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