As editor of the Greensboro News & Record for 27 years, John Robinson has experienced the apex and decline of the newspaper industry.
Born in Virginia and raised in Oklahoma, Robinson moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, at age 16. Robinson got into the newspaper business haphazardly. He graduated from Saint Andrews College with the intent to study law, and decided that in order to be a more competitive applicant, he needed to work for a couple of years. He tried teaching junior high school students, but hated it. He went on to work in construction, but that wasn’t for him, either. After a conversation with his mother, he decided to try a field in which he could write: the newspaper business.
A friend told Robinson the News & Record had a reporter position available. Robinson applied, but instead was offered a position as editor. He gladly accepted.
As editor of the News & Record, Robinson confronted the challenges of running a newspaper in a period of significant industry change. Among other decisions, he had to make difficult choices about staff reductions. During the recession, 17 full-time staffers were laid off from the News and Record. Robinson was responsible for notifying each of them that they would be out of work. “If someone’s going to be fired from my operation, it’s going to be by me.”
Laying off co-workers and friends was among Robinson’s most difficult experiences and one of the reasons why he left the News & Record in 2011. Among other reasons were, “The pain caused by the financial problems, the obsession with profit, the second guessing, the lack of vision from the industry, the sense of helplessness and inevitability in the decline,” he wrote in 2012.
“I had grown tired of the constant cost-cutting and longed to do something more fulfilling,” he wrote in his blog, “Media, Disrupted.” “I realized that with the challenges ahead of the paper, it was time for someone else to take the wheel.”
Upon Robinson’s resignation, journalist Steve Buttry praised him as one of the best editors the paper ever had. He “brought an endless flow of new ideas,” Buttry wrote, “and was eager to embrace new media.” Robinson was one of the first newsroom leaders to begin blogging.
Robinson still blogs on “Media, Disrupted,” for which he critiques North Carolina papers and opines about improvements. “I’m a newspaper lover,” he says.
And although teaching middle school didn’t appeal to him, Robinson, who still lives in Greensboro, now teaches reporting classes at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Not only is he able to share with aspiring journalists his vast experience navigating the ups and downs of the newspaper industry—his students’ media habits provide valuable fodder for his blog.
Interviewee: John Robinson
Date: March 3, 2015
Location: Halls of Fame Room, Carroll Hall, University of North Carolina
Interviewer: D’chante Mckenzie
Interview Length: 55 mins 13 sec
Transcribed by/date: D’chante Mckenzie, April 2015
D’chante Mckenzie: Good morning, this is D’chante Mckenzie. It is Tuesday, March 3, 2015. I am in Carroll Hall in the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Halls of Fame room. I am interviewing Professor John Robinson, who teaches news writing here. Thank you for agreeing to this interview with me, Professor Robinson.
John Robinson: My pleasure.
DM: The first question I’d like to ask you is, where are you from and why did you get into the news business?
JR: Well, I was born in Virginia, but I was raised in Oklahoma. I moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, when I was 16, and graduated from high school there. I’ve been in North Carolina almost ever since then, for 40 years.
I got into the news business in a haphazard sort of way. I graduated from college planning to go to law school. But I graduated from Saint Andrews College, which not very many people knew about, and I thought I would get into a better law school if I worked for a year or two. So I took enough education courses to get certified to teach. I taught what they used to call junior high school in Salisbury for a year and hated it. You know, I was really terrible at it, dealing with 14-year-old, 15-year-old kids.
So I quit, and I went and lived at the beach for a while. Then I needed to get a job and I worked construction for five or six months, until one day in February—this was still in Raleigh—we were working outside and the temperature didn’t get above eight degrees. At that point, I decided I really need to put my college education to work, which my parents agreed with. My mother—it’s just like yesterday–I remember sitting at the dining room table at my parents’ house talking to her about it. My mother said, “So, what would you really just like to do?” and I said, “I’d like to write.” I was an English major. She said, “So, what professions are there that would let you write?” I settled on newspapers. I was still planning to go to law school; I was just going to work at the newspaper for a year. I got a job in Monroe, North Carolina, as a reporter and never looked back. A hundred dollars a week and loved every second of it.
DM: You’ve been in the news industry around 37 years or so, and about 27 of those years were spent at the [Greensboro News and Record]. So this puts the time frame around the ‘70s, which was following the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So, I would like to ask how you experienced, if you experienced at all, the rise of minorities or women in the journalism or news industry field?
JR: Let me think for a second. There were—there was one woman when I was in Monroe, which is where I stayed for about two years. We had five reporters, and there was one woman. [correction by Robinson: “There were two women reporters.”] There was not a single minority that I can think of in the newsroom. I then moved to Asheville and there was one minority reporter there, and there were a couple women. There were several women there. No minorities or women in management. Then I went to the News & Observer, and there were a lot of women there and there were a handful of—and when I say minority, I’m talking about African Americans—there were a handful of African Americans. There were one or two women in management and no minorities. I don’t know that we even—and this is going to sound terrible—I don’t know that we even paid attention to Latinos or Asians at that time. And, of course, since then—well, since then it’s gotten better.
When I was editor of the News & Record, I would fill out a form every year—and this is beginning in 1999, that, for the American Association of Newspaper Editors [correction by Robinson: American Society of Newspaper Editors], which is the national organization for newspaper editors, in which I had to track the number of women and minority photographers, reporters, etc., and managers and how many we’ve had and how many we lost over that previous year. So, it’s been an emphasis. In my newspaper, the News & Record in particular, there was an expectation from corporate leadership that we would vigorously try to attract and retain minorities. We didn’t have trouble attracting and retaining women, but raising women into management spots and minorities into management spots…at one point in the mid-2000s, I wrote a newspaper column in which I was going to make sure that at least every third hire was a minority. The conservatives in my readership did not like that, thinking it was a quota and that automatically meant that we were going to hire down–hire people who weren’t qualified. I insisted that we could certainly hire at least one—the one-third came from 33 percent of our circulation area were African Americans. I said no, we can certainly find qualified African Americans, and that’s insulting that you guys would even say that, which infuriated them even more. But it went away. We were moderately successful; we were not entirely successful with that goal.
DM: Well, thank you for that. I appreciate your insight. Talking more about the N&R, what made you choose it? Was it location, or was it a newspaper you grew up with?
JR: No, I didn’t grow up with it. It was a well-respected newspaper. At the time I was in Virginia Beach freelancing and living with my girlfriend, soon to be my wife. She was from Greensboro, and her father told her he was going to retire and asked her if she wanted to run—in fact, asked her to come back and run the family business, which was the Canada Dry bottling franchise in North Carolina. That brought us back to Greensboro where we got married, and I needed a job. I knew how to be a newspaper editor, [Correction by Robinson: “I did say editor, but I meant reporter.”] and one of my friends and guys who eventually became one of my mentors was an editor at the News & Record. He said, “We have a reporter’s job open if you want to apply.” I did, and they called me and said, “Well, we’re not going to offer you the reporter’s job, but we have an editor’s job that we think you’d be better suited for.” So, I took it and went from there.
DM: Alright. So, a little bit more of a light question. What was your first impression of the N&R when you started working there, and what types of tools and materials were used during that time for reporters and editors as opposed to now?
JR: I had been at the News & Observer for a while, which was an excellent newspaper and remains outstanding. Greensboro, I think, was either the same size as the News & Observer or maybe a little larger at the time. It’s not anymore. So, I was used to the environment and there were a couple News & Observer people there, including Cole Campbell—the guy I was talking about who became a mentor–and who, by the way, was an editor of the Daily Tar Heel. So it felt natural to me; there were people I knew there. People I’d either competed with on stories when I was at the News & Observer, or I was friends with. So, my impression was, it’s a new job and I have people’s names to learn. I’d never been an editor before, and so that was a little bit intimidating. But other than that it wasn’t any big culture shock.
The tools were an old computer system. They were about two and a half feet deep. The screens were about the size of an iPad screen. And they crashed. A lot. You just wouldn’t get it. You would occasionally get a warning that they were going to crash. They would flicker and someone would shout out, “We’re about to crash! Save your work!”
JR: And if you did, great. Most of the time you didn’t have time to save it, so unless you saved just constantly you would lose your work. They weren’t like anything you’re used to now. And, you know, reporters used pencils, pens, and reporters’ [note]pads; the same kind they do now. They didn’t take any of these sorts of tools [gestures toward recorder]. I had a recorder that was about the size of a woman’s pocket book. Pocket—? No, wallet. It was about the thickness of War and Peace. You occasionally carry it around if you needed to record something. But for me it was more trouble than it’s worth. I just relied on my notes and my memory, and that’s how you learned and just developed your own shorthand. It worked fine.
DM: So, at the N&R you spent 13 years as the editor. You already told me how you got the position, but what were your actual responsibilities as the editor?
JR: You’re talking about the editor of the whole paper?
JR: At the very beginning, in 1999, I was in charge of all the news content in the newspaper. Advertising content was someone else’s responsibility. The editorial pages–I had been an editorial page editor, but I was not in charge of those pages. But other than that, I was in charge of everything else. I was in charge of the news department. At that time, there were a hundred and twenty-ish news employees that ultimately reported to me. I didn’t directly supervise all of them. Whenever a reporter went out and wrote a story that I thought needed my eyes on it, because I was either interested in it or because it was sensitive in some fashion, I would read it. Most of the time, I didn’t read. I certainly did not read everything that went into the newspaper every day. At one point in there–it wasn’t my responsibility immediately—at one point early in the 2000s, I was in charge of our digital operation, too.
DM: Ddid you ever feel any type of pressure being editor of the paper? How did you handle it if you did?
JR: Pressure how? Because, yeah, every day was kind of pressure.
DM: Well, in terms of…hmm.
JR: Well, I’ll just talk. Yeah. I felt pressure from three or four different quarters. I felt pressure from readers. You know, my job was to balance what they wanted versus what I thought they needed to know, and try to figure out the news content that would grab the readers and interest them. Then how to package the news content that they really weren’t interested in, but they should be interested in so that they would become interested in it. I heard from readers every day about things we did wrong. I rarely heard about things that they liked, which is fine. I didn’t hear so much from advertisers. A lot of people seemed to think that advertisers have a lot of sway over the content of the newspaper. They didn’t, in my case. I had a good relationship with all the ad directors we had. They understood what newspapers were supposed to do. I would occasionally get collared by someone who was an advertiser when I was either out shopping or out on the town, and they’d just know who I was because I wrote a column in the paper. They recognized me and so they would say that I need to do more to help business, and we talked about that.
I felt pressure from my own employees who are just like a class of 120 students who all had different aims and desires. They wanted more pay, they wanted better hours, better beats, and better treatment in their stories. Part of that was my responsibility to figure out if they were right, and how I could get it to them. I’d often hear from sources, council members, or legislators who didn’t like something we did or who wanted coverage that we weren’t giving them, and that would be some sort of pressure. But, you know, I faced less pressure than probably a police officer walking around campus.
DM: You said you felt a lot of pressure from your readers. During the long period of time at the N&R, you know, we started to shift toward the digital age. So I wanted to know, when did you start to notice a shift in the readership with the rise of the digital age, and how did it affect your position as the editor?
JR: It was in 2004 when we in the newspaper industry—and I bought into it, to my regret —had the idea that we could just put our content online, and people would have another choice: they could read us online or they could read us in print. [Correction by Robinson: “My regret was that I bought into the idea of putting all our content online for free.”]. We had some national surveys that showed the biggest online readers were also the biggest print readers. So it didn’t seem like it was the big threat to us that it’s turned out to be. It just seemed like an opportunity for us to reach more people.
In 2004—the reason I know that date is because that’s when I started a blog talking about the newspaper and why we did some of the things that we did, and asking people for comments…I was an early adopter. A much earlier and much smarter adopter than me, a guy named Jay Rosen, who’s at New York University, wrote about on his blog what we were trying to do in Greensboro. Because I had a blog, and I think at the time about a dozen blogs, reporters’ blogs. That just hadn’t been done at newspapers. The New York Times wrote about us, and the Associated Press wrote about us, and a lot of journalism publications wrote about what we were trying to do there. As I read more about how people’s habits were changing–first I thought it was great; we were going to get more readers. Then I started to get alarmed because our budgets and revenues started going down as people canceled and advertisers moved their money elsewhere. So it was probably in about 2007, when there was also the recession starting, that it really became alarming…budgetary constraints, costs…some real issues.
DM: I’m glad you brought up the blogging because I read online Steve Buttry, he’s a colleague of yours, he noted in his blog that you were one of the first editors to begin blogging and made it—a blog—an experience in the newsroom. Could you elaborate more on how you brought blogging into the newsroom?
JR: The person at the time—this was in 2003—the person in charge of our digital operation, I asked him about blogs because an early blogger in Greensboro had been bugging me about starting a blog. The guy in charge of our digital operation said, “Yeah, nah, you don’t want do that. We could do it, but it would be hard, and you don’t want to do that.” I paid attention to him for about a year because I had had enough on my plate, anyway. Finally in 2004, it seemed to make sense. I wanted to try it. I was not attempting to be any kind of pioneer. In fact, I had no idea who was really doing it, I don’t think.
So, we sat around—well, first we decided to start with sports. Actually sports was the first. We set up a blog for sports writers and they were really terrible at it. Because there’s a certain amount of art to them that you have to pay attention to them. You can’t write too long, you have to be okay with opinion and you have to be okay with people calling you an idiot. They and their editor really didn’t like the idea of them having opinion–putting too much opinion out there. But I watched them for a little while and said okay, I want to do this—or I want to expand what we’re doing and decided that I was going to do it. Because I wanted to, but also because I knew that to make the newsroom comfortable with an online operation like we were trying to build, I needed to be involved. If you look across the country, you see a lot of online operations in which the editors aren’t involved—the New York Times—I think they’re very busy. The editor there doesn’t blog, he doesn’t tweet. How can you ask your people to do something that you won’t do?
I started, and we then expanded the number of blogs that we had just because there’s some reporters who were interested in doing it. The younger ones kind of got a clue on where the world was turning. The older ones hated it. I forced people to do it, and that was a failure. You force people to do something they don’t want to do, they don’t–unless you stay on them with a whip, they just won’t do it, or they won’t do it right.
So I backed off of that. It was really just a grand experiment for a couple of years. I just kept doing it because I liked it and because it got us some attention and it seemed to be the transparency that newspapers needed to have. It seemed to be a way for readers to reach me without picking up the phone, without writing a letter to the editor. It seemed to be the way things were going, and I wanted to give them that option. All in all it was a lot of fun. There were some moments when I lost my temper with readers and commenters based on some of the accusations they’d say and the personal attacks. But, you know, that was my bad. It wasn’t their bad.
DM: You have a blog now, called “Media, Disrupted.” Was this the blog you originally created or is this a new one? And what is the content of this?
JR: Because newspapers are such large operations and they have such money invested in their publishing, what we call their content management system, to operate the web and operate the newsroom–they don’t change them out very often. As you know, technology changes very quickly. We had these old systems and about every five years they’d buy a new one. That’s probably wrong. It’s probably every eight years. In any case, it’s very difficult to find my newspaper blog now because they’ve gone through a couple of new systems. Because I don’t work there and can’t tell them what to do anymore…you can Google it and find some cached copies of blog posts; at least I can. They’re very hard to read and they don’t look like they did when I was writing them. So all that, as far as I’m concerned, is gone.
The purpose of my old blog was to talk about journalism in the newspapers operation. The purpose of my new blog is to talk about journalism. My old blog I would try to write five times a week. This one, I write maybe once or twice a week just because I have other things to do.
DM: Earlier you brought up the 2007 recession. I read that, in 2007, the N&R began to experience a lot of layoffs due to the recession. Were you in charge of laying off any employees or did it affect you at all? Were you laid off for any period of time and came back, or—?
JR: I did all the layoffs. It was newspaper-wide, so when people got laid off in other departments not related to news, I didn’t do them. But if somebody’s going to be fired from my operation, it was going to be by me. It wasn’t going to be by a deputy editor. One day, I laid off seventeen full-time people. I laid off, I think it was thirty altogether. I’d never been laid off.
Did it affect me? Yeah. It scarred me. It was a contributing factor for me finally leaving the business altogether. I’d laid off people in four different time frames as the budget got worse and worse. You know, it’s funny. The reactions I got ranged from, “Okay, I get it. I understand;” to one person just bursting into tears and crying for the 15 minutes I was with her; to one person who, sitting at a table—it was round and was about five feet from me, and there were papers on the table because we gave the departing person a package—you know, here are answers to your questions and here’s what you do about health insurance, and here’s what you do about your pay that’s outstanding and all that. And the person, 30 seconds into my spiel about letting them go–they wiped all the papers off the table, called me a few names and stormed out of the room. All in the course of a minute. So it was just kind of like…okay. It was a tough time certainly for the people who were laid off, but for me it was some kind of real psychic damage that I couldn’t really recover from. So I just ended up leaving the business several years later.
DM: If you don’t feel comfortable talking about it, it’s okay but, which—did you lay off somebody in particular that you regret laying off that really didn’t take it very well, like the crying woman? Or somebody that really needed the job or something?
DM: Was there one person in particular that stood out?
JR: Yes, and this was just awful. There was one guy who had cancer and he needed the health insurance. I knew that and hadn’t planned to have him…I had to create a list of people that I was going to lay off, and we had to pull together pay for them and just various details about their employment before we told them. He wasn’t on my list; someone else from that department was. There’s this complicated process that you have to go through about you can’t replace their position…well, there’s a complicated process you have to go through. I had decided because of tenure that I would have to lay him off. It was really trying to figure out, can I eliminate the work that these people do? What will happen? Can I go without it? What’s the sacrifice if they’re not going to be there?
I figured I could get rid of one person in his department, and I thought he was not the most recently hired. He had more tenure than someone else; so I had that someone else on the list. The HR department said, why do you have this person on the list instead of this guy, who has cancer–they didn’t know he had cancer. I said he’s the lowest—he has the least tenure. They said no, this guy—the one with cancer–has the least tenure. I said okay, I’m taking him off the list. And the boss—the publishers said, you can’t do that, you’ve singled him out—you said you can go without a person in his department. You can’t suddenly say you have to have a person in the department just because this guy has cancer. I said, yes, I can; I’ll find someone else. We argued about it for about a day, and I lost. I had to call him in and lay him off. He’s dead now. That was probably the worst—I mean, he lived for five years after that, and he ended up getting another job, so it turned out okay. But at the time, it was difficult. Crying’s a natural reaction, and shouting…curse words—I mean I understand that. I understand both. I would hate to be sitting at that table.
DM: Well, thank you for sharing. I know that was probably difficult to talk about. Shifting over to circulation, as far as the paper. As of September 2012 the N&R had an average Sunday circulation of 81,600 and a Monday-Friday circulation of 54,789. This was down about five percent from September 2011. If you remember, how do these numbers compare to when you were the editor? Were they lower or higher?
JR: Oh, we went down from about 2002 until I left. We probably went down about five percent every year. You talk to the people in circulation and they will tell you that what determines whether someone’s going to cancel the paper really is not content, it’s primarily delivery problems. What determines whether they’ll take the paper is price and content. And you know, with the growth of the Internet, with people’s changing habits, newspapers finally just became much more dispensable. So people your age, they didn’t subscribe to the newspaper once they got out of college. People my age…they just did.
DM: Okay. So, you left the N&R in 2011?
JR: 2011, yes.
DM: And you already told me part of the reason why you resigned was because of layoffs and how that was affecting you psychologically. Was there another reason why you wanted to retire, or, just–?
JR: There are a lot of reasons. Mostly it was, like I said, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010—every year I did the layoff. One of those years I was able to skip the layoffs because I budgeted smartly. It wasn’t until about 2010 that I said to myself, I can’t do what I want to do with a newsroom that’s shrinking all the time. With a newsroom that’s not getting raises. Where I’m cutting content, cutting pages. I just can’t do what I want to do. I pondered that for a while because I really did love the newspaper and tried to figure out what I was going to do. I was still a sprightly fifty-something, and I had a child in college and needed to support myself. I didn’t feel like I was getting the emotional support I needed from my supervisor, who I didn’t think was particularly sympathetic to news or what we were trying to do. Finally I went to my wife, who keeps our finances, and said, okay, both kids are out of school and are gainfully employed. When can I quit? And we had a series of discussions about that and finally, it just became time to go ahead and do it, give someone else a chance to do this. I’ve done it for 13 years and I’ve done the best I can. But I’m not walking in the same direction as my publisher, and he needs to be able to have somebody that he wants to go off into the future with.
DM: Did you ever feel like you were able to make any type of a difference in the news industry, though, while you were there? Because I’m reading blogs of people that worked with you. They seem to like you a lot. So, I was wondering if you felt like you were able to make a change, because they seem to.
JR: Yeah, sure. We did some really good journalism there. We won three General Excellence awards for newspapers in North Carolina. We went up against Charlotte and Raleigh, and we were picked by Editor and Publisher—twice when I was there—for their “Ten Newspapers That Do It Right” edition. Getting in the New York Times for some of our digital operations is significant. We wrote good stories and I tried to treat people—.
The News & Record was owned by Landmark Communications and, at the time. it was an unusual company. They’re not that way anymore. But it was an unusual company because it really did put a lot of emphasis on the journalism, on hiring and promoting minorities and women into thinking differently, and to treating employees with the kind of respect that they ought to be treated with. It was important for me that my staff knew what it was we were trying to do in journalism. They were all there for the same reason that I was. They wanted to tell good stories and kick ass. I used to tell them this: We’ll work you fifteen hours a day if we feel like it. We’ll make you miss innumerable dinners with your family. We will send you into hurricanes. We’ll not pay you very well. We will use equipment that crashes all the time. The least we can do is have fun while you’re here, and treat you like you’re a man or you’re a woman rather than you’re a child. So, you know, we’re going to have fun here. If you don’t want to be a journalist and go off and do some of this stuff, great. Maybe you could go work in a bank or selling trips or something. But while you’re here, we’re going to have fun. Did it make a difference to them? I don’t know. It made a difference to me.
DM: And do you still keep up with the N&R? Do you, you know, check the website? Call? Say, “hi?”
JR: I still have friends there, sure, and have lunch with them or go have beers with them. The newspaper’s since been sold. My reference is to Landmark Communications; they don’t own it anymore. They don’t do it anymore because they’re getting out of the communication business altogether. I don’t know the managers there now. I had a beer with the new editor–who became the publisher–when he first came and haven’t spoken to him since, although we exchanged a few Twitter messages. I still subscribe to the paper. I do not go to the website because I hate it. It has a lot of crime news. They’re trying to get traffic and there are a lot of other places that are better. But I still read the newspaper because it’s what my generation does, and I have friends there I want to support.
DM: So what made you decide to become a professor, and why UNC?
JR: It was serendipity. When I announced my resignation from the newspaper, I did it a month before I left. A former reporter there, for whom I’d written a recommendation letter to go to grad school, was acting something-or-other at the communication school at Elon. She said, you should come and teach a class here. That was in December and the term started in the end of January, beginning of February, so I assumed they had a vacancy. I didn’t realize that they line you up six months in advance.
But, anyway, I went over there and taught for a semester, and it was a culture shock to me. It was three days a week and I was creating the class ten hours in advance. At the end they didn’t ask me to come back. I sent them a message saying, “So, do you want me back, or what?” [My teaching] had never been observed so they had no way of knowing if I was any good or not. They said, oh, no, we’re all full up. I should have contacted you earlier, da-da-da. I said, okay, I’ll do something else.
A week later, Chris Roush [Senior Associate Dean, UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication] here sent me a note and said, “I got two classes. Do you want them? One will be like your Elon class. The other is a news writing class that everybody has to go through.” I said yes, and then two days after that, the Dean at the School of Communications at Elon—who was not involved; he was on leave or something—said, “Oh, my God, I didn’t know that we didn’t have you back. We have classes you can teach. Come on back.” I said, “Oh, man. I’ve already committed to Chapel Hill.” They’ve tried to get me back a couple times at Elon. There’s something about teaching at one of the premier journalism schools in the country and dealing with students like you who are here trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, and maybe they’ll go into journalism. The idea of being able to touch even ten percent of my students so that they will be inspired in some fashion is exciting to me.
DM: Thank you. So, I hear, “The news industry’s fading out.” “No, the news industry’s not fading out.” I need an honest answer from somebody who’s worked there for so long. Do you believe that the news industry is truly fading out? And if so, how are you welcoming in this new digital age?
JR: I believe that newspapers are fading away. I believe that television news is much more gradually fading away. I don’t think that news itself is going away. I think it’s going to be harder to make money doing it, and probably harder to keep your integrity doing it so that you don’t spend a whole lot of time creating white-and-gold-dress versus blue-and-black-dress content. [In February 2015, a photograph posted to the social media site Tumblr prompted a spirited Internet discussion over a dress’s true colors.]
JR: Or, or as TV did, you know chasing the llamas. [In February 2015, Arizona police efforts to capture two escaped domesticated llamas made national news. The “llama drama” prompted a series of Internet memes and parodies.] So I think that’s going to be a struggle for the next generation, to try to figure out how to get the news and information that’s important to democracy into the brain pans of citizens. Can it be done? Of course it can be done. The thing that I tell students is, you guys are on the first line of this incredible revolution in communication, and you’ve got to figure it out. I also say, my first newspaper job–I got paid a hundred dollars a week. It went a lot farther than a hundred dollars goes now, but it wasn’t a whole lot of money. But it was a lot of fun. That first newspaper job in Monroe was the most fun I’d had in a job because I could do anything. I could go write about anything. It’s the same way now. You’ll just have to figure out what people are going to pay for. You know, maybe through an app of some sort, or maybe through ads on Buzzfeed, or maybe through spam emails that you get. I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that there are a lot of people making money doing it. Maybe through Facebook.
If you’re asking me for hope, I’d say yeah, there’s hope. You need to figure it out and figure out how important money is to you versus having fun with what you do. I truly believe the money will come as we navigate this new economic model.
DM: And so my last question, which you kind of touched on a little bit, what sort of words of wisdom would you give to someone who was adamant about going into the newspaper industry? How would you have them prepare for it? What should they look forward to? Downfalls, successes, etc.?
JR: The newspaper industry or the news industry?
DM: Either, or.
JR: This is in no certain order—only in the order that I think of it. I would be a lifelong learner. Too many people get out of school, get their first job, and think they know everything and don’t want to experience new stuff. That is just toxic, I think. Some of my friends who make fun of Twitter, but have never been on Twitter, or they aren’t on Facebook but make fun of Facebook. I used to argue with them, and now I just kind of shake my head. You’re condemning something without even knowing what it is. And things are happening so fast that you need to keep up. So that would be the first thing I’d say.
The second thing I’d say is you need to practice your craft. I am to this day learning how to be a better writer. There’s lots of ways to do it. You need to do it and not think that you’re good enough, because you’re not good enough. That’s another problem with people, that they just get to the point where, “Well, you know, okay. Got it.” You need to be able to have all these skills in front of you, whether it’s recording, whether it’s video, whether it’s writing. They all matter. I didn’t have to worry so much about, about recording anything. All I had to do was be able to get your quotes down right and understand the big pictures and then come back and write it. But now, of course, you need to be able to do all that kind of thing. I don’t know that that’s particularly hard. I think that’s just required. You’re not going to be great at all of those things, but it just requires you to learn how to do it and keep trying to figure out how to do it better.
The last thing I would say is you really need to—if I were doing it over again, I would find some class about creativity and innovation. I keep insisting to all my classes that there’s no reason I can think of that any of the students couldn’t create the next YouTube, the next Instagram. It’s simply an idea—you can get someone to create the website for you or create the app for you. It’s the idea. Ten years ago…“Hey, let’s put videos online. Let’s just create a site where people can put their own videos online—here I’ll show you how to do it. I’m going to put one up of me going to the zoo,”–which was the first video. It was like fifteen seconds. It was posted on YouTube by one of the founders of YouTube, and it’s a nothing video. But the idea that people would actually want to post their photos online and let me make money from it, or that you would want to create this ephemeral, “I’m going to send you a message that you can do some funny things with a picture, and it’ll disappear in a minute.” Snapchat is now worth like five million billion dollars, or something. There’s no reason you couldn’t figure out how to do that.
I wish I’d knew more about—well, I did spend a lot of time thinking about creativity and innovation when I was trying to become the editor of the newspaper. But I almost set aside twenty minutes a day—some amount of time a day to think of how could I make the world a better place, or, how can I make going to college more efficient? You know, that Connect Carolina system for registration–everyone hates it. Phase one, phase two, phase three, phase four, tickets, everyone hates it. They want better. How could we just think about those things, and, you know, something would hit.
Last thing—that was my second to last thing. Have fun. I mean, really. Journalism is this wonderful thing where you get to go around and ask people questions and write about things that are interesting, and couch them in ways you think are interesting that people might read. You know, it’s a gas. And you ought to enjoy that.
DM: All right, thank you for your time, professor. I really enjoyed hearing your story. And that concludes today’s interview.
END OF INTERVIEW