Jonathan Franzen The Future of Journalism and Innovation in the Media | Concordia 2021 Annual Summit

Thank you very much uh. I dont think anyones here to see uh me so um im very excited to have two distinguished editors in chief uh here uh radika jones and marty barron. Can we call you marty or marty great yeah um? The first question i want to ask is for uh radicca who took over, i think is it 2017. Is that right, so its now been four years: 2017 yeah? Okay, almost four years um, i was struck by um alexandria, ocasio cortezs dress at the met gala. For those of you who didnt see it was a white dress that said tax, the rich on it, and as i was thinking about how to prepare for this panel, i thought that dress encapulet encapsulates the challenge that you have every day as editor of a magazine. Thats, probably better known for glamorizing celebrity than it is for tearing it down, but were in a moment of icons being smashed right now and im wondering how do you balance those twin imperatives in in this moment right now, as in your job? Well, i love that image because uh shes shes very good at taking the conversation to places where it might not naturally occur, and we do something similar at vanity fair. I think i mean look. I we live in an era where celebrities and politicians and um luminary figures. They have plenty of ways to get their message across to the public without an interlocutor.

Um so were a journalistic outfit. So where we come in is if, if youre, if youre going to be on our cover, if youre going to be in our magazine, were going to ask you questions not in a gacha way, but were going to were going to try to start conversations, and i Think that that the way i see the mission of vanity fair, its a you know its a its a leading voice in the culture and its our job to sometimes, you know bring those kinds of messages to places where it might feel a little bit uncomfortable like, But thats, okay thats the point um thats thats, how you make an impact so uh to me its a natural balance, its not a tension, its something that were in the business of we are there to interrogate celebrity, not just celebrate it. You can do both. I think and thats what weve been trying to do: um thats a great point, and i wanted to throw now to to marty um because one of the other, i think interesting things about this moment. Right now is we have um a lot of different points of view about who should be represented both in terms of the subject matter of our journalism, but who gets to tell it and how those stories should be told uh. You ran a very large newsroom until recently, i think, youre, happily retired um, but im wondering if you could talk a little bit about the the challenges of of a moment where theres a lot of competing points of view over how journalism should be done.

Well, i mean, i think we should we do. I did run a large newsroom and the idea there is to have people who come from a lot of different backgrounds, uh a lot of different life experiences and to bring those different perspectives to those newsrooms. They can inform our coverage uh and it should inform our coverage and so um. You know people people from one of life. Experience may not see a story that somebody from a different life experience would see, and they would see it from they would see them from very different perspectives, and so a newsroom thats trying to cover the totality of whats happening in this country and happening with. In fact, whats happening around the world needs those different perspectives and its one of the reasons why we try to have a diverse staff and so that people will bring those perspectives to to our work. One of your phrases that youre known for is the primacy of fact right. How do you deal with the situation where people dont even agree on what the facts are? Well, i think thats a fundamental problem that we have in society today, its a problem for the press, of course, but its its a problem that goes well beyond the press, its a its a problem for democracy as a whole uh. You know it was uh the late senator daniel patrick moynihan, who said youre entitled to your own opinions, but youre not entitled to your own facts, but now people think that they are entitled to their own facts.

You know my you have your facts. We have alternative facts as one example of that um and so um, but we its worse than that its not that just that people dont share a common set of facts in this democracy is that people cant actually agree on what even constitutes a fact. What are the elements that are necessary to say that something is a fact, and so we see that playing out in so many different instances. The most classic recent example, i would say, was the attack on the on the capitol on january 6. In truth, an attack on democracy and um theres video of that event. We can see whats happening, we know who was arrested, we know what their backgrounds are, and yet you can have a former president who says uh. They were hugging and kissing the police, or that it was antifa when we know that both of those are untrue. Thats. One of the easy calls, though i i think the reason people like you get paid well, is to make the hard calls, and so i think about its very easy to say. Well that was an uprising against american democracy. I think its far harder to make calls like do we write in our stories. Donald trump is a racist. I think youve probably experienced a lot of points of view in your own newsroom about. When do you call a lie, a lie in your copy or a headline, and those are far more complicated, uh yeah, absolutely no question about it.

I mean uh, we didnt call him a racist in our news. Columns i mean certainly probably opinion columnist did. We may have said that a comment that he made was a racist comment uh and we used that term. For example, in describing his uh his exhortation that the gang of four should go back to the countries where they came from and uh and so um uh and as far as the lies concerned, our standard and we had a standard. And that was that we had to know that he knew what he was saying was not true, and so, when we we felt that those standards were met. We called it a lie, so it speaks to intent, speaks to intent, which is the definition of a lie. Goes to the issue of intent, uh, i want to turn back to radica you, Music, um, have been known for taking some risks in the in the covers that youve chosen um, one that im particularly struck by is brianna taylor. Can you talk about what you were trying to say with that by putting someone like that, on the cover sure um for those of you who arent familiar last september for our september issue of vanity fair? We commissioned a portrait of brianna taylor by amy sherrold, the artist, the american artist who previously had accepted, i think only one other commission, and that was to paint michelle obama. So she was a. She is a painter of great renown and we were planning our september issue, which traditionally, in the land of glossy magazines, is um, is a big sort of curtain raiser on the new season in fashion and culture.

Well, obviously, in 2020 the the world was um uh, giving us a very different context. Um in you know, and very different stories to tell we were in the middle of the covet outbreak. We were in going through a summer of really devastating um and also inspiring protests around black lives matter, and i felt that it was incumbent on the magazine to um address some of those stories um and to do so in a way that would to get back To our earlier point start a conversation about what we value as a culture and what it might mean to bring conversations about issues like police, abolition or police unions into the pages of a magazine like vanity, fair and so in doing that cover in honoring. The life of brianna taylor through a piece of art on a magazine cover you know my hope, was to accord the events of that moment, the primacy that they so obviously deserved in not just our political conversations, but in our cultural conversations in our humanistic conversations about Who who we are as a people and um you know im very proud of that issue. For that reason, its also interesting to me to think back to earlier decades in magazine making. It was very common to commission, visual art and fine artists to do magazine covers weve gotten away from that. In the era of photography – and you know its obviously very possible – and we do it all the time – i hope to make an iconic photograph as a magazine cover.

But this was a woman who could not be photographed because she was gone and this was a way of giving her life um. You know that the kind of the spotlight that we felt that it merited is there an actual painting somewhere. Oh yes, she made a painting and its actually been the center of an exhibition in louisville and i believe its on exhibit in washington right now. Wow. Can you think of whats the bravest cover that youve never run? That is a trick question and my answer is that we have run them all um Laughter, no, not yet not yet, but no – and i say this having worked at time magazine for eight years um and having been part of decision making on a number of putting Jonathan franzen putting jonathan franzen on the cover, which was my first big pitch at time magazine and let me tell you, i have read the new friends novel its coming out in october and it is fantastic. So i stand by that cover um. But no look. I think part of the job as a magazine editor, is to take risks. I mean you know its its very easy to see. The same people on magazine covers all the time. Theres. Nothing very thought provoking about that. I think if you have a platform and you can draw attention to someone you can frame someone in a different way, you can put a story out there that hasnt been told thats your job, and so you know i.

I came to vanity fair from my past magazine work wanting to to do the same thing and – and i hope that were doing it – how about you marty whats the hardest journalistic call youve made uh gee, i dont know thats a tough one too. Maybe a trick question also for me um look i mean there were. There were tough calls. I mean, i think, the idea that when we obviously when we received the documents that were leaked by edward snowden, those were the most highly classified documents in the u.s government. Um they disclosed uh surveillance activities on the part of the on par on the part of the government. There were far more widespread, far more intrusive than anybody uh would have imagined, but of course they were implemented with the idea that they would protect citizens against terrorism and so uh. You had to really think that through should we publish this shouldnt, we publish this. There could be huge consequences of that. There were institutional risks as well uh because we could have presumably possibly prosecuted under the espionage act or us individually as well. But you know there were bigger issues involved there um that superseded uh those considerations, and they were that. Americans are entitled to privacy uh and that privacy had been in in large part violated uh through actions taken by intelligence communities that nobody ever knew about and that the the general public could never have had the opportunity to debate.

And so in the balance between national security and privacy, all the way was going to national security and virtually none of the way it was going to privacy, and so we felt it was important to publish those documents and uh. We did that. Can you think of a call that you made that you wish you could take back um sure yeah? Can you just talk about this id rather not actually yeah. So martin is writing a memoir or a book a quasi memoir yeah? Maybe i should save it for that um im, not no actually yeah, i can think of it. No, i do not wish to share it um now. Officially, the the title of our panel is the future of journalism and innovation in the media. We havent touched on that very much um. One thing i am curious about um radica, is you know, one of the things that youre known for is is broadening the aperture of um vanity, fair, being a taste making magazine who is considered in those pages um and theres. Obviously, some of that was going on before last year. We already talked about the brianna taylor taylor cover um. Are we in a permanent shift in how we do journalism, or was it just kind of a temporary moment with black lives matter and well go back to how we did things before? I absolutely think its permanent, i mean i, you know i i think look.

I think sometimes it feels like you, take one step forward and two steps back when it comes to that kind of progress. But i mean i came to my job at vanity: fair um, as the first non white person to run the magazine, and just you know, as marty was saying just because of your life experiences. You have maybe a different view about what constitutes a story or who ought to be on that cover and i think, the more um you know the more diversity comes into newsrooms comes into the magazine world. The more attentive audiences are to those kinds of decisions and choices uh, i think, the the more representative it becomes and and its not just because its in the news or trendy or gimmick or something like that, its because those are the stories i mean when i Took over vanity fair, it was two months before black panther came out and before that movie the truism was well youre, never going to have a black superhero movie. I mean that turned out to very much not be the case and i think its our job to be ahead of those curves. You know, i think, its our job to be a leader in that space, not a follower. So, for me its you know the people i put on the cover of vanity fair. I i put there because i think they belong there and its sometimes surprising to me that other people are surprised by those choices.

If that makes sense, but – but i i just – i think that um you know for from my perch, what i see is that weve grown our audience by 30. Our subscriptions are up. Our engagement is up big time. This has happened through a very difficult time in the industry through kovid, so we know that we are finding a bigger and more loyal and dedicated audience through the stories that were telling – and that tells me that were on the right track and i think im not Alone in this space marty, looking back on your time at the washington post, do you feel like theres more you wish youd done to broaden the aperture of who gets represented in the post or what kind of stories you tell uh yeah i mean, i think, theres More that i wish we had done on a lot of different fronts: thats thats one front that, of course i i wish we had done more uh. I think that i think we did actually quite a bit far more than has been recognized, um and im proud of that im, proud of that coverage and uh i mean just in my last year there you know we did a a whole big series on the Life of george floyd called george floyds america, which used his story to tell talk about a lot of the injustices in this in this country, and we did stories before that as well uh but yeah.

There are a lot of i mean when you, when you leave any job, you look back and say i wish there were things more things that we had done and of a whole variety of areas. I mean the reality is that there are limited resources and you have to allocate those resources and theres a wide range of stories that we have to cover at a place like the washington post and inevitably uh, whether its coverage of uh whats happening in some part Of the world uh what whats happening in this part of the world, people will say that you didnt do enough and its true in almost every area. We did not do enough, but we did what we what we could with the resources that we had um. While you have well, we have you on camera. Do you want to offer any scoops from your book that about is about to be published, uh no uh id like people to buy the book whenever it comes out, you know. Why would i why would i give it away for free, but no, i um its too yeah anyway, its going to be a while before this book comes out. Do you have a title yet? Yes, collision of power, trump bezos in the washington post. Frequently, people ask me well whats it about, i say trump basis the washington post well, leave it there. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you.

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