The business of covering the media business

by
Peter Lauria

Peter Lauria of Reuters is a writer and editor who has covered entertainment, media and technology from both a consumer and business perspective for such outlets as Thomson Reuters, The New York Post, The Daily Beast, The Deal and Mogulite for more than a decade.

His  freelance work has appeared in Avenue, Blender, Fortune and Media Magazine, among others. His television and radio appearances include “The Today Show,” “Good Day New York,” CNBC, “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” Bloomberg TV, Reuters TV, CNN, and BBC Radio. He has also moderated panels and conducted CEO interviews at the Paley Center for Media, among other venues.

Lauria has particular expertise in the business of television, music, movies, corporate media, technology, and the intersection of entertainment and Wall Street, with access to many of the major decisions makers on both sides of that table.

Lauria broke Sirius merger agreement with XM and broke Paul McCartney leaving EMI for Starbucks. He also broke Harman family stopping investing in Newsweek Daily Beast and made national headlines with story about how Sumner Redstone was bankrolling an all-girl band called The Electric Barbarellas.

Lauria spoke by e-mail with Talking Biz News about covering the media industry. What follows is an edited transcript.

What is it like to cover an industry in which you work?

Well, just to make clear right, I’m a media business reporter. I don’t write about other reporters or how the media covers news events. I track the industry from a business perspective — profits, losses, mergers and media moguls. I think it is important to draw a distinction between media business reporting and traditional media reporting because they really are two different animals.

That said, the key to any type of media reporting, from my perspective, is to treat it just as you would any other beat. The tendency among media reporters–and editors and outlets, for that matter–is to ascribe a greater gravity to a media story than it truly deserves. There’s a lot of naval gazing and inside baseball reporting that just isn’t significant to a general interest reader. Take, for instance, the recent changes instituted by Jeff Zucker at CNN. Media reporters get breathless over every talent hire or show cancellation. But on Time Warner’s earnings call last week, not one question from analysts was about CNN. Or, I believe, Time Inc, which just laid off 500 people, or 6 percent of its staff.

That’s not to say that media reporting isn’t worthy or justified or that there aren’t stories that grow out of media reporting into massive general interest news stories. In the last two years, we’ve had two media stories — phone hacking at News Corp and sex abuse allegations against Jimmy Saville at the BBC — blow up into international scandals of wide interest to a general audience. Here’s a simple test I apply when reporting or editing a media piece: how important or interesting can I make this story not just for the media CEO lunching at Michael’s but also for the tourist at the Olive Garden in Times Square. How much or little that Venn diagram overlaps is directly proportional to how I play the story.

Do you think it is harder or easier to cover an industry where you are an employee? Why?

Media is just one sliver of my coverage responsibilities, along with technology, telecommunications, and deal reporting. I wouldn’t say media reporting is harder or easier than those beats. But I think it is safe to say that the beat presents unique challenges. For instance, when a Wall Street reporter writes about layoffs at Goldman Sachs, or throughout the wider banking industry, it likely doesn’t create any existential angst about their own job security. But for media reporters documenting cost cuts and buyouts and bankruptcies at other outlets, the feeling of, “When will this hit us,” is real. Some other challenges media reporters also have to deal with include newsroom colleagues presuming they know as much about the beat as you since they, too, are “in the media,” scoops being dismissed as passed down from on high, and accusations of bias or carrying out corporate grudges when we write unflattering stories about another organization or, worse, another organization’s executives. All of which are a discredit to the hard work media reporting.

But there are also advantages to media reporting. Most notably, we get to meet and our work is seen by everyone in the industry. So, if you are good and your stuff stands out, you will definitely be recognized by editors and, given how incestuous this industry is, probably recruited by one at some point in time.

How has media coverage changed in the past decade?

I’ve been covering media for about 13 years now, and there’s been three distinct periods in media reporting over the last decade. When I first started covering the industry in 2000, the media industry was coming down from the irrational exuberance of the first dot.com bubble. At that point it was abundantly clear that the potential of a company such as TheStreet.com going public and making journalists rich wasn’t going to happen. Magazine titles such as The Industry Standard, Business 2.0, eCompany Now, that had been birthed and fed by that first dot.com bubble were dying off. Fast. After that, publishers of both magazines and newspapers started to pursue a buy over build strategy. Time Inc. spent $2 billion buying Times Mirror Magazines and IPC Media., for instance.

Unfortunately, by the time those acquisitions were integrated the beginning of the transition to digital media was already beginning. So coverage began to reflect that threat. Coverage reflected old media’s utter disregard and then contempt for how technology was going to upend their business, including but not limited to blogs. This could also accurately be called the head-in-the-sand or you-just-don’t-get-it phase of coverage. And, to be clear, I’m not saying that the media reporters themselves didn’t foresee what was happening. I’m saying that mainstream media stories accurately captured how the executives running media companies completely missed it.

Currently, we are in a very weird phase of excitement and reticence. Where a given outlet sits on that spectrum in directly proportional to their size and legacy. Bigger organizations with long histories tend to fall towards the latter. Digitally native startups tend to reside near the former. The advent of the iPad and rise of new models for publishing based around social media such as Buzzfeed and Storyful, have created an optimism around media that I haven’t seen for quite some time. Parallel to that, you have old line publishers like the New York Times or Time Inc. that have to bring costs in line with declining advertising and subscription revenue that isn’t being made up by paywalls and digital editions. So, you are seeing stories about major hires at Buzzfeed or Tumblr or even Twitter for that matter on that same day or week that you are reading about layoffs at Time Inc. or buyouts at the New York Times.

How do you come up with non-breaking news story ideas?

There’s no shortage of stories to write on the media beat. The challenge is to find a unique way to tell the story you are trying to tell because media is indeed one the most saturated industries in terms of coverage. There is so much media coverage coming from every form of media that our task is to figure a way to break through with our take. Personally, I’ve been able to tap a rich vein in framing media and entertainment business stories around the personalities that run these companies. I’m a firm believer in the idea that you need to bring a human element to business stories of any kind to make them interesting to a broad readership. Because, in truth, most people don’t want to read about business. They find it bland, boring. They don’t understand numbers and if they aren’t personally interested in the subject matter, why read it? My mantra is that people care about people, not companies. Most people don’t want to hear about Viacom, they want to hear about Sumner Redstone. CBS isn’t all that interesting. But Les Moonves is infinitely quotable.

There are two other very simple ways to come up with non-breaking news story ideas. The first is to dig into the data, whether it be SEC filings, ratings figures, circulation v. advertising numbers. Understanding and interpreting numbers means you will never lack for a story. Secondly, talk to people. Take sources to lunch. Go to cocktail receptions. Meet for coffee. GET OUT OF THE OFFICE. You need to know what people are talking about before you can write about it.

Are media companies more receptive to coverage because of what they do?

Unequivocally, no. Quite the opposite, in fact. Media companies love to cover others but they hate when others cover them. Part of the reason for that is because the balance of power is flipped. Media companies are the ones used to having the leverage and dictating coverage terms. But when you are writing about them, particularly if what you are writing is unflattering in some capacity, the rules of engagement are reversed. Control of the story is no longer theirs, and that’s a foreign and unpleasant feeling for most media companies. That dynamic is magnified when you focus more on the personalities than the institutions, as I do. Executives in any field, but most notably in media, want reporters to be in awe or afraid of them. The idea of the celebrity CEO is arguably best personified by media executives. Or at least they want it to be. They want to be stars as large and luminous as the ones they create via their newspapers, magazines, TV shows or movies. The reality is that any time a media mogul is featured on the cover of a magazine, that issue is invariably the worst selling one for the title in that year.

Why is coverage of media companies important in the world today?

Well, if you look at the changes to society that a company such as Apple has brought on, it’s clear that media and technology companies matter. They shape how we get our information and how we interact with each other and the world around us. But honestly speaking, media reporting is not as important as reporting on wars or human rights violations or geopolitics. Media business reporting is probably not the most important coverage area of a given outlet’s business section, but maybe it’s the most interesting. Or sexiest. The best and truest line of the ‘Page One’ documentary about the struggles of the New York Times as told through the paper’s media desk was when Bruce Headlam very frankly said something to the effect of ‘We’re not doing the most important work at the paper.”

I think media reporting is interesting, and we are at a intrinsically interesting time in the evolution of media, and media institutions are still powerful and it is still important to hold them accountable. But you need to have proper perspective. What we are doing isn’t toppling governments or otherwise changing the world.

What do you see as important stories to focus on going forward?

The rise of impermanent media, which is the focus of a great Businessweek cover story by Felix Gillette this week. The nexus between declining print circulation and rising digital subscriptions. How social media networks like Facebook and Twitter will impinge on both the distribution and business model of traditional media outlets. Can digital-only outlets find a business model that works. What happens to the New York Times and Financial Times. Do they get sold? To whom? Can the TV industry preserve its bundled delivery model, or will someone, an incumbent like Charlie Ergen or a disruptor like Apple or Intel, blow it up? What happens to News Corp and Viacom after their founders pass on. Will Apple make a big move into content as part of its TV ambitions, maybe acquire a company. Who are the next generation of executives to lead the old line media companies.

What media do you read to keep up to date with what is going on?

I read Twitter. Everything I need to know for both my job and to satisfy my personal interests is delivered to me every morning via Tweetdeck in neatly categorized lists that act essentially as newspaper sections. Through Twitter I get delivered technology news from AllThingsD and The Verge, media news from the Los Angeles Times, Hollywood Reporter, and Deadline, general business news from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, regional news from SF Gate, Denver Post, 1010 Wins. I got all the information I needed about the blizzard from Twitter. I got weather updates from Accuweather, travel updates from MTA and NJ Transit, updates from Fresh Direct on delivery schedules.

Of course I read our file as much as possible, and Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vanity Fair, Bloomberg, among others. I love The Week and Foreign Policy magazine. The point I am making, and it isn’t all that radical of one, is that you keep hearing about how Yahoo and Google and Facebook are all battling to be your home screen. But to my mind they are all playing for second place. That fight has already been won by Twitter. It is only a matter of time before its utility is fully realized.

What is the strategy for covering media at Reuters?

Break news. Then break some more news. Then while everyone is trying to catch up with your breaking news, advance the story with deep analysis and proper context about its meaning for the companies involved specifically, the industry involved generally, and the global impact writ large. And do all that in a way that is relevant both to the investor clients that pay us for our terminals and the casual readers we are trying to reach with our consumer facing website. Write stories that move markets and investors can trade on that are also interesting to the casual reader.

Who is the best interview in the media business, and why?

I don’t know if he is the best interview, but personally I like talking to Tom Freston. Of all the people I have come across in 16 years in journalism, he is a person I respect because of his openness. He is infinitely interesting and has such a positive energy. If more people in the media business were like him, it would probably be a much better business.

You’ve worked at a wire service, a web site and a newspaper. Will all three be around in 50 years?

I just turned 38, so I’m not even sure I’ll be around in 50 years! Answering that requires prognostication skills I simply don’t possess. But I will say this, I would wager that it is far more likely that one company ends up housing a wire service, website, newspaper, and weekly or monthly magazine under the same brand name than it is that one of those mediums goes away.