Peter Bart ’54 speaks on the future of digital media at Lax Conference

Peter Bart ’54, editor-in-chief of /Variety/, gave a speech on “Tuning into the New Digital Media World” Sunday morning at the seventh annual Jonathan R. Lax ’71 Conference on Entrepreneurship. While keynote speakers at this conference have traditionally been from the worlds of business and finance, Bart introduced himself as “your friendly alumnus media freak” and reassured us that his own career had been “ill-planned and chaotic.”

In the 1950s, Swarthmore was “extremely bad preparation for the media industry. It was dull, and very calm, like 1950s America… many of my classmates would retreat to their rooms at night to listen to Ozzie and Harriet.”

Bart went on to earn a master’s degree in economics at the London School of Economics. While living in London, he decided to try out journalism, and went to the offices of the New York Times to ask for a job. He got the job, but he didn’t get the byline–he wrote under the name of the boss’ son while the son was doing his London internship.

Bart stayed with the New York Times for several years; when he was transferred to the Los Angeles beat, he was persuaded to join the staff of Paramount Pictures in the midst of a revolution within the studio. “Everything was based on connections and money, not on the quality of the script,” remembered Bart, “so we took over the damn studio and showed them how it was done.”

“The best movies have the most miserable pasts,” claimed Bart, and as an example he described the process of producing “The Godfather.” Every major actor in Hollywood turned the script down, the executives repeatedly tried to oust Francis Ford Coppola from the project, and even once the movie was complete, the marketing department didn’t want to risk running it in more than a handful of theaters. Bart called the movie “a transformative experience.. if I learned one thing, it’s that the institution in Hollywood is almost always wrong and you have to follow your own gut.”

After producing movies, Bart left to work for Variety, a magazine with an elite circulation–seventy-five thousand people subscribe to it worldwide and their median income is $400,000 a year. “The most wonderful thing about journalism,” Bart said, “is that you can ask anyone any question you want and they feel they have to answer!”

Bart concluded his address by speculating about the future of the media. The media distribution model of the Internet is opening up the potential for a revolution, Bart told the audience, “but we don’t know as yet what will come out of this. Will this result in brave and interesting new voices? Or will pop culture blow this great opportunity?”

In the question-and-answer session, Bart again expressed his view that the future of the media is to “embrace the Internet.” In response to a question on piracy, he said that while the music industry may be rightly paranoid over piracy, he feels that the movie industry is wrong to be “scared to death over innocent mashups. The first instinct of Hollywood is to sue, but do you want a business plan that’s based on constantly suing customers? It’s a self-destructive attitude.”

As long as we can prevent “corporate monoliths from putting a chokehold on culture,” Bart is ultimately optimistic about the future of the media. “Call me naïve,” he said, “but I think the media should represent the best in our society… and I think that people will respond to media that stives for something higher.”


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