By: Mark Fitzgerald
Touting The Window Of Opportunity p. 15
New media and the printed newspaper can coexist, says incoming
Newspaper Association of America president Charles Brumback,
but papers must not completely ignore the computer-age future sp.
A COUPLE OF weeks ago, Tribune Co. chairman Charles Brumback found himself in conversation with billionaire boy genius Bill Gates.
Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, is a nattering nabob of negativism when it comes to the future of newspapers, and he was telling Brumback all about it.
Telling the story in the Tribune Tower office once occupied by Col. Robert McCormick, Brumback recalled how he reminded Gates of economist George Gilder’s contention that newspapers add value to information and will retain a vital role no matter what shape the information superhighway takes.
“Ha,” Gates snorted, “if you really believed that, you would pay your reporters like you are paying your [Chicago Cubs] baseball players.”
And what was Brumback’s rejoinder?
In his retelling, it is no snappy comeback ? simply a methodical review of Tribune’s core newspaper and broadcasting businesses, its move out of newsprint and into interactive CD-ROM media, its ever-expanding programming ventures in both broadcast and niche cable television, its stake in the America Online information service and its ownership of the regional Chicago Online database service.
At the end, Brumback said, “I asked him what he would do different, and he said, ‘Well, I guess I’d be doing about what you’re doing.’ “
It would surprise no one familiar with him or his record at Tribune that Charlie Brumback could hold his own one-on-one with Bill Gates.
For the man who becomes chairman of the National Newspaper Association at its annual convention in San Francisco April 24-27 is a strong believer in both newspapers and new media.
And getting newspapers of all sizes into new media is a theme Brumback is likely to sound again during his year at the head of the newspaper industry’s premier trade association.
This, after all, is a newspaper man who, as publisher of Tribune’s Orlando Sentinel, was calling up computer databases in the 1970s when modems ran at 300 baud ? and executives laughed at the idea that they would ever have to wrestle with computers.
“I had bought Apple’s first [personal computer model] and learned about one of the very early databases called The Source,” Brumback said. “In the ’70s, there was a lot of talk about the electronic newspaper and I thought since I had responsibility for a newspaper, I ought to find out what it was all about.
“I quickly concluded,” he said, “the reader would not be taken away from the newspaper by The Source, but I saw many other possibilities, from a business standpoint, in these databases.”
Brumback wanted other Sentinel executives to understand the possibilities too.
“I told all the people who reported to me that we would buy them an Apple if they would take it home and learn it and then bring it back to work,” Brumback said.
“Very quickly,” he added, “we had Apples throughout the place.”
When Brumback came to Chicago, he made the same offer ? and encountered stubborn resistance.
“Nobody took me up on it for six months,” said Brumback, who in addition to chairman is president and CEO. “The culture here was that executives don’t get their hands dirty.”
Even now, Brumback said, “We haven’t really penetrated the organization” with computers and new media.
But, thanks largely to his pushing, Tribune certainly has penetrated new media ? and expanded its nonnewspaper information franchise.
Just in the past year or so, for example, Tribune has launched or joined these ventures:
? ChicagoLand TV, a 24-hour local news cable channel that transmits from a suburban studio and the Chicago Tribune newsroom.
? Chicago OnLine, a computer information service owned by Tribune and affiliated with America OnLine, in which Tribune holds an 11% stake.
? Compton’s Multimedia, a publisher of interactive information and entertainment on CD-ROM.
? Television Food Network, a 24-hour cable network with programming dedicated to cooking, nutrition and related subjects. Tribune owns one-fifth of the venture.
? Peapod, a service that allows users to shop for groceries by personal computer. Tribune owns a minority stake in the Evanston, Ill.-based company.
? WB Network, which Tribune’s eight television stations will carry on this planned “fifth network” operated by Time Warner Inc.
Tribune also is developing interactive news programming to run on Time Warner’s cable system in Orlando.
At the same time, Tribune has continued to expand its TV entertainment programming, which now includes Joan Rivers’ new Can We Shop TV home-shopping program, Geraldo Rivera’s talk show and Soul Train, and soon will include The Road, a country music video producer.
In an interview before becoming the NAA chairman, Brumback makes it plain that ? just as Gates approved of Tribune’s new media ventures ? the newspaper industry as a whole should be moving in this direction.
“A lot of [newspaper executives] read all this [information about new media] and don’t think it has anything to do with them. That’s especially true with some of the smaller and medium papers,” he said.
Clearly, Brumback intends to use the NAA’s bully pulpit to disabuse newspapers of that notion.
“I think the window [of opportunity] is open and I think newspapers should be moving . . . to stake out their positions. They have a wonderful future if they prepare for it,” he said.
On a personal level, Brumback certainly is prepared. He subscribes to just about every major computer database and is a frequent correspondent.
Brumback is the very model of the “early adopter.”
For example, he owns a personal data assistant but laments that he does not have one with wireless transmission ability ? “yet.”
This personal exploration of cyberspace, he said, has convinced him that new media are here to stay ? and so is the printed newspaper.
“I think the quality of the screen and monitor is going to get better and better. You’ll be able to transmit pages and zero in on stories. The technology will be there,” he said.
Nevertheless, Brumback added to a 40-something reporter, “I don’t see it taking the place of print, certainly not in my lifetime and probably not in yours.”
But in addition to convincing other newspaper executives that they have new media opportunities, Brumback said the industry “still has selling to do . . . to reporters, people who think they have to get paid three or four times if their [work] runs in three or four [media].”
“I have a hard time [with that],” he added.
On the subject of the NAA, however, Brumback is considerably more upbeat.
He likes the way the industry’s lobbying has produced an apparently winning compromise on the entry of regional Bell operating companies into information services.
He is also happy with the progress in building the industry’s one order/one bill network.
And he is pleased with the way that the NAA has consolidated from the various specialized “alphabet associations” and the old American Newspaper Publishers Association.
“What existed before,” he said, “made sense for the ’50s or ’60s, but it doesn’t make sense for the ’90s and the future. We’ve got to speak with one voice.”
Brumback, 65, is an Ohio native who graduated from Princeton University and did postgraduate studies at the University of Toledo.
He won a Bronze Star as an Army first lieutenant during the Korean War.
Brumback is an accountant by training.
He left Arthur Young & Co. in 1957 to join Sentinel Star Co., publisher of the Orlando Sentinel. He was named president and CEO of Sentinel Star in 1976.
Five years later, he moved to Tribune’s flagship paper, the Chicago Tribune. He was named president and CEO of Chicago Tribune Co. in 1981.
In 1989, Brumback was named Tribune president and chief operating officer.
He was named president and CEO in 1990 and was elected chairman effective Jan. 1, 1993.
?( I think the window [of opportunity] is open and I think newspapers should be moving…to stake out their positions. They have a wonderful future if they prepare for it.” ) [Caption
?(-Charles Brumback, Tribune Co. chairman and incoming president of the Newspaper Association of America) [Photo ID]