Alan D. Mutter is a veteran of the ink-stained days who in the two decades since he left as No. 2 editor of the then-mighty San Francisco Chronicle has helped create a large cable-TV company and several start-up tech firms. He is now a managing partner at Tapit Partners, which advises startups, and writes a blog called Reflections of a Newsosaur, which is widely read in journalism circles.
So Mutter brings to his writing the perspective of someone who’s run businesses and run newsrooms. He does his own original reporting and digs into the numbers to ferret out trends and ideas on the business and what to do about its ongoing collapse.
The Audit talked to him this week about the dismal outlook for this year and what comes next.
The Audit: So is there any good news out there?
Alan Mutter: If good is talking about things that will preserve the old way of doing things, then I guess the answer is no. But I think a time of ferment and great change is at once challenging and disorienting and downright scary but it also affords the opportunity of doing new things in new ways and everybody growing as a result of this.
If you’re all about preserving the old way of doing things, then this is a very difficult time. And of course one of the problems of change is that while new opportunities arise, certain opportunities go away and that’s why you’re seeing so many people losing their jobs. So I’m not going to minimize the stress and inconvenience and sheer economic terror that a lot of individuals are feeling, but I have to say there are a lot of opportunities out there, some of which haven’t been ascertained, but there are a lot.
TA: Clarify what you mean when you talking about preserving the past. Are you talking about the print product with its 25% profit margins? What I care about is that the reporting gets done—that somebody (in whatever format) is able to cover things as well as they should be covered.
AM: It may be that a lot of the reporters that we had were doing the wrong kinds of stories. It strikes me that even today the press, broadly speaking, is still sort of following the agenda set by the Business Wire or by the ups and downs of the Dow Jones Average. The press is not really striking out on its own to dig up the stories that aren’t self-evident. If you’re interested in the DuPont Company you can get stock quotations anywhere. If you’re interested in news in the company, it’s press releases and SEC filings and it’s all beautifully displayed and aggregated by any number of websites and mobile applications.
We have an enormous number of reporters today, especially at newspapers, who are reporting on the obvious. You have to say, do I really need five guys in the business section rewriting press releases that come in or “putting our own stamp” on the latest number from the Bureau of Labor Statistics? Why don’t we instead stipulate that a lot of this stuff is in the ether. Let’s take the resources we have and create the stories that aren’t being looked into, that aren’t being told.
TA: They were putting out this kind of news because they had ads to sell. Now there are not, so that’s supporting fewer journalists, but at the same time it’s harder to do those enterprising stories. Those things take weeks or sometimes months.
AM: That’s right. But instead of being strategic in the coverage and picking shots, saying “We’re going to be a newspaper that provides superior personal finance coverage or report the bejeebers out of what’s happening in Silicon Valley,” papers try to act like they’re going to filter everything through their own people and be broad generalists, you know the old expression “5,000 miles wide and a half an inch deep.” That’s the old model of classic traditional newspaper coverage. When I was a guy running a newspaper back in the day, that’s what I did. That was about ten years before the Web.
Newspapers keep trying to apply an old, pre-interactive era model to their coverage.
The great success of the Newsosaur blog is I don’t rewrite press releases. I’d like to tell you it’s because I’m a busy guy, but it’s not true. I’m just old, and I take a lot naps. Why am I going to cut into my valuable nap time to rewrite a Gannett press release about their earnings? I’m going to read their 10-Q, and if I think there’s something new or important to say I’m going to say it.