Interview with Howard Tyner

by Claire E. White
The Internet Writing Journal, November 1997
From his days as a young reporter/photographer for the Chippewa Falls Herald-Telegram to his current tenure as the Vice-President and Editor of The Chicago Tribune Howard Tyner has always looked towards the future with a worldwide perspective. It is that ability to look at the news industry and see its future that has helped him propel The Chicago Tribune and its media empire into the forefront of today's worldwide news media. The secret behind this media empire? Cutting edge technology melded with good old-fashioned reporting skills. A graduate of Carleton College in Northfield,
Howard A. Tyner
Minnesota, and of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Tyner spent 10 years with United Press International, where he worked at the wire service's bureaus in London, Vienna, Bonn, Frankfurt, Warsaw and Moscow before joining the Tribune as a general assignment reporter in 1977. He later served as the newspaper's Moscow correspondent and then as the foreign editor before being named the associate managing editor for foreign and national news. After stints as the deputy managing editor and the associate editor of the Tribune, in 1993 he was named Vice-president and Editor. A devoted family man, he also gives generously of his time to charitable and professional organizations, serving on the board of the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowships, the board of directors of the American Press Institute and as a member of the executive committee of the World Press Institute. He is also a member of the Foundation Board of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He talks with us about the challenge of taking the Chicago Tribune online, the future of newspapers in the digital age and gives valuable insights for the novice reporters hoping to make it in the top echelons of journalism in the electronic age.

The Tribune has taken a very aggressive approach to going online, with expansive coverage in many subject areas, high-tech design, user-friendly interfaces etc. What prompted the Tribune's move online?

Chicago Tribune image Well, actually the Tribune went on America Online in 1992. I think we and San Jose were the first two papers to get content up and we have been aggressive about it ever since. And I think that is consistent with what has been the policy at this paper for many, many years going all the way back to the embrace of WGN Radio in the 20s. We have always been willing to take a chance on what may be the medium of the future. I think that the consensus here is that the Internet is the place that we want to be. And perhaps as important, it's a place where we want to be sure that we get there first before some other guys get there.

What was the biggest challenge you overcame in putting the Tribune online?

Well it's a considerable commitment of money, to start with. Luckily the senior management at Tribune company has been at the forefront of technology and has been very supportive. Nonetheless, there is a manpower issue on what is prudent to spend in terms of people in an increasingly competitive area. You need to pay to get good folks. And to keep them. And to find them. They are hard to find. I think that we have worked very hard and with considerable success at integrating online operations into our traditional print operation. It hasn't always been easy -- and by no means is it finished -- but increasingly I think we have people out on the floor who think in terms of our online presence in addition to our print presence. So they may have ideas for stories that are better executed in the Internet environment where we offer these stories up. It's a somewhat different approach from other newspapers who have segregated their "webheads" and put them on a different floor or in another building, if not in another state.



(laugh) So, your online staff and your offline staff of the paper are all together in one place?

Well, as a matter of fact, as I sit here looking out onto my newsroom we are in the middle of a very substantial renovation. The purpose of the renovation is on the one hand to paginate the traditional newspaper, but on the other hand it is to create a newsroom for the 21st century which includes a television station in the middle of the city room, an assignment desk which includes not only the print editors but also the cable producer and an internet editor. The idea is that we want to move beyond say, we put the newspaper out and then translate it into the other medium. We want to have the process of distributing content on the three different legs of the stool start as early as possible. So, the way I describe it is I am not the VP and editor of a newspaper, I am the manager of an information company. And what we do is we gather content and we distribute content and some of it goes in the traditional print medium, but it also goes out on cable and it also goes out via the Internet. So the emphasis is not on shovelware; it's on gathering content and then having each of the media adapt it to their particular means of delivery.

Have their been any problems from a technological standpoint trying to do that?

Well there's a lot of money being spent to integrate this. That's pretty tricky. There's more money being spent to create systems that allow the various legs of the stool to communicate easily with one other and to move content back and forth. That's because these legacy systems don't always talk to each other. That's a problem, of course. But it's not a problem that cannot be overcome. It's just a question of putting someone against it.

Have the traditional offline newspaper advertisers been willing to make the move to the Internet Tribune?

I think that there have been different experiences across the board. Clearly, there are many opportunities that are being used in the classified areas for high-end help wanted, real estate and for automotive ads. When it comes to display advertising, clearly the larger companies -- the bigger advertisers -- have a greater awareness of the potential of the Internet. So if you drill down deeper into the local market, it's much harder to sell there. But as modem penetration increases and awareness grows clearly the opportunities are greater, and I think they are coming to recognize that.

Well, for example, I noticed that today you are running a contest with American Airlines. People can play the contest and win a round-trip to Chicago.

Yes. Airlines are one of those big businesses that clearly recognize the power of the Internet to reach a whole lot of people in a whole lot of places.

Has the "electronic revolution" affected the way you report the news? How so?

Yes. And it should and in the future it will even more. We've launched earlier this month an afternoon business update on Chicago.Tribune.com.

Right, the 4:30 update.

Yes, the 4:30 Report, which is designed to catch people who are still at work and have T1 access and they are getting an end of the day business report. So, in order to produce that we've had to go back to something along the lines of the old 24-hour newspaper. So you have reporters who, instead of sitting down and writing a story for tomorrow's newspaper, they are asked to write a briefer version to be used in this newscast. That's a change. We are in the process of moving further down the road of having reporters being asked to write these shorter 4 or 5 paragraph versions of stories they would put out on our various virtual community sites rather than waiting for the long versions that would go out as shovelware the next morning.

Now that the Tribune is online, it is competing with newspapers and websites from around the world. What does the Internet Tribune offer readers that is different from its competition?

Well I think that the main thing is that we have devoted considerable resources to go beyond shovelware. I think that the print paper is available and is used, but we have a staff of reporters which specifically writes, reports and creates sites for Chicago Tribune.com and its virtual communities including Digital City Chicago.
"We have always been willing to take a chance on what may be the medium of the future. I think that the consensus here is that the Internet is the place that we want to be. And perhaps as important, it's a place where we want to be sure that we get there first before some other guys get there."
The content there is fashioned for and in some cases created specifically for use on this new medium. And because of the resources we have available we are able to create unique and interesting features. For example, in the financial department we can create sites such as that afternoon business report, that leverages the power we have in gathering the news in the news room and using the strength of this powerful new medium in bringing them together. That's the sort of thing we do. Because of the coordinated planning process that we have been introducing in the last several years, we have created sites and done things on the website that are different from what's in the newspaper.

How has the Internet allowed you to expand your sports coverage?

We have created a much more extensive preps operation. And we have just started a preps television program so that we can catch the prep audience in all three areas. The prep show on WGN-TV, which is produced through the Tribune, involves coverage of the best high school games of the week, we have a highly zoned print package and we have results going out in the various digital cities in the virtual communities.

And don't you have the Michael Jordan web page and a place to keep up with the Bulls, even if you are away from Chicago?

Oh, yes. Absolutely.

How has the Internet allowed you to expand your Book Section?

In the last several years when we redesigned individual sections we set up committees to do this using representatives from all the media. The first time we did this was in 1993 when we completely revised, updated and rebuilt our Food Section. It went from being a rather traditional, although well executed, Food Section which ran on Thursdays to a section that was aimed at a younger audience and ran on Wednesdays. At the same time as that section was introduced in early 1994, the CLT -- Chicago Land Television which at that time was our cable arm -- introduced a weekly program by the same name, Good Eating. The content of the cable show was based on the content of the newspaper section and there was at least one segment of the cable show that was taped in our test kitchen. At the same time, a special Chicago Online site was created on AOL which included a database of recipes that you could find in the newspaper, a bulletin board and an opportunity to exchange messages with the staff of the Food Section. This week our Food Section won the Food Writers Award for the second year in a row, awarded for newspapers with subscribers over 250,000 people. And the cable show won the award for best local food television food program. Those have both been very successful. So now whenever we create a committee to redesign a section we have someone from cable operations there as well as an internet person so that we are not thinking solely in terms of how can we just improve the newspaper or only one particular newspaper section, but how can we take advantage of the Tribune, the traditional newspaper's power to gather content and to use it in all three of the media.

So is that what you did in the Book Section?

In the case of the Book Section, we had been wanting to redesign that section for some time. The committee was set up and we saw that the opportunities for creating something on the Web were far greater than for television and so for CLT or for WGN there wasn't anything, but we created a vastly improved print product and we created the Book Section website.

One of the Internet's best features is its interactive nature. Do you listen to your readers? How much does reader feedback influence the content of the Internet Tribune?

Certainly -- absolutely. And there's a lot of it. People are certainly not hesitant to give feedback! (Laugh) So we've been trying to foster as much interactivity as possible. There were two great examples; one was the death of Cardinal Bernadine in Chicago.
"Would we give an advantage in the hiring to someone to had that sort of knowledge [of the Internet]? Yes, probably. I wouldn't turn down a great reporter who isn't net savvy but I certainly would look with great favor on somebody who understands that medium."
We put up a bulletin board and had many wonderfully poignant messages from all over the place. But then with Mike Royko (which is a story that first went up on the Web on our website) we created a bulletin board and published some of he comments via the Internet in the space of his column which was successful. There are all kinds of bulletin boards and we are in the process of creating more because it creates the kind of sense of community that we want to achieve in our relationship with our internet customers. That's very important to us. If they have the opportunity to get feedback from one another or from the paper itself, it will get them to come back. So there are many opportunities there and we are in the midst of building several more.

A hypothetical: it is now the year 2007. Do people still read newspapers? How do people get their news?

Oh, I think people still read newspapers.

Do they?

Sure. I think that the technology hasn't reached the point that it can deliver content as conveniently and comfortably as in a newspaper. That doesn't mean that newspapers are identical to what they are today. I would imagine that 10 years from today large quantities of advertising -- especially classified advertising -- will have migrated to the Web. If you pick up your newspaper today and think about what it would look like with all the advertising -- all the agate -- left out you see that it would necessarily have to be different. It would probably be smaller, it would probably be organized in a different way and probably more expensive, but still a newspaper as we know it. I think that's going to be around for a long time. But I think that modem penetration will be very significant by that time, whether it's via Web TV or some very simple to operate computer -- maybe your toaster or showerhead or something like that.

(Laugh) The showerhead?? That's a little too much for me!

You can't say that! (Laugh) You can't say anything is too much. It might be in your tieclip. But there will clearly be all kinds of ways to deliver certain types of targeted information. So if what you're interested in is getting Dallas ball scores, it may well be that it's your showerhead that tells you who won last night. The likelihood of delivering deeper content that way is not very great, which is why I think newspapers will still be around and will be able to provide a lot of that stuff. But I think that technology will be such that you will be able to get content in all kinds of places that you can't even imagine right now in small pieces.

Right. Small sound bites.

Right.

Some other industry leaders are predicting that television, the Internet, radio and print will all merge into one medium in the future. Do you think this will happen?

Well, as I said, I think that newspapers are going to be around for some time. I think that convergence in some shape or form is already happening right now. That is exactly what we are doing in our newsroom. As I said, I try to operate on the assumption that I run a newsgathering business not a newspaper. What we want to do is to gather that content, to process that content, then to deliver it to our customers in the way that they want to have it. And it may be that ink on paper is the way that some of them want it, but others will want it via the computer and others will want it via cable or television. So, that convergence is clearly happening. I think it's not terribly likely that the convergence will result in -- at least within the next 20 or 30 years -- one or more of those mediums going away. That's what they said about newspapers since radio came along. That's 70 years ago. If you take a look at the strength of the newspaper industry today you can see that they haven't gone away. Convergence: does it mean that we will end up with a single means by which people receive content? Clearly not. I think it may be the other way around. There may be just many more ways to deliver content, which is the challenge for the information business: to figure out how to deliver in all kinds of ways and be cost effective in a very competitive market.

What is the most disturbing trend you have seen in journalism in the last 10 years?

In journalism per se? Are you talking about all kinds of journalism?

Print newspaper journalism. You can expand that to include television and broadcast journalism, if you prefer.

I think that the blurring of lines between journalism and entertainment is very disturbing.

Would that be more prevalent in television than print?

Yes, clearly on television. But what happens is you live in a society where more people get their news from television than from any other source. And then you find that television delivers these shows which purport to be news, but in fact are either a dramatization of news or are a reenactment or something like that. And you have people who believe that is news and it isn't. Inevitably people will take a look at the traditional newspapers with a different eye and put pressure on the newspapers to be perhaps more sensational or more trendy and that is a negative thing. And you have other people who see this stuff on TV and condemn the media for its excesses, when in fact it's not newspapers that tend to do this -- it's the television people. You have all kinds of polls that talk about how the public is angry at the media -- and certainly there are excesses in the print business also -- but the tremendously competitive nature of TV and the power of TV is such that all kinds of stuff that goes on there and the public paints us all with a great wide brush, so our credibility suffers when I think in a lot of cases we don't deserve the kind of approbation we get from the public.

Have you seen any fallout from the recent backlash against the paparazzi and the tabloids?

Yes. I think that falls out with what I said before. It's "the media" in an astonishing or perhaps not so astonishing number of cases. If you get someone who's complaining about "the media" and you question them closely what they're really talking about is television and maybe the tabloids, not traditional newspapers.

Let's change subjects a bit and talk about freelance writers and the hiring of journalists. Freelance writers have been very disturbed by the outcome of the Tasini vs. New York Times case, which allowed publishers of collective works such as newspapers to archive freelance writers' works in a database format without additional payment. This has been an issue at The Tribune as it has at all major newspapers. Does the Tribune negotiate rights with freelance writers now or does it utilize a standard non-negotiable contract?

We have a contract for freelancers which lays out the conditions under which we will purchase stories.

Is there any room for negotiation in that contract?

Well, I guess there's a negotiation for the amount of payment for the work to be done. We have about 2500 freelancers. When you think about the implications of negotiating on an individual basis you'd go crazy. So we have a standardized freelance contract form.

Does that cover electronic rights?

Yes, sure.

When you hire new reporters, is online experience a factor you consider? How net-savvy do you like your reporters to be?

The newsroom now has T1 access on every single computer and everyone gets Netscape training. So we encourage the use of the Internet and we have tried to make everybody as net savvy as possible. We move reporters and editors back and forth. One of our very best reporters -- and this was a reporter for the Internet -- recently switched over to cover one of the big beats in the city. The idea was that she knows how to write for the Web. She understands very well what goes on in that medium. She's going to be covering this beat, ostensibly for the newspaper, but in fact will maintain her knowledge of the Web and will be able to see where there are stories in her area that would work wonderfully on the Web and perhaps be proactive in suggesting these stories and then executing them in a way that serves both of the media. Obviously, we are looking for people to do that sort of thing. Would we give an advantage in the hiring to someone to had that sort of knowledge? Yes, probably. I wouldn't turn down a great reporter who isn't net savvy but I certainly would look with great favor on somebody who understands that medium.

Do you consider freelancers who do not live in the Chicago area who could telecommute over the Internet?

Yes, in some areas. We have freelancers overseas who contribute stories and we have freelancers around the country. Sure, that's not an issue.

What advice would you give the journalist trying to break into the big newspaper markets?

Well as I said before, I think a solid knowledge of the Internet is a good thing to have on your resume. It isn't mandatory, but it certainly would help a great deal. I think I would say to people: be flexible. Recognize that there's a certain amount of flux going on at many newspaper companies and be willing to say up front that while you have a particular area of skill or expertise that you are offering to your potential employer, don't be afraid to say that you can use that in a whole range of ways. Be willing to say, "Yes, I'll go work on the Internet for awhile". That's clearly what we want to do; we want to have folks moving back and forth. So if they are assigned by the city desk to go out to cover a story, that they are able and aware enough of the different media to be able to come back and write the story, but that they are also able to come back and call the Internet people and say, "Here's a great story for you guys". Maybe it doesn't necessarily mean they execute it, but at least they think in terms of a different medium. And the only way you get that done is to have people move back and forth, so that they work in the different areas. The bell rings when they go cover a story and they say to themselves, "This is something that could work in different places".

That's great advice. When you're not reading the news, what do you like to read?

I like to read biographies and I like to read history.

Your business is a very stressful one. How do you relax?

Relax? (Laugh) I try to go for a swim in the middle of the day as often as possible. I like to go out and hit a little white ball -- as hard as I can. And I have two teenagers, which will take your mind off of your work really quickly.

Hmmm...that sounds stressful in a different way!

Yes, it can be! (laugh) I am also a scoutmaster of a boy scout troop. A week this summer at boy scout camp with 18 boys from age 10 or 11 to 17 is a good way to forget about the real world...

It certainly sounds like it! That's all I have for today... Thank you for your time.

It was nice to talk to you. Thank you.


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