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Dana Milbank

Dana Milbank

Washington Post national political reporter


The first Devroy Forum speaker who did not work with Ann or know her well, Milbank shared her irreverent humor and fearless approach to Washington news-gathering. He worked for The Wall Street Journal and The New Republic before joining The Post in 2000 as a political writer for the Style section. After covering the White House, he began writing “Washington Sketch,” a column reporting what he calls “the sights and sounds of political Washington.”

2006 Devroy Forum presentation

I’m afraid my application was lost in the mail. It reminds of when I was in college and applying for my journalism internships. This was after my sophomore year. I applied to 45 newspapers, and I was rejected by 44 of them. And my favorite was the Miami Herald, which went through the trouble of sending somebody to interview me for an hour, and then I got a letter of rejection in the mail titled: 'Dear Ms. Milbank.' I said, ‘This won’t stand.’ I read it back to the woman who interviewed me, and I said, ‘Did I leave so little (an) impression?' And she apologized profusely, but I still didn’t get the internship. 

So thank you, chancellor, Chairman Kramer and the rest of the Journalism department here, Mark Matthews, everybody, Sara, DJ, everybody from the Devroy fund. What you're doing up here is terrific, and I’m very honored to be a part of it. Now you’ve had, as you pointed out, some of the biggest names in Washington journalism here to speak at the Devroy Forum, and having exhausted all of the big names, you’ve got me. So I apologize for that. 

Ann's style of journalism more relevant today than ever
Ann Devroy was one of the best journalists of her time. She died nine years ago when the Internet was in its infancy and a blog was still a character from Dr. Seuss. She was in business at a time when journalism was fat and happy — strong profits, broad readership — but I think her style of journalism is more relevant today than ever at a time when our business is under great stress. Her view of journalism was ... indispensable to keeping high officials honest. ... Reporting is aggression — civilized, proper, polite, but it's aggression. A notion of holding the powerful account must not be forgotten, even as we in the news media contend with shrinking readership, viewership, budgets and man power. We need to find a way for that important role of journalism to survive in the new media era.

There's an explosion of blogs, but readership is scarce
No doubt you’ve already heard about some of the problems in the industry. I was reminded about one of my favorite anecdotes of that landing in Minneapolis, home of the Star Tribune. The paper recently declared a new policy: No more reading newspapers in the newsrooms. Reporters have to pay 25 cents for a copy or read it online. Then came this memo from Steve Alexander, senior vice president for circulation. During the first week that the additional on-site racks were in service, 43 percent of the Star Tribunes removed from those racks were not paid for. For the second week, the rate was 41 percent. This is called pilferage in our business, but put more plainly: It is theft, pure and simple. He was not finished. Taking more than one newspaper from a rack when you have only inserted enough money for one paper is unacceptable and will (not) be tolerated. Employees who steal newspapers will put their jobs at risks; there is zero tolerance when it comes to stealing from our company, even if it is a 25-cent newspaper. These are desperate times in the news business.

Now, things aren’t that bad at The Post, but circulation was down 4.3 percent last year — just under 700,000. Newspaper division of The Post Company said its revenues were down 3 percent, operating income down 12 percent, and advertising revenue down 7 percent. Now, part of this is we’re paying a million dollars a year now for security in our Baghdad Bureau. We’ve closed a bunch of other ones: Istanbul, Rome, Canada, maybe others still to come. Our foreign correspondents now work out of their homes instead of in offices to save money. What I’m concerned about is what if this trend persists. So The Post lost 30,000 readers last year, at that rate the last reader will cancel his or her subscription in 21 years, I will be 59. Now, if you’re a 19-year-old journalism student here, you’ll be 40, at mid-career and will be out of business. Look at it another way: The Washington Post is cutting 80 newsroom jobs over the next year. That’s 10 percent of the staff. So if we continue to lose 80 a year, with the last person turns out the lights in just 10 years. I’m 48 at that point; you're 29. This isn’t good either. The Post, if anything, is in better shape than most. The Project for Excellence in Journalism is sort of an industry watchdog group (that) reports that the industry has lost 3,500 newsroom professionals since 2000. That’s a 7 percent drop. Circulation declined last year at the three big news magazines. Network evening news ratings dropped 6 percent, and morning show ratings 4 percent. The number of network correspondents is 1/3 lower than it was in the mid-1980s. Early evening news ratings for local TV were down 13 percent. A proportion of stories presented by reporters dropped from 62 percent to 43 percent. On the radio station studied, only 14 percent of stories involved actually sending reporters out to cover them. This isn’t terribly good news, and I bet you're waiting for the point — at which I will start with the good news, but I’m not there yet. According to the non-partisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the proportion of people regularly reading newspapers has fallen to 42 percent from 58 percent in a decade, while viewership of network evening news has fallen to 34 percent from 60 percent. So now you’re wondering, 'Well, what’s the good news, and why am I not afraid?'

Well, as bad as things look for us, as bad the economics are for us, they are worse for the blogs and for the alternative media, which are in fact not able to present much of an alternative to the media at all. Now, true, their numbers are exploding. There are 34 million blogs now — I’m sure you all have one yourself — up from 9 million a year ago, 70,000 new ones everyday. So if you don’t have one, you will tomorrow. Fifty thousand postings an hour, but as the online publication Slate reports, there are troubling findings that came to the 1999 warnings about the Internet bubble that suggest blogs have just hit their top. According to a Gallup survey, blog readership is either flat or down, and only 9 percent of Internet users are actually regularly going to blogs. Sixty six percent of Internet users never do. This is what my colleague Mark Fisher said in his blog on The Washington Post Web site: 'I’ll have an answer in my blog.'

Bloggers are valubale, but they aren't reporters
Bloggers are new and valuable ... and yes, some bloggers do reporting, but there’s not (a) business model that puts bloggers in a position to do the pricey work of a newsroom of 800 full-time journalists. The number of people making a living during full-time blogging is roughly zero. And here’s what this Project for Excellence in Journalism says about the blogs. It did a similar study of them, (and) it found that 79 percent of all posts — the highest level of any category — were based on nothing more than commentary from the blogger. Only 5 percent of posts involved original research. Only 1 percent of posts actually involved an interview. The report continues: One consisten(cy) across the blogs, with their personal style, readers learned about those things that the author often found significant, and the vast majority of the time, the personal element included the blogger's own view. Of all the posts that had some commentary from the blogger, the vast majority — 78 percent — included the blogger's views. Eventually, I think inevitably, people who get their information from blogs will decide: 'Who cares what you think? This isn’t news. You aren’t adding value.'

Now, you might dismiss my views as rather self-serving from a member of this dying oligarchy called the mainstream news media. But I would argue that the consequences of the decline of this mainstream media, even beyond you journalism students, is bad news for everybody. I’d like to consider a poll done just two weeks before the 2004 election by the University of Maryland. (It) found that 72 percent of President Bush’s supporters believe that at the time of the U.S. invasion, Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction or at least major illegal weapons programs. (It) also found that 75 percent of Bush voters believe that Iraq either gave Al-Qaeda substantial support or was directly involved in the September 11(th) attacks, and they also believe these majorities that they were backed up by the U.S. weapons inspector and by the 9/11 Commission on all of these points. Now, it’s fine to argue about the merits of the Iraq war, but these are not debatable points. These are just plain wrong. As you well know, we found no weapons and no collaborative relationship between Al-Qaeda in Iraq. These author(s) of this study blamed fragmentation in the news media. If the only news you get is from talk radio and conservative blogs, you could be forgiven for continuing to believe that Saddam Hussein was tight with Al-Qaeda and Iraq really did have the banned weapons. If all of the information is coming from Drudge and Hannity and from Rush — now, this is not to pick on the Bush followers. I had a lot of battles with the left wingers who continued to believe that our president was being operated by some sort of mechanical radio in between his shoulder blades during the debate, even after his tailor denied it. Two decades ago, the late Senator scholar Daniel Patrick Moynihan remarked that everyone is entitled to his opinion, but not to his own facts. If the blogs have their ways, we’ll all be entitled to our own facts as well. 

Now all those grim numbers I read you are afflicting the mainstream media. Rush Limbaugh has 20 million weekly listeners; Hannity, 12 million; the Drudge Report, near 10 million visits a day. Liberals can go to Jon Stewart; they can go Salon; Daily Coast; they can watch Michael Moore. Worse than all of these is this new thing known as the aggregators, Google, Yahoo! You just plug in what you want to hear, and they — their machines, I should say — will do you the service of reinforcing your stereotypes in world view by sending you articles that confirm them. Similar problems in the other emerging media, say cable news — particularly Fox News, where the actual growth in cable is. That same Project for Excellence found an odd hyperbole in which anchors indebted a great sense of urgency about small things. The lack of a budget of a focus for cable news, as I was discussing earlier with some of the journalism students, is distorting our entire industry into a rapid-fire exchange of he said/she said, as opposed to reaching actually for the truth. ... But there is in fact no evidence for this. Declines in news viewership and readership have more to do with changing habits in technology than with accusations of bias. I asked Andrew Kohut of The Pew Research Center, who says it's dictated by lifestyle. It’s not a product of declining credibility of the media. Having observed it for a long time, I just don’t see it that way. And if you look in the polls that he does, those most likely to complain about newspaper bias are the most active consumers of news reading multiple publications everyday. Now ultimately, it’s not good for anybody, even partisans, to get into a bloggy morass where there are no such things as facts, no neutral referees, only competing perceptions of reality. Would liberals really favor the absence of a press that calls into question the Bush administration's claim about Iraq’s weapons and ties to Al-Qaeda? (Will) conservatives really favor the absence of a press that brought the Clinton to light? My sometimes friend, Steve Hayes of the conservative Weekly Standard, protested in a November article that during the campaign, 'Journalists at The New York Times and The Washington Post and the television network saw themselves not as conveyors of facts, but as truth squatters, toiling away on the great gray margins of the political debate. These journalists,' he continued, 'fancy themselves thinkers, not mere scribes. They go to work everyday to tell us not what the Bush administration has said, but what it has left unsaid.' Imagine that an independent press (was) looking for truth rather than serving as stenographers for the powerful. It’s a quaint tradition that we’d probably be better off not to abandon.

So, I’m sure you agree with me now, that blogs are not an alternative to a professional press, either as a business model or as a journalistic enterprise. Now we can see the damage that the country would suffer if we were to see the demise of the mainstream media. So what do we do about it? Well, the one bit of good news I bring you tonight is I think it’s already happening. There was one bright spot in that dismal earnings report from The Post that I mentioned earlier. The company's online publishing operations — primarily washgintonpost.com — but also Slate, which the company now owns, reported a 43 percent increase in revenue to $24.7 million dollars for the quarter; advertising revenues soared to 77 percent. At TechniRoddy, which some of you know ranks blogs and Web sites by the number of people linking to them, ranks the top news and media sites, putting The New York Times first, CNN second, and The Post third, even ahead of the dreaded Yahoo! And the blogs were way down on this chart. My friend Jack Schafer, who’s the Slate media critic and among the best in the business, pointed out recently: 'I think most practicing journalists today are as Webby as any blogger you care to name.' I’m not sure this in entirely good development, but newspapers are co-opting bloggers. We have our own bloggers all over our Web site. We’re experimenting with pod casts, this Web-based syndication system — really simple syndication. I can’t actually figure it out, but that’s what they call it. Now ... Pluck corporations launched a service that pulls together the posts of 700 bloggers and makes them available to traditional publications. Among those who have signed up to give it a try is The Post.

The answer is not to become bloggers ourselves — just to exploit our advantage to value to news coverage. As paid professionals, we have the time, the resources to give readers that something bloggers sitting at home in their pajamas just cannot do. We have to understand first of all that words are words and that journalism is journalism, and regardless of the shifting media, we have to be able to present our product, whether it's broadcast, whether it's new media, whether it's radio, television or on our own Web sites. Now I’ve been experimenting with this a little bit in terms of my own survival, having forecast my newspaper's demise either in 10 or 21 years, depending on which of those you choose. I do not — as the chancellor mentioned — (do) a weekly feature for Slate. I do an every-other-week Web chat for washingtonpost.com. Twice a week, give or take, I appear on MSNBC Countdown, which is a primetime show at which I occasionally don costumes and behave in a silly manner. I now appear ... I guess you can’t appear on radio, which they as often said I have a perfect face for radio — we have just acquired Washington Post radio in our local market, so generally one to two mornings a week I am do a little segment on Washington Post radio, and on top of that, I have to do my day job, which is writing three columns a week for what my friends at the Web call the dead tree edition. And in case all of those don’t work out, I’m hedging my bets I have a book contract with Doubleday, and assuming my editor isn’t here, I’ll tell you all I haven’t done a thing. 

But we have to hedge our bets. The column that I write is called Washington Sketch, and it's my answer to the new media in a way to survive. I am trying to serve as the eyes and ears of readers in Washington, since everybody cannot be there. Unfortunately, every blogger can’t be there either, so I’m doing old-fashioned shoe leather reporting, going to the press briefing room, going to the Pentagon, going to the House chamber, going to a Senate committee meeting and reporting the sights and sounds of political Washington. It’s hopefully done in a colorful way. It’s done in a way that sometimes causes some controversy. I think that it’s working. I’m getting lots of what they call hits. This is the life blood of the Web, and — at least in the dead tree edition — my editors still haven’t fired me. So far, so good. So I’d like to leave you aspiring journalists and those who teach or at least appreciate journalism with that little bit of optimism. By showing some flexibility, we can survive the big bad blogs and all the other threats in the changing media landscape.

Excellence. Our Measure. Our Motto. Our Goal.