Alberto Ibargüen: Trying to be journalism’s shining Knight

Knight Foundation

Alberto Ibargüen at a media seminar in 2017.

Alberto Ibargüen always had a keen ear for the knock at the door, the sound of opportunity and adventure, from a 1960s education at Wesleyan to time in the Amazon with the Peace Corps. After law school at Penn, Catholic bishops played a role in his landing as a legal aid lawyer in Hartford.

Legal aid somehow put him in a position to become the first director of what would become the State Elections Enforcement Commission. Then he practiced law with people who knew people. Hartford National Bank — don’t ask, long gone — hired him as a lawyer, then made him a banker. Don’t ask, long story.

The bank actually put him in charge of private banking, but a Peace Corps-volunteeer-turned-legal aid lawyer dispatched to Hartford by Catholic bishops began having odd thoughts, like picturing his tombstone. He saw it saying, “He lent money to people who didn’t need it.”

The publisher of the Hartford Courant knocked, invited him to become senior vice president of administration and finance at the oldest continuously published newspaper in America. Times-Mirror, the paper’s owner, sent him to Newsday. Another chain, Knight-Ridder, lured him to Miami to become the publisher of the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald.

Tombstone, rewritten.

A headhunter had a question for him in 2005: Did he want to succeed Hodding Carter III as president of the Knight Foundation, eventually oversee assets of more than $2 billion, finance a bunch of experiments, and try to help journalism figure out the digital age?

He did.

Ibargüen, 73, who has the same gravelly baritone I remember when we crossed paths at The Courant in the 1980s, is back in Hartford next week as a guest of the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and its Latino Endowment Fund. On May 18, he’s giving a speech at the Bushnell: “Democracy, Civic Engagement and the Role of the Free Press.”

(Disclosure: The Knight Foundation and Hartford Foundation for Public Giving are among the funders of CT Mirror.)

We caught up with him by phone at his office in Miami. What follows is condensed. It’s easy to get Alberto talking about journalism, philanthropy and the future.

I have to start with the local angle: How did a Hartford Legal Aid lawyer end up on the business side of the Hartford Courant, which put you on a path to become publisher of the Miami Herald, the chairman of PBS and the Newseum, and now president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation?

You work real hard to get lucky. (laughs) And when it sounds like opportunity is knocking, be sure to open the door. I know that sounds trite, but it’s absolutely true. I got to Hartford in a legal aid program that was funded by the National Conference of Bishops, but it really got some stability when it got a grant, a big grant for the time, from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, which of course is one of the reasons when they called and asked if I would come back, I felt I was hardly in a position to say no.

Hartford was such a wonderful, welcoming town, though I know that in the Land of Steady Habits, people look at you like you’ve just arrived if you’ve been there for 10 years. The reputation is that New Englanders were standoffish, but that simply wasn’t our experience. Our son was born there. We had a wonderful, wonderful experience.

You took over as president of the Knight Foundation in 2005, something of a pivotal year in American journalism. Newspaper circulation was plummeting, and about 40 percent of reporting jobs would disappear in the next decade. Did you have a sense of the change that was coming and what it would mean for the foundation?

One of the first things I did was to suspend the further creation of endowments (of journalism programs at colleges) and I said, “I think we need to admit, more than anyone else, we don’t have the answers. We’re the Knight Foundation. We’re one of the biggest funders of journalism training and endowments in the country, if not the biggest, but we don’t have the answers for what’s next. We don’t know what people will use, what devices people will use, how will they use them or how will they value the information they will receive on those. What we’re pretty sure is they will be using different devices over time. When we started this, the first Tweet had not been tweeted and Facebook was only in college. And the iPhone had not been invented. I think we had a sense of what was coming with mobile, but we certainly didn’t have any kind of concrete feeling for what digital media, social media, mobile media really was going to be.

 We talk today about media literacy, which is synonymous now with recognizing what’s real and what’s not on Facebook. Your foundation took an early crack at something like this a dozen years ago with a survey of more than 100,000 high school kids and educators. You found little knowledge of or appreciation for the First Amendment. So what’s changed over that time? Are we really in a different period as far as trying to engage people through the media? Or is this just sort of part of the continuum Knight’s been looking at for quite a while?

I think that’s a really complex question. First I would tell you that the high school survey is something we’ve done six different times over the last, I think, over the last 14 or so years. Usually when people are asked about the First Amendment, whether it’s high school students or adults, depending on how you ask the question you can get very different answers. But typically students are more progressive than their teachers. Their teachers are more conservative. They’re more open, although a majority of teachers are in favor of free speech and free press, a significant number are always in favor of some sort of government control of news. But, when you make it personal, people begin to stand up for their First Amendment.

It was a few years after 9/11. and there was a spike in the number of students who said that they thought there was a role for government in censoring news. And then we asked the question: Is there a role for government in  censoring the lyrics of the pop songs you listen to? Absolutely not! It seems to me that sometimes we get caught up in our own jargon and speak in terms of this First Amendment shorthand, but when you explain to people what it means and what it means to them, I think by and large Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of First Amendment.

 You talk about newspaper companies, long the protectors and defenders of the FIrst Amendment, as being “famously stressed.” What does that mean for Knight?

One of the things we’ve done is worked with Columbia University. We put up $30 million, and they put up an equal amount, to create the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia. It just started early last year. I think the simplest way I can tell you how I think about it is when the arguments come up about the law for First Amendment for 2020 and 2025, when we’re interpreting the First Amendment for internet, the Knight First Amendment Institute will be there arguing for more, not less, free speech. It will be there arguing for an open interpretation of free speech, not a more closed interpretation of free speech. And there will be compromises, as there have been in our society from the beginning on how to interpret the First Amendment. But there will be an institution significantly well endowed, affiliated with a great university that has a great law school, a great journalism school and a great engineering school, all three necessary in the age of Internet.

This is a good time to ask you about Facebook. You’re talking about how the First Amendment is to be defended in the age of the internet. Facebook raises other questions. Early in our careers, we worried about joint ownership of newspapers and TV and monopolies. And now that seems kind of quaint, given that 40 percent or more of our audience, really every news site’s audience, ends up seeing our stuff in a Facebook feed. How do you see Facebook’s place in being a delivery vehicle, as opposed to being a news organization of some sort?

Well, it’s a great question. I think first of all the size of a Facebook or Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon — the five organizations that basically determine what we know or think we know as a fact today — has been organic. What the laws that you just were referring to, and this is a way of agreeing with you that it feels a little quaint, the laws that you and I used to have to worry about before, were the laws of acquisition. It was basically an antitrust sort of idea for the kind of unnatural conglomeration of media power.

These (Facebook, etc.) have been organic. They have grown at a speed that defies imagination if you are sitting in 1950 or 1970 or even 1990, although maybe by ’90 we were getting inklings. But they are also organizations that have said insistently they are not publishers, they are not editors, they are not news organization. They have declined, they have resisted being thought of or labeled as such. Obviously, they have been very successful at the expense of news operations that do have to pay the salaries of the people who go around and gather and present the news.

You don’t see Facebook and Google as simple delivery platforms?

Even algorithms have parents. The programmer that invented the algorithm imbues the algorithm with his, usually it’s his, but his or her values. An example I’ve heard a lot of people use is years ago, you could type in “thug” into Google and what you would get in Google images is exclusively images of very mean looking, young black men. That’s what thug means to whoever wrote the algorithm. When it was pointed out, there was a change (albeit a limited one.)

Algorithm as editor? This is the result of a Google image search for “thug.”

These are the beginnings of that company acting like a publisher. So that the issue of what does it mean that a handful of companies basically determine what we know or think we know are facts, I think that’s an issue for the society. We need to look at the ethics and the governance of these artificial-intelligence agents. To that end, we recently formed a collaboration with Reed Hoffman, who started LinkedIn; Pierre Omidyar, who is the founder of eBbay; and ourselves to study governance and ethics of artificial intelligence through the MIT Media Lab and the Harvard Law School Berkman Center.

People crow a little bit about how digital subscriptions spike at the New York Times and the Washington Post every time President Trump attacks the media. But I keep my eye on the ad revenue that pays for reporters. I see Facebook and Google eating maybe 75 percent of all new digital ad revenue. Where does that leave legacy media companies? How do we address that one?

The short answer is I don’t know any more than you do. There are some things that people have been experimenting with. If you look at how the Texas Tribune was organized, The Texas Tribune is only online. It focuses only on Texas politics. They have a pretty clear view of what they do. But it doesn’t need to be politics. It’s a non-profit revenue model — contributions, events, some memberships, which we used to call circulation. And they are in the black.

I think we need to be creative about how these things might be done. I think expecting advertising to come back in the way that you and I knew it 25, 30 years ago is unrealistic, in part because the advertiser also is a media company now. Macy’s can go directly and probably more effectively, to their customers.

But you are an optimist about finding a way to keep journalism alive.

Honestly, I don’t mean to sound Pollyannaish, or in any way to dismiss the pain that has been felt in a newspaper industry where I spent 25 years. And I don’t mean to dismiss the difficulty in finding what those things are going to be. But I do take heart at what’s been happening.

I just wish you could peek around the corner a little bit and tell us what’s coming.

And that it didn’t hurt so much. We grew up, and were reasonably successful, in a world that isn’t relevant any more, in a process that doesn’t have the same precious impact and appeal. And, honestly, the market will be served. The people have voted with their feet. So, let’s stop wringing our hands and figure out what will they use, how will they use it, will they value it and — boom — let’s go after it.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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