The founder and former CEO of CBS MarketWatch is a digital pathfinder
Photo by Tim Porter
He founded a TV program and website that monitors the stock market. No, not the manic, shirtsleeves-rolled-up Jim Cramer of CNBC’s Mad Money. And no, not Larry Kramer the aging playwright and AIDS activist. This Larry Kramer is the founder and former CEO of CBS MarketWatch and CBS Digital. He lives in Tiburon and New York City and is the author of the current best seller C-Scape — Conquer the Forces Changing Business Today.
“The scale of change that businesses face today is enormous,” Kramer states in the introduction to his book, “and the wreckage of companies that have failed to adjust is all around us.” He then names names: Blockbuster Video, AOL–Time Warner and General Motors. Kramer’s career path follows the lessening role of newspapers and the increasing utilization of the Internet. In the early 1970s, after graduating from Syracuse University’s Newhouse school of journalism and earning a Harvard MBA, he had writing and editorial stints at the San Francisco Examiner, The Trenton (New Jersey) Times, The Washington Post and again at the Examiner in 1986. “That was the heyday of print journalism,” he recalls.
Then, at age 41, Kramer made a career change and became an entrepreneur. “It was the early 1990s; the Internet was just emerging,” he says. “It was the time of the ‘day traders,’ and I thought there’d be a need for real-time financial news.” After starting with a handheld device that provided real-time market information, Kramer launched a website in San Mateo and got a huge break in 1995 when Barron’s magazine named it the best business site in America.
In 1997, against all odds, Kramer convinced CBS News that his organization should handle its business reporting, and CBS MarketWatch (marketwatch.com) was born. After a blazing beginning (“at our IPO, a share went from $17 to $130,” he remembers) and then barely enduring the dot-com bust (“our stock tanked at $1.50 a share,” he recalls), Kramer deftly righted his ship and, by 2005, the MarketWatch website had over 15 million users and $80 million in revenues.
As a result, Dow Jones, owner of The Wall Street Journal, paid Kramer and the public shareholders $528 million for their efforts, and the engaging, late-in-life entrepreneur launched into his third life phase. Along with writing C-Scape (HarperCollins, 2010), he is an adjunct professor of Media Management at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and serves on the board of directors of Discovery Communications, American Media and Harvard Business School Publishing while shuttling between a Manhattan high-rise and the family’s hillside home in Tiburon.
Kramer’s wife, Myla Lerner, is producing a play on Broadway, and the couple’s two children, Matt and Erica, both graduates of Redwood High and Big Ten universities, are launched on careers of their own. “Life for me is as good as it gets,” Kramer, now 61, declares with a broad smile.
Assuming daily newspapers continue to decline, and the use of the Internet as a news source continues to increase, can you show me the money? You mean who’s going to pay for delivering the news? Where is the money coming from? Trust me, it’s there. We in the newspapers got spoiled. Much of what supported the media had nothing to do with media. The reason newspapers had big budgets was that they delivered advertising, especially classified advertising, into homes. But the reality was there was no attachment between someone wanting to buy a ’75 Mustang and The New York Times coverage of the war in Bosnia. And as soon as it became more efficient to, say, buy a ’75 Mustang somewhere else — on Craig’s List or eBay — newspapers lost that revenue. However, I don’t think there has been any diminution of news; people are more interested in news and better informed than ever. They are just getting it in every possible way because they can. So much more is available now. Time and convenience matter more. And newspapers must recognize they are in the news delivery business. Instead of cutting the cost of content, namely journalism, they should be increasing what readers pay for content — and increasing the number of platforms from which they deliver it. People will pay for it. Look, whether you know it or not, if you receive cable television, you’re paying for news from Fox, CNN, CNBC and others through your fees. In addition, they have advertising. Business models today are all changing. Newspapers are spending too much time trying to protect their business models because they got so rich on them.
Doesn’t truth get lost in a time of multiple news sources? And that includes bloggers, who are often not as trained or educated as journalists? Journalism is still valuable. However, there has to be a mix of professional journalism, which people still respect; people also like hearing from each other. And this has been hard for the media establishment to understand. It tends to look down on bloggers, saying who are they? However, bloggers may have knowledge the journalist doesn’t have access to. Therefore, you have to filter it. Which is the same thing a journalist does when he or she interviews someone and they know the person being interviewed is putting a spin on what they say. Does truth get lost in the process? I don’t think so. It has always been media’s burden to provide what a person wants to know along with what a person needs to know. To me, we now have better tools to do it and shame on us if we don’t use them. This is a big part of what my book C-Scape deals with.
With all the changes in media, how is life in Marin going to change in the coming years? Will shopping centers die off because folks are buying over the Internet? I really don’t think so. There will still be a place for bricks-and-mortar retail. Consumers will always want to touch and feel and see with their own eyes what they are buying. Yet all businesses are changing, and unless businesses understand this, they may not be around. An example would be Book Passage in Corte Madera. They are not just a bookstore; they have a fantastic lineup of authors giving readings from their books. It’s a community gathering place, and there will always be a need for such venues. On the other hand, the San Francisco Chronicle is putting out the best newspaper they can in a tough situation. However, they’re misguided in trying to get people to not go in a new direction. At the top of many articles they state: “Print edition only.” It’s condescending. It tells readers to do something they don’t want to do, get news from print. In big numbers readers are now getting their news from digital devices. Newspapers have a tough fight because they were built on breaking news, but the Internet and digital media do that much better now. Quite possibly newspapers will become the news magazines of the future. But magazines still have a future because they weren’t built on breaking news, but great visual presentation. Marin Magazine, for example, will be around for a long time.