Alumnus Merrill Brown, a master at straddling old world media and new technology, promotes innovative strategies for how journalism can survive in the digital age.
by Gretchen Lee
A lot has changed in the field of journalism since Merrill Brown, AB ’74, began working as a reporter in the early 1970s.
“In the old days, if I got a couple of letters from readers or a phone call, that was considered interesting and exciting and significant,” he says. “Today, people comment on your story online, for the public to see. E-mail comes in significant quantities. A new level of engagement exists vis-à-vis social media. People want to participate.”
Now, as founder and principal of MMB Media LLC, Brown provides clients with management, marketing and strategy consulting. He also provides corporate, editorial and program development, as well as business analysis. He can count consulting on the redesign of TV Guide among his recent projects. The magazine was revamped recently to integrate more current viewing trends with recommendations for which shows to record on DVR and which to catch up on at sites like Hulu.com, in addition to what to watch live on regular old television.
While others bemoan newspapers as a dying breed, Brown finds hope in the ways that journalism is reinventing itself with innovations in the way news is gathered and shared — and by how it is changing the way it is funded.
“I believe … that editors and reporters and salespeople and technologists must all work together, to help meet some of the challenges that traditional media companies face,” Brown says.
He points to the rise of “citizen journalism” websites, for example, and blogging platforms that allow people without journalism training to report and comment on the news. He notes the ease with which anyone can now record, upload and share video worldwide via sites like YouTube. “High-speed access and mobile tools make it all possible,” Brown says.
“In the late ’90s, the notion that anyone would air a fuzzy Skype video or video from a cell phone was hard for executives to grasp,” he says. “The quality of the signal was deemed so important that they would send crews and trucks and satellites everywhere.”
In time, the cost savings afforded by using more nimble technology won out. “Now you see an interview on Skype on MSNBC or CNN, and you do not really blink an eye,” Brown points out.
Even the erosion of the long-held “church-and-state” division between advertising and editorial need not represent a threat, says Brown, so long as editorial integrity is maintained. “The ability of these disciplines to work together is critically important to troubled media enterprises,” he says. “Growing up in the newspaper business, we basically were not allowed to talk to salespeople, other than cafeteria chatter, in any meaningful way.”
Brown states this arrangement was perhaps OK when media properties were earning 40-percent margins, “because the world was a happy, profitable place.” But as media’s profitability levels began to deteriorate, management began to tear down those walls. “Frankly, they have not broken them down fast enough for me,” Brown says.
A rocking start to a career
Brown began his career in journalism working on Student Life, Washington University’s independent student-run newspaper. “One day, somebody said, ‘Come work on the college newspaper and help us out with it,’ and I did, and I fell in love with it,” he says. “So, it was my love of Student Life that started me down this road.”
During his junior year at the university, he began an internship working as a general assignment reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Soon afterward, he transitioned into a spot as rock critic for the paper, a gig he now recalls as “one of the best jobs imaginable.” Not only did he get paid to attend rock concerts, but frequently he was able to hang out after the show with the acts he covered, including the likes of Grace Slick of Jefferson Starship and members of The Band during their tour with Bob Dylan.
Upon graduation in 1974, Brown took a reporting job at the Twin-City Sentinel in Winston-Salem, N.C., and was soon promoted to its Washington, D.C., bureau. Eventually, he landed a position at The Washington Post, where he covered financial issues and, later, began working in business development for the newspaper’s parent company, The Washington Post Co.
Facing challenges head-on
Brown, a forward-thinker, naturally progressed from the old days of newsrooms and printed pages to the new world of consumer-generated media and integrated advertising. And, along the way, he made a number of surprising turns and firsts.
After spending nearly two decades in print publishing, he was a founding executive of the groundbreaking Court TV, a cable network that broadcast live homicide trials. “A lot of my friends thought it was crazy,” Brown says. “They knew I had written about the development of cable television, but they weren’t sure I could actually be involved in senior management of a cable network. But it all worked out well.” The network achieved notoriety with its broadcast of the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995.
Then in 1996, MSNBC.com named Brown its first editor-in-chief, after he had served as the news site’s acting manager during its launch. By 2002, under Brown’s leadership as senior vice president, MSNBC.com offered a series of professional blogs — innovative for the time. “As far as I know, we had the first successful mainstream blog, when blogging was obscure,” he says. Today, MSNBC.com continues to be one of the most-popular global news sites online.
Brown, commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation of New York in 2005, studied the news consumption habits of young people. His report, Abandoning the News, found that news organizations face threats not just from diminishing resources, but also from diminishing interest. The study revealed that young people are moving away from traditional sources of news — despite the fact that young people are highly engaged with multiple media sources.
Subsequent to the report’s distribution, Brown was tapped to serve as national editorial director for News21, a multi-school initiative that lends support to journalism students in their efforts to report on serious issues facing our country.
Surprisingly, Brown also serves on the advisory boards of three advertising firms. “I think the future of advertising and how it is deployed is critical to how the new media business model develops,” he says.
Friends rib him for his belief about the need for greater interaction between editorial and advertising, but he remains steadfast.
“I believe as a matter of principle that editors and reporters and salespeople and technologists must all work together, to help meet some of the challenges that traditional media companies face,” Brown says. “This interaction, in covering stories or developing products, may be the only way out of the box that many of them are in today.”
With so many newspapers and magazines facing extinction because of pressures that have come to bear on the publishing industry, that advice may be just what publishers and editors and ad managers need to heed.
Gretchen Lee is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.