How General Motors refused to change, and what newspapers can learn from that example

[Editor’s note: Dave LaFontaine’s been observing online news for years, and has spoken at our OJR conferences for news entrepreneurs in the past. He wrote this piece for his personal blog and it impressed me so much that I wanted to bring it to the OJR audience.]

I strongly urge you to listen to this great piece from This American Life about the NUMMI auto plant in Fremont.

It’s about how the U.S. auto industry could have saved itself by actually paying attention to the way its business was eroding, and listening to the people who came back from Japan and transformed the Fremont plant from a place that was “like a prison … with sex, drugs and alcohol freely indulged in during the working day … where the workers maliciously sabotaged cars, and the managers didn’t care, as long as they got their bonuses for churning out pure numbers…”

…into a place where the workers actually looked forward to coming to work each day, and where the quality of the cars they turned out was so high, that even now, 22 years later, many of those cars are still on the road. NUMMI stands for “New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc.” and there is an excellent Wikipedia entry about it, if you want to get a little more background.

The situation bears a strong resemblance to the newspaper industry, and the reason papers are in the same place as the auto industry. Let’s take a look at the places where the news industry and the auto industry screwed up:


In the auto industry: anyone who drove a U.S.-made car in the 80s knows what I’m talking about.Everything about the cars sucked. The seats were uncomfortable to sit in, the controls made no sense and were hard to deal with. I drove a lot of rental cars in that era, and I can’t tell you how many times the A/C control knob came off in my hand. Or the windshield wiper knob was installed upside-down. In one case, the bolt holding the steering column up on a Chevy Cavalier came loose and the steering wheel dropped into my lap. Which is minor, compared to the engines seizing and misfiring, the electrical system shorting out, the windows not rolling up (or down), the doors sagging on their hinges…

In the newspaper industry: the buyouts and mergers started by the relaxation of the cross-ownership rule, caused many papers to skeletonize their staffs, and run big colorful graphics in the papers. And lots more wire copy. I worked at the Arizona Republic during this era, and I saw what they were doing on “Zone Editions.” We had the same cruddy stories for Mesa, as we did Tempe, as we did Scottsdale. They were feature stories about things like a guy with a trained parrot that would whistle and dance. We’d run it one week in the Mesa zone, and then the next week, I’d see it in the queue again for Scottsdale. Mostly, the Zone Editions were there to snarf up the advertisers in those areas, and make sure that no competition sprang up to challenge the big paper. “It doesn’t pay NOT to advertise,” was the slogan, and it was true, because of the package deals the Republic was able to offer, sucking the oxygen out of the local markets. Most papers had a monopoly position in their markets, and could pretty much be assured of making a profit, no matter what they did. Meanwhile, the readers were starting to notice that their newspapers were lacking … how shall we say this … news.


In the auto industry: the line workers had no power to offer suggestions, and indeed, were punished for speaking up. All that mattered was churning out enough cars to meet the quotas, no matter how bad the quality. Resentfulness led to workers intentionally sabotaging cars, which led to even greater expense down the line, when the bad cars had to be fixed by workers who really didn’t understand what was wrong with them, and just used the “bigger hammer” method to make cross-threaded bolts hold, or quarterpanels stick onto the chassis.

In the news industry: a kind of rebellious fatalism took hold in newsrooms, both in print and TV. The reporters knew the bosses really didn’t give a rip about the news, they just wanted something that would get good ratings and not get them sued. Every TV producer I have ever met would, with little encouragement, go off about the corporate “suits” that were putting the vise on the newsrooms to “pop a number.” Reporters that dared to try to make suggestions about long-term changes (like less coverage of O.J. Simpson, and more of things like the erosion of middle-class opportunities) were ignored. Newsrooms have always been “simmering cesspools of cynicism,” but this morphed into outright nihilism and rage.


In the auto industry: The Bush-Cheney “let’s consume as much oil as we can” faction pushed through a tax break in the early ’00s that meant that people who leased a “light truck over 6,000 pounds” could write off the cost of the car. Free SUVs for Everyone! What this did was support the Big Three, despite their declining market share, because they were making so damn much money off producing big fat gas-guzzling SUVs and selling them for massive mark-ups. The SUV was actually pretty cheap to make – but Detroit was able to charge about $10-$20,000 more for them. And, of course, when the tax break ran out — and gas prices skyrocketed — the end of the free cars on the taxpayer’s dime era left GM without a viable product to sell, asconsumers looked for more efficient cars.

In the newspaper industry: the subprime mortgage/real-estate boom created a huge advertising windfallfor newspapers. The Homes section of the LA Times was often larger than the rest of the newspaper combined. Thousands of pages of expensive classified ads, paid for by realtors who were so awash in free money that they didn’t care what the cost was. Of course, the rest of the classified business was absolutely cratering at this time. When the real-estate market imploded, and advertisers abandoned newspapers,looking for more efficient ways to sell their products, newspapers were also left without a viable product to sell.


In the auto industry: the Detroit execs blamed Consumer Reports for pointing out that the cars they were inflicting on the American people were utterly without redeeming community value. They claimed that the Dirty F’n Hippies at Consumer Reports were biased towards the Japanese, were anti-American traitors, and were unfairly criticizing patriotic Americans. The U.S. cars were better, if only people would realize that. The industry was in complete denial about how the auto-buying public had turned against it, after years of enduring an abusive and exploitative relationship, and how even Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers who fondly remembered their high school days when they got their first muscle cars, were fed up with cars that broke down or rolled over, killing their families.

In the newspaper industry: the newsrooms blamed the Internet. They still blame the Internet. They see the competition on the Internet as being anti-American, that the public was deluded by web-based hucksters, and that imposing paywalls would make people realize how much they really needed to pay for news. No matter that the readers and advertisers have made their preferences clear – they must be MADE to come back and obey.

Bob Cauthorn wants to lead your publisher into the Light

[Editor’s note: This is a sidebar to Old-school community journalism shows: It’s a wonderful ‘Light’.]

I first ran into Bob Cauthorn when he was giving a speech at a Western Knight Foundation seminar. He talked about how the mainstream media was missing a really crucial story: An entire way of life in small-town America was disappearing, maybe forever, yet accounts of this rarely show up on the national radar. It’s only during election years, when reporters trail after politicians in the fly-over states, that any attention is paid to people who aren’t plugged in to the hip urban flavor of the month.

This really put the hook into me, and it’s one of the reasons I went out looking for a story that took place in a small, out-of-the-way place. The fact that I was able to find such a compelling story in Point Reyes delighted and excited Cauthorn, and I rather suspect that he might have been planning to use this story in some of his future speeches, rants or presentations.

So here, in its entirety, is my conversation with Cauthorn:

OJR: A recent article said that “if newspapers are the cockroaches, the Web may be Black Flag.”

Bob Cauthorn: Yeah, I saw the BusinessWeek piece. But you know what they’re missing? And this is the thing that I keep trying to drive home, and it’s so frustrating. 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 people make a newspaper that no one wants to read, and since circulation’s been dropping every year annually, nationwide since 1987 … if people make a newspaper that nobody wants to read because the most experienced readers of that newspaper walk away from it – I mean, everyone knows what a newspaper is, right? From a brand perspective … everyone knows how to use it, it’s ubiquitous, it’s cheap, everybody at one point or another has tried it. There’s nobody in America above a certain age who hasn’t at one point or another tried a newspaper. The whole goal of branding and advertising exercises is to try to get someone to use your product once. Well, newspapers have that. Yet, the most experienced users, the most sophisticated customers are walking away from newspapers … BusinessWeek needs to talk about the companies that make newspapers are failing. And they’re making a product that people don’t want. 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?”

Journalism works. And the story about what happened in Point Reyes proves it.

OJR: Well, not to get too metaphysical about all this, but one of the things that struck me about this story is that David Mitchell makes his decisions based on news value rather than on what focus groups are telling him. His mission is to serve the community rather than figure out ways to swindle them out of as much money as possible.

Cauthorn: The other reality is that, particularly with small-market papers, these people are aligned with their readers because they are part of their community. The practice of modern journalism, at anything from a mid-size market up, takes place over the telephone. Newsrooms and editors have done everything possible to insulate themselves from the public, which is why they have focus groups.

I’ll tell you what. If you have your ass on the street where it belongs, you don’t need a focus group. Simple as that. And the reality is that Point Reyes proves it. Of course your instincts are right if you’re aligned with your readers. And if you’re aligned with your readers, your circulation grows. Simple as that.

OJR: One thing that comes to mind is the first President Bush, when he went to the supermarket and was just stunned by the scanner. He looked at it in utter amazement, and the rest of the country looked at him and knew in that instant that he had absolutely no clue what their day-to-day lives were like.

Cauthorn: Right. 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.

You know what’s fascinating – compare the log files of say 10 newspapers, compare what they’ve read, and take shovelware sites so make it as positive as possible for the newspaper. But compare with what was read with what was put on the front page. As a measure of how aligned the editors are with their readers. Because if the editors are aligned with their readers every story on the front page will at least be a top five story. Or at least in the top 10.

I guarantee you that if you were to study this, most of the stories in the top 10 would not be one of the stories on the front page. Because we’re not aligned with our readers. We’ve got this wonderful daily focus group with real readers called the Weblog, but newspapers are afraid to see what’s in them. They don’t want to know. They don’t want to know what the most popular stories are. It’s terrifying to them. Because it means that their news judgment might not be right.

OJR: Well, the argument goes that that will contain only the Michael Jackson story or the two-headed cat story or something about a porno star.

Cauthorn: Yeah, right, that’s the argument. Let me take a second to refute that. As one of the guys who launched one of the first five papers on the Web, I’ve been looking at log files longer than anybody. And I look at them every single day. And the fact of the matter is that the reading public is smart. The reading public is a helluva lot smarter than you think. And yes, invariably two of the top 10 stories are the type of thing that someone would say are celebrity news or pandering or something like that. And guess what? What’s wrong with that? If that’s what readers want, great. Serve the reader.

But the rest of them are stories of significance. The rest of them are stories of interest. The point is that if someone launches that argument … they say, “Well if we give them what they want … .” Well, look at what you just said, Mr. Editor. If we give readers what they want, it’ll be a bad product. And they’re saying that the readers are stupid.

You know what? These readers should abandon these editors. These readers should run in the other direction. Because these editors have no interest in serving the reader.

OJR: A barely concealed contempt for the audience?

Cauthorn: It’s not concealed at all. It’s overt. The irony of it is that the largest circulation growth happened when we were writing really tough stories. It happened when journalists, in a country that was segregated, were writing stories about civil rights. These were stories of great gravity. And that was the largest period of growth in newspaper circulation. The fact of the matter is that readers want newspapers of consequence, they absolutely do.

Yes, they also want more trash. Who doesn’t? Everybody reads that. There’s nothing wrong with that. It just has to be part of the mix. The problem is that newspapers today don’t realize they need to have a complicated mix of content for their audience.

Looping back to Point Reyes, what you see there, and I do think there is a metaphysical story in there – not metaphysical as in magical – but deeply emotionally compelling. And that’s why I’m delighted that you’re bringing this story to light. Because what this tells you in no uncertain terms, with a kind of heat and passion that I wish existed in the normal newsroom, that our public wants us to succeed.

Our public wants us to survive. Our public wants us to thrive. Our public wants newspapers that matter. Our public is leaving us because we are chasing them away with a stick.

Point Reyes proves it. I love it when I hear these puffed-up editors standing up talking about big-J Journalism. When they don’t know a thing about growing readership. When they haven’t brought a reader in through honest means in a decade. And they’re going to tell me about big-J journalism? Why don’t we talk about journalism period. Journalism that matters, that vibrates through a community.

OJR: Well, what Dave Mitchell was talking about was the importance of having a point of view. An informed point of view, yes, one that gives each side its say and doesn’t pretend to this false objectivity. And that’s what makes papers relevant.

Cauthorn: 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.” No. Why don’t you make a different goddamn product.

OJR: The problem is that everyone seems to be married to whatever consultant took their money last, looking for a magic bullet, one little solution that they can stick in and then they don’t have to worry.

Cauthorn: The reason they’re looking for a magic bullet is that we’re talking about a class of newspaper person – primarily the executive class, who are a bunch of people who inherited a monopoly and have done a terrible job of managing that monopoly. The only people who’ve done a worse job of managing a monopoly are the Telcos. These are not creative people; these are not people used to creating things.

These people follow each other like lemmings. The existing belief has nothing to do with creativity. They don’t value creativity; they don’t value controversial thinking.

Somebody like me scares and enrages these people. When what they should be doing, is that they should be saying, now give me some of that mojo.

Of course they’re frightened of this. They just wish the world would go away. They’re the guys with the steam engine, going “Well, steam cars are still good in many ways. They still have a valuable role. We’ll sell three this year.”

OJR: Look! We put a new handle on it!

Cauthorn: Yeah, “Look! We’re moving away from wooden rims!”

OJR: I see a lot of parallels between the movie and television industry and newspapers.

Cauthorn: The challenge on that is that there’s more than an economic argument to be made for movies. By the time I take my family out, it’s more than 60 bucks. And that’s not like buying a 50 cent newspaper. And when all you have to do is buy a DVD, because of the quality of home theaters, if you track – this might be something you could do for OJR – the sales of home theater equipment and the release volumes of DVDs and plot that against audience sizes, you’ll find that the lines crossed a while ago. As quality home theater experience gets better, people … . 50 cents is not such a barrier to entry, and Christ, because there are so many specials out there, you can get newspapers for a couple of pennies a day, right? In most markets. This 50 cents is not such a big part of our disposable income.

Nobody’s going to say, “Oh I’m going to log in so I can get it so I don’t have to pay for it.” People are going to the Web for their news for other reasons. They want to control their information consumption, they want things packaged differently, they want a different media experience, they don’t like the hierarchical thinking.

I mean, part of the problem is the hierarchical thinking at traditional newspapers. They don’t want to be exposed to that, there’s a lot more entry points in digital media – there’s a whole bunch of other reasons for that. It has nothing to do with the cost. The idea that somehow or other we’re going to get people to pay for content is also hallucinogenic.

Here’s an interesting thing that Peak Media is trying to do – group them together and maybe get people to pay for content that way – but content per se, Christ, the cost of a newspaper has never deferred the content. Never in any meaningful way. Not for the last 55 years.

OJR: Are weeklies going to have to move to the Web?

Cauthorn: No, they won’t have to. They want to. But they won’t necessarily have to put all their product up on the Web. The weeklies and small market papers have got significant mojo. This is good stuff and this is the soul of journalism. I sometimes wish we could transplant some of that thinking to metro markets because, I tell ya, we’d get a lot better newspapers if we did. The reality is that yes, if weeklies were to go to shovelware models of delivery, they would have problems on their hands. However, there are real interest plays in journalism that weeklies can engage in. It has to do with blogs, citizen journalism, being the host and the focus for that. Use your weekly newspaper brand to be the focus for a very compelling kind of on-line experiences that don’t duplicate print behavior.

Part of my mantra about how to build on-line newspapers, because I think our on-line papers are built just as badly as our print products, is that you need to not try to duplicate the print experience. You need to try to do something different. Then you have the best of both worlds. Then you don’t hurt your circulation as much in print – well, a small percentage will move from print to online. But a lot of people will find that they have a use for both if you build your product right.

Weekly newspapers are a wonderful experiment for that. Now let’s imagine what an online newspaper would look like if we didn’t just repurpose our existing content. If we invited new comment from the community, we focused on community calendars. Things that would be of value each day between the publication of the newspaper.

Let the community speak on those days between your publishing dates, and then you have your piece in print on Friday. I think this would be really interesting, because then you have a really dynamic model where you’re flowing readers back and forth between print and online.

The kind of thing that we could do be doing in metro markets, but that would require – oh my God – creative thought.

OJR: Can the Web help a newspaper become this place that David Mitchell talks about, where a community comes together to work out the issues that matter to it?

Cauthorn: Well, the Web can certainly enter into this. The heartening message, the reason that everybody, when you write this story, should have it pinned to their chest, frankly, is that this should remind everybody that our public gives a damn. While the newsroom may have contempt for the public, well, guess what?

The public doesn’t have contempt for us. If we make the right product, they’ll fight for us. They will fight savagely for us. They will fight for a free press, you know? Well, if we stop embedding reporters – nudge nudge. They will fight for a free press, they will fight for a free newspaper even if they disagree with the newspaper sometimes.

OJR: Well, that’s what happened in Point Reyes, where some of the biggest critics of the paper came forward and said, “Look, we just can’t let you go under.”

Cauthorn: What’s fascinating is that – look at that in light of what I said earlier about pandering and making a newspaper be what the readers want. Our public is telling us, “Man, you make a newspaper that we care about and we’ll fight for it.” That’s what’s so beautiful about this. I wish we could see this all over. Now, interestingly enough, in San Francisco we had a fascinating development in the last year. The SF Examiner that had fallen into utter disrepute. It was just a mouthpiece for just an extreme political interest. They have focused on just serving San Francisco very aggressively, they’re giving it away for free as a tabloid, and it’s making a mark now. On a daily basis, it’s beating the San Francisco Chronicle on San Francisco news. With a staff of six reporters. It’s growing rapidly, and everywhere you go, you see people reading the Examiner. It’s fascinating to see how well a newspaper does when it tries to align itself with its community. And it’s reaping the benefit.

The Point Reyes experience holds up. If a newspaper honestly says throw out the focus groups and ask why aren’t people fighting for us? Why aren’t people wrestling to get that paper every day? Could that mean perhaps there is a problem with the product? Maybe we have to re-think our product? Not more graphics, but change the content model.

We’re very comfortable talking about business models, but let’s talk about content models. What we need to talk about is looking at a paper in a new way … to break things down so the print piece is this and the online piece is that, and they’re not the fucking same thing. You know? We need to be creative and attack this in a brand-new way.

Because newspapers have got, and Point Reyes proves it, newspapers have got a really exciting future. If they address the product. If not, then BusinessWeek is right. But again the BusinessWeek distinction has to be drawn. The people who make the product now are wrong. That doesn’t mean that the concept of newspapers is over.

When Detroit was losing to the Japanese, nobody ever said, “Well, cars are wrong.” They said the product is wrong. Why isn’t anybody looking at papers and saying that it’s not the concept of newspapers is wrong – it’s the product that these companies are making that is wrong.

OJR: To continue with your automotive metaphor, you can look at GM, which basically got addicted to making huge profits off their SUVs and is now in a dead end, and Chrysler, which unleashed their creative people and built cars that people want to buy.

Cauthorn: Exactly. Just think what’s going to happen when online people start to redesign newspapers. And trust me, that’s going to happen. Because of what they’ve learned. The online folks, they’re the rebels within the newsroom by definition anyway. And they’ve paying very close attention to what readers have done. Their religion – if you read online, where someone is one click away from making another choice – your religion is knowing what your reader wants. If it’s not, you’re in big trouble.

The fact of the matter is that the idea that our best online people are not running newspapers right now is shocking to me. Because if you want to reward success, look at the people are succeeding. Get some of that mojo in the rest of your operation.

OJR: OK, how about the concept that by delivering a story the Point Reyes way, by dragging it out in the soap opera model – is that something that can be translated elsewhere, that can get traction?

Cauthorn: Well, this goes back to my whole concept of content modeling. The reality is that there is narrative structure from one day to the next in stories. What we do in a typical newspaper is that … we spend more time rehashing the previous day’s events rather than actually providing news. Now for a weekly, the rules are slightly different because a lot has happened in that previous week, so there is a narrative skein to be unraveled. But clearly in an online context, people really do want a genuine narrative to take place. The narrative structure in this world is slightly different though because it is a hyperlinked world.

OJR: So you can have context. To find out what’s gone before – it can be only a click away.

Cauthorn: Exactly, I mean how you bundle together your previous coverage really matters. It can be very enriching. But in my experience, people very seldom actually go back and read online – well, let’s say we have a 10 part series – people very seldom go back and read the previous day’s parts, even if they enter for the first time on part number eight. This is an interesting thing that I haven’t quite gotten my head around.

This intrigues me. This whole question of how narratives are spun online. I’ve played with it in a lot of ways. What I think is happening is that people are afraid to follow the previous coverage in a series online because they don’t know how much of an investment of time they’re making. I think if there’s a visual reference – because you can’t tell someone until they click that a story is 70 inches long. However, if you turn a page, you can see, “Oh geez, I don’t have the time to get into that.”

This is a real formal concern of the media itself. Doing fairly sophisticated long narratives online is still a real challenge. I don’t think anybody’s really cracked the nut yet on how to do that. It’s a real interesting area. It’s one of the things I’ve come back to time and time again. You have to really have that whole package there. But this is where print excels, one of the areas that print can continue to own, going forward.

OJR: What are the prospects for weeklies and small town papers?

Cauthorn: Other newspapers think that this is a strength that is unique to small towns. And that’s not the case. Most of our metro areas consist of a collection of small towns. Are cities are smaller than we think they are, you know. You have a historic example in the Orange County Register, where a paper said, “We’re going to cover this entity known as Orange County.” And it was not until the 1970s as a distinctive entity – it was series of small towns. Newspapers today can create the concept of significant regional differences that therefore have their own interests and therefore have their own coverage and therefore have eager readers – if they were to do it. If they were to go down that road.

The problem with zoning has been that it’s always been undertaken as a circulation exercise rather than as a journalism exercise.

OJR: To crush any competition that might try to spring up.

Cauthorn: Yeah.

OJR: Anything else to add?

Cauthorn: Yeah, there’s these small weeklies within communities which are very interesting. Here in SF we have 14 neighborhood newspapers. And these are intriguing. They’re all profitable. They write about stuff the metros don’t pay any attention to. They’ve all got this significant niche. If you look at them and the alternative weeklies, which of course grab the young audience, you really have to start to ask yourself if we’re not misunderstanding today’s metro market as a series of small towns basically strung like pearls. That leads to some interesting questions about how a dominant daily would play into that. But these look like small town newspapers for all intents and purposes. They talk to advertisers that nobody else talks to you. You can learn about a school bake sale.

OJR: Like in Point Reyes, where there’s an environmental law that could cost every homeowner there $60,000 to re-do their sewage system. You tell that to a homeowner… .

Cauthorn: You’re relevant. That’s right, you’re relevant. They’ll buy you next week. See, this is the point to drive home about Point Reyes, is that every newspaper leader in America and every journalist in America should be paying close attention to what happened there. Because there’s a message for everybody. There’s a very powerful moral for everybody and it should be viewed as an opportunity to renew our compact with our audience. A compact that we’ve walked away from over generations.

And the message here – and it is a “It’s a Wonderful Life” kind of moment – the message here is that our readers are waiting for us to come back home.

We’re the ones who have strayed. It’s not the readers who are straying from us.

It’s us who have strayed from our readers.

That’s why Point Reyes is incredibly important story, because this tells you that all the things that those of us who love newspapers hope is the case, that people really do love us – are true. And it really is true also that what we’ve done right now is look at ourselves in the mirror and say, “OK, we’ve failed the very people who want to fight for us. We can turn around and fix this. Come on. Let’s go. Let’s go save newspapers.”

Somehow or other, I don’t think Tony Ridder is going to listen to me on that, do you think?

Wait until September hits. Oh my god. The Baltimore numbers which are down 11 and 15 percent for daily and Sunday, you’re going to see that across the country. You’re going to see a bunch of papers that are down 8, 9, 10 percent.

We gotta start firing editors. We have to at some point or other face the fact that the circulation numbers are down because nobody wants to read this fucking product. Make it the product we want, and we’ll read it.

OJR: Make it be relevant.

Cauthorn: That’s right. This is not a complicated business.

Old-school community journalism shows: It's a wonderful 'Light'

Video highlights

Christmas speech by Dave Mitchell

David Mitchell gives bleak report at Christmas dinner. (Windows Media File, 540k)

“Journalists are supposed to have a bias,” Mitchell said. (Windows Media File, 1 MB )

Efforts to save the Light. (Windows Media File, 2.8 MB )

Dave Mitchell

Mitchell has had some dark days along the way. (Windows Media File, 940k)

Park rangers call West Marin residents “fruitcakes.” (Windows Media File, 4.5 MB )

Singing Sheriff's Calls song

The Light’s weekly rundown of the Sheriff’s calls is leavened with Mitchell’s droll wit. Here, Stu Art Chapman performs a song comprised of the best of the Sheriff’s calls. (Windows Media File, 1.2 MB )

(All video and photos by the author. For more information about why the author chose this story, listen to this audio account, in Ogg format.)

I was trying to ask legendary editor/publisher David Mitchell the Big Important Question: how to save the soul of American journalism, but the wind shifted direction and the stench made it impossible to talk.

It’s understandable. Mitchell’s second-story offices of the Point Reyes Light (weekly circulation: 4,100 and rising) are in a converted creamery only a country block from the cattle yards that still supply the good people of Marin County with their curds and whey.

I’d been trying to interview Mitchell about the state of journalism today – because not a day goes by without another thumbsucker being inflicted on us, wailing and gnashing about how the whole profession is headed straight for Satan’s jaws.

I take the thick fragrance of manure that chokes out my question to be a rather literal form of cosmic commentary on the whole subject.


In the fall of 2004, Mitchell’s one true lifelong love, his newspaper, the Point Reyes Light, teetered on the brink of extinction. The San Francisco Weekly did a story – “Can the Light Stay Afloat?” – about how Mitchell had been steadily draining his meager inheritance to run the paper at a loss, a story that was then picked up nationally – it even made Romenesko.

Then, in a scene straight out of the 1946 weepy Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, the good townsfolk of Point Reyes, Bolinas, Tomales, Stinson Beach et al., came together and basically passed the hat and bailed him out.

“Almost every day when people wrote in to renew their paper, someone would say, ‘Here’s an extra twenty bucks.’ We got lots of people who just gave us $100. Even people who didn’t hardly have two nickels to rub together stepped up and gave us $5.

“And then sixteen of them wrote in and said ‘Raise your cover price. Take it up to a dollar. We need the Light because we don’t have any city governments out here. And the Light is providing us with a forum for us to work out civic issues.’ ”

Somewhere, Tribune and Cox and Gannett execs are weeping at the thought of having such a devoted readership – one that not only keeps subscribing, but forms fan clubs devoted to your paper and then demands that you raise your price.

At this point, with the fall circulation reports looming, most circulation managers would settle for just not hemorrhaging readers. Heck, some circulation managers would settle for not having to wear an orange prison jumpsuit for the next couple years.

In 1979, the Light won the Pulitzer Prize for community service for its investigative stories on the violent and paranoid Synanon cult. In 1984, Paul Michael Glaser, still fresh from “Starsky & Hutch,” played Mitchell in a made-for-TV movie (with the embarrassing, Skinemax-like title, “Attack on Fear”) based on the book that Mitchell wrote about the experience.

The Light has been famous ever since for its uncompromising integrity. And to this day, the paper has a reputation for being the training ground for strong, accomplished reporters and editors. [Full disclosure: My wife, Janine Warner, worked at the Light from 1991-92. While working on this story, I stayed at Mitchell’s house and even took a dip in his real-live Marin County hot tub.]

One more thing: Much of what follows seems to be about weekly newspapers, one of the oldest forms of journalism. Hardly appropriate for the Online Journalism Review, with its readership of the bleeding-edge, newest of the new, budding media moguls. But the parallels between this small print outlet and online news are really rather marked. Mitchell and the Light teach a lesson applicable across the spectrum: Readers can find a news outlet so appealing that they will fight to keep it alive.

Let your readers help you

Running a news site on a budget that won’t buy much more than a roast beef sandwich and a couple turns on the PlayStation is an increasingly necessary skill. The Light’s success is a relevant example.

Big papers can just throw dozens of reporters on a story (the New York Times famously called it “flooding the zone,” while the Los Angeles Times more cynically referring to “unleashing the flying monkeys”). But if a small paper commits too much to a single story, the expense can drag it under.

“They [the big papers] would send a couple reporters out into the field, and they would do research for several months, come back and give you a blockbuster story, a main bar that skipped over six pages and three sidebars and all the rest,” Mitchell said. “You’re asking a lot of your readers to go through all that volume of stuff.

“Because we can only cover a little of the story each week, we keep the story in front of our readers week after week. Because of space limitations, we’re also forced to do that.

“So in the long run, this is why issues in weekly communities don’t quickly come and go – the way they do in so many big-city papers.” Even a small operation like the Light can integrate the Web into its operation. And it’s not by putting all its content on the Web and hoping that readers will go there – it’s by using the Web and its readers in a way that allows it to report on the community better than ever.

A recent hot scandal (well, by the Light’s standards) showed how. The story involved a run-in between tourists and park rangers in which pepper spray was deployed.

“One reader – a bus driver – got a hold of me and said if you go to the New York City Citizens’ Review Board, they’ve done a study on the use of pepper spray, and the dangers, when it’s appropriate,” Mitchell said. “They not only tell you what’s safe and what’s good and what will work and when not to do it, they tell you what the law is and what the police training is.

“Another person came to us and ‘Hey, you don’t realize it, but there’s a Web site for the law enforcement ranger association. You oughta check that out.’ ” Mitchell said. “We went to the Web site and we found that rangers who worked out here … were writing in [and] held Marin County residents in absolute contempt.

“The things they would post on their own Web site – they considered us about like Osama bin Laden, or at least we loved him, if not being part of Al Qaeda.”

The Light’s smart, dedicated blending of its oldest resource (its readership) and the newest (the Internet) allowed it to take what would have been just a small story, at most a funny Sheriff’s Call gone wrong, and turn it into a cause that is having a transformative effect on the community. The story has woken readers up to a festering problem in their midst, and they’re starting to take steps to demand real changes. This is almost a textbook example of real beneficial watchdog journalism.

When you stumble onto something that sparks some real reader reaction, then your project starts to become a thing, where people start talking about your coverage and you keep covering it because everybody’s talking about it. Even if you don’t manage to catch lightning in a jar the first time around, Mitchell points out that there have been many instances where the paper started out looking into one story and wound up going in a completely unexpected direction.

“Researching a news story should be done with the same approach as empirical science,” Mitchell said.

“You set out to prove or disprove that hypothesis, and that gives you the starting point. There’s been many times that we started out, this was our working hypothesis and discovered, no, when we really got into the story, it was something else altogether.

“But at least that gave us a way of asking questions. And then we keep hammering at it.”

Live in the community to report on the community

One of Mitchell’s requirements is that his reporters live in the community – which can be a bit of a hardship because it’s so expensive in West Marin. But he insists – because so many stories will come from just listening to people in the check-out aisle, or at the post office. Many journalists for metro papers are covering communities that they don’t live in – and wouldn’t be caught in after dark.

Bob Cauthorn, former vice president of digital media at the San Francisco Chronicle, pointed out that most of the disconnect between newspapers and their audience has happened because “the practice of modern journalism, at anything from a mid-size market up, takes place over the telephone.”

“If you have your ass on the street where it belongs, you don’t need a focus group,” Cauthorn said. “Simple as that.”

This has important implications for the online world, where the name of the game is to try to find a niche in which you can prosper. As broadband penetration spreads, as more and more cities start creating wireless Web zones to attract businesses, national and international news will arrive via the Web.

“National news? Piece of cake. Anywhere, everywhere. I can get Pope coverage pretty much anywhere,” said Mark Potts, one of the founders of the all-local citizen journalist startup,

Potts and his investors are betting that as local businesses grow more accustomed to the Web, as more people rely on it for information, there will be a crucial gap opening up that they can fill. A site that tells you how to find a good local plumber, what the Little League schedule is, and what the City Council is doing to try to solve the traffic problem could be a real force. Thus, start-up ultra-local sites could find themselves duking it out with weekly newspapers like the Light.

Invest in your coverage

If you’re reading this, you are probably well aware that plunging circulation figures have collided with corporate demands for 20-30 percent profits and produced a very nasty climate. We’ve all seen the cycle at work – revenues are down, so the newsroom staff has to be cut. Resulting in a thinner, watered-down product, a product the public doesn’t like. So numbers go down even further, budgets have to be cut again, thinner product. Rinse, repeat.

Mitchell took the opposite approach. In the 1990s, he noticed that Mexican immigrants were pouring into Marin County and that even tolerant locals were starting to get a little uneasy. So Mitchell cut his own salary to fund an ambitious series of stories about all the other waves of immigration that had washed ashore (in some cases, literally – they were shipwrecked while on their way to somewhere else).

“We still, ten years later, are getting letters to the editor about this. It was significant. It really told where did the old families come from that made this community, why did they come here, how are their lives different from the relatives who stayed in the old country,” Mitchell said.

The Light’s coverage produced the conclusion that the current wave of Mexican immigration was no different from any of the preceding waves. The immigrants were facing the same difficult journey, the same problems assimilating, the same fear and hysteria over a purported “invasion” that would ruin things, and ultimately the same slow process of integrating into the community.

The stories delighted the old guard families who had been in the area for generations and then helped bridge the gap between the established and the newer waves of immigrants. The stories brought people together, taught them about each other. They provided a staging ground for people to begin to talk to each other.

New models for community news?

Cauthorn envisions weeklies embracing a model where they publish their print version to establish which issues are at the forefront. Then the weekly’s Web site becomes the host for the discussion by the community.

“I think this would be really interesting, because then you have a really dynamic model where you’re flowing readers back and forth between print and online,” Cauthorn said. “The kind of thing that we could do be doing in metro markets, but that would require – oh my God – creative thought.

“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,” Cauthorn exclaimed. “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.”

Cauthorn finds an important lesson in the readers’ rescue of the Light, one that he hopes the other news publishers will pay attention to. “This tells you in no uncertain terms, with a kind of heat and passion that I wish existed in the normal newsroom, that our public wants us to succeed.

“Our public wants us to survive. Our public wants us to thrive. Our public wants newspapers that matter.

“Our public is leaving us because we are chasing them away with a stick.

“Point Reyes proves it.”

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More from Bob Cauthorn

A complete transcript of David’s interview with Bob Cauthorn about the Light and journalism today.