Kara: How I got here to this room?
Kara: Very happily, finally. I started off in a traditional
career. I was the yearbook editor in high school. I did work for
the school newspaper in high school and I worked for the college
newspaper at Georgetown, called the Hoya. I did really well there.
I won some awards early on.
When I was at Georgetown in the Foreign Service school, I
read The Washington Post, which I loved. I was a great fan of the
Post. It was sort of its golden era at that time. They had cut one
of the reporters who covered something I had covered and done a bad
job. I was angry, because it made me suspect everything else in the
I called the Metro editor at the time and started yelling at
him. It was Larry Kramer. Now he’s publisher of “USA Today.” I
said, “How dare you print this in the ‘Washington Post’?” Of
course, I didn’t realize they sent the idiot to Georgetown, like
“That’s not the best reporter to not go and cover a speech at
I thought they should do everything with excellence. He
said, “Oh, you mouthy, come down and tell me this to my face.” I
did. I took the bus. I think it was the M15 bus, down to 15th and L
with the M-something bus. Anyway, I took it down there, we had an
argument and he hired me to be a stringer for Georgetown.
I started writing for the Post for these different sections
that they have. They have District Weekly, which was the news that
wasn’t news area. I wrote about the university, about students,
student life, and things like that. I used those clips to get into
Columbia Journalism School. I’m very traditional.
When I was graduating Columbia…It was only a year
program…I got a lot of offers from newspapers in small places,
Arkansas. I just didn’t want to move there. I was gay. It was not
conducive to my life.
Kara: I decided to start at the bottom of the top, so I did a
stint at the city paper. I worked at “The McLaughlin Group,” the TV
show, even though I’m very liberal. That was a terrible experience.
I just wanted to learn about television. Then I went back to the
Post. I was a news aide which was higher than a copy aide.
John: Which was sort of a news assistant. Right.
Kara: Yeah. It was a pretty good job. They have them at the Times
and lots of people start there. I was in the Style section. I had a
lot of responsibility which was surprising, but once you get in there,
you realize the assistants run everything. A lot of assigning, a
lot of…It was really good.
The Style section was at its peak. It had the great writers,
Henry Mitchell, Stephanie Mansfield, Henry Allen, and people like
that. They really care a lot about just the way, the writing and
everything. It was a great place to learn. I got to write a lot. I
took any assignment I could.
Then, in order to get hired there you had to be an intern.
That was the way you went in at my age, at that time. I had been a
copy, a night news aide, where I delivered mail. I delivered mail
there in the mail room. I had run copy up and down when they used
to actually do that.
I realized I just had to be an intern because that’s where
they hired from. I finally got into the intern program begrudgingly
because I was a lower level, a yahoo. You know what I mean I was
the underground people.
And I did the best job of all the interns that summer. I did
every kind of work for every section. I knew my way around that
place. I really did a good job and they had to hire me on some
level. They usually hired a Harvard person. I was just more aggressive
and I did more stuff.
The only job available…You had to really go sell yourself
in the newsroom…was the Business section, which was a backwater.
It really was a backwater. I had been really inspired by
“Barbarians at the Gate,” the book, and thought it was a wonderful
John: Bryan Burrough, yep.
Kara: Yeah, and I was like, “Wow, you can make business
interesting.” Of course you can. It’s money, people, sex, great
greed. He did such a great job, I thought, “That’s how I want to
cover business.” Business is an area I was super interested in. I
almost went to business school. I took a lot of courses, a course
at Wharton in accounting. I was very interested in the subject.
I covered everything. I covered retail, ultimately. That was
a great beat because all the companies were declining especially
in Washington. They were losing Garfinkel’s, Woody’s, Woodward
& Lothrop, and Hechinger. Giant Food was doing OK, but still it
was a really tough time for retailing. I was seeing up close the
decimation of newspapers. I was writing about it because they were
all their principal advertisers.
One of the great things about Don Graham was I never heard a
peep out him. I was very tough on them because they were really
driving these companies into the ground. I was very young at the
time. It was really instructive. I started to see what was
happening, like, “Oh, this is not good for the economics of
newspapers. What’s going to replace it?”
At the very same time when I was doing this, I was dating
someone who was living in Russia. We started to do very crude
version email at the time. I was instantly fascinated by these
things. I started using it a lot. I wanted to get off the retail
beat because I was writing about a very wealthy family called the
Haft family. They owned Crown Books and Trak Auto.
I wrote about their fighting amongst each other. It became a
huge, fantastic story in Washington. I got very well known for it
but I couldn’t stand this family. I am trying to sell a book on it.
They never wanted it because it was all villains. Everybody was a
villain. They’re just awful, rich people. Nobody was good.
John: Great story.
Kara: It wasn’t even an anti-hero. Everyone was vile.
I started covering AOL. I moved to the beat. Nobody wanted
this beat. I did. I thought it was really interesting. I
immediately understood the implications of what this was. I think I
did way before everybody else. I was very interested in email. I
got interested in all kinds of aspects of it.
When the World Wide Web came and it was commercialized with
legislation, which Gore was involved with, I was immediately like,
“This is something big.”
At the time, the Post had an opportunity to invest in AOL.
They went on AT&T Interchange. I was like, “No, no, no. AOL,
AOL.” That was interesting. You could see they couldn’t see what
was coming. I felt like I was like, “Oh. Oh dear. This is bad,”
because the retailers that were coming into town, like Walmart, do
not advertise in the newspaper.
I was obsessed with classifieds, like, “What this could do
to…” This was such a great medium for classifieds. Even before
Craigslist, I’m like, “Classifieds are expensive, static, don’t
work, the people are rude, and they’re expensive.” I was like, “The
whole thing is bad. Like this is a bad product that newspapers are
relying on to keep their stuff going.”
John: They did.
Kara: They did. They rode it to the bitter end. They deserved
to die. I was really fascinated. At one point, I was at a
fellowship at Duke for a couple of months. I downloaded all of
Calvin and Hobbes books using their servers onto…I stopped up
some of their servers. They got mad at me. I was like, “But can’t
you see? You can download a book.”
I was very obsessed with the idea of “You can download
anything.” Everything, it was sort of Mike Teavee in Willy Wonka.
You could move a chocolate bar. I kept saying, “Nobody…” Everyone
was like, “Well, so what?” I’m like, “So what? If you don’t need
paper, you can download. There will be devices when you read on
them and it won’t be the computer.”
They had a cell phone at the Post. It was a single cell
phone, I think. I used it all the time. I carried it around. I’m
like, “It’s gonna be small, and you’re gonna have it in your hand,
and it’s gonna have information on it.”
Nobody agreed with me. They were like, “Oh, Kara,
that’s…Why would you put your email at the bottom of your
stories?” I’m like, “Because readers write you and you have
this…You know, no one is writing letters anymore.” They won’t
write letters. I think I felt like a little bit like Jeremiah or
like Saint John the Baptist. I was like, “Well…”
John: You were crying in the wilderness.
Kara: Yeah. I became really obsessed with AOL, what it was doing.
To me, the reason they were successful at the time more so than
Prodigy or the others was because they had a product that was
Most of technology was not consumer friendly. It was very
hard to use. I had a hard time configuring it. It wasn’t fun. Apple
had a service, that little town thing. There was a lot of stuff
that was trying at the edges of where it was going. But AOL was the
first one that really…
John: Tried for this.
Kara: They were…
Kara: The public. Their thing was so easy to use. No wonder it’s
number one. I thought that was genius, so easy to use, no wonder.
That’s where I met Walt. He was the only person who wrote about
that AOL was the better one. I used all the services. He was right.
He was very enamored of the Internet too of where it as going. He
convinced me to…I was writing about AOL…I got a book contract
to write about them because the editor, John Karp, who is now the
head of Simon and Schuster also shared my interest in this. They
were called online services at the time, not the Web.
John: That’s right.
Kara: Everyone was ignoring it. Bob Kaiser was dismissive. They
were all dismissive of it. I was like, “No, no. This is a scary
tsunami headed your way,” like you were saying, a meteor. It was so
visible and so obvious as you carried it out, like, “If this phone
got small, what does that mean for telecommunications if you could
take this newspaper and beam it to someone onto those phones?”
If you just took a minute and understood what it did to
businesses, especially the news business, you’d be very scared. I
was scared. I was like, “Oh, this is bad.”
As great as Don Graham is, I remember when I was leaving he
said, “Why are you leaving?” when I was going to The Wall Street
Journal because they wanted me to cover this so I moved to San
Francisco to do it.
I said, “The water is rising and you are on a lower
floodplain than The Wall Street Journal. That’s not to say the
Journal isn’t going to get decimated, The New York Times, but
they’re higher. Eventually, the water will reach them, but you’re
first.” It was only a cycle of negative, cutting people.
John: Right. It spiraled.
Kara: You could see it. You could just watch it. I had covered
business, so I was like, “This is like the horse and buggy, like
when the car came. Like, don’t you see what’s going to happen?”
John: It was particularly that revenue aspect that the retailers
had taught you that you focused on.
Kara: Absolutely. Yes. Revenue and classifieds. I was like,
“These are the twin things, and these will not exist.” What do they
do then? Because the Grahams feel generous? No. Nobody feels
generous. Maybe just a rich billionaire who feels like owning
someone, which they have now.
John: Yes. Exactly.
Kara: You’ll see. You’ll see what happens when he gets bored with
John: The Journal was what year did you…?
Kara: 1995, ‘6. I was writing a book in ’95. I think I arrived in
the Journal in ’96, ’97, somewhere in there.
John: In San Fran?
Kara: I moved here immediately because I think they knew. They
didn’t know as much either. I felt like this was where everything
was happening. I had done research for my book, so I had been here.
I had seen early Yahoo when they had just a few people. I met Jeff
Bezos when it was tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny. They were at a really
crappy headquarters in Seattle in a bad section of Seattle.
I had met all of them during the process. AOL, at the time,
was the biggest, the fastest growing one. I had access to all the
founders, even ones that are gone now. I met Pierre Omidyar when he
was leaving General Magic.
John: Stepping back now, if you saw it coming, why couldn’t you
Kara: They just didn’t believe it. They were on highs. It was
really irritating. Even at the Journal, I think I’ve said this many
times in interviews, they called it a fad. They called it CB radio.
One of the reporters, who is now working for an online…I
wrote him, I didn’t find the email he had sent me about it…but he
called it CB…Now he’s working for a very online publication,
like, “Ha, look what happened.”
They were very convinced that people wanted to read
newspaper. I was like, “I don’t…You know, I, I don’t know why.”
They just couldn’t get out of the medium. I was a student of
history, I was like, “You watch these things happen, and they don’t
happen slowly. They happen quickly.”
This was not a drip, drip, drip thing. Literally, it was
probably like people using horses and then cars. People using
movies, talkies. It was better. One of the things is these people
didn’t use these things. I used every one of them. I could see
If you could envision, like right now with a lot of these
watches and stuff like that, Google Glass is not what it’s going to
be. But it’s going that…If you conceptually think about wearable
everything or sensors on your body.
Kara: It’s not going to be glasses on your face. You’re never
going to have sex again if you do that. You know what I mean?
Kara: They’re wrong. They’re not responding to you. You’re
responding to them. There’s all kinds of issues. What the press
does is focus on, “Oh, they’re not comfortable. They’re not…” I’m
like, “So what?” Focus on what they mean, what they…It’s sort of
like obsessing on the clock when you should be able to tell what
time it is. It’s kind of a different thing. I don’t know. There was
so much resistance everywhere. Everyone hated what I was writing
John: Do you think that Chinese wall prevented you from being
heard? Do you think the Chinese wall did that?
Kara: Chinese wall? It wasn’t…It was like what consumers wanted
to read. They had no sense of their readers. That’s not a business
thing. That is like, “You should know who is reading you.” They
didn’t care to know who was reading them. They didn’t care to talk
to readers. They didn’t care to look how they consume things
themselves. They liked their little worlds they had built where
they talked down to people where there was no back and forth. Where
there was no talking back. Where there was this disgruntled
readership that didn’t get they wanted. The minute these people got
they wanted, they jumped for it.
John: They jumped. I can remember it. Wall Street Journal in 1989
doing focus groups across the country as we went from two to three.
To come back, bang my head on the desk because 90 percent of the
readers didn’t read anything but the front page.
John: Because the “What’s News: World-Wide” gave them enough.
Kara: I think about that in the digital sense. That’s the way it
is. A lot of things…these longer stories that were…not that
they’re not laudable…reporters just go on and admire each other.
Some of the stories are laudable and should be released, these
great New York Times’ pieces on Ebola. No one’s doing a better job.
There are several places doing a great job.
You don’t get that level of quality but there can’t
be…that just can’t replicate itself over and over and over again,
when you can get it. When you can get a lot of news…Their first
instinct was to call it trashy or crappy. That was true at the
beginning but my argument was people get better and you will get
worse. It will improve. Look at BuzzFeed. They’re now hiring people
covering. You know what I mean? They want to move upstream because
of advertisers and things like that. You can move quickly from
downstream to upstream rather than the other way around.
John: You’re saying the speed of the transition didn’t surprise
Kara: No. It was clear because of these devices. Once the iPhone
came out, I was like, “Oh. Game over.” That’s a computer in your
hand. Just because they got it right. There were versions of it, it
wasn’t right. You know the Blackberry didn’t look quite right. You
couldn’t read a browser on it. Once the iPhone came, I was like,
“Oh dear. That’s the end of that.”
John: What were the other inflection points? The iPhone, what
Kara: The Web itself. The World Wide Web and the links, the
hyperlinks. The Mozilla browser, again, when I saw that thing, “Oh.
A reader for this.” It was so easy to use. It was understandable.
It’s still crude if you really think about it. It’s not…It should
be touch-screen and very intuitive and very…it’s headed that way.
It’s slowly getting to where it needs to be. Once you started to
see these laptops, it’s people moving around. I think the phone to
me was the greatest moment.
John: The phone to you…
Kara: When Andrew Sullivan had a blog. I kept bugging the journal
about it. I’m like, “Hey. This is interesting.” When we saw a bunch
of these tech blogs, most of which were shoddy. I’m like, “Why
can’t we do this?” Let’s take our quality stuff and go in here and
steal it. Let’s steal the land. This is a land grab. Let’s steal
the land. We have the quality. Why don’t we combine the quickness,
the sense of humor, and personality with the quality of reporting
and the ethical standards and then create. That’s wow. Create a
better product for them and just kick them out. They’ve already
plowed the field.
People are getting used to reading. To me, my grandfather
always said to me, “If people are hungry, they will eat dog food.”
They were eating dog food, but let’s give them a nutritious meal,
if they’re interested in it. You could see, not just young people,
it was myself. I hadn’t picked up a newspaper. I read everything
online. I just watched my own habits. Just right now, I haven’t
been to a movie in a year. It’s not because I have kids. It’s
because I just don’t. I watched them online. I watched them on
demand. My television habits changed really quickly once it became
available to me the kind of choices that I wanted it.
John: One could have argued that among the newspapers of that
era, the Journal was better, should have been able to make the leap
because all of the reporters of the Journal were filing for Dow
Jones newswires, anyways.
Kara: They tried a number of things under Rich Jaroslovsky. They
tried a bunch of stuff. I think they were trying to create a
consumer product too early. People were not ready. The consumers
weren’t quite there. It was a little heavy. It was a little
graphics heavy. It was very much…Essentially, it was porting the
newspaper onto the Web, which wasn’t quite right. They didn’t quite
understand how the people wanted to consume this stuff. They didn’t
consult the readers, like, “What would you like…?” The readers,
to be fair, didn’t know what they wanted either. One thing they did
want is great content. That never has changed.
John: It hasn’t but it can be nebulous. Define…
Kara: They still read longer stuff. That’s not true. They do
read…Look at the stuff with California Sunday going on that I
think is interesting. Some of the Times’ stuff is…People do
consume it. It’s just…They like…Maybe, half of the stuff should
have been shorter. One of the things that Gordon Crovitz from the
Journal, and I agree with this, used to do, he would circle
everything that he didn’t know from the day before in the paper.
That was in the morning paper. He would circle everything that was
new and the circles got fewer and fewer and fewer because he
knew. Why print this earnings People were already getting on the Web. They were like,
“Oh, because we do it that way.” I’m like, “OK. I’m sure we could
churn butter, too. Guess what? There’s a store just around the
corner that has butter. Why am I churning it?” That iterated itself
constantly. They weren’t trying to create a product that was new
and fresh based on what people already knew.
It’s the way they did it, the deadline system. “It’s six
o’clock! Because it’s six o’clock! Why is it six o’clock? Because
it’s six o’clock.” No! That’s not an excuse. Guess what? It’s 24-
hour news cycle now. I like that. Who cares about the deadline but
a reporter? There’s no such thing. They’ll get it done. They didn’t
want to stop. I think it’s a function of age. It’s a function of “I
don’t use this stuff. This is for the kids.”
John: There’s always a bias of the status quo.
Kara: Why not? It’s comfortable.
John: Tell me about this. When you moved out to San Francisco,
what was the ecology among the journalists? At the beginning, there
were very few people.
Kara: Very few. It was me and Markoff. Markoff was writing more
about chips and security at that time. He had moved really…He’s
more science focused and more real technology. I was more literally
like, “What time is it?” rather than “What’s inside the clock?” A
lot of tech reporters wrote about what’s inside. “Here’s how the
machine works.” It’s like, “Who the hell cares how that fucking
Internet works?” I was not interested.
I was interested in the silent impact, the business impact,
what it did, the products they would make versus how it worked. Do
you know how a television works? No. Would you need to know? No.
You need to know the different shows that are on. You need to know
the business behind it and stuff like that. A lot of the reporters
were very techy, very geeky.
John: Many of the reporters began as they would start to program.
Which was great, but it doesn’t really get you far. It
wasn’t narratively based. I was very interested in the narrative. I
was always interested in narratives and that’s why I wrote books.
It was like, “Here’s the story. The narrative of any of our great
inventors, Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, that’s more interesting
than how the lightning actually works. That’s interesting to some
people, but the narrative is life. It’s more interesting.
John: Was there camaraderie or was there competition? What was
Kara: Nobody was doing it.
John: Nobody was doing it?
Kara: No! I wrote a lot of unusual stories. I remember the time.
They got a lot of attention, because I would write about, “These
geeks don’t wear nice clothes,” or “Hey, they think the great
restaurant is a taco stand at the corner of Mission and Fourth.
“Hey, this guy who has a hundred million dollars lives in a one-
room walk up.” This is the unusual culture here. Here are their
headquarters. Their nursery schools. You know what I mean? They
have lollipops and slides for their workers. I wanted to write a
lot about the culture and the crazy business. Here’s a million
dollars, you have no revenue. I thought that was interesting.
John: What changed in the culture out here?
Kara: It hasn’t really. I mean, changed how? Meaning?
John: I mean money.
John: Money makes a difference. Money has influence.
Kara: It does and success. Some of them
succeed, some of them failed wildly, incredibly, fantastically. A
lot them did succeeded. First, there was the bubble stuff. That just
got out of hand. That’s normal in every single economic boom of a
new medium. There were 9,000 training companies. There were 9,000 car
companies. Then, there weren’t. Then there were three. That’s what
happens. This is what happened here. There were lots of them and
then there’s Google, Yahoo, and blank.
John: There is a drive to monopolization.
Kara: There is almost.
Kara: In this case though, there was more proclivity to be lots
of…you didn’t know where the next challenge was going to come. I
don’t think Google foresaw Facebook at all. I don’t think Facebook
foresees whatever is going to take over Facebook.
John: That’s bad.
Kara: That’s the thing. That’s the scary part. The young eats its old
John: You are absolutely comfortable if you talk with that
transition in the audience between snail mail and not, speaking
with authority and no one talks back, to everyone talks back.
Kara: I like that. I always like readers. I always thought
readers were smarter. I got a lot of my tips from readers.
Reporters hate talking to readers. They hate readers.
John: Why is that?
Kara: I don’t know. Paul Fahri and I at the Washington Post used to
have a thing. We had stories that were very popular. They weren’t
light. They were just fun to read. They were interesting. We used to
call up the NBR society, Nothing But Readers. Reporters were often
writing for each other. We were like, “We’re the NBR…We’re
Nothing But Readers.” That’s who likes us and that’s all we care
about. We always focused on that. What would a reader be interested
would delight them? What would inform them? What would make them
John: Surprise, right?
Kara: That’s a fact. That’s where you have to be, I think. Still
today, you want to do that on the Web and you can succeed if you
keep doing that, in terms of…There’s different levels of success
but you generally succeed if you…
It’s the same formula. I think a lot of these newspapers
got willfully boring or lazy so you had really poor and shoddy
press release stuff or you had stuff that was too…long is not
right. It was just too insider stuff.
John: Too insider. Yet, what you saw during your time out here,
is a tremendous sort of flooding the zone. All the
media, the number of assets, the amount of manpower, the amount of
time spent devoted to tech whether it’s the Journal or the Times,
whether it’s World Outside. It’s huge.
Kara: It is huge. They did it in this way, this panicked way
rather than a…It’s hard. My feeling is if someone’s going to eat
your lunch, it might as well be you. You know what I mean? You’re
getting lunch eaten no matter what. Someone’s going to replace you.
Maybe these companies were not capable of doing it. Just should
have been like, “You know what? We’re going to make our product
until time runs out and then we’re going to move on.”
They put people in charge who were actively hostile to it.
They didn’t like it. “When will this Internet thing go away?”
Instead of it being a permanent state of our living. That’s one of
the things I think that was hard. The people in charge. Look at Bob
Kaiser’s book. I was like, “What? He doesn’t like change.” Then he
embraced it, of course. A lot of the people who were very hostile
are now very embracing of it.
John: Better late than never.
Kara: I guess, whatever. It was sort of a lack of understanding
of the reader. To me, it goes back to lack of understanding of the
consumer. You could, not just your kids, you can watch yourself,
what you’re doing, what kind of things you’re doing. Just like with
this car stuff. You’re using Uber a lot more. Do you need a car? I
keep saying you’re not going to… I give this speech and
everyone’s like, “Oh no, Kara.” I’m like, “In 15 years a car will
be like owning a horse. You’re not going to own a car if you live
in the city. Why? It’s expensive. You take that money and do
something else.” There’s no need.
John: By the same token, the level of transparency and how the
readers react now is multitudes greater than it ever was.
John: In the old days, you never knew if a reader read the
to the bottom of a story. Now you can find out.
Kara: At some level, you have to ignore little bit of it. It’s
like being a chef. If you cook for whatever you want it ends up
a slop. There is some level of taste. If we did that we’d write
Apple stories all day long. We would have a huge traffic
not Apple now, but different… Snapchat. Whatever. There is
a level of choice and taste. Like “OK you want to read about this
but we’re going to let you read about women in tech. We’re going
to write about Gamergate the way people are talking about women.
You may not be interested, but we are.” There is some level of
John: Taste and discrimination.
Kara: Yes, 100 percent. That’s why The New York Times is still
great. You don’t agree with them that’s one thing. But they
certainly have a point of view.
John: There’s always the thing you’re doing with reporters is
what was always done classically is triage. This is worth X, this
is worth Y, this is worth 3X.
Kara: They’re doing more stories of meaning and what it means. I
think people are so confused by all the rush of news. There’s a
real space for people to explain it like, “OK, don’t worry about
this. Worry about this. Yes, you should not do this.” That’s
I think what’s interesting lately everyone’s like, “Kara,
she tells it like it is.” I’ve always told it like it is but now
people like it. It’s a voice that says, “You know this thing at
Microsoft? That was a stupid thing and he was stupid to say it.
Guess what? It’s all over Silicon Valley. Guess what? They pretend
it’s a meritocracy, it’s not. 72 percent of them are men.”
I just say that and it’s like, “Oh, the truth.” I’m like,
“The truth? The truth is out there.” Like this kind of stuff and
that has power. In a way you can amplify that on the Web in a great
John: Is reader growth, reader skill discriminating what to read
and what not to read? Is that growing?
Kara: I think it is. I’ve always thought it was. I think there’s
a disdain for readers. I just think there’s a bigger disdain for
readers among the media that they don’t…I trust my readers much
more than I trust other reporters.
John: Do you think the readers in a world full of, what somebody
said, “Infobesity,” too much information?
Kara: That’s funny.
John: Are readers going to get to the point where they can
Kara: Yes. You’re thinking of them as children. They’re not. It’s
like when they go to the supermarket, they know that when they’re
buying the Pop Tarts, they know what they’re doing. Don’t assume
everybody is stupid. They’re buying the Pop Tarts because they want
to eat the frigging Pop Tarts.
I don’t think people want shoddy things. You don’t go to
the store and say, “Hey, I’d like the tainted meat. Please give me
the tainted meat.” They don’t. They really do have a sense of what
they want. It’s just you don’t like what they want.
It’s like my kids like, Vines. Guess what? They’re not
watching, Gilligan’s Island or whatever the heck stupid thing I
ever watched. They watch Vines. That’s what they like. My kids know
what they like.
The things they like are not all stupid. Some of them seem
stupid to me, but they’re not. I can see the appeal of it. It’s
just a different thing. They’re very clear on the things that they
want to choose. I think that’s lost on a lot of media people.
John: It’s funny to be talking the day after the, “Bay Guardian,”
Kara: That was sad.
John: What does that say to you?
Kara: It says, “The Bay Guardian is closing. Nobody gets to read
that.” I don’t know. I think we agonize over those things. The
financial situation for them was bad. Again, listings. I work for
the City Paper. I know that business, that’s bad. Listings are so
digital. That’s done, then.
The small businesses to be able to reach people, now they
do it on Groupon or whatever the heck they use. Every bit of
the…that was a financial situation. Some of their content had
been not responsive to what people wanted. That to me was…
Kara: I think they held on a lot longer than I thought because
literally there were two tenants in their business. Small
businesses and listings have long gone away. It seemed like that.
Right? It was small businesses? I mean, I remember the City Paper,
it was like the pizza place, the…
John: You had to sell in a lower CPM than The Washington Post
Kara: Yeah, the vintage store, the local restaurants, the
couponing. You know what? People don’t read that way. People don’t
read the hand-out newspapers, they just don’t.
John: Those papers like the Bay Guardian, they were counting on
people, ithanging around for seven days.
Kara: To me it was such an obvious economic problem. People don’t
read newspapers. They don’t read newspapers. They read it on their
thing. I don’t know. Could they have made a product that…? It’s
probably hard. I don’t know what I would have done with that stuff.
John: Talk about the transition that you’ve lived through between
sublimating ourselves to an institution or sublimating our brand to
an institution versus becoming a brand yourself.
Kara: I know, this, “Brand of Me.” I hated working for a big
institution. I’m a difficult person. I just realized that the
hierarchical structure of a newspaper exhausted me. All the
politics exhausted me, all of the politics of paying reporters. The
competition among reporters was ridiculous. It was such a waste of
The idea like, “Why aren’t you in the office?” I remember
that. I was like, “I’m the most productive member of your group.” I
used to say, “I’m at the movies.” You know what I mean? Am I 12 and
you have to tell me? I don’t even treat my 12-year-old like that.
It was just that sort of Daddy-culture.
The editors. It was editor-driven and I never liked that
because I thought they sat in their seats and didn’t know what they
were talking about. In our place, our reporters tell me what’s
important. I have opinions but if they don’t know better than me,
I have a problem.
John: Are you comfortable with them building their brand rather
than re/Code’s brand?
Kara: Yes. I want them to lead. Yes. They can do both because it
shows an excellence. If The New York Times keeps trying to poach
us, what does that say? We’re doing something great here. I’m good.
That’s right. You can’t train them up at The New York Times. You
can’t, obviously. You have no ability to take young people and
bring them up. They have none. All they can do is steal. That’s
John: All right. Here’s one coming back at you. Here’s an
anecdote about, “Justice League of America.”
Kara: Oh yeah, that.
John: Tell me about that.
Kara: That was the idea. That was with Markoff, I think he was
involved, and Mossberg, Who else was involved in that? There was a
bunch of people. It was the same idea. We thought we were the bomb.
We really did. People were listening to us.
It started to get very clear that it wasn’t
because…Mossberg was not bigger than The Journal, but he wasn’t
smaller. It went well together. Markoff, wasn’t bigger than The
Times, but he was. He had followers who liked Markoff.
John: Was Steven there?
Kara: I think Steven might have been.
John: He was at Gillmor?
Kara: Gillmor. These were people who had voices and interesting
voices. Walt, if you think about it was the blogger before there
were bloggers. You trusted Walt. That’s kind of an old-timey thing
too in lots of ways. You trusted certain people. I think that the
idea was to get us together…It was almost like United Artists.
Remember when that happened?
Kara: What could we do? People liked us. They didn’t need the
brands? It became very clear to us. We do not need The Wall Street
Journal to make me interesting or Walt interesting. I did not need
to have The Washington Post behind me for sure.
You could see it when all these other bloggers popped up
like Andrew or whatever you think of Michael Arrington at
TechCrunch. He was the show. He built a brand out of nothing. It
iterated everywhere. It was in sports. It was in politics.
When “Politico” first came around I was like, “You guys
should invest in this” to Don. Why? If it’s good people, will go to
it. This audience moves to things they like. When Arianna started
at Huffington Post and she got attacked a lot…I think there was a
particularly nasty piece of work about Arianna…I wrote her a note
and said, “Keep doing…”
That was my idea for the Journal, “Let’s create a tech
protocol, a blog thing where we invite people in and stuff like
that.” When she did it, I was like, “Damn, she did it.” It wasn’t a
fresh idea, lots of people were thinking like this but she pulled
it off flawlessly.
I wrote her a note saying, “Ignore all your critics, keep
doing what you’re doing. It’s perfect. I love it.” Like you admire
it and you’re like, “That’s exactly what I’m going to do all the
time.” When she did that that was really important. She’s been much
more important than people really…People like to mock her, but I
don’t. I never do. They love to.
John: Why didn’t The Justice League of America take off?
Kara: Because the timing was wrong. I have a napkin where I was
promised $10 million for it. I don’t know why. It just wasn’t the
time. I was ready to go, but they weren’t a little bit. Again, I
was a difficult employee. I didn’t like listening to editors.
They would cut things…I didn’t think the editing was so
bad. It’s just that I really didn’t like to be told by a New York
editor what was happening in Silicon Valley, “Here’s what the real
story is.” I was like, “No, no, no. I was just with these people.
This is the real story.” “No, but really what we want to say is.”
I’m like, “No, that’s not what we want to say.”
The other part I didn’t like and some people were more
comfortable with was, they used to call it the to-be-sure
statement. That’s a Journal special, right? We were writing about
Webvan or one of them and I was like, “This is a frigging
I’d done the reporting so it wasn’t like it was based in
my punditry, like I just decided to declare. This was reported and
I just wanted to say it, “This is a full-class cluster-fuck going
on here. The money’s going to get lost and it’s going to be a
The Journal was like, “Let’s get an analyst to say that.” I
was like, “Why? I can tell you. I know business. I’m looking at the
numbers. I’ve done the reporting. This is a disaster.” “Let’s get
an analyst.” Then you had the, “To be sure, some people feel that
duh, duh, duh.”
I didn’t think the idea wasn’t going to happen, this
delivery service. I think now it’s really finally coming…It’s
working. It has the right elements. Some ideas just take time, even
if they fail the first time. That’s very common in Silicon Valley.
I just hated the “To be sure. To be sure some people say that
Webvan could be a success.”
John: In a certain period we said, “At some point, tech will
change the world. To be sure many people have thought duh, duh,
Kara: To be sure, perhaps the meteor headed directly for us will
hit somewhere else. Like, “To be sure, it’s going to hit us.” I
hated that. Why not just say so?
A good example is Yahoo. Two years ago I was like, “All
right, she looks good but I’ve got to tell you. First of all, she’s
never run anything, never had a P&L in her life, she was sort of
trouble at Google to say the least, they didn’t like her. She’s not
the star that you think she is. I know it looks like that.
“Guess what? They have this Chinese asset that’s going to
get the stock up. Their core business is declining. Here’s the
statistics, blank, blank, blank, blank, blank.” Everyone was like,
“Oh, you’re attacking her.” I was like, “No, no, no. Look at the
core business what it’s doing. Every quarter it’s declining. Look
at Facebook’s business, it’s going up. Google’s going up. “It’s
hard to do badly in this fast-growing industry. But they’re doing
it. Something’s wrong with their technology or their staff or
their salespeople.” I said, “Because, to be a failure in online
advertising during this period takes an effort. To be this bad you
have to really try to be bad.”
I kept saying it. I was like, “I don’t care. Once this
Chinese thing is gone they’re screwed.” Now, all of a sudden, The
New York Times writes a piece, “Oh, she’s facing some headwinds.”
I’m like, “Yeah, to say the frigging least.”
I was saying, “Look, you can say all you want, ‘She looks
good and free iPhones. Yeah for everybody,’ but guess what? This
business is severely challenged.” Instead of not saying it, I said
it. That was more powerful. Now that it’s happened that way, I look
like a genius but it wasn’t a genius thing to say. If you did your
homework, it was obvious what was going to happen in that regard.
Now, I don’t get it right on all of them. I was completely
wrong about Facebook. I thought it was a little bit of a flash in
the pan and I was wrong. I didn’t love eBay at the time it started.
In certain cases if you do your homework, you should be
That’s why I want to create stars. I want Peter Kafka when
Comcast or someone does some deal thing, “Look this is bullshit.”
I want him to say, “Look, this is bullshit. Here’s their
reporting but do you know why they’re doing this? Because of
streaming, they have to do streaming, because downloading is dying.
Because nobody’s buying downloads anymore and that’s why they’re
pretending to be like this.”
In the case of HP, the split. They’re touting it as a this.
I just wrote, “This is a well-orchestrated disaster. Well done, but
it’s not from a position of strength you split up your company.” We
just say it. I think readers like that. We’re saying it from
reporting. We do not say it from loudmouth. I want my reporters to
be like that.
In the extras, people are confused. If we did the
reporting, we could come back and pretty safely say, “Here’s what’s
really going on.” That’s so invaluable to people. The great
reporters of The Times and The Journal do that.
John: Yeah, do that. Here’s a question. In a journalistic
environment what has been the influence of covering an industry
where the wealth and influence has only grown? Is it corruptive on
Kara: A lot of people have left journalism. I’ve had offers out
the yin-yang. I haven’t taken any. Money unfortunately doesn’t
motivate me. I wish it did. I never thought about it. When I think
about it I could be extraordinarily wealthy at this point. I think
the people that leave, leave. I don’t know what the effect is,
what’s the corrosive effect. We didn’t take money from any…
Kara: Do I need a new party that has nicer shrimp?
John: Somebody said to me that the problem is that you’re
confronted with that wealth all the time.
Kara: If you care about money, yes, that’s corrosive. You should
get out. There’s a lot of anger towards them. But then, just do it,
it’s not that hard. They’re not that smart. Many of them are smart,
most of them aren’t.
I think a lot of people have gotten out and worked for
companies. Some people have moved to like a Google. A bunch of
reporters went to venture capital firms. It was interesting. I’m
not sure why that was, to be their storytellers. I think that’s
just soulless. I would want to kill myself.
By the way, I make a ton of money doing this, being an
entrepreneur so I don’t know what corrosive is. I don’t think you
can get bought by a nice shrimp. Actually they don’t throw that
good a party. DC has better parties.
John: It’s twofold. Number one, covering politics as someone said
to me the other day…
Kara: You’re a media insider.
John: …you’re playing access. You want to get access. Once you
get that access…
Kara: You want to keep it.
John: …you know you’re sacrificing the distance that maybe you
Kara: That’s always an issue. We try to bite them on a regular
basis to let them understand what we’re doing. I suppose we could
bite harder. We could probably bite harder. I like Valleywag and
stuff like that, but sometimes every story’s the same.
It’s like, “They’re all assholes.” They’re all stupid?
That’s not true. But that’s their shtick. I agree. I like those
fresh voices saying, “This is bullshit.” Not every entrepreneur is
a douche. Many of them are. I don’t think we get things for access.
I think if something goes bad we’re pretty much on it. We are. Not
everybody is, but that’s their choice.
John: How do you think our craft, our profession did
covering this transition over the last 20 years?
Kara: I thought it was negative, scary. Fearful of it. Aside from
some various series, like The Journal’s privacy series, I thought
was great. I don’t think people care. That’s another issue. I don’t
think people care that they’re giving away their privacy. Some of
the deceptive practices, it certainly was nice to see the light
shone on those. I think that a lot of it is fear-based, a lot of
the coverage, or else it’s cheerleader.
John: It seems to be bipolar in that way?
Kara: Like, “This can only go up and to the right.” Maybe not.
I’ve seen a couple of things really crash. There’s not a lot of
real deep scrutiny. At the same time, there’s a lot of…I’m like,
“Every year The Journal writes the excessive party stories. Like,
“Oh, gosh, that again?” That kind of thing. It’s like, “Now it’s at
its peak.” I’m like, “No, no. Actually ’97 was at its peak. Trust
me. I was at those parties.” The Times does these Facebook stories
the same every year.
I think one of the editors discovers, like, “Hey, did you
know on this Snapchat people sext? We need to get on that.” It’s
like, “Guess what? People have sexted in some form since the
beginning of time. Go look at the ruins in France. They’re writing
dirty cartoons on the walls.” That makes me laugh.
John: If you’re optimistic about the future, how do we drive that
deeper scrutiny that we’re not getting right now?
Kara: There are certain great topics right now like diversity and
gender issues in tech. That’s a great story. This is our greatest
industry. It is our greatest industry. It’s the leading industry in
the world and we still have this nagging problem with sexism. The
new thing is “unconscious bias,” which I think is actually true,
but it’s essentially, “I have an excuse for being an idiot, I
wasn’t paying attention,” instead of the obvious sexism. I think
that’s an interesting issue.
I think the stupidity of some of these…The expression I
use is, “There’s a lot of great minds chasing small ideas.” When
are they going to get involved in the big ideas and come out of
their stupid bubble? Like around poverty, around healthcare, around
all kinds of things. These minds could be better served focusing a
little bit more on important issues. They want to separate
themselves from government. They don’t want to fix government. They
just want to ignore it. I’m like, “You know what, guess what? World
War II went pretty well for all of us.” Do you know what I mean?
John: I know. The problem is…
Kara: They have a Tea Party mentality in a weird way.
John: The problem is that Silicon Valley has become a model for
Kara: Yes, but it isn’t. We’re doing a City series about how
innovation is created. We just did this Vegas thing. There’s a lot
of problems about trying to create happiness and innovation. We had
suicides, there were layoffs, it doesn’t work, people don’t want
the things. It’s very soulless. Humanity is always looking for
answers and there really isn’t. I think we shouldn’t use these
people as icons. It’s another thing. But they are. They’re the
celebrities of this age.
John: To a degree we cover them as celebrities.
Kara: We do. We definitely cover them as celebrities. On our
interviews, we’re pretty tough on them in those interviews. They
like to come back for more. I’ll tell you that. That’s fascinating
to me. The smart people…You know Jobs came back year-after-year
and some of those interviews got rather testy but he liked the
challenge. He liked to try his tricky reality…
John: It’s a throw down.
Kara: Yeah, and Mark has been really good. Unfortunately he
didn’t do very well at one of our things. One good thing about
these people, what I always think about is that these are the
founders. That’s unusual. People who run Hollywood and Detroit are
not the founders. Those founders died a long time ago. These are
the founders. It’s like, “How would you cover Thomas Edison?” He’s
a flawed figure. How would you cover him today?
How would you cover Einstein? How would you cover any of
the great industrialists, Henry Ford and stuff like that? You’re
going to get a certain element of religiosity, like “Jihadism”
even. I don’t know if Jihad is the right word because it’s a
terrible word to use. But it’s religious. There are zealots.
Kara: They’re the founders. They’re going to be gone at some
point and they founded something really profound here, something
major, big, and important. That’s why it’s a more difficult thing
to cover because they really have accomplished something.
It’s like the people who made the cars. Whoever made cars,
boy was that an accomplishment. Whoever made rockets, that was an
accomplishment. That moved humanity forward, maybe not forever.
Certainly the Internet, the people who have done stuff. You meet
Marc Andreessen, he created the frigging browser. Guess what?
Everyone uses it. It changed everything. That’s kind of an exciting
part of it.
You do have to have a little bit of awe about it, but not
like a, “Gee whiz,” or anything like that. Now you hold them to
account for today but there is something fascinating about being
around founders versus..These were the first.
John: Fair enough.
Kara: Like meeting Columbus. Guess what? You get to interview
Columbus every day. It’s like, “Wow.” It didn’t turn out well for
John: Fair enough. Two last questions. Number one, are
journalists getting side stepped now by these companies? They come
back more to talk with you. But, a company is using other…
Kara: So far, not us. They try, but I am tricky. I was
just at Twitter, and we had got the memo about Vivian within
seconds of them putting it out, it’s not a big deal to get
someone’s memo, but they were like, “We didn’t want to put it out
that way.” I am like, “Oh, too bad for you, I am just putting out a
memo.” They were like, “How did you get that?” I am like, “I am not
telling you how I got it.”
We’re always poking at them. They still get so much over on
me, that it drives me crazy, but, if I really wanted to focus on
them, a tricky crafty reporter can always fuck with them, every
time. If you are a really good reporter, you make the calls, you
call, you call, you call. You develop relationships, you ask
questions, you can screw with just about anybody. I don’t
mean screw with them. They can’t put one over on you, if you really
The issue is, in the fast moving pace of it, we are being
sloppy. I think about that a lot. We don’t spend a lot of time. We
need to spend more time but it’s moving so fast, we just touch it
and so we miss that scrutiny that requires thought.
I don’t think a lot, and I wish I had time to think.
John: That’s the flip side of the deadline. In the deadline, we
have 24 hours to think.
Kara: Right, but now I don’t think enough. Even then, you
couldn’t quite put together the real thing. I would like more time,
but, that’s gone in this era. Unfortunately, we fill it in with our
phones and our…My sons, when they are on their phones, I would
say, “Come on, It’s dinner time. Put that down. Let the music…in
different ways, and not all the time.”
They look in, just a second, just to say, “Could you just,
one more thing?” There’s always one more thing on that fucking
thing. There is always, it never ends, that is an endless library,
an endless entertainment device, there’s always something
interesting, there’s someone talking to you, it’s so immersive.
It’s not just entertainment. It’s entertainment, it’s knowledge,
it’s social, it’s feedback, it’s being loved. You could be with
that your whole life, and you would be perfectly happy or
John: It is Encyclopedia Britannica and the television…
Kara: The television, and the telephone, and letters. It’s always
on, and that’s the problem with it. That everything is always on,
so, you can’t…Even when we are doing this business, I am like, “I
have to sit and think about what we want to be because I think I am
making decisions…” I was talking to someone, I got all sucked up
into an SEO decision, I thought, “Did you really want to go for the
traffic because, guess what? I can’t get to the level I need to, to
make enough money. Why don’t I go another…?”
Just the ability to think, “Perhaps the direction I’m going
in…Is it a different direction I should be going in? Maybe I
shouldn’t chase that one.” That’s the kind of thing that you have
to think about. Are you being true to what you should be? It’s
really hard when there’s such a fast pace.
John: When the momentum is pushing against that.
Kara: Yeah, it’s like, “Oh, you should do that. You should do
Pinterest.” I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, eh, eh.” It doesn’t give you
time to think, so that’s the only thing. I don’t want to do the
Arianna slow-it-down thing, because it’s like saying, “This is the
John: No, you’re fighting against the…
Kara: How do you make decisions? I think a lot of bad
decisions…I can imagine the panic at the New York Times right
now. I wish they didn’t have to be under that financial pressure,
but they are. I wish a billionaire would just buy them, and then
could just do what they do beautifully. That’s probably what’s
going to happen, would be my guess. We need a good billionaire.
John: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of
journalism, about the craft?
Kara: I’m optimistic about journalism. I’m not optimistic about
newspapers. I think it’s over.
John: About journalism, you’re optimistic.
Kara: Yes, I think content…people get creative. People are
super creative. We may not work out. Someone’s going to get it
right, and then they won’t. What I don’t have is a romantic
attachment to a way of life, because I never thought that…People
have this romantic attachment, “Ooh, it was like…” I’m like, “You
know what? It wasn’t so good for women. It wasn’t so good for
blacks. It wasn’t so good for customers.”
It was good for a group of people, but…and it wasn’t such
good journalism, by the way. Some of it was, but boy, is more good
information out there for users than ever before. I think people
love great content, and smart people will find a way to do it. It
may be under economic things. I may not be. I’m utterly not
optimistic for things like The Times. I’m worried for that. Again,
I hope someone buys it and they figure out some things that are
economically more amenable, and still keep up the excellence. It
may be smaller. It will be smaller.
But we prove…We have a very small team here we kick some
ass, some significant ass. Do you need that many people? They never
think that way, like, “Are you actually being…” I think about it
all the time, “Do I need this? What can I do differently?” I’m
doing that all the time. I don’t think people at newspapers are,
because they’ve been enwrapped in cotton batting their whole time.
John: It’s hard for someone who’s used to being general interest
to decide what not to cover.
Kara: Right, except they’ve been moving towards that forever,
through the sections and stuff.
John: There’s always a rhythm…
Kara: How do you keep that incredible quality and incredible
institution? I think about The New York Times all the time. I could
care less for the Wall Street Journal. I don’t think it’s as
excellent as it was. The New York Times, to me, it is an
iconic…maybe it’s because I’m a certain era. But I think for a
lot of people, it’s really…I read it some days, I’m like, “That
is fucking good. Like good.”
How can we do a business, where this can stay this good? A
lot of it isn’t good. I think, unfortunately, it has to do with a
lot of cutting. That’s going to be hard, because they don’t think
they can do that kind of cutting. But, sometimes in scarcity
John: Sometimes there is, but it’s a tough epiphany to get to.
Kara: But look at Time Magazine. They have those dinners and
those whiskeys. Do we need that? No, they enjoyed it, right? By the
way, the stuff wasn’t so good. Some of it was, some of it wasn’t,
but that just doesn’t fly anymore and it shouldn’t fly. Nobody
wants that, and nobody wants a week-old thing.
They got like, “Oh, I can’t believe it.” I’m like, “Can’t
believe it? Why would you want a week-old thing?” People just don’t
want it. People don’t want to wear scabbards anymore. We’re not
fighting that way anymore. That’s how journalists get. They
get all up in their grill, you know what I mean? Like, “Oh, I can’t
believe it!” I’m like, “When’s the last time you read a book?”
John: It’s funny for a profession, where there is always
attention deficit disorder. They get so attached.
Kara: Oh, sure, they do. They’re the most risk-adverse people on
earth. Their first instinct is, “How does this suck?” Maybe that’s
a good thing, but, honestly, some days I’m like, “Maybe it doesn’t.
Maybe you need to change.” I think that’s the last…self-
criticizing. They can go on and on about someone’s business and
then they can’t do it to themselves.
At The Journal, when I was there, I wanted to do a piece on
the troubles that The Journal’s financials were going to go into in
this new digital age and take it apart. They wouldn’t do it. I’m
like “Let’s examine ourselves. Let’s actually hold a flame right
up to us.”
“No, why would we do that?” I’m like, “Are you kidding? If
we did it to ourselves, what a sensation!” The end of the story, we
go, ‘Oh, no. We’re screwed.’ Wouldn’t that be something?” Nah, they
wouldn’t…I thought that would be fun.
John: For the next chapter.
Kara: I don’t know, we’ll see. Rupert will keep it alive. He
wants to live, a lot of parties, and whatever. He’ll
keep alive until he keels, and then the family’s like, “Enough of
John: Let them decide, yeah.
Kara: Unless they like.
John: They can afford it.
Kara: For now, they can.
John: For now, they can.
Kara: As long as there’s “Planet of the Apes VI,” I guess they
That’s what keeps them going, right?
John: That’s the, “Where there’s life, there’s hope,” mentality.
Kara: Yeah, they’ll be fine until then. I don’t know if I’d buy a
newspaper if I was that rich. Maybe I would. Why not? It’d be
John: Thank you.
Kara: Thank you so much. This is a great project.