The history of the Hearst surname is largely the history of newspapers. It carries a weight, an air of authority of the great names that invented and reinvented the American press. William Randolph Hearst III (New York, 1949) is the grandson of William Randolph Hearst, the tycoon who transformed newspapers in the late nineteenth century and turned them into mass entertainment. That empire sank in part with the arrival of audiovisual media. Today, the crossroads of newspapers is not very different in severity and depth. "The media business has gone through a cataclysm every so often," Hearst starts in a long conversation at a hotel in Santa Monica, California, one October morning. "It's part of the life of this business."
Hearst is heir to the family fortune and still sits on the advice of what is today Hearst Communications. The company owns around twenty newspapers, including the flag newspapers of two of the most important cities in the country, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Houston Chronicle. It also has around 300 magazines, including Cosmopolitan, Elle Y Men's Health. The most profitable part of the conglomerate is its 20% ownership of ESPN, the sports channel in which Disney owns the other 80%. It also has an important real estate portfolio.
"The newspaper business has to change," says Hearst. "Look, a bookstore in the 21st century has to become a kind of community gathering center. If she does not disappear. In the same way, newspapers have to become the depositories of regional information in a community. I do not think you can aspire to be the New York Times in San Francisco or in Baltimore. There are only a handful of newspapers that can aspire to that. But you can cover those cities. You can create web pages and tools for that community. Those who are doing well are the ones who have done that. "
The newspapers, for Hearst, have to distinguish themselves by being the best in what makes them unique, basically, their own information in their area of influence. "Your chance to be different is in local coverage." Not even in opinion. There is too much opinion, he says. "It's too easy to copy. I do not want to be in a business where anyone can do the same as me easily. I want a business that others do not want or try. Anyone can have an opinion. But setting up a newspaper, with journalists, is a project, an organization, it can not be done with two or three people. " That's where newspapers are different from Google or Facebook. They are distributors, newsagents, Hearst says. All the same. "Google is not going to hire a theater critic in San Francisco and Facebook is not going to send a reporter to the city hall." That's where the press has its chance.
Hearst observes the changes in the media and concludes that the business model based on advertising is dying. "Advertising depends on audiences. But businesses like Netflix do not have publicity, they are supported by subscribers who want a service. It is not directed by the clicks, but by your desire for the service to continue. I totally believe that it is a lesson for newspapers. You have to think of your readers as subscribers to whom you give them a service and with whom you have a relationship. The product is that relationship. " Hearst talks about advertising-based newspapers as "the old model." "You have to rediscover the relationship with your customers. Now the media companies are more focused on your experience being satisfactory. 30 years ago, not so much. The important thing was that the advertiser was happy. Now I have to make you happy. "
These reflections give him the opportunity to talk about his latest project. It is a magazine that has been launched personally, outside the company. high It is a quarterly publication about art, culture and California lifestyle. A niche magazine, thought and relaxed. "I wanted to do it quarterly so I would not have to cover Donald Trump's news. There is too much information about the tweets from the previous day. Television is reporting on tweets, it's ridiculous. I do not want to do that. I want to inform about art and culture, about things that last longer. " He sees the magazine high (in reference to Alta California, the first European name given to these lands) as "a home, a club for readers, so that while the world goes crazy we are doing something different. I want to disconnect from the news hamster wheel, trumpets and tweets. "
Hearst also stresses that journalists have to be paid well to make a good product. He makes sure he does it. "I have never met a newspaper or magazine that has gone bankrupt and the owner said: 'We paid journalists too much, that's what sank us'. You never hear that. There are problems of distribution, financial or advertising problems, changes in the market, but nobody has ever said 'if we had paid less to journalists, we would remain afloat'. That's not where the real money is going. I think that even in the happiest times of the newspapers the entire writing was not more than 10% of their expenses ".
That's why he sees no point in cutting into the newsrooms in the current context. "We bought a newspaper in Connecticut and the first thing we did was to increase the writing. It was owned by a bank and they had cut back so much that they no longer served their community. You can not do that. If you want to be in the newspaper business in 2018 you have to have a relationship with the community. Cut something else. " Using the simile of a bakery, Hearst says that "it's like cutting back on yeast." "Yeast is a small part of the cost of making bread, but it is what makes it grow."
In Hearst's speech there is no nostalgia for the old paper editorials, "with typewriters, scribbled types with hats, cigarettes and alcohol in the drawers", the times that he knew as director and editor of the San Francisco Examiner in the eighties. He is convinced of the need to adapt to the Internet. "If a newspaper decides to be 100% paper, because 'it's what we are, that's what we come from and that's what we're going to keep doing', that newspaper is going to fail. In this time you are as good as your web is. You have to be agile in the new medium and you have to reach your readers where they are ".
The legend of William Randolph Hearst paints him as the inventor of exaggerations and dramas in newspapers. Now, the United States is astonished at the same thing, but from the Government, which in turn accuses the media of spreading false news. "I hate it. It is deplorable. I think that news and false are contradictory terms. A news, by definition, is true. The biggest creator of false information is always the Government. " Hearst does not hide his concern for the character that occupies the White House. "This is Mussolini. I see the pomposity of Il Duce, the alternative reality … this is very crazy ".
Hearst has a nuanced version of what his grandfather did with the press. For the Spaniards, it was the legendary editor who set fire to the public opinion of New York with exaggerated stories about the rebellion in Cuba against Spain until the war of 1898 became inevitable ("I will send you war", he said supposedly to a reporter who wanted to come back from Cuba because nothing happened there). "In 1989 we celebrated the centenary of San Francisco Examiner, which was his first newspaper, "recalls Hearst. "We went to look at the archives. In those newspapers there was a heroic air, an attempt to give drama and grandiosity to life. Excess and exaggeration were at the service of history. Today newspapers do not do that anymore. But we must remember that this was a very political environment. At the turn of the century, only San Francisco had twenty newspapers of all tendencies and in several languages. They were newspapers from a time when only very educated people consumed information. Hearst's original idea was the popular newspapers, the idea that you could make the language more accessible and the stories more dramatic and get more people into the consumption of news. " At another time he says: "I see my grandfather as Walt Disney, a creative person who knew how to put on a show".
You can not let William Randolph Hearst III get up from an interview without asking him Citizen Kane. Although the character of the mogul Charles Foster Kane was inspired by several people, Grandfather Hearst took it for granted and was forever the legend that Orson Welles had made a bitter biography of him. Hearst died when Hearst III was two years old. The movie was not talked about in his house, he says. "It was a forbidden topic." He did not see her until he went to college. He loves it, it seems like a successful business portrait of the media. Less one thing
"What did not seem right to me was the treatment of San Simeón ", the immense castle that Hearst was built on the coast of California (360 kilometers north of Los Angeles) and that today it is a tourist attraction. "I spent summers in San Simeon. It was amazing, beautiful, it was like being in the Alhambra, with gardens, fountains and flowers. It was in a period after the death of my grandfather, in 1951, when the house was abandoned but my father (William Randolph Hearst Jr.) I opened it to spend holidays with the family, use the pool or celebrate Christmas. For me, San Simeon was a very happy place. In the movie, Xanadú is a dark and sad place. That part is not right. "
The story of Kane speaks of the loss of youth and energy, of the tragic decline of a man who, at the moment of death, remembers an apparently inconsequential piece of his childhood: Rosebud. The newspapers seem to be at a time when they are looking for their own Rosebud, that key that reminds them of what they were. "In a way, Rosebud, the lost youth of newspapers, is the loss of power and influence. Before, if you were a newspaper editor you were one of the most important people in your city. That is no longer true. Today you are in the newspaper business because you love him, because you believe in him. "