Session Reporter: Ron Menchaca
Conversationalist 1: Peter Rinearson
Conversationalist 2: Ron Menchaca
1. What is the story of your work and how did it lead to saying “yes” to this gathering?
Ron: I work at The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper, where I started my journalism career in 1998. I have covered several beats over the years, including county government and the Port of Charleston. I am currently assigned to my newspaper’s Watchdog team, which attempts to involve readers in investigative reporting in print and on the web. But we have struggled to
market the concept inside and outside our newsroom. I said “yes” to the conference in hopes of gaining a better understanding of how other newspapers and media outlets solicit reader involvement and gain buy-in for new concepts from reporters and editors. I also hope to share some of our experiences launching our Watchdog team and tackling projects that empower residents.
Peter: I’ve been interested in the role of community created content since I was in college at the University of Washington, and interested in electronic delivery of news since my first years in the Seattle Times newsroom. In college, David Horsey (who later would win two Pulitzer Prizes for his cartooning) and I drove the country interviewing managing editors on the topic of public access to the media, and discovered that by and large these editors — from major papers in New York, Baltimore, Washington, Detroit,
Chicago, Louisville, St. Louis, Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco — believed that letters to the editor and ombudsmen were sufficient mechanisms for direct expression of public views. At the Seattle Times, I was the first reporter to use a computer terminal exclusively to write, and this lead to an interest in word processing and my eventual departure from daily journalism to the worlds of software and the Web. I remain captivated by the question of how the public should be served by journalists, and the role of mediated versus unmediated participation by the public. I’ve attended Poynter gatherings in the past, both as a former member of its National Advisory Board and as a faculty member of a somewhat similar seminar three years ago. I always find the interaction stimulating, and welcome the opportunity to hear from so many people with interesting and sometimes-diverging perspectives.
2. We’re well beyond the debate that journalism is changing. Tell me about an experience you’ve had with these new realities — roles, tools, relationships, economics — in which the emerging news ecology actually made a difference in telling a story that mattered. What did that experience teach you about the gifts of both new ways of working and the traditional roots of journalism?
Ron: In the wake of the June 18, 2007, Sofa Super Store fire that killed nine Charleston firefighters, my newspaper set out to learn what went wrong. We eventually uncovered numerous failings in the Charleston Fire Department that directly contributed to the firefighters’ deaths. Our reporting helped prompt a sweeping overhaul of the department’s training, tactics and equipment. At the time of the fire, my newspaper was in the process of putting more breaking news stories on the web and encouraging reporters to file web updates throughout the day. The sofa store fire — the worst firefighting tragedy since 9/11 and a major national news story — accelerated the newspaper’s plans to focus more on our website’s news coverage. We published mountains of stories, photos and video to a special web page in the first few days and weeks after the fire. Our website crashed at least once because of the extraordinary interest in the story from around the world. Tips and sources also streamed in through the web. Almost immediately, firefighters and fire service experts from around the world began raising concerns about the firefighting tactics they saw depicted in the published photos and videos and described in stories on our website. Similar discussions unfolded on blogs and in the comment sections below the web stories. These early tips and sources proved invaluable in our subsequent investigation. Many of the local and state firefighting sources we might ordinarily have relied on in the wake of the fire were too close to the tragedy and couldn’t or wouldn’t say anything critical, even though many were deeply troubled by the disregard for safety they saw or heard about at the sofa store fire scene. Instead, our website drew in potential sources and possible story angles from the larger fire service profession around the world. The type of investigative reporting we were able to do would have been nearly impossible without the reach and two-way conduit afforded by new media.
Peter: I am no longer a working journalist, so my engagement in the practice of journalism is somewhat academic. As a consumer of news, I often find the reader comments, especially in the New York Times, to be fascinating.
3. Without being humble, what do you value most about yourself? What do you see yourself bringing to this meeting?
Ron: I’m tenacious and self-motivated — qualities that have helped immensely in my role as an investigative reporter. I know what it’s like to work in a smaller newsroom and how difficult it is to pursue a breed of journalism that drains time and resources with no guarantee that the final product will attract the slightest notice. I’d like to raise the flag for investigative reporting as part of the larger discussion about the future of our craft. I believe that the recent resurgence in local watchdog reporting at many daily newspapers is not a coincidence: In a time of uncertainty and dropping circulation, many newspapers are returning to the muckraking roots they know best.
Peter: My career has been one of deliberate change. Every few years I do something new, where I can be a beginner again. I started as a newspaper reporter. I wrote the leading books of their time on how to use Microsoft Word. I did foundational work for Word’s built-in document designs. I started the first software company devoted to enhancing Microsoft Word, and among other things designed and developed the toolbar that Microsoft eventually licensed for use in Microsoft Word for the Mac. For a decade, we manufactured the “Foreign Proofing Tools” that people use to work with Microsoft Office in various languages. I wrote a book (“The Road Ahead”) with Bill Gates, and collaborated with him for four years on a newspaper column carried by the New York Times Syndicate. I ran a design studio that did projects as varied as special effects for a television series (Bill Nye the Science Guy), logo design for Real Networks, and an 85-foot mural for Disney’s Epcot Center. In the second half of the 1990’s I built an Internet company that tried to interest the newspaper industry in Web technology that allowed a blend of professional and community content. When I got no traction with newspapers I sold it to a cable television network (Oxygen) that ultimately didn’t understand community content either. I was a vice president at Microsoft, where I ran a product incubator, developed products intended to drive enterprise adoption of Microsoft Office, and oversaw the company’s internal intranet, electronic and physical libraries, and archives. Now I’ve started a new business, which will launch a service at Intersect.com later this year. Unless I stay with Intersect indefinitely, in a few years I’ll probably try something entirely different, my most radical departure from my newspaper roots. So if I have a value at this meeting, it may be as somebody who has seen change as opportunity more than threat. I’ve had successes and failures, and have appreciated both. Change fosters anxiety in me too, but I embrace it when it isn’t for its own sake.
4. What is it about journalism without which it would cease to be journalism; what is its essential core? What are you ready to let go of?
Ron: Enterprise, original reporting and context. I’m OK if the print product ultimately disappears. We can still do what we do without staining readers’ fingers.
Peter: Putting the interests of the consumer first. I can let go of paper, and have.
5. The year is 2014 and the new news ecology is a vibrant media landscape. What is journalism bringing to communities and democracy that matters most? What steps did we take back in 2009 to begin to bring this about?
Ron: Journalism will continue to hold governments and powerful institutions accountable. But newspapers can’t ignore their communities. Newspapers have become arrogant — we’ll tell you what’s important — and must do a better job of listening to readers, their tips and concerns. Investigative reporters at medium and smaller newspapers, in particular, must not focus exclusively on long-range projects. Many quick-hit and short-range investigative stories are worthwhile and relatively easy for an experienced investigative reporter to peel off. These efforts can often be done in collaboration with beat reporters, which helps assuage gripes that project reporters don’t contribute to the daily newspaper. Pairing project and beat reporters also helps infuse a more aggressive reporting mentality across the newsroom because beat reporters can and do become so entrenched in their day-to-day rounds that they start sounding like their sources and lose sight of accountability stories. Investigative reporting is part of the solution to journalism’s challenges, and it must be part of any discussion about the future of the profession.
Peter: I don’t know how optimistic to be, in the five-year timeframe, on this very important issue. Newspapers have played an enormously importantrole in keeping our society healthy. I don’t look forward to a day without a well-funded New York Times.