The 53-year-old editor of the San Antonio Express-News on not losing readers, not jumping stories, the murder of one of his reporters, and what passes for Mexican justice.
Evan Smith: Greater competition than ever. Scandals in your industry. Massive consolidation and budget cuts. Tell me why it’s a good time to be the editor of a daily newspaper.
Robert Rivard: Let me tell you about the readership part first. I’ve believed for years that you win or lose readers one at a time. You produce this enormously complex product that has a huge amount of data, and hardly anyone wants all of it, but everybody wants some of it, and they want their part done well. You have one reader saying, “If you take my comic strip out, I’ll cancel my subscription” and another saying, “If you write one more headline like that …” When someone says, “I’m going to cancel,” he’s really saying, “Pay attention to my concerns, validate my viewpoint, and tell me you’re listening.” It used to be that we’d get five letters to the editor every day, and nobody talked back to you. Now every story has the reporter’s e-mail address at the end of it.
ES: The volume of communication you get from readers is much greater because of technology?
RR: E-mail gets you into the corner office right away, and you’re in front of the person in charge. There’s no administrative assistant saying, “What is the nature of your call?”
ES: You read all of your own e-mails?
RR: I do. My assistant doesn’t even have access to my e-mail. And if I’m somewhere where I’ve been using my BlackBerry and really can’t handle all the e-mails with attachments and cc’s, I’ll apologize to readers and say, “Hey, I’m sorry. I was on the road.” Let’s take today’s paper, for example. The entire city is reading every word we’ve written about the federal government’s plans to close military bases; San Antonio came out very well this time in contrast to a decade ago, when we were devastated. So I had quite a bit of e-mail today on the subject, most of it very thoughtful, most of it asking for follow-up, none of it critical per se. The things I couldn’t answer I sent to my military affairs reporter or one of his editors. They will deal with it more directly and in more detail than I will, but it will get answered in real time.
ES: How is this phenomenon of greater communication and greater transparency making the paper better and making journalism better?
RR: In the short term, it’s probably hurting more than it’s helping. At most companies we cover, if somebody has a sexual harassment deal or whatever, it isn’t made public; they don’t commit their errors in front of everybody in the public realm. But the public considers us, rightfully so, in the public-trust business, and for 50 cents they expect to weigh in on our shortcomings. The difference between what we do and what everyone else does is that we set ourselves up as authority figures and watchdogs. We say that we’re good enough to take the extraordinary power that was given to us in the Constitution and act responsibly. That makes some people wary, because when you have a lot of power, you could really do harm, so people hold us to a higher ethical standard. And I am absolutely fine with that.
ES: What makes this issue more difficult is the competition. Even if people loved everything you did, there are still more claims on their time than ever before. That has to be a real challenge for you.
RR: Competition is a threat, but it can also be good. You know the story of Conección [the Express-News’ weekly bilingual publication] and Rumbo [the independently owned Spanish-language paper]? We now have more bilingual and bicultural journalists on our staff than I would have ever been allowed to hire if Rumbo and its millions and millions of dollars hadn’t come into the market and threatened our hold on our Hispanic readers.
ES: Your corporate bosses at Hearst probably didn’t think that spending the money was going to create any more profit.
RR: Let’s be realistic. They have a lot of demands on their capital. If I had gone to them and said, “I want to start a weekly Hispanic lifestyle product, and I’m going to have to hire twelve people, and the business side is going to have to hire twelve advertising and circulation executives,” they would have said, “Where is your research?” But we did it in a hurry and by the seat of our pants, and it was wonderful. I have a new product that is successful and profitable.
ES: What about the downside of competition?
RR: Everyone is frenzied and overscheduled. There’s no longer enough time in the day for people to sit down with the newspaper the way our average sixty-year-old reader does. People today are browsers and breezers. People talk about “navigating” the paper. We have to respond to that. Every day of my life, I have to be prepared to say, “Think outside the box. You are not an editor from Ben Bradlee’s generation.” Beyond that, today’s editors have to be comfortable dealing with the business side. We all go to what I call “business charm school.” My company sent me to Northwestern University’s executive management program. I learned spreadsheets, accounting, how to do a business plan. If you’re not comfortable with numbers, then you’re not going to be successful with words.
ES: How exactly does being smart about numbers help you do a better job as editor?
RR: What we do is make the case to the business side for getting resources that will protect our franchise and keep our relationships with readers. But we also have to come up with new products and stop doing things the way we’ve always done them. That’s not easy to do in a newsroom; talking people into doing things differently is hard work.
ES: People don’t like to change very much.
RR: No, they don’t. They are very insulated. On the other hand, look at the Internet. Nearly 40 percent of the Internet users in San Antonio and South Texas looking for news and information come to us. The closest competitors are maybe Yahoo and Clear Channel, and they each have a 15 percent share. Last year our Internet site turned a profit with no accounting gimmicks.
ES: Entirely through advertising revenue?
RR: All on advertising, which is going to continue to grow exponentially each year. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Internet is a tiny business right now unless you’re a major e-commerce site, porn, or gambling. The kind of revenue and profit we’re bringing in, even in our dominant position, is so small that it will not underwrite the cost of a news operation this size. It costs $20 million a year to support my newsroom, and that doesn’t count newsprint, which is tens of millions of dollars more for a newspaper in a market like ours.
ES: Tell me one thing you’re doing now, because of competition, that’s different from what you were doing five years ago.
RR: Stories that are not enterprising and investigative tell the reader right away, “Here is why you should care,” and they’re almost always shorter. Fewer stories jump [continue on another page], and some don’t jump at all. Many things that would have been stories are news briefs. People don’t want to read a story about the city council meeting last night. It takes them twenty minutes to read, and they still can’t figure out what happened.
ES: Did they ever want to read that?
RR: I don’t know that they ever wanted to read that, but we used to give it to them. Now we tell them, “Here’s what happened.” It might have been a six-hour meeting, but for five hours nothing happened. We’re not going to bore them if nothing happened.
ES: Back on the subject of your corporate bosses: What’s it like to work for one of those big, bad media conglomerates?
People speak nostalgically about family newspapers. When I broke into this business, there were family newspapers all over. For every decent one, there were literally hundreds of embarrassingly bad family newspapers with every member of the family on the payroll. The profile of family newspapers is somewhat mythical and blurred in hindsight. Frankly, the newspaper in this town was family-owned before, and it was never remotely distinguished or served anyone’s interest, in my opinion, in the way it should have. I work for an incredibly diversified international media company that owns more than one hundred businesses. People think that the newspapers are the company, but the newspapers are a division. Hearst is bottom-line oriented. They set financial goals and expect us to make them, and there are consequences when we don’t. But they’re also visionary; they understand that they need to invest in their properties and their markets if they are going to remain viable. They have bestowed resources on me in San Antonio that are historic in nature. I have more journalists working for me now, at probably double the pay, than both the Express-News and the [now defunct] Light ever had combined.
ES: What makes them think, resourcewise, that this market is a good investment?
RR: The outlook for San Antonio is so positive. The Census Bureau just came out with some very interesting data; I think we’re the eighth-largest city in the U.S. right now, but we’ll pass San Diego and become the seventh largest by 2010. So we are a growing market. There’s no reason why a good paper can’t leverage that growth and remain profitable.
ES: It’s going to be fueled, isn’t it, by the boom in the Hispanic population?
RR: That’s the number one reason, but the number two reason is the amount of people coming into the market to satisfy the needs of employers like Toyota and the National Security Agency. We are basically going to add more than nine thousand people to the city, and [in many cases] these are qualified white-collar professionals who are coming.
ES: If you think about it, you yourself were a white-collar professional who moved to San Antonio.
RR: Yeah. I grew up in the North, at the top of the mitten in Michigan. My father was French Canadian, and his parents, I like to say, crossed the river without papers, only it was the St. Lawrence River. My mother is an Irish Catholic from the Bronx; her dad was a cop whose beat included Yankee Stadium. So I come from a very different world.
ES: Not exactly the guy you would expect to be editing the San Antonio newspaper.
RR: No. But I spent my formative years, my twenties, in Brownsville; the person I am today is who I became then. And I spent my later years working as a reporter in Latin America.
ES: How did you get interested in the business?
RR: I remember a man coming to my house and telling my mother that he had a great opportunity for her boys. What he wanted us to do was knock on all these doors and sell Sunday newspaper subscriptions. So we did it. We had fifty customers who got eighty fat Sunday papers from St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit. Real early in the morning, in the pitch-black dark, my dad would drop my older brother and me off at the general store with our bicycles. We were supposed to be writing the last names on the papers and loading them in our baskets, but we would sit there and read them. My brother would read the comics to me and explain them because I didn’t understand them, and I would read the sports pages. I was always amazed that wherever news was being created, there seemed to be a reporter to write about it. So I thought, “When I grow up, I’m going to go to exotic places in Latin America, where there are always news stories.”
ES: From that to this, and to your book, Trail of Feathers, which is about the murder of one of your reporters, Philip True, seven years ago and your attempt to find his killers. Why did his death become such a crusade for you?
RR: Because when he disappeared in the backcountry of Mexico, I knew probably better than all but a few in our newsroom what the implications were.
ES: Having spent so much time yourself south of the border.
RR: Right. I was taken by surprise. I didn’t know he had gone. The editors below me had turned down his repeated attempts to get the paper to approve his trip as a journalistic assignment, so he went on his own. I think he didn’t tell me because he knew I was the one guy who would have stopped him. I would have said, “You aren’t going there alone, pal. It is a hell of a lot harder to kill two people than it is one.” In the immediate hours after he was reported missing, it was clear that this was not a case in which he would just turn up lost.
ES: How long did it take between the time he went missing and the time you found his grave?
RR: Well, he told [his then-pregnant wife] Martha, “If I’m not back in ten days, come looking for me.” He left the day after Thanksgiving in 1998, and I don’t think she contacted us until about December 10. Three days later I went down to Mexico to beg President Zedillo, who I knew, for a major ground and air search by the military, and that happened. The next morning I was on an army helicopter with one of the ranking Mexican army generals, and we flew Philip’s route; we triangulated places where he had been seen and hadn’t been seen. Just as we landed in a village, it turned out, a Huichol hunter approached to say that he had found the body of a foreigner, a backpacker who had apparently fallen off a cliff.
After hiking through a remote area to get to the spot, the body was gone. By then, we later learned, Philip had been out in the wilds for eight days with vultures feeding on him, but as the search party started to close in, his killers realized there were army troops and helicopters involved. So they panicked and went back in the middle of the night to move his decomposing body. They wrapped it up in a ground cloth, stuffed it in his sleeping bag, and spent the whole night dragging it down the depths into this canyon. But when they started out, they tore the corner of his sleeping bag, and the goose down followed them all the way, a little old trail of feathers.
Down we went on the most hair-raising hike I’ve ever taken in my life. We followed the trail of feathers and came upon a sandbar with what looked like fresh green reeds strewn around. A Huichol dog started barking and pawing, and when I got down on my hands and knees, I could smell death. I started digging him out with my hands.
ES: What happened once you found the body?
RR: They did an autopsy in Guadalajara and determined unequivocally that he had been murdered. He’d taken a blow to the skull and then had been strangled. It didn’t take long, ten days, to catch the Huichol Indians who killed him; by Christmas Day they were under arrest. But what should have taken us a year under the Mexican system to find them guilty took six years. We finally won at the supreme court level, but unfortunately a judge set them free without ever telling the state, the family, or the newspaper and they fled, Mexican-style. The authorities have made only halfhearted efforts to go after them.
ES: What did you learn from all this?
RR: That there’s no justice in Mexico unless you buy it.