things I’m concerned about is the number new people getting into journalism who are not steeped in the traditions that were nurtured primarily in newspaper newsrooms…[and] who just don’t know the principles that journalists have developed over the years that make it honorable and useful in a democracy. So I think that journalism will need people who understand the philosophy of what they’re doing, and have a conscience about it. The transformation of values through the generations is very important at the moment. As I said, the old media is fractured, it was the old media in which the best journalism values were hatched and nurtured. And we need some place else for that to happen – it’s not going to happen at Fox News.
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