OJR Interview with Bob Cauthorn

As some readers of this site know, I’m contributing (and founded) a Corante group weblog entitled Rebuilding Media. Among its contributors is Bob Cauthorn.

Online Journalism Review Journalist David LaFontaine wrote that a Cauthorn speech inspired him to write an article (Old-school community journalism shows: It’s a wonderful ‘Light) about the long-term success of the Point Reyes Light newspaper in Marin County, California. He then interviewed Cauthorn about what newspapers can learn from that example. Some excerpts from the interview:

“People need to make a distinction between newspapers and journalism and the newspaper companies that currently run newspapers and make the decisions. The companies that run newspapers and make the decisions, they’re the ones that are in error. It’s not the concept of journalism. It’s not the concept of newspapers. It’s the companies who are producing a product that is failing. That people don’t want. This is basic — if Detroit makes a car that people don’t want to buy, their business future fails, correct?”

“If I were Tony Ridder, I’d be looking hard at my operation, saying, “Now wait a minute. Maybe we need to stop defending the idea of newspapers, because the idea of newspapers is different from the companies that own newspapers. And maybe we need to look at our company and say — let’s say I’m Bob the Generic Newspaper Mogul — maybe we need to look at my company and say, “Why do people walk away from my product? Why?'”

“Modern journalism as it’s practiced, the companies that conduct modern journalism right now — they’re the problem. It is incredibly removed from the life of the community around it. It is insular, it takes place over the phone. It does not pay attention to reader habits. The fear — I always laugh at this — you talk to newsroom people about the news that people want to read and they say, “Well, we will just be pandering then.” As if being aligned with your reader is wrong. Not only that, but newspapers in their glory days — at the height of the power of modern journalism, in the 60s and 70s, when newspapers really made a goddamn difference — their circulation was exploding. And trust me, people who were reading about civil rights stories and Vietnam and women’s rights — these people were not reading fluff stories, you know?

The assumption that if you align yourself with your readers — somehow or another you’re dumbing down — means that you think your readers are dumb. That’s the inescapable result of that logic. And it’s wrong! Our readers aren’t dumb. Our readers are great.”

“The mistake people are making is that they say that the reason people are leaving newspapers is because they just want a different distribution mechanism. Well, that’s nonsense. They were leaving newspapers for 15 years before the Internet arrived. They’re leaving newspapers because newspapers don’t matter to them. And if you look at any market where innovative new news products have been introduced, particularly in Europe, you’ll find that people flock back to print. This isn’t a media choice.

Certainly people love digital media. They love it for different reasons, though. The simple fact is that they’re walking away from papers because it doesn’t work from an editorial standpoint.

The argument that someone is leaving newspapers because of lifestyle choices and the Internet is like somebody making steam engines in the 1940s saying, that ‘Hey, we’re making the right product, it’s just that lifestyles have changed.'”

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