Mr. Patterson: Now, it’s my distinct pleasure to introduce the recipient of this year’s Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism, Walter Isaacson.
Walter Isaacson is president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, which he’s led for more than a decade. If you’re familiar with the outsized agenda that Walter has pursued at Aspen, there is today no better leadership development institute anywhere in the world. You might be wondering how he’s also been able to write best selling books. Einstein in 2007, Steve Jobs in 2011 – a book, by the way, that broke the all time international sales record for a biography – and most recently, The Innovators.
The answer to Walter’s productivity lies in a remark he made in a magazine interview. “I don’t watch TV.”
Mr. Patterson: “If you give up TV, it’s amazing how many hours there are between 7:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. in which you can write.”
Walter is on familiar ground here tonight. He was a Harvard undergrad, a member of The Harvard Lampoon at that. From Harvard, Walter went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. A member of the Rhodes interview panel that selected him was a then little-known young attorney and former Rhodes Scholar named Bill Clinton.
From Oxford, Walter worked his way back to his native New Orleans taking a job on a local paper. How Walter got from there to Time magazine is a credit not to his sophistication, but to his ability to pretend that he’s not.
A Time editor was in New Orleans searching for promising journalists from the hinterland. Time had concluded that it had too many Harvard grads on its staff. When the editor asked Walter where he had gone to college, Walter mumbled “Harvard” in a way that made it sound like “Auburn.” He got the job –
Mr. Patterson: …gradually working his way to the top spot, becoming Time’s editor in 1996. Along the way, he and Evan Thomas wrote The Wise Men, a book on how Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson and a few other privileged Ivy Leaguers shaped postwar U.S. foreign policy.
In 1992, he published a solely authored book, Kissinger, A Biography. That book so angered the former secretary of state that he vowed never again to speak to Walter. Henry is not here tonight, but Rick Stengel, Walter’s good friend, is here.
I asked Rick whether he had any Walter stories I could tell. He directed me to the year 1998. It was Time’s 75th anniversary, and Walter had the idea of celebrating it by inviting the people who had been on Time’s cover. The mystery was whether Henry would show up.
Mr. Patterson: He did, and a reporter asked him, “Why?”
“Well,” said Kissinger, “even the Hundred Years War had to end.”
Mr. Patterson: So, Walter left Time in 2001 to become CNN’s chair and CEO, overseeing its coverage of 9/11, and the Afghan and Iraq invasions.
While there, he found time to write his biography of Ben Franklin, which became a New York Times best seller, and book of the month selection.
Walter has come a long way from the boyhood streets of New Orleans, but the Big Easy has never been far from his mind. From 2005 to 2007, Walter was the vice chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which oversaw the post Katrina reconstruction.
It’s my honor to introduce Walter Isaacson, this year’s recipient of the Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism. Walter?
Mr. Isaacson: I worry about that introduction. I want to thank everybody, but mainly I want to thank the nominees for this award because they reminded us once again why we’re in this business, why we were in this business, and why places like the Shorenstein Center are so important. It was deeply, deeply inspiring.
I thought that The Harvard Lampoon had trained me well for journalism in this day and age, but I realize there is still some serious journalism being done.
Thank you all, and congratulations on that award. That’s really great.
I will correct Rick’s story slightly. Henry called, and my assistant said, “It’s Dr. Kissinger on the phone,” and “Well, Walter,” and I thought that this is either Dr. Kissinger, or it’s Graydon Carter, who does a really good Kissinger imitation, playing a joke on me, and so I’m not going to fall for it.
So I went, “Uh huh,” and he said, “Even the Thirty Years War had to end at some point,” and then he paused and he said, “But you know my wife Nancy, she’s very partial to the Hundred Years War. We will have to work on her coming to the party as well.”
Henry, as he once wrote in his senior dissertation here, knew that people, like nations, don’t have permanent friends, or permanent enemies; only permanent interests, and he was a truly interesting person to write about.
It’s a little bit daunting getting a lifetime achievement award, especially for somebody who still remembers very vividly being part of the Institute of Politics, and being here. People of my generation don’t think that we’re going to grow up.
So, when you get a lifetime achievement award before you’ve figured out what you want to be when you grow up, you feel like something is out of whack here.
I do want to talk though about the things I’ve seen in journalism, and the intersection of technology and journalism because that’s one of the big things we’re facing today.
It’s not, of course, a new topic. It goes back at least 500 years to when Gutenberg helps with the moveable press type, and that helps wrest control over the flow of information from the scriveners and scribes that worked for the church and other authorities, and allowed people to have direct access to information.
I’m writing about Leonardo da Vinci now, and Leonardo was born in 1452 – the exact same year that Gutenberg printed his first Bible. And so Leonardo, who never went to a university, never went to college, never knew Latin, was able to teach himself everything from astronomy and anatomy to zoology simply by reading books, and that shows the power of why the Reformation, and then the Renaissance, all spring from the fact of a more uncontrolled and free flow of information and ideas.
Now, Leonardo left 7,000, more than 7,000 – about 7,200 notebook pages of sketches, and his thoughts and ideas. They’re extraordinarily easy to access, all these notes on paper. Far easier than when I went to Steve Jobs, and I was sitting in his house, and we were trying to get the emails he had sent in the 1990’s, and even with the tech people at Apple, they were not able to get them in a readable form from the NeXT computer.
I do worry about what will happen to future generations when we’re all trying to decipher CompuServe emails or WordPerfect documents.
I know Paul Sagan, my friend is here, and he worked on the Riptide project that was done at the Kennedy School, and it showed the problems we have with the digital age. It doesn’t give us the real foundations and information that we need.
I also feel that paper – I’m going to sound old fashioned here – as I look at Leonardo’s paperwork, and other places, I realize what a good technology paper actually is. It’s really good at the storage and distribution and retrieval of information. It’s got an incredible battery life. It doesn’t have to have backwards compatible operation systems. It just works.
In fact, I’ve often thought that if, for 500 years, we had been getting all of our information on electronic screens, and some latter-day Gutenberg had come along and said, “I can take that information, and I can put it on paper, and I can deliver it to your front porch, and you can take it on the bus, or to the bathtub, or to the backyard,” we’d say, “Wow. Paper is a wonderful technology. Someday it’s going to replace the internet.”
Mr. Isaacson: But during the time of Franklin, the declining cost of printing was also a great technological leap. It led to, in some ways, the foundation of the United States both by preventing the authoritarian control of the free flow of information, and by allowing people up and down the coast to connect via networks.
Franklin, you know, did want to go here to Harvard. He was from Boston. He used to hang around in Harvard Yard. He was the 10th son of a Puritan migrant, and being the 10th son of a Puritan, he was going to be his father’s tithe to the Lord. So, his father had set aside that he was going to go to Harvard and train to be a minister. This is way back when Harvard trained more ministers than hedge fund managers, but Franklin wasn’t exactly cut for the cloth.
At one point his father wanted him to say grace, and they were salting away the provisions. He said, “Why not say grace over all these provisions we’re storing, and we get it done with once and for all for the entire year?”
So, his father decided not to send him Harvard, that it would be a waste of money, and Franklin wrote a wonderful piece you should read – one of his Silence Dogood essays for his brother’s newspaper, James Franklin’s New England Courant, about how Harvard only knew how to turn out dunces and blockheads who have been taught to enter a room genteelly. Something they could have learned more cheaply at dancing school.
Mr. Isaacson: He does run away. Runs away from here. Runs away from his brother. He goes to Philadelphia, and started Penn. Go figure. There is some lesson in there somewhere, but he also started a newspaper. Back then, the cost of barrier entry to start a publication was very low, just as it is now. You could have 11 newspapers in Philadelphia, and a 12th could come up. And as importantly, he started a network because he franchised some newspapers up and down the coast with his apprentices as they graduated, and he created the colonial postal system that would allow the transit of information up and down the coast.
The important thing he did, while doing that, is he first made it a closed system. His content was favored. Sort of like Time Warner Cable would try to do when I was there, but he decided that America would be stronger if there was open access to the networks, and all newspapers, all writers, all publishers could equally have access to that network. So, he set the standard for open networks which I think has been sort of the foundation of the digital revolution.
That idea of open networks and free flow of information lasted for a couple of centuries, and then there was a small aberration, which was basically the 1930s to the 1980s, which is where there was a consolidation of power, a consolidation of gatekeepers for a variety of reasons, which I won’t go into, but I’m sure have been studied here. You ended up with a reduction in the number of metropolitan newspapers because of advertising and everything else. You ended up with a broadcast technology that allowed three, maybe four networks. You know, you couldn’t just start a network the way you could start a blog today, or a newspaper in Franklin’s time, and that allowed the consolidation and centralization of power, which was kind of cool – for those of us at Time, and CBS, and Walter Cronkite could tell us that’s the way it is – but it was somewhat uncool when it came to having diverse sources of information and being able to go around the media elite, the gatekeepers.
That began to change probably 50 years ago when people like Paul Baran and others invented a technology called packet switching. Instead of having central hubs that controlled the flow of information, they invented a way in which there were nodes that would store and forward packets, and every node in the network would have equal power to store and forward packets. The Pentagon, with its DARPA project, decided to fund a lot of research universities to figure out how to use this technology in order to create a digital network.
The great research universities had to do what great universities always do, and research professors always do, which is they delegated the task to their graduate students.
Mr. Isaacson: So, there were 30 really cool graduate students who ended up creating the rules of the road for the ARPANET network that becomes the internet, and one of them was Steve Crocker, and he was the youngest and sort of most reticent. So they put him in charge of taking the notes because they didn’t have to have any figure of authority. They didn’t want to have it be centralized. They wanted it to be totally a collaborative process, and he came up with a name for how they were going to create the internet. Instead of having rules or regulations, they would come up with some ideas, and he would call them “requests for comment,” and they would be sent around so that they felt they could build it collaboratively.
That was really cool – that this RFC process, this request for comment process, ended up creating the internet. What’s also interesting to me, and is pretty cool, is it’s still how we’re creating the internet. I think we’re up to number 7,900, and it’s still a collaborative process where nobody has any particular top down authority on how this is going to work.
When I was at Time magazine, we ran a story in the ’90s, I think some anniversary of the internet, and we said that the Pentagon did it this way so it would survive a Russian nuclear attack. Because if an attack takes out a central hub, you can ruin the whole network, but the internet, you take out a node, and it routes around it just like it routes around any censor, or anybody who tries to control the internet. We said that they wanted the survivability which is why they did it.
We got a letter from Steve Crocker. I didn’t know who Steve Crocker was then, but he said, “No, no. That’s not why we did it. We were graduate students don’t forget. You know, you remember that period. Why were we graduate students? We were avoiding the draft. So, we weren’t doing this to help the Pentagon. We were doing it so nobody would have centralized control over sources of information.”
Time was kind of arrogant back then. I know because I was there. And we did not print the letter, and we said, “We have a better source than you.”
I had forgotten all about that until I was working on a book and met Steve Crocker. He said, “You don’t remember me, but I was the one who wrote this letter.”
I said, “Oh, yeah. I remember that.”
So, I called Rick’s successor. I think it was Nancy Gibbs then. I said, “Gibbs, go back to the file. Before you throw away all the archives, go back to the files. I want to find out who that better source was.”
It was a guy named Steve Lukasik, who ran DARPA. He was the guy writing the checks, and he said, “Yeah, we didn’t tell the graduate students we were doing it for that reason. You know, they were graduate students. They were draft dodgers. That’s why we were doing it. Tell Crocker,” he said, “that he was on the bottom, and I was on the top, so he didn’t know what was happening.”
So, I did. I met Crocker again in a coffee shop in Washington, and he stroked his chin, and he said, “You tell Lukasik that I was on the bottom, and he was on the top, so he didn’t know what was happening.”
Mr. Isaacson: And that’s the essence of this decentralized, uncontrolled system that we created.
Ever since then, networks have changed everything they touch, from taxicabs to journalism, and the gatekeeper keeps getting disintermediated. I know Nancy Gibbs talked here at [the Shorenstein Center] a few days ago about the disintermediation that is inherent in these peer to peer, non-authoritarian, switched digital networks that we have today.
I saw how that affected world politics all the way through my period at Time magazine. I was once covering the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, and I went to Bratislava, which was then part of Czechoslovakia, because of the stirrings there, and they put me in the hotel where they put foreigners, and one of the people working at the hotel said, “You know, the students love to come in here and watch the music videos.” It was the only place where you could get cable, satellite TV.
I said, “Sure. You can have them use my room in the afternoon if they want to watch.”
I came back early that day to see some of the students who were watching, but they weren’t watching MTV or Sky TV or music. They were watching CNN, and what was happening in the Gdańsk Shipyard.
It became clear to me that the lack of control of information was always going to lead to the demise of authoritarian regimes, although in fits and starts. We find out the arc of history is bent gently, and sometimes a tough bend, and I remember years later being in a town, Kashgar, in sort of the western part of China, way across the Gobi Desert from Beijing, and we were part of a Time news tour.
I went into a coffee shop. There were three kids on a computer. I asked them what they were doing, and they said, “We’re on the internet,” and I said, “Oh, cool. Let me try something.” I typed in Time.com, and boom, it was blocked. So, I typed in CNN.com. It was blocked. At which point, one of them elbowed me aside, and boom, Time came up, and CNN came up.
I said, “What did you do?”
He said, “Well, we know how to go through proxy servers in Hong Kong that the censors are clueless about,” and you could just see, at each step of the way, how this lack of an ability to control information was going to change our politics.
I won’t get into it, but it also has a dark side. In fact, the breakdown of American politics today is partly, I think, due to the bitter and poisonous atmosphere that can come out of this type of loss of information. But the good thing, especially with the advent of the web, was that anybody anywhere got to publish anything they wanted and had access to any information anybody else distributed or published.
I think, though, that there were two original sins. This is where it gets to be the Puritan sermon where you get the sin – “The Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is one of the sermons [given] right up the street there. The two sins that I think that happened were, first, we allowed and even indulged anonymity.
I know anonymity allows people privacy, it allows them to say things they want, protects them from authority, but in the creation of the internet, it could have been built differently, and at some point, maybe it will be engineered differently where you would know exactly where the packets were coming from, and they were secure packets, and they were verified IDs, and people had to take responsibility for their own words. But instead, the internet, as it was created by the RFC process, [makes] it very, very difficult – if you want to hide your identity on the internet – for people to know who you are.
There is a tale that Plato goes into in the Republic called “The Ring of Gyges,” and if you put on the ring, nobody knows what you’ve done, nobody knows what you’ve said, nobody knows who it was that did something, and he and Socrates argue about whether you could have a civil system and morality if people could put on the Ring of Gyges.
They come to the conclusion, no, and I think we’ve shown that a little bit today. I was at lunch, at the Signet, with the managing editor of The Harvard Crimson this year, and she said that the Crimson comment section, with its anonymity, is so frightening that she would never look at it. She said that she spent her year as managing editor trying to keep anonymous sources out of the stories, and yet the anonymous comments dominate the comment section.
We lost the notion of community that was existent in the early days of the internet with services like The WELL, started by Stewart Brand, and others. When you logged onto The WELL, the first thing you saw was, “You own your own words.” In other words, you had to take responsibility for what you said, and thus, there was very good community. The community had wonderful discussions. You could use a pseudonym, but you had to be registered and people had to know.
So, I think indulging in anonymity – The New York Times actually does it well now, and tries to curate things – but if you look at most places where people speak anonymously in the comment section – we have somebody running for president, who is basically an embodiment of an internet comment section.
Mr. Isaacson: You can see why that type of anonymity, and that type of privacy needs to exist, but we also need an alternative when people want a place where they can trust the information, and they know where it comes from. In fact, I think it would be better for the internet as a whole – so I don’t keep getting emails from people telling me they’re in Nigeria and lost their wallet and need money – if we had a system on the internet where you could have verified ID, if people want it. A voluntary place.
The other original sin, which Paul Sagan and John Huey and others studied here at the Kennedy School, is that we made it free when we put everything online. I remember vividly, because I was involved with new media, and Time Inc. and Time magazine – when we first went from online services like AOL and decided to build websites, we were looking for ways to do what Henry Luce had taught us to do, which is to have streams of revenue from advertisers, but also be dependent on your reader as well.
So we looked for ways in which we could charge, or we were going to have subscription models. But what happened was, as soon as we went online, you could just look out of the window of the Time-Life Building, and there were people from Madison Avenue, kids running with bags of cash to buy banner ads, and it was so seductive that you began to try to aggregate eyeballs. You made money from advertisers.
It wasn’t clear then that that was an unsustainable business model. That the amount of advertising would go up in a small way, and the number of websites would go up exponentially. So, the amount you could charge would go down drastically, but it was worse than just an economic problem. It meant that we were no longer directly beholden to our readers.
If you look at each one of these things that are against the wall here [Goldsmith Prize investigations] you say, “Okay, if that had to be there solely because advertisers wanted those eyeballs, would you actually have done it?” You would have gotten none of those stories.
Henry Luce, when he was the founder of Time magazine in 1923, was asked about this notion of “controlled circ” magazines, which meant you’d give it away for free, and just support it by advertisers. He said, “Eventually, that not only is morally abhorrent, but it’s economically self-defeating.”
As a Presbyterian missionary’s son, I don’t know which of those two things he thought was worse, but it certainly has become both morally abhorrent, and economically self-defeating when we are not beholden as an industry, mainly to our readers. We’re now beholden to aggregating eyeballs for advertisers.
So, I think we now have to look at the difficult task of seeing if you could put these two genies back in a bottle. I think we need to offer up communities that are less anonymous and more curated. Obviously, there can be the YikYaks and the Reddits, and if people want to go there, fine, but when people want to have a serious discussion about things, we have to try to create good community and crowdsourced information sites online that aren’t susceptible to trolling and anonymity, and where people take responsibility for their own words.
As I say, the larger issue is having the internet have places where people are truly verified for everything – banking, whatever – but for me, civic discourse and comment is the place we have to begin.
We also have to create a vibrant business model for journalism. You know, I think journalism is healthy these days. Really healthy. We see it here, but we also see it every morning when we go on whatever it may be. Vox and The Jerusalem Post, The New Orleans Advocate, certain blogs, and things I really love. My Twitter feed is always pointing out different things. It is really great to be able to get all of this information.
So, journalism isn’t broken. What’s broken is the business model for journalism, and like most things that are broken, it stems from the original sin, this notion of trying to create things where you’re not beholden to your reader.
I do think we need to find more than just subscription models, which some newspapers, like The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post that I subscribe to – that’s a good line of revenue, but it is not easy for everybody to do that. There are times when I want an article from the St. Louis Post Dispatch. I don’t want to subscribe, but I’m certainly willing to pay a dime or a dollar even for a copy of that day’s issue.
We need to have easy, small payment systems. We need to have metered passes. We need to have ASCAP royalty models like the music industry does. We need to have Bitcoin, and Bitcoin small payment systems, and I think it’s important for news organizations, as they do this, to have the direct relationship with the reader, instead of doing it through Google, or Amazon, or Apple where Apple has the credit card and the direct relationship with the user. Because whoever controls the currency, whoever controls the credit card information, will control the customer and will reduce the content providers to being mere commodities.
So, I would really hope that there is some way that we can figure out, in the trade of journalism, how we are going to fix the business model ourselves. I could think of no better place, and no more necessary time to do all of this, than here and now at the Shorenstein Center.
The Shorenstein Center, I think would work with the Berkman Center to create hybrid models that combine journalism with crowdsourced information with communities engaged in serious discussion. They could create places where people could go voluntarily where identities are verified, figure out ways that news organizations can create real community around their journalism. In other words, create places that resemble the real world, like this room, like the JFK Jr. Forum where people can come, they can discuss, they can say what they want, but they have to take responsibility for what they say.
In addition, I think the Shorenstein Center could work with the Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Business School on a project. Sort of a crash project to find the technologies and the strategies that would enable journalism to be supported by users, and not just by advertisers.
For 500 years, technology has increased the spread of ideas and the empowerment of individuals. This has, as I hope I’ve described, been the arc of history toward freedom, individual empowerment and democracy.
I’m convinced that this will also be true for the next 500 years, but it will be up to places like the Shorenstein Center to help us navigate through the current shoals, and rectify some of the mistakes that the people in our generation made.
Thank you all very much.
Mr. Patterson: So, we’re going to take questions. We have microphones set up. If you would, in asking a question, please, identify yourself.
From the Audience: Hi. My name is Savano. I’m a student at the college. It seems to me that there are a lot of publications, and when you talk about creating communities online, I think that’s something that’s very important. But my question is, when you look at trying to do that for so many publications, if each of these publications has their own community, if you try to get people to pay for content on different sites, it seems like that’s something that might be very difficult to do – to get people to pay every single time they go somewhere, right? It seems like people are used to having free content.
Mr. Isaacson: This is why it’s a genie that’s hard to put back in the bottle. We’ve allowed people to be used to free content.
From the Audience: Right.
Mr. Isaacson: But I disagree with your premise that it would be harder to do it for a thousand places than to do it for a handful of places.
I do think that if you found an E-Z Pass – you know, you take your car and you can drive through any toll booth – if you found an easy way, on your browser, to have dimes and quarters and 50 cent pieces while you were travelling through the internet, it would work with some project you did, some poem, or play, or blog, or publication. If people create a song, they create a play, if they create a journal, whatever it may be – to go back, I guess I’m getting into the 500 year ago mode – but when they do get the printing press, they figure out the Statute of Anne, which says, in England, that if somebody makes a copy of what you do, you get a right to a bit of royalty. You get what we call copyright. That opened up a whole economy of people writing plays and novels.
I think if you had small payment systems done by a Bitcoin or whatever, where you have 25 bucks of Bitcoin in your browser, and you decided, okay, I like that poem somebody is writing, I’m willing to pay a dime for it, or 50 cents for it. It would actually empower the small creator of content more than the media companies.
From the Audience: The smiling curve, right? You get big publications that can sustain their advertising systems, and you’ve got small publications where people are willing to pay for it.
Mr. Isaacson: Right.
From the Audience: So you’re saying that we don’t pay up front? You read something and then you decided, okay, this is worth this to me?
Mr. Isaacson: Yeah. I think this is why I want you all to invent the business model.
Mr. Isaacson: I go online, I see the first paragraph of something in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, or The New Orleans Advocate, or Wall Street Journal, and I want it, and it basically says that if you click, you know, we will debit five cents from your online account, and you decide then to click or not. That would be one way to do it, or you could just do it where people click away like crazy, but they know that it accrues just like your E-Z Pass when you drive through toll booths. It accrues, and some people will say “I’m going to give you half of it for free, and see how much you’ll pay.” Some people just say, “read it, and if you like it, leave me a tip.”
I don’t care what the business model is, but we need the technology and the dedication to say that I’m going to try to get the user to buy you this – as opposed to saying that I’m going to do it, and hope that Google will put an ad sales service on it.
From the Audience: Thank you.
Ms. Roy: My name is Lipi Roy. I’m a physician at Mass General and at Harvard Medical School. My day job is being a doctor to Boston’s homeless population, but my question traces back to your hometown. In 2005, I was a second year medical student at Tulane evacuated to Houston, and after nine months, came back to a very different New Orleans.
Mr. Isaacson: Mmhmm.
Ms. Roy: I took care of residents, mostly from the Ninth Ward, in a grassroots clinic served by my classmates at Tulane. So, fastforward, I’m now in this well-to-do city, Boston, where I care for Boston’s most vulnerable men and woman. My question relates to, given your extensive and diverse experience with government, media and publishing, do you have a strategy in terms of how to really address – my interests are health disparities – but whether it be racial disparities, education, whatever it would be. Politics and policy are part and parcel of how you could possibly solve it. I know what you did. I was on the Board of Tulane, and I was blown away by the fact that people came back to Tulane, by January, Martin Luther King’s day, right after the storm, and they started new schools. They started neighborhood clinics. They took Ruth’s Chris Steak House, which used to give people heart attacks, and you turned it into a
Mr. Isaacson: Neighborhood clinic.
Ms. Roy: That’s right.
Mr. Isaacson: It shows what we can do when we try to do things. I mean, if it comes to health, it seems to me every university should be in charge of making sure that there are health clinics in every neighborhood that they serve. It’s not that difficult to put those health centers in every neighborhood; including, mental health centers, or to start a new school system. I don’t recommend having a hurricane as a way to have to do it, but you do need the dedication to do it.
Ms. Roy: Thank you.
From the Audience: Hi. My name is Ben and I’m a Harvard alum. You’ve written about many innovators; Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, and so forth. There has been a lot of efforts to reform the curriculum in universities to focus on liberal arts, and critical thinking.
What insights do you have about how creative thinking can be taught or fostered in higher education?
Mr. Isaacson: I thought you were going to ask, which everybody does, don’t we need more STEM education and then you get into the actual critical thinking, the liberal arts.
I think the first 50 years of the digital revolution was dominated by engineering and coming up with things, and in the past 10 years, and in the future, you’re going to see it’s a connection with creativity, whether it’s the fashion industry, or interactive plays. Someday people are going to invent journalism that really makes use of the technology, or books in which you can embed Steve Jobs’ voice into the book. So the connection of technology to creativity is this next wave.
We really have a messed up education system in America, especially K through 12, which, say, 30 years ago was the best in the world by every metric, and is now number 25 or 26.
A small – maybe not small – a big upside, though, is that it is nurturing creativity, critical thinking more than places where you learn the multiplication tables and the periodic chart better. It comes from an ability to question authority, to search around and talk back.
I’m not quite as worried about “teaching critical thinking.” I think you just have to encourage people. Every person I’ve written about – this is why I don’t usually get asked to talk at universities – dropped out and ran away.
Mr. Isaacson: Steve Jobs. Even Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin, as I’ve said. That ability to be a bit of a rebel, to question authority is to me a key to creativity. It’s actually why I’m writing about Leonardo. I was trying to figure out these things — who was the ultimate person who connected the arts, and the sciences, who dropped out, was a rebel, did his own creative thinking, and what was the ultimate symbol of that? You know, Vitruvian Man, and the circle and the square, the Leonardo drawing. That’s what I wanted to get at. Okay, how does that formula work?
From the Audience: I’m a junior. I was here earlier. We met this afternoon.
Mr. Isaacson: Good to see you again.
From the Audience: I have two questions.
Mr. Isaacson: My pleasure. And you are working for The New York Times, I mean, you will, as an intern. So, you’re going to figure this out for us.
Mr. Isaacson: Last year, you worked as an intern –
From the Audience: At Time.
Mr. Isaacson: Time magazine.
From the Audience: Yeah.
Mr. Isaacson: It still exists?
Mr. Isaacson: You know Rick?
From the Audience: Yes, I do. So I think, at an age where sources of journalism have exploded and become so democratized, how do you think we can build brand loyalty? Do you think we’re moving toward an age of the brand of the individual journalist, as opposed to the brand of media outlets?
Second of all, as more and more information is being consumed on the go, on smart phones, what do you think that implies for the future of long form journalism?
Mr. Isaacson: Yeah. I do think there is an inherently disintermediating tendency to the technology, meaning you don’t need to buy the bundle. You can buy David Brooks without buying The New York Times, or whatever it may be, in theory.
I, however, perhaps incorrectly, think that people who do put together a good package, and who have a brand and reputation you can trust, will provide a real value. I go to Vox, I go to Huffington Post, or whatever, but I also mainly start with The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal. Not just because I’m old fashioned, but because I kind of know what their standards are and where they’re coming from.
The problem for that type of journalism, without getting back onto my hobby horse here, is that, that form of journalism is not as easily incented in an era of BuzzFeed aggregating eyeballs for advertisers. It is more incented if people say, “Wow. I’ve got to figure out what so and so said.” Even if I’m not going to subscribe to The Financial Times, if Larry Summers, from this building, typed a piece today on secular stagnation and Donald Trump – even if I’m not going to be an FT subscriber, which I’m not – and I wanted to read that article, but I didn’t because I wasn’t going to go through the rigmarole – if I could have just said, “Yeah, you know, take a buck out or a quarter out of my account,” I would do it. That would incent the good type of journalism.
It would be interesting for the business model. Suppose David Brooks is getting 20 times as much as Tom Friedman, you know, do companies start paying that way?
I do think companies, and industrial organizations – which means Time, Inc., or whatever – that pay people salaries, send them off to Iraq , that sort of thing, they build a brand loyalty, and people at their peril, decide “I’m going to go on my own instead of work within an organization.”
From the Audience: Hi, I’m Alyssa. I’m at the Business School. You drew a parallel with the music industry, and one thing I think the music industry has done very well is to encourage people to choose to pay for music because the paid experience, say at Spotify, is so much better than the unpaid experience.
Mr. Isaacson: Right.
From the Audience: Do you think that can be replicated, and if so, how?
Mr. Isaacson: Okay. I actually write a chapter on this in the Steve Jobs book because Steve Jobs said, “Man, the music industry got so brain dead,” because they were getting Napsterized in particular, but with all the peer to peer sharing, people were getting the music for free.
He said, “Why are they getting music for free?” Not because people like to steal music, or whatever, but because the music industry has made it so damn hard to just get a song for very cheap.
So, he convinced the people at Apple – he didn’t have to convince the people at Apple. He just told the people at Apple. But even sort of brow beating our friends Andy Lack, and others, who ran the music companies, saying, “Look, if they can just get any song they want for one click for 99 cents, people will prefer doing that than doing a peer to peer file sharing where they have no idea what’s really going to happen when they download something from Napster,” or wherever they were getting it, and he turned out to be right.
Why? Because it was unbelievably simple. I mean, I bought something today just walking over on my phone. I had to get my PayPal account, I had to – you know, this is ridiculous. I bought something for $1.25. So, the first lesson of Steve Jobs is keep it simple and he did that with the music stuff.
I do think that the publishing of books industry kind of got it right, meaning, Kindle and e-books. It’s easy, and pretty simple. I think they’re making a mistake now. I mean, I’m happy to have people pay 17 bucks for an e-book edition of my book, but that’s wacky. We should be charging four bucks for that, so that people don’t think “can I break the system and get it for free?” And that gets back to my feeling on journalism, or plays, or music, or blogs you may do, which is: if you just have a simple system in the browser, or in whatever account, digital wallet you have, you can – without doing anything – just say, “Yeah, yeah. A quarter? Fine.” Then people would do that rather than try to find a way around pay walls.
From the Audience: Hi. Thank you for taking the time. Very impactful. My question is really simple. What’s your creative writing process? How do you approach writing?
Mr. Isaacson: Well, first of all, I do like to try, on the nights where I can, to write for five or six hours. Stay up late. I don’t believe any good ideas ever happen before 10 in the morning.
But it’s a major difference when you’re doing Leonardo than when you’re doing Steve Jobs because Steve Jobs, it was two years of just being in his guest house and taking walks with him everyday. Whereas with Leonardo, my process is: forget what anybody else has ever wrote or thought about him. Let’s go through all 7,000 pages of the notebooks page by page, and figure out how he got from here to there.
Then, it’s pretty simple. We have the same editor, right? Say hello to Alice. So when I was doing The Wise Men with Evan, coming out of college here, she wrote “ATIGT” in the margin, over and over again, and that meant “all things in good time.” Keep it chronological. Because, you know, your two Lincoln books really, that’s the way humans form narrative. They keep it chronological.
I hope this doesn’t get spread around too much, because of academic institutions like this, academic historians think that narrative, especially, biographical narrative, is somehow beneath their dignity. That they have to write books on Einstein that aren’t chronological. That kind of jump around based on themes.
That’s not how Einstein lived his life despite the fact that he thought all time was relative, and that’s not the way you’re going to understand things. What I’m doing [with] Leonardo now, it’s a document I just wrote. It’s about 800,000 words of notes, and it’s all chronological. I’m up there now in 1482 when he leaves Florence to go to Milan. If something happened before that date, it’s higher in the outlines.
Mr. Klose: Kevin Klose.
Mr. Isaacson: How are you?
Mr. Klose: I happen to be a member of the advisory board –
Mr. Isaacson: Kevin, as everybody knows, ran NPR. Right?
Mr. Klose: Yes. Yes.
Mr. Isaacson: Okay. And probably did other things.
Mr. Klose: So, I wanted to ask you, Walter, since we’re here among friends, and we’re curious about what you think is coming in the future, I’ve been fascinated by the purchase by Jeff Bezos of The Washington Post. The question one must ask themselves is, he’s a person who spent many years not making a profit on what he was doing to build Amazon. Just thinking about how it’s going to connect to The Washington Post, I think that in some of his conversations in the newsroom, in the few visits he’s made, people have gotten the idea that one of the things he’s interested in might be in the range of 100 million circulation.
Mr. Isaacson: Mmhmm. Well, he’s interested in moon shots as you know, including sending a rocket to the moon. And “why can’t I make The Washington Post 100 million?”
Mr. Klose: Yes. Exactly. Dilate on that theme.
Mr. Isaacson: That row there is Washington Post people, and I think one of the things he is doing is keeping quality, which helps. I’m actually going out – he does something in Palm Springs or Palm Desert. It’s the week after next, and it’s on moon shots, robots, artificial intelligence and now journalism.
For me, going to a conference is like a busman’s holiday. I throw enough conferences, but this time I’m actually going out there because I’m trying to figure out, how does his mind work? I do think one good business model for journalism, which is not probably one we should advertise too wide and far, is the benevolent rich person who is willing to squander money.
Mr. Isaacson: And that works whether it’s the Grahams or to some extent Sulzbergers, and it works with Bezos, and it doesn’t work with, to pick one aumni of this college, Chris Hughes. So, it doesn’t always work, but I’m sorry – I just don’t know what is Jeff thinking, and I think I’m going out there mainly to just try to figure out what’s driving this guy.
Mr. Patterson: Okay. One last question. You’ve been very patient. Please?
From the Audience: Well, thank you. My name is Mike, and I’m a resident of Boston. I saw on Twitter this morning that you’d be here, and I said, “Well, let’s take a ride over to Harvard for something different.”
Mr. Isaacson: Welcome.
From the Audience: The reason I’m here is, on the Steve Jobs book that everyone is kind of bringing up, and it reminded me of a review of the book by Harold Meyerson. He was a journalist, he might have been with The Washington Post.
Mr. Isaacson: Yeah. I think so.
From the Audience: But I don’t think he is there anymore. If you go to YouTube, and you go to Harold Meyerson, Steve Jobs book, he goes into the review, .
Mr. Isaacson: Oh, okay.
From the Audience: And his review is: he thinks the book is great. He goes into great detail, but he kind of holds you up in ridicule to a point, where you speak about Steve Jobs, and the development of Apple, but you completely ignore the effort that was made in the development of his supply chain over in China.
Mr. Isaacson: Yeah.
From the Audience: I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but it’s, also, been reenforced by friends of mine, like Ralph Gormley, who was the president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Mr. Innovation for IBM, for many, many years, as well as Craig Christensen, who is also concerned about the state of Apple now.
Mr. Isaacson: Especially, on China.
From the Audience: China manufacturing. Would like you to speak to that?
Mr. Isaacson: It’s a valid criticism, and I don’t go much into China in the book, and the reason I don’t – this is not an excuse – is that Steve paid absolutely no attention to it.
From the Audience: Right.
Mr. Isaacson: Never in his life, went to China. Never. They couldn’t get him to go there, or anything else, and so when you’re writing a biography, you can, and perhaps I should have said, “Okay, here are things that he had no interest in, and didn’t do, and he was really bad, and he should have,” but I’m actually just writing a narrative of the guy’s life, and I mention the fact that all these things are happening, and he didn’t really give a damn. I think that the larger criticism of the book, which I thought you were going to –
From the Audience: I didn’t read the book myself.
Mr. Isaacson: Oh, okay. Well, Harold Meyerson, if I remember him correctly is a very smart person,
From the Audience: He’s a troublemaker.
Mr. Isaacson: But there is another one. We biographers – I don’t speak for Harold, but I’ll speak for myself – have a dirty, little secret, which is we distort history a bit by making it seem like some guy or gal goes into a garage, or garret, and they have a light bulb moment, and innovation happens. When in fact, there are whole teams. There are teams doing supply chains, and there are designers and everything else.
Writing as we did, Evan Thomas and I, about a collaborative team like the people who created the Cold War foreign policy of the United States, is a little bit harder than the biography, which then, by necessity, focuses on what did the guy do as opposed to what should he have done, but didn’t do.
So, I wrote a book, not nearly as successful, called The Innovators, which was to go back to The Wise Men model, which was the formation of teams, and not just following the ball of one individual, but trying to find the notion of collaboration, and the values you put into that collaborative system, which is what the criticism of Steve was when it came to the China thing. That I tried to play with more, and so in that book, I do not only do the rest of the Apple team, but I do some of the parts of the DNA of Apple that were probably not as cool.
From the Audience: The one thing that I noticed is today, you see Bernie Sanders and our friend Mr. Trump both getting traction holding up Apple as the way not to do it as far as manufacturing goes. So, it’s kind of both extremes.
Mr. Isaacson: Yeah. I think that Tim Cook has a certain set of values that are different from Steve’s, and – I have this in the book actually.
They were talking about the problems in the supply chain in China, and Steve wasn’t doing anything about it, and Tim got upset, and said to the person, “What do we know about this? What are we going to do?”
The person said that we have to do this and this, and about an hour later, the meeting was still going on, and Tim looked at the person, and said, “Why are you still here?” The guy got up, drove to the San Francisco airport without packing and went straight to China.
So, corporations do have moral responsibilities, and the Steve Jobs book is not a how-to book. It’s not how to live your life, or even how to run your company. It is, for both better and worse, just a biography about a real person, his strengths and weaknesses, and how those were manifest in what I think were the greatest changes in everything from the music industry, to the phone industry, to the publishing industry, to tablets, to personal computing, and for that matter, retail stores and movies.
Mr. Patterson: Thank you, all.
Mr. Isaacson: Thank you.