There is a sense when you meet John Carroll that you are in the presence of one of the last of a dying breed. He has the kind of presence in a room that one thinks JFK or FDR must have had in their time. He has an inherent celebrity about him and an undercurrent of integrity surrounds his personality. Try Googling him and you will not find much, but he holds almost a legendary status in the annals of modern journalism-at least to those who know who he is.
Carroll has a great deal of bragging rights and achievements, although you can’t imagine he would ever brag about them. After graduating from Haverford College in 1963, he spent almost his entire career writing and editing for newspapers in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Lexington, Ky, before accepting a job as editor of the Los Angeles Times. He won 13 Pulitzer prizes while at the Times, including five in 2004. Retired, he now serves on the selection committee for the Pulitzer Prize and is the Knight Visiting Lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“We are in a period of creative destruction,” in print journalism, Carroll says as he scans the audience for young faces at a recent panel at his alma mater. He goes on to say that we, as Americans, no longer get the majority of our information from sources that genuinely care about the communities, people, and events they are covering. What dominates the news industry now, he says, is marketing, public relations, and money. Carroll explains that, “there was this wonderful time,” when there were rules that strictly governed and protected journalistic integrity and accuracy, and rewarded original and innovative important journalism. These rules have taken a backseat to sensationalism and content with mass appeal, especially in regards to network and cable news, Carroll says.
“Newspapers do reporting,” Carroll says simply. “They have more reporters.” He says 85% of all news stories that appear on television originate at a newspaper before they are picked up by television. “If enough newspapers go out of business, there goes that 85% of our news.” What will be left over, says Carroll, will be stories on, “Laci Peterson and Britney Spears.”
Carroll describes himself as a reluctant pessimist. As much as he would love to be proven wrong, the reality, as he sees it, is there are two problems facing the future of print journalism: public ownership, and the internet. “The former problem has weakened efforts to compete with the latter.” A newspaper that is publicly owned is traded on Wall Street and available for anyone to buy, as opposed to being privately owned, usually by the company’s founders. Carroll says newspapers that are publicly owned, “worry about Wall Street analysts,” when they should be worrying about the news, and that ownership of papers has been left in the hands of large funds like Blackstone that are in pursuit of raw power over their publications. In essence, “ownership has been stripped of all responsibility,” says Carroll.
Carroll also worries whether newspapers will be able to change rapidly enough to compete with the Internet. He believes that regardless, “markets will provide what is needed.” The question will be how prominently print newspapers will fit into those new markets.