By Fleming Smith and Anna Mann
Craig Forman, the president and CEO of the McClatchy Company, a dual print and digital media enterprise that owns 29 newspapers across the country, visited campus as part of the Bryan Viewpoints Speaker Series to speak about the fate of journalism in the digital age.
David Shipps (C’88), director of the Babson Center for Global Commerce, introduced Forman to the crowd of community, faculty, and students gathered, which filled the room and left many standing.
“Regardless of your politics, it’s important to know that our current president, for example, calls journalists ‘the enemy of the people.’ Our guest today sits in the midst of this dynamic environment as the CEO of one of the nation’s largest media companies. It’s a luxury to have Craig share his perspectives with us this afternoon,” Shipps said, introducing Forman.
After praising the University environment that encourages students “to pursue knowledge, seek justice, and serve others,” Forman quickly moved into his topic for the evening: the fracturing foundation of today’s media.
Forman explained that the evolution of media consumption does not ultimately mean its demise. Instead, it engenders a “fascinating challenge” for those in the media business: maintaining relevance.
“News, or how we deliver it to the customer, is a lot different from when I started as a foreign correspondent at The Wall Street Journal,” Forman said about the developing platform. “In many ways, news companies are still dealing with the challenge of remaining both profitable and sustainable.”
The McClatchy CEO commiserated over the end of the “Golden Age of family-run newspapers” but encouraged print lovers not to despair; he doesn’t believe physical copies are being discontinued anytime soon. Moreover, according to Forman, the deviation from this “Golden Age” does not induce a breach of values, but rather a reinvigoration of the current business model.
To him, the shift from print to digital media “means inventing ways to make our products even more essential. Maybe it’s Twitter, or Instagram, or podcasts; or video content, whether in documentary form or streaming a live event. The question is: how do we connect with our customer and our advertisers?”
The “fiercely independent press,” as Forman refers to it, “is not just vital to our democracy but also unique to it.”
Forman ended his presentation by quoting Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, where she told a story about a young boy seeking to outsmart a blind woman. The boy asks the wise woman if the bird in his hand is alive or dead, planning to kill the animal if she says alive or set it free if she answers dead. The woman finally responds, “The answer is in your hands.”
“Media companies will have a lot to say about the future of media, but so will you,” stressed Forman. “Pursue knowledge, seek justice, serve others, create this space where debate and disagreement can coexist but still dwell together in unity. Can you do that? The answer, I think, is in your hands.”
In an interview with The Purple earlier that day, Forman stressed the importance of local, independent journalism, which his company McClatchy seeks to foster.
“We are in the parts of America that often really depend on local news,” he explained, citing papers such as The Miami Herald and The Charlotte Observer that they own. “Local voices need a place to have independent, strong, muscular local journalism, and that’s what we’ve been doing and working on for a century and a half.”
During his own journalism career, Forman worked as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal as well as a bureau chief for the paper in both London and Tokyo. While covering the First Gulf War, he was part of a team of six reporters nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage.
However, after decades of working in the news business, it’s the fun stories he most enjoys looking back on. “I did the first crop circle story,” he recalled with a laugh. The article, “Mysterious Circles in British Fields Spook the Populace,” appeared on the front page of The Wall Street Journal in 1989.
Another story he remembered fondly was the time he spent as part of Monaco’s Olympic bobsledding team. “It’s terrifying. I love all kinds of vehicles, but it’s the only time I’ve ever been in a vehicle that all it does is accelerate. You just keep going faster and faster and faster,” he described.
Before becoming CEO of McClatchy in 2017, Forman also worked in Silicon Valley for many years, grounding himself in the expanding technology market that would become so vital to the news business.
To Forman, the challenge of journalism becoming more digital has also been an opportunity. While it may be “more work,” he said, “it’s also more gratifying because you have an immediate, essential connection and can hear from your audience” on digital platforms.
While the digital age of news has led some to question what news can or cannot be trusted, Forman said that “for local news especially, the entire polemic around allegations of something being ‘fake,’ it shifts the burden for all of us as citizens to say actually, ‘It says fake, but maybe what they’re saying is it’s political.’”
Forman continued, “Well-reported, independent journalism puts the onus on all of us as citizens to ask ourselves the tough questions: Is this real or is this fake? It puts the responsibility on us to be active participants as citizens. And the fourth estate can’t do that on our behalf. It can present information, it can present facts, but it’s up to us to decide.”