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I’m crazy about Bob.

Last night I heard a dinner as part of a seminar put on by the Western Knight Foundation, a journalism training group that operates in conjunction with USC.

The dinner speaker’s role was to kick off three days of inspired creative discussion of “The Business of Online Journalism,” and the fellow doing the inspiring was Bob Cauthorn, who until April 6th of this year was the vice president of Digital Media at The San Francisco Chronicle.

Listening to him, and I’ve heard him talk three times now, reminded me of why online news is about 17 times more exciting than most traditional journalists treat it, and why it’s worth working so darn hard to build online news sites..  It was clear to all of us by the end of his sermon, I think, that his seething energy and anger at the state of things now all throughout the media business, expressed in such a humorous, vibrant and forthright way, comes from a passion that runs deep, and isn’t just about online at all.

Bob was fairly circumspect about why, nine days previously, he ended his relationship with, the site that he made great, and made profitable, and winning awards and audience and even print subscribers back.

He talked about the state of newspapers and online news and prefaced it clearly with a disclaimer that he was not referring to the Chronicle specifically with his harsh, scathing words for the industry.  And after he was done, different people in the room were quoting, actually quoting, bits of his speech, like it was a movie they’d seen and liked—“Do you remember the part where he said….”

* * *

I’m sometimes asked why I chose to go into Web development after college.  I didn’t.  I’m not.  I went into journalism, and I do it online.

Bob is a Journalist. He’s a reporter.  He said that he still looks out at the city of San Francisco and thinks about all the millions of stories there are, and all the people with things happening to them, and he wants them to be able to tell their story, to be able to talk, to be heard.  That’s Journalism.

He talks of newspapers as a holy thing, and his eyes light up.  He says they’re an important part of the big thing we call society.  He also says that they’re an important part of the small thing we call our community, and that newspapers need to nurture and foster the community in which they exist.

I agree. I see newspapers as the plumb line of our culture—they should give us the straight facts we use to measure the structures we live in.  With birth and wedding and death notices, with things bought and sold, with accidents averted and chronicled, with tips for living shared, with holiday traditions compared, newspapers should be the thing we turn to to find out who we are and what we’re up to these days.

But Bob had fears about the future of newspapers, and his concern about the future of newspapers is not hysterical.  In his talk, he reminded us that afternoon newspapers as a whole died out in only about 10-15 years.  From being the predominant delivery time, to being basically gone, took only 15 years.  How long, he asked, do you think it will take for morning newspapers to go away?  When only 3% of media buyers think newspapers offer the highest ROI of ad media, where are newspapers headed?  When 90% of today’s youth (teenagers, I think he said), are online regularly today, what media will they want when they’re 10 years older?

Newspapers, he said, are the only possible industry that can make a controversy out of the decision to switch to color photos on the front page.  The gnashing and wailing that came upon the industry with the creation of USA Today was incredible (“McPaper,” I remember it was called), and yet, it was really the first paper that fought back and tried to take television culture and usurp it for newspapers.  Is that a good thing? It was certainly a necessary thing.  Where is the first paper to steal the Internet’s lessons and turn it back?  Where is the first Internet executive to be made publisher of a newspaper after leading his or her online division to profits and popularity while the newspaper is snoozing into the next decade?

But while Bob was beating up on newspapers, he was clearly doing so out of love for Newspapers.

The hallowed newspaper that Bob was fighting for, the thing he talks about being the lifeblood of, the voice of, the greatest asset of, the community—it’s not about the form.  When a newspaper switches to soy inks, it doesn’t change what they stand for.  When newspapers switch formats, when newspapers switch the times they publish, it doesn’t mean they’re not newspapers.  When newspapers change from paperboys on bicycles to delivery men in trucks, when they switch from broadsheet to tabloid, when they switch subscription price, when they switch the flag, or the font, or the type of paper or add zoned editions, or offer audiotext or sponsor a book fair or have a fax edition, it’s still a newspaper.

When they go from hot type to cold type to digital presses, when they go from lead sheets to satellite downloads, and frankly, when they go from picas to pixels and TIFFs to GIFs and pulp to screen, they’re still newspapers as long as they are still trying to be a written medium of timely mass communication with a mission that they take far more seriously than broadcasting.  I mean, television is the medium that’s supposed to have a mandated public trust, imposed by law, and yet it’s newspapers, I think, that truly cover a community.

Side note: I ate dinner at Phillipe’s a few nights ago, and there was a news crew interviewing the diners about their reaction to George Bush’s speech.  I talked to someone who gave an interview and asked him if he’d ever been in the media before.  “No, never on TV,” he said.  “In the paper, once or twice.”  That’s newspaper and how it makes the community.

Will online news sites save newspapers? Will they save the idea of newspapers? They’d better, or we’re going to lose something even more important than a handy substance we can wrap fish in, and if it’s not online that saves them, then I don’t see any other superheroes on the horizon.

And when a newspaper, The Chronicle or any newspaper, lets someone like Bob walk out the door, when he gets too tired, or too angry, or too passionate about the future to want to stay in the industry, what does that say about the future of the idea of newspapers?  Will printed newspapers survive the change to electronic version, or will they die to be replaced by a mesh of blogs and wikis and mailing lists and communal publishing tools? Or will they not be replaced at all?

For that, Bob didn’t have the answer.  No one does.  But I sure enjoyed listening to some of his questions.



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