Twilight of the Media Idols

Jeffrey Bewkes was looking for something to say to the crowd that had gathered on the 10th floor of the AOL Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle on the afternoon of Monday, Oct. 13, something pithy that would explain the position of big media in the present economic and political climate.

“I didn’t have a quote, but now I got a quote,” the Time Warner president and CEO said from the podium during the kick-off of a two-day symposium here about politics and the media. “I was in the green room and I got this from Graydon Carter: ‘Journalists, like lawyers, thrive on misfortune.’ So you’re fine! You’re all fine.”

But the big media heads of state who followed Mr. Bewkes’ welcome act with that tiredest of all forms of communication, the panel discussion, didn’t seem fine.

Rick Stengel, the editor of Time, was there; so was Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, Jim VandeHei, the editor of Politico, and Jonathan Klein, president of CNN/U.S.

“One of the biggest casualties of new media—and I guess we’re as guilty as anyone else—is consequential journalism doesn’t feel as consequential as it used to be,” said Jim VandeHei. “And I don’t know if we’ve really reckoned with this.”

“We haven’t really reckoned with big issues, even with two wars going on and even with the economy being in the state that it’s in,” said Mr. Stengel. “We’re still caught in these very small stories that happen all day long every day and who’s going to win this news cycle? And I don’t know if that’s so great for the electorate.”

These are dark days. Banks, churches, newspapers, the presidency—all in decline. “Major financial institutions that you thought were impregnable, gone like that,” said Mr. Klein, the CNN president. “The presidency is completely impotent right now.”

Look at religion, he continued. “Upstart, insurgent” churches are threatening the old guard, taking hearts and eyeballs away from, say, the Methodists.

“Here we are at the Time Warner headquarters,” said Mr. Klein. “We are an incumbent institution.”

And, in media as well as politics and banking, 2008 is not a good year for incumbent institutions. New York Times stories don’t land the way they once did. The audience for the CBS Evening News is diminished. There’s no Abe Rosenthal or Uncle Walter. And here in New York, it’s no longer a shameful thing for the Big Cheese at a giant media corporation to feel proud just to hang onto a job.

“I think what the modern media does is, it puts a real premium more on the individual and less on the entity,” said Mr. VandeHei. “So reporters can build up their own public signature and they can have their own following and their own influence that sometimes transcends an institution.”

“I think about Halperin over at your shop, like Mark Halperin, even when he was at ABC, it’s not like I go onto ABC every morning to see what ABC has to say about the campaign. I went there because I wanted to see what Halperin had to say, and Halperin has that same following over at Time.”

But as sad as these guys sounded about the state of their world, it wasn’t long before it was time for them to do a little PR for their own shops. And why not?

Mr. Klein said that the Internet should have been the end of CNN. It does precisely what his network did for years, only better. “Ten years later the No. 1 Web site for news and information is cnn.com,” he said. “And I think what you’ve seen is that in a fragmented environment, a trusted resting spot is very valuable.”

“I actually think that in this blizzardlike universe of news usage, brands are actually more important and rising above the chaos because people don’t have places they can trust and rest on,” said Mr. Stengel.

In fact, he stresses, there are more readers of Time than at any time in its history.

“The problem that everybody has is how do you monetize all those eyeballs and monetize all that attention,” he said. “But in terms of creation of distribution of quality content, it’s a golden age. I just want people to know that.”

“More brands are relevant, too,” said Mr. VandeHei. “Like what I was talking about earlier, it used to be just two newspapers and the big networks. Now a ton of different brands matter.”

Twilight of the Media Idols