The Interview: Will Hearst

by Janet Reilly

The view of the city from Will Hearst’s 34th-floor office on Market Street in San Francisco is nothing short of spectacular. From atop of this perch, the world is wide open and anything seems possible.

As we settle into our conversation on this sunny December day, it just feels right to be interviewing Hearst in this setting, overlooking the city where, for generations, his family has had a ubiquitous presence and an indelible influence.

It all began 130 years ago, when Hearst’s grandfather, William Randolph Hearst, took over the San Francisco Examiner. Since then, the Hearst company has grown from a single newspaper into one of the world’s largest private media companies with more than 360 businesses, including magazines, newspapers (the San Francisco Chronicle among them), cable networks, television stations, digital businesses, a global ratings agency, real estate holdings and more.

Since 2013, Will Hearst has served as chairman of the board for this sprawling media empire. At first glance, Hearst doesn’t quite fit the image of a corporate board chair and an heir to one of the largest family fortunes in America. He is casual, affable and approachable. The Harvard-educated media scion may have the business in his blood, but he learned it from the ground up, working at a variety of media organizations throughout California before serving as editor and publisher of the Examiner for more than a decade. In the mid-’90s, Hearst left the Examiner to become a partner at the Silicon Valley VC firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers.

And, last fall, Hearst did something he’s been thinking about for years: venturing out on his own and launching the Journal of Alta California, a new quarterly magazine celebrating the arts, culture, technology and politics—all through a Golden State lens. The magazine’s second issue, featuring Senator Kamala Harris on the cover, hits newsstands on February 6. Hearst’s enthusiasm for his new publication is as palpable as is his zest for life.

Meet Will Hearst.

You grew up in New York City, but you spent time in California, including at your grandfather’s residence—Hearst Castle. What was that like, running around the castle as a kid?

Well, the first thing I would say is when you’re a child, your house is considered normal. I don’t remember thinking, “Oh, we are in a castle.” This is just what we did in summer. My grandfather had died and so the castle had a slightly empty sort of feeling. It wasn’t like it was in the 1930s when you had movie stars and parties and people were coming and going all day long. It was really more of a family place. We would get off the hilltop in the middle of the day and go out on the ranch. I think of the ranch at San Simeon as much as I do about the castle building.

It must have been wonderful and idyllic.

Yes, then, of course, in the late ’50s they started running tours through there. So I can remember we had to get out in the middle of the day because you’d be sort of trapped in your rooms if you didn’t get off the hilltop. You can’t wander around and have people on tours going, “Who the hell are these people?”

Now, did you think that was normal…like other kids were having tours in their homes?

No, by that time I realized [that this was not normal]. I do remember my dad—who had literally grown up there—saying one time, “It would be nice to go for a swim in the middle of the day, and not at the end of the day when the tours are finished. But we’re going to have to go between tours.” I remember sneaking down there with my dad and my little brother and we got into the pool between the two tours. We were swimming around and all of a sudden another tour started to arrive. My dad said we have to hide behind the statues.

So, we’re in the pool hiding behind the statues waiting for the guy to finish his spiel so we could escape. My dad said, “I’ll give you a dollar if you swim under water out from underneath this statue and around the other statue and back.” So I did.

And, then you could hear people saying, “I think there’s somebody in the pool.”

I was interested to learn you graduated from Harvard with a degree in math. Was there any doubt in your mind you would go into the family business?

You know, I had done some journalism in high school and when I got to college I thought, This is sort of a stereotypical thing that I’m supposed to do, so I don’t want to do it. So I didn’t go out for the Lampoon or the Crimson or any of the things my grandfather had done.

I think that’s very understandable. You wanted to make your own way.

I definitely was avoiding things at that age. When I came out to San Francisco in the ’70s, the then-publisher of the Examiner was a guy named Charles Gould. He said to me, “You really should spend a little bit of time in your family business to figure out what it is they do. You don’t have to do it, but you want to, at least, see it.”

Good advice…

So I came out here and worked in the newsroom. First, I worked in the publishing department, the administrative departments to keep me out of trouble. Eventually, I gravitated to the newsroom. I suddenly realized this is a lot like college.People dressing informally. They talk to one another in a familiar way that isn’t hierarchical. This is not like Bank of America. “I think I can get along with these people.”

In your late 20s, you went to work for Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner as editor of Outside magazine. What was that like?

The first day I went to work for what became Outside magazine I remember thinking, I know nothing about magazines. It’s worse than a little. It’s nothing. Even though the Hearst company had been in the magazine business, I was on the newspaper side. Magazines are a different pace. It’s a different way of assembling pages. You look at publishing in a different way. I liked that.

Then I went down to Los Angeles and decided maybe I should learn about the business of the industry, so I switched from the editorial side to the business side. I got very interested in newspapers and the publishing business models. It was around this time [in the early 1980s] that the Hearst company got into cable television. I thought, Oh, technology again. I do know something about technology.

You were really learning all aspects of the business.

Yes, when I was in Los Angeles, Hearst CEO Frank Bennack called me up and said, “We need a publisher in San Francisco.” I said, “I’m out of newspapers. I’m doing cable TV.” He said, “I think we’d like to have someone who knows the city and has lived there. I think you might be able to do it.” I said, “I don’t know.” I remember him saying to me, “If you’re worried that maybe you wouldn’t know how to do it… .” And, I was like, “Frankly, I am.” He said, “Well, I’m not. So, if you’re willing to do it, you’re the publisher.”

I think the point is that we are all faced with opportunities where someone believes in you more than you believe in yourself. You can call that person a mentor. You can call that a lucky break. Whatever it is, if that happens, you should step on it.

What year was that?

It was 1984.

Being William Randolph Hearst III, did you always feel like you needed to prove yourself in the newsroom?

Well, everybody else in the newsroom thought that. I changed my byline to just Will Hearst. I wanted to get rid of all these “Randolphs” and “thirds” and all that kind of stuff. I saw myself as a sort of inexperienced reporter learning from people who I was kind of in awe of. It’s difficult to describe to people today—even to my own kids—what the newspaper culture was like at that time. I was sort of in the last moment of the really old newspaper culture before it became professionalized.

What do you mean by that?

As a young reporter, you’d be sent down to get somebody off a bar stool because a story had broken and they’d be sitting down there drinking at lunch. You’d go down to the bar and the bartender would say at the end of the day, “It’s your wife. Are you here?” It was that kind of culture. You’d cash your paychecks at the bar. It was very colorful—a Wild West kind of thing.

Would you say that was the heyday of journalism in some ways?

To me, there have been several heydays. There was a heyday in the 1910s and one in the 1900-something when San Francisco had 20 newspapers. You had a liberal newspaper, a conservative newspaper, a Spanish newspaper, an anarchist newspaper. It was more like the Internet.

Then, I think, there was a gradual contraction in journalism through the invention of television and broadcasting. So, you went from having 20 [newspapers] to two, to one. In San Francisco, you had a joint operating group, which was sort of a merger.

Out of that period there was a kind of beginnings of a New York Times-ization of everybody wanting to be The New York Times. It damn-near killed journalism because you had newspapers in Baltimore that were opening a bureau in Singapore. It’s always dangerous when everybody wants to be the same thing.

There really is only ONE New York Times…

The New York Times is one of the few papers that can cover Washington and London, but even they had to cut back considerably. I think another heyday in journalism is now. You can be a blogger. You can be a television personality and a journalist. Ten years ago if you worked for the New York Times, you weren’t allowed to go on TV. You owed your services to the New York Times. Now we are looking for these multitalented athletes who are photogenic and who can write and shoot pictures and lay out their own copy and do interviews. This is a sort of heyday.

What do you love about the media industry?

I think the people, really. You end up with very creative people, but there are still standards. There’s honesty. There’s integrity. There’s getting facts right. So, it’s this weird combination of professionalism and yet, it’s creative.

The Hearst company has been around for more than 130 years. The industry is unrecognizable from what it was in 1887. To what do you attribute this success and longevity?

That’s a very good question, Janet, because if you look at the Dow Jones you’ll see companies that were dominant in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s that don’t even exist anymore. Sears Roebuck and Kodak.

So to have a company that lasts that long, there has to be some question as to what you’re doing differently: I think we’re in the business where creativity matters. When the Internet started, I remember going to Frank [Bennack] and saying, “We’re not going to figure this out. The people we hire are going to figure this out. So, let’s put all our energy into hiring people who feel comfortable in this new world. That will be better than us sitting around trying to whiteboard the future of the Internet.”

Also, I think diversification has helped a lot. My grandfather diversified into motion pictures very early—earlier than most people think. The way the Citizen Kane story is written is kind of all newspapers, but in fact, W.R. Hearst was more interested in movies by the time Citizen Kane was made than he was in newspapers.

You are the Chairman of the Board of the Hearst Corporation. What are your duties in that role?

[Laughing.] Well, I laugh because of that Woody Allen joke that [80 percent of success is showing up], and I tell people, with the Hearst family, it’s 100 percent.

We have quarterly meetings and I chair those meetings. But the company is run by the people who run the different divisions. We [the board] make decisions about acquisitions and you have people in the family who are effectively like shareholders. You have a balance of interest between customers, employees, dividend recipients and the community. It’s one of the chairman’s jobs to orchestrate or at least participate in it. … It’s a real chairman job, it’s not a vice president of operations job.

As you know, the Nob Hill Gazette is all about celebrating philanthropy, and you are the chair of the Hearst Foundation. Tell me about that.

Well, the foundation was started by my grandfather’s estate. It now has a board of directors and basically has two functions: investing resources and granting money. We run two programs: One is the Senate Youth Program where two kids from every state go to Washington and get to meet people at the Pentagon, in Congress, and there’s often a White House visit. President Obama met the kids eight years in a row. The second program is a journalism competition. If the Pulitzer is the highest prize for professional working journalists, the Hearst Journalism Award is the highest prize for student journalists.

How large is the foundation?

There’s a billion dollars in assets. So, we give away $40 [million] or $50 million a year.

That’s fabulous. On a different note: Is it fair to say the newspaper industry is in crisis?

As an industry, yes, but I think Hearst has been fairly early in analyzing the crisis and making adjustments. You’ll notice that recently, Warren Buffett has started buying some newspapers.

I think the lessons are you can’t all be international newspapers and you have to cover your community. So, if you’re in Los Angeles, you should cover the entertainment industry very, very well. If you’re in Houston and the oil industry is there, you should cover the oil industry very, very well. You have to become enthused and interested in your community.

And you’re probably not going to make it entirely on print. You’re going to have to have
an online location that performs the same function as print does. If your web strategy isn’t working, chances are your newspaper isn’t working either.

Let’s talk about your latest venture, the new magazine Journal of Alta California. What was your inspiration?

Well, the things that interest me, like art and culture, are underreported—the longer-lived evergreen things. So the magazine was the natural format. And my friends and the people I wanted to join my publishing club were people who were writers and photographers and book publishers who take months to do a piece of work. The writing and thinking and reporting takes time—and from the content point of view, I wanted to stay away from the economics of being a weekly or a daily.

And, what drives the content?

Well, the content is arts, culture, technology, ideas from a Western point of view. We’ll do politics, but we’ll do politics that is a little more evergreen. I would like us to be thought of as not purely San Francisco or even California, although the name has California in it, but it’s really looking out from the West to the rest of the country.

Frank Gehry was on the cover of the inaugural issue. Can you tell us who’s on the February cover?

The cover is Kamala Harris. It will be by Phil Bronstein. They have been friends for a long time, so it’s a very first-person interview. It will be much more of a diary of being with her than a journalistic profile—sort of like who she is rather than what she’s done.

And, how about you Will Hearst? Do you feel like you’ve had the freedom in your life to do what you wanted to do—as opposed to what your family wanted you to do?

I think my dad always felt like, “What are you going to college for? We’ve got stuff for you to do right down here at the family business.” I remember my dad saying to me, “You have a couple of career choices. One choice is you can be a bum, if you want to be like some of your relatives. Or you could come down here and work for the Hearst Company. If you show up at eight o’clock, we’ll find something for you to do. It won’t be CEO, but we’ll find something for you to do.”

The Lightning Round

I’m happiest when…

I’m with my family.

The biggest risk I’ve ever taken…

A career in journalism.

If I had a magic wand, I’d…

Find a way to make education free.

My biggest regret…

Just not getting mature at an earlier age.

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