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So What Do You Do, Alan Mutter, 'Reflections of a Newsosaur' Blogger?

This forward-thinker shares his concept for saving the news -- and it's not the 'suicidal' method of charging for Web content

By David Hirschman - October 7, 2009
When longtime newspaperman and Web entrepreneur Alan Mutter started his blog, "Reflections of a Newsosaur," in 2004, he did so on a lark -- thinking that he'd just experiment and learn about the technology. But after posting a few thoughts about the state of the news industry and the coming wave of new media, and then posting a few more, and then a few more, he was hooked. In the five years since, his blog has become a staple in the media world, a regular voice in the ongoing conversation about how the the media will somehow monetize content and save quality journalism. Here he talks about his career, his blog, and why a new wave of sophisticated targeted advertising technology may be journalism's savior.


Name: Alan Mutter
Position: Blogger, "Reflections of a Newsosaur"
Resume: Began his career as a newspaper columnist and editor in Chicago. In 1984, became the No. 2 editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Left the newspaper business in 1988 to join InterMedia Partners, a startup cable TV company, and worked his way up to COO. Moved to Silicon Valley in 1996 to head the first of the three startup companies he led as CEO: a pioneering Internet service provider and two enterprise-software companies. Now works as a consultant and is an adjunct lecturer at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California - Berkeley.
Birthday: February 6th
Hometown: Chicago
Education: BS and MS in communications from the University of Illinois
Marital status: "Perpetual -- I've been married for 35 years."
First section of the Sunday Times: "'Style' -- specifically 'Modern Love.' Sometimes I read the marriages, hoping my daughter will be among them, marrying someone rich."
Favorite TV show: Seinfeld
Last book read: One Minute to Midnight by Michael Dobbs
Guilty pleasure: "Blogging. It's cheaper, but less socially acceptable, than going to a shrink."

Tell me a little about your career and how you got into journalism.
I've always been interested in the news and newspapers. I went to this huge high school in Chicago called Lane Tech which had 5,000 students, all boys. They had two tracks: one was a trade track and one was a college prep track, which I was on. But you were still required to have two years of shop. So I had wood shop and electric shop, but they also had print shop -- and we had a complete printing press in the building, from linotype machines to a pressroom with really large Heidelberg presses. I just ate up the whole idea of print shop. Across the hall was the office of the Lane Daily, the school newspaper, and I was very involved there. Many weeks, the Daily actually came out every day of the week. Some days, there often wasn't enough copy. But the essential idea was that it was written by students, then the type was set by the students, and it was printed by the students. So there was a real daily newspaper there. I just thought everything about it was cool -- from setting type one letter at a time like Benjamin Franklin, to writing stories and investigating the school administration. As soon as I got threatened with being not allowed to graduate if I ran a story, then I was hooked. I had to be a journalist. That what makes journalists journalists -- wanting to disturb the excrement.

"If publishers owned their own system to capture demographic information about their readers and the content that they are reading, they could really gain a considerable amount of the power that they've lost."

I went on to the University of Illinois and had some exceptional professors who keyed me up and helped me get jobs. My first job was in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois at the Champaign-Urbana Courier. Then another of my professors got me an internship at the Chicago Daily News, which was the dream newspaper which I wanted to work for -- and I worked there at a great time. One day at the end of my internship, I noticed that my name was still on the schedule in September even though my internship ended in August. So I went to see the managing editor and asked him about it, and he said, "Oh, yeah. You're hired. Sorry I forgot to tell you."

I moved through a succession of positions there until the Daily News went out of business on March 4th, 1978. I went right across the hall to the Sun-Times, which was [owned] by the same company. One thing led to another, and I became city editor there. In 1984, when Rupert Murdoch bought the paper, many of us left in a huff -- and I was among the huff-ers, or huff-ees, or huff-ingtons. I wound up working at the San Francisco Chronicle, where I was the No. 2 editor between '84 and '88. Then someone offered me a job in what turned out to be the cable TV business, and it doubled the pay, and so I did that for a while. Then I heard about the Internet in the summer of 1995, and by the next year I was the CEO of one of a series of Internet companies. I've gone on since then to be an investor, CEO, board director, kibitzer, consultant… Lately I've been teaching a little bit at UC Berkeley.

What is ViewPass? How did this idea come about, and what are you expecting to do with it?
As you might have heard, things are really tough for the traditional media companies -- especially newspapers, but also broadcasters. And more and more conversations have risen up since the beginning of the year about the idea of trying to sell content, and ways to create revenue streams for online content. We've been giving it away for free for a decade and a half, and I started talking to people to figure out, 'Is there some play there in enabling that activity?' And the more we worked on it and the more we tried to figure out how we could make it happen, the more we became convinced that trying to sell content would be suicidal. There are so many ways for people to access content on the Web that any newspaper or any broadcaster who tried to sell content -- under most circumstances -- would lose audience and relevance very quickly, and probably have a very difficult time trying to recover the ground that had been lost. Still, we thought there has to be a way to improve life for online publishers -- especially those who spend a lot of money creating content. Even the worst-off newspapers and broadcasters today still spend a considerable amount of money creating content. Yet they're competing with people on the Web for advertising who put no amount of money into creating content.

"Buying keyword ads on Google [...] is going to start looking like using leeches to bleed people back in the Revolutionary War. Modern advertising is going to be like nano-surgery, where it just zaps at a particular errant cell."

We came to the realization that advertisers needed to know a lot more about customers on the Web, and that if publishers owned that information and could sell it, [they] could sell advertising at a much higher rate than they can today. If publishers owned their own system to capture demographic information about their readers and the content that they are reading, they could really gain a considerable amount of the power that they've lost in terms of being able to sell and the profits that they can extract from that business.

While I freely admit that I'm not allergic to making money off of this idea, we've been offering it as an industry-owned solution, because we think it's important to strengthen the industry. I think professionally generated journalism matters; I think there's no substitute for it in Twitter or blogging (even my own); and we need people who are full-time on the beat. We need to find a new economic basis that will support that because the traditional means of supporting journalism are breaking down really rapidly.

So this is a totally different concept than the Steve Brill project Journalism Online?
It's like night and day. The difference between dead and alive. The difference between yin and yang. Steve Brill's idea is to create a well-known brand, and at some point to get all the affiliates within that brand to start charging for content. Our idea is to create a well-known brand and get a lot of affiliates -- in the interest of getting people to register with the service so that we begin to track their activities (who they are, where they're living, what they buy, what we know about their families, and also what they're reading…) We want to piece together a profile of that individual. Someone might be reading a stock market story at The Washington Post and some person might be shopping for strollers while another person is shopping for Buicks, and another is looking for cemetery plots -- those are two different people. So they may be reading the same story, but the advertisement that you put in front of them could be based not simply by the context, but also by their interest.

This is a big opportunity. When you think of where the puck is going, you know that advertisers want to be much more targeted in where they place their money. Publishers need to play seriously in the interactive world, and they need to be able to target advertising. Publishers on the ViewPass system -- if they are able to capture a holistic view of the person's reading patterns as well as deep, detailed demographic data about consumers, publishers will have an unsurpassed advantage in the future, when it is all about creating "audiences of one in the moment." This would far surpass what a Google is able to do today, or Tacoda, or anyone else who does behavioral targeting. So this is a game-changer if the publishers can get it together to do it.

The other big difference between us and Steve Brill is that our solution would be created by and for the industry. Brill's business is a for-profit business where private capital would expect a percentage of the profits -- and I'm not against that. But if the industry outsources something that is absolutely core to its future, then it's outsourcing its future. Owning the data about the customers, I'd argue, is significantly more valuable than owning your own trucks or printing presses. Or whether they own the buildings where their people sit.

"If you want to play in the new media world, you have to act like a new media company. Yelp is, Twitter is -- and newspapers aren't right now."

Are there any other projects that people are doing in terms of monetizing content that you think are interesting?
There are essentially only two ways to monetize content. One way is to charge for it, and the other way is advertising. And frankly, the advertising systems that have evolved today for the Internet world are very crude. In a few years, we're going to look back on buying keyword ads on Google -- that way of advertising is going to start looking like using leeches to bleed people back in the Revolutionary War. Modern advertising is going to be like nano-surgery, where it just zaps at a particular errant cell. I'm not taking anything away from Google; it's the state of the art right now. It's just extremely inefficient at matching buyers and sellers; it's not a particularly efficient system for the advertisers or for Google, but because it happens at such scale -- and because Google doesn't put in any money to tracking the audience, it works. I'm not here to tell you that Google is doing a bad job, or is an endangered species. They do the best job with what we know about today. But what I am saying in regards to advertising is that we have really klutzy systems today. But if you look at the market forces today, everything tells you that it's got to change, and it's got to change profoundly.

Why did you start 'Reflections of a Newsosaur,' and what's it all about?
It got started by accident. In the later part of 2004, I was approached by someone who had an idea of making a master blog or uber-blog, picking the best stuff -- in retrospect it was a little like [what] The Huffington Post turned out to be. At the time I was aware that lots of people were blogging, but I couldn't quite tell what to make of it -- in the same way I can't tell what to make of Twitter now. I know people are doing it and talking about it, but I don't know the meaning of it. So one night I set up a blog on [Google publishing tool] Blogger just to see what the technology experience was like. And the second question they ask you is, "What's the name of your blog?" And I came up with "Reflections of a Newsosaur." Then I started posting, and I've been doing it ever since.

I felt that we were at a point of seminal change, and I knew enough, and cared enough, about the media business and where it was going -- and had a decent enough knowledge of the technology -- that I knew what technology was doing and was likely to do next. I had the feeling that there were very few people at the point of appreciating the old and understanding the new. My sense of it then, and it is today, [is] that the people who are involved in the traditional media are not trying to find ways to change their business. Instead, they're trying to preserve and protect and defend the business that they know and love, and are resisting against change.

There was no sufficient appreciation among the suits in the media about how their business was threatened by new media. I mean, we just knew this was coming -- it was obvious. And there were not very many people who were, on a regular basis, sounding the alarm and trying to prod the old media into coming to appreciate and react and respond proactively to these changes.

I figured nobody else was really writing about it, and so I would. Did I think it was going to change the world? Probably not. And in fact I haven't. Someone asked me recently, "Have you changed your thoughts about this stuff now that you've been writing the blog for five years?" And the honest answer is, "Absolutely not." I was saying the exact same thing then that I am saying today -- only I've changed the verb tense. Then I was saying, 'If you don't do this, then your business is going to be f*cked.' Now I'm saying, 'Your business is f*cked because you didn't do this.' But it's not any different.

As a former newspaper guy, do you have a nostalgia for the old way of doing things and the culture around a newsroom?
Oh absolutely. I love it. But it's not happening anymore, and we have to get over it.

If you were in charge of The New York Times and were faced with that paper's problems today, what would you do to insure it's still around in five years or 10 years?
I would be developing a number of niche, premium products that you could charge money for, because I believe the high-quality and specialized content is very valuable, and a place like The New York Times can get paid for doing its job by selling that information. The other thing, which I've discussed at some length, is to move into more intelligent advertising systems.

I think that we've come to a point now, in terms of the arc of the printed product, that where the customer is and where the economy is are the two factors at hand. If the economy were healthier, there would probably be more money to support the production of the physical product. We are in a definite long-term economic drop that works against the print product. At the same time, we're also in a clear demographic shift, where younger people don't prize the print product as much as older people embrace it. So I think you have to plan for having ever less reliance on the printed product. I would be thinking about building out channels of information and building community around those channels. If you want to play in the new media world, you have to act like a new media company. Yelp is, Twitter is -- and newspapers aren't right now.


David Hirschman is editor of mediabistro.com's Daily Media Newsfeed.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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