Phil Bronstein on The Colbert Report: The Engine House is On Fire

Categories: Media
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Phil Bronstein, former executive vice president and editor of the Chronicle, now editor at large and newspaper doomsayer, was on The Colbert Report last night. Nothing particularly revelatory was said, which was not a surprise as the quick interviews that take place on the show are not so much an opportunity for Stephen Colbert to ask hard-hitting questions as it is a chance to showcase his wit, which he did right away by musing, "If newspapers go out of business, where will they print the obituaries?" (To which I answer, duh, People.)

It was sort of a weird moment to see Colbert loudly announce Bronstein's impending interview while feverishly high-fiving cheering audience members who were probably thinking, "Who?" and "I wish I got to see the show with Paul Rudd."

Bronstein seemed a bit nervous at first when Colbert asked him why newspapers insisted on running pessimistic articles about their impending demise, saying it was like walking into a bar and announcing, "Who wants to buy me a drink? I have herpes."

Bronstein said he wanted to step away from the medical metaphor. Apparently he prefers maritime metaphors:

"If you're on a ship," he responded," and it's taking on water and the engine house is on fire and life boats are out on sea and maybe even the captain's out there, you're probably going to yell louder about the boat sinking than the people on the shore."

The engine house is on fire? Oh, my.

 Even though Bronstein said at the beginning of the interview that several factors had contributed to the decline of newspapers, discussion focused on the internets. Among the problems are the fact that Google turns a profit selling advertising partly due to news content it pulls for free and that newspapers made the choice to allow people free access to their online content. Colbert compared print media's woes to that of the music industry when it was first learning to deal with online file sharing, eventually turning the problem into a money-making venture. It was hard to tell whether or not Bronstein was joking when he pointed out that people who illegally downloaded music were risking prison time, saying, "Maybe there should be a jail term for people who don't pay for their news."

Bronstein allowed that the paper part of newspapers might go away. The important thing to preserve, he said, was rooms full of journalists. Blogs and the Huffington Post wouldn't be breaking news stories like child abuse in the Catholic Church, he said.

The conversation neatly summed up what we already don't know: How newspapers can gracefully and successfully transition from print to online and still manage to pay their reporters.

Perhaps the most telling and outrageous moment of the evening was when Bronstein told Colbert, " One of your interns was telling me she got her news from AOL.com."

Ok, first of all, does this intern go around telling the entertainment industry guests, "Oh, I never watch your movies," or the professional sports players, "Baseball bores me?" Who taught this intern manners?

Second (and most importantly): AOL? Seriously? Does this intern have dial-up? Is he or she a grandparent? This intern works in media, on a show that trades in current events, has the unlimited access to information afforded everyone with an internet connection, and when chatting with the former editor of a major newspaper the site that floats to the forefront of his or her mind is AOL News?

Stephen Colbert, it is time to thin the ranks.

For Bronstein's take on his appearance, check back at his blog.


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