Interview: Bill Powers

Bill Powers got his start in journalism as a researcher for Bob Woodward.

Bill Powers got his start in journalism as a researcher for Bob Woodward.

From there, he moved on to a writing career at The Washington Post and The New Republic. Nine years ago, he landed at the National Journal. Powers spoke to PRWeek about the masses of media critics chasing thin-skinned reporters.

PRWeek: Why did you get into journalism in the first place?

William Powers:
I hadn't thought about that one in a while. I was working on Capitol Hill in the Senate, right out of college, and I guess I just realized I really didn't have it in me to be a lawyer or a politician. And I had always liked to write, and I had this job offer really come out of the blue to work for Bob Woodward at the Post as kind of his researcher, and it was too good to pass up. And I was very lucky to start there. I helped him write one of his books. That took about three years until that was done and the Post kind of gave me a tryout as a reporter. And I made it, and they hired me and I stayed there for quite a number of years and had all kinds of beats before I became a critic/columnist.

PRWeek: And why did you kind of move over to the media critic side?

I was edging that way anyway at the Post by inclination. That was really where my interests were. And what happened was there was a magazine column at the Post, called the "Magazine Reader," that had been around forever; in fact, the original columnist, I'm told, was Katherine Graham. And it had always been done for years as a kind of summary of what was in the magazines this week. And the fellow who was doing it… took a new assignment, and it was just unoccupied. So although I was a reporter in the business section at the time, I went to the style section, and said, "Hey, I read a lot of magazines, I'm interested in that column, could I give it a try?" and they said "Sure, do a few columns and we'll see if we like them." And I did a few columns, and I did them in a slightly different way. I set a lot of critical eye to the thing, because that was my natural bent.

And they liked it, and I turned it into a basically critical look, rather than a digest. It was like, "Here's what's in magazines lately, and here's what I think about it." And people seemed to read it. That worked for quite a while, people seemed to like it. I did that for a few years, and then I had a nice offer from Mike Kelly, who was then editing the New Republic, to go there and start their first media column. So I did that, and then was hired by National Journal, just a year later, to basically do the same thing for them-- to have a media column. So I have been there for a long time now, almost 9 years.

PRWeek: Any pluses or minuses to doing the press column at a political type of magazine?

No, it's kind of a nice plus, because as far as the National Journal goes, generally speaking, I've got the beat to myself in a way. I mean, people do stories about the media, but I'm sort of the media person and for our readers it's a little bit of a change of pace. And I think, thanks to the web exposure- my column is one of the features in the magazine where you don't have to have a password to get in there - so thanks to that web exposure, it also kind of keeps the National Journal brand out there, maybe in places where people wouldn't be reading it as much because they are not as political as Washington. Our readership tends to be focused in Washington, but thanks to Romenesko, when I have a column up there we might have some readers plugging in from all over the place.

PRWeek: With the Web, now almost anybody can be a media critic. Do you think the quality of media criticism is still there?

Bill Powers: Suddenly, there are about 10 million more media critics than there were 10 years ago. I find that exciting. It's funny, there are all these bloggers and all these people who are instant media critics, and yet there are a lot of traditional news outlets that still don't have anyone doing media criticism... My philosophy is, the more, the merrier.

And I actually think there are a lot of bloggers who are so good at it that I sort of wish they would be picked up by mainstream outlets and do both. Because I just think it's a topic that's really inexhaustible. I do this weekly column and I never have a shortage of ideas. There is always so much happening. And I do find that people really are engaged by this subject and talk about it. I think the conventional wisdom in journalism is that media criticism is an inside-the-business topic and it's really just going to be read by other journalists. And I don't think that's true anymore. I think there is a broader interest. Everybody sort of becomes a media critic, and people follow the stuff. I just did a public appearance last night jointly with Dan Okrent, the former New York Times ombudsman. It was a charity thing for a public library, and they had us in a congregational church in a town up where I live. All these hundreds of people showed up! It was great. They were all interested, and they asked incredibly intelligent questions, it was just fascinating. It wasn't journalists, it was people from the public who really follow this stuff and care about journalism.

PRWeek: So you are not of the opinion that to be a media critic, you have to come up through the ranks of journalism for years and years?

Powers: Well, I think it helps a lot to have experience as a reporter. When Dan Okrent went to the Times, there was some internal grumbling because he had never been a newspaper reporter. But he had been a reporter - he had all this magazine experience, and a lot of editing experience. And I think it's hard, if you have never been a journalist, to understand how the business works. I think there are people who can do it. Obviously there are great movie critics who have never written a movie; most of them, obviously. But I do think that the folkways and values and just the inside knowledge of how journalism works is a bit arcane and hard to acquire from the outside, and so it is trickier if you're an outsider. But I read some of these blogs, and these people are really good and astute. And they are coming at it as a consumer, which is a very valuable point of view. You really want to know what a smart reader thinks even if they have never been a journalist. So I think there is room in there. I would never count anybody out just because they have never done it.

PRWeek: Do you think the rise of media criticism is tied at all to the decline of media credibility?

Powers: I do think one of the reasons things look so bad is that the business has become, in a very short period of time, extremely transparent. It was not very transparent just 15 years ago. And suddenly, because of technology and competition among all these media outlets, institutions like The New York Times and CBS News have sort of had to take the shades off the windows. They've had to show the public how they do things, and how they work, and how mistakes are made.

PRWeek: What do you think of the future of the newspaper industry?

I feel that is above my pay grade to say. I don't get into the business side of stuff very often, and so I frankly don't understand how the ad business and the cost of newsprint and all these factors play into it, so I would be really hesitant, I feel like I'm not on solid ground to predict. But I was asked this question [recently], "Are newspapers about to die?" I think that while we are in this period of structural change that feels very chaotic and threatening to journalism. I do think that part of the reason it feels so threatening is that it is structural, and that all these ways of presenting journalism that we have grown used to in the last 100 years, particularly newspapers, are losing their firm footing. But that doesn't mean that if newspapers shrink or go away they are not going to be replaced by something else. The crucial thing, in my mind, is "Is there a market for, and a popular hunger for, truth?" And I just think that is a constant of society and it's not going to go away. Even if newspapers disappear, there will be a lot of people who can make a living digging up the truth because there will be a market for that.

PRWeek: How well do you think the press has covered the Bush administration so far?

Powers: It's a very mixed record at best. Obviously, the pre-war argument regarding weapons of mass destruction was a huge failure by the media establishment... But I do not agree with those who feel that journalists have been completely flattened by these people - that we as a profession have lost our desire to get behind the curtain and get good stories about the White House. I just think that they're hard to get.

PRWeek: How open do you find media organizations to be in terms of being the subject of coverage themselves?

Powers: There is a lot of thin skin out there in journalism. It's very funny how these people cover others all day long, but when they receive a phone call from somebody like me, they become so uncomfortable and prickly... And it's kind of funny because they're journalists. They're supposed to be the people who believe in openness.

PRWeek: I always think that might be because journalists have seen how easy it is to mess a story up.

That's part of it. Other journalists know how it works and they know easy it is to stitch together a story, sometimes just on a couple facts. And how often stories don't hang together behind the curtain as well as they might, and so they are worried that is going to happen to them. Frankly that's why I think media criticism is all the more important today, because we want to get more people doing this who are good at it and who acquire a reputation for basically getting it right, or for being trustworthy, so journalists will return their calls.

PRWeek: Any advice that you would like to give to PR people?

Powers: I hear a lot of complaints from journalists about PR people who kind of don't get what we do as journalists. My impression is that a lot of people go into the PR profession believing that as media consumers, they automatically know how the news business works. And a lot of them don't.

PRWeek: That seems to be the most common complaint

That is the main issue. But then, once in a while you run into one of these people - frankly they're either people who are either really, really big media omnivores, who have been fans of journalism for years, or they are people who have worked in journalism themselves - and they completely get it, A to Z. And they don't waste anybody's time, they know exactly what you need and how to help you, and they know how not to get in your way. And those people are great. They're a treasure. I don't know if they're appreciated by the people they work for, but journalists sure appreciate them.

Name: William Powers

Outlet: National Journal

Title: Media columnist

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