A Newsosaur Takes to the Web  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2009

A Newsosaur Takes to the Web   

Alan Mutter and his quest to help figure out the future of journalism Online Exclusive posted 6/23/09 3:08p.m.

By Priya Kumar
Priya Kumar (2priyak@gmail.com) is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.     


While sipping single malt scotch one December evening in 2004, Alan Mutter decided to check out blogs. He wanted to know more about who wrote them and read them, and wondered if they would ever make money.

Mutter logged onto the free self-publishing site Blogger.com intending to explore the blogosphere, not participate in it. But then Step 2 asked him to name his blog.

"If I were going to write a blog, which I'm not going to do,' Mutter thought, "I guess it would be on how technology is going to change the media."

The title? "The idea of 'Reflections of a Something' came to mind," Mutter said in a telephone interview. "'Reflections of a News Guy.' 'Reflections of a News Geezer.'"

"And then I thought, 'Ah! Newsosaur.' And then my problem was, I couldn't figure out how to spell it." He looked up "dinosaur" in the dictionary, slapped "news" in front of it, and "Reflections of a Newsosaur" was born.

Four-and-a-half years later, Mutter and his blog have emerged as important players in the conversation about the future of journalism. News outlets such as the Associated Press, the New York Times and Minneapolis' Star Tribune have quoted Mutter and his blog; Romenesko regularly links to his posts; and the blogosphere hashes out what he writes.

Last month, Mutter was invited to Chicago to speak at a Newspaper Association of America meeting about how to make money from online content. There, Mutter unveiled his answer to the mainstream media's sinking revenue problem: a targeted advertising venture called ViewPass.

"ViewPass is your ticket to great content" is the slogan Mutter uses. After media companies embed the technology into their Web sites, users would complete a one-time registration and create a ViewPass account. They would then use that account to access content across various sites. The system would automatically develop a user's profile based on the content he or she views, while protecting privacy. These profiles would allow advertisers to target ads to the consumers most likely to buy their products.

If individual sites decided to charge for content, users could pay using a preloaded credit card, much like PayPal. But Mutter discourages news sites from taking this step. Forcing consumers to pay after 15 years of giving them news online for free, he believes, would accelerate revenue loss. The way for them to increase revenue is to use ViewPass, which he hopes will make it possible for media firms to charge advertisers higher rates for more targeted placement.

Mutter likens ViewPass to Visa--an easily recognizable, widely accepted brand that users could use across Web sites to access content. Additionally, the media industry would own ViewPass the way banks own Visa. Media companies wouldn't have to pay a third party to run ViewPass; rather, they would distribute the profits among themselves. Mutter and his business partner Ridgely Evers analyzed the market and estimate that the combination of higher ad rates and industry ownership could triple gross margins. With a $6 million investment, the system could be ready to go in nine months, Mutter says. He and Evers, both managing partners at the consulting firm Tapit Partners, are touting ViewPass to publishers.

Mutter, who also teaches at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, is organizing an invitation-only conference, sponsored in part by the school, at the headquarters of Google this fall. There, media executives will learn how to make technology work for them, and technology executives will be briefed on the value of journalism, Mutter says.

The conference is a formal way to continue the conversation Mutter has seen develop around his blog, which Mutter calls an "eye-opening experience." What began as an experiment to figure out the culture of a new medium is now a dialogue among people who care about journalism. Mutter hears stories and ideas from people with different perspectives and backgrounds.

"That's really demonstrating to me, very empirically and very viscerally, the value of new media," Mutter says. Guest posts such as David Boraks' May 19 explanation of his hyperlocal experiment in Davidson, N.C., add texture, Mutter says.

"I can't imagine what that experience would be like, and yet I'm able to share that through him to the people who have coalesced around [the blog]," Mutter says. "Now that, to me, is the essence of modern journalism."

Mutter, 60, came of age when the phrase "hot off the press" still accurately described the printing process. He credits Clark Kent of "The Adventures of Superman" for igniting his passion for journalism. Kent, the "mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper" enthralled Mutter more than the Man of Steel. "Who wouldn't want to fight for truth, justice and the American way?" Mutter says. "I get chills every time I say it."

Born and raised in the competitive news town of Chicago, Mutter received bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Illinois. He found out he had a job at the Chicago Daily News when the managing editor left his name on the work schedule after his summer internship ended in 1971.

His happiest moment in journalism came one August afternoon in 1974. Mutter stood in the composing room and witnessed history as the senior typographer, a dignified, white-haired man named Charlie, locked the page announcing Nixon's resignation.

Mutter worked at the Daily News until March 4, 1978, the day it closed. He then moved to the Chicago Sun-Times, where he listened to Mike Royko rehearse his famed columns over lunch. Mutter eventually became city editor and brought to life the curmudgeonly title character of the "Lou Grant" show, right down his physique. "But I did keep my hair," he jokes.

Mutter likens the constant battle between the Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune at the time to the trench warfare of World War I, with feisty reporters firing volley after volley of scoops at each other.

That newsroom gave Mutter "the most classic, pure, beautiful journalism experience," he says. "It was like working in Santa's enchanted workshop."

He, like many, left the paper after Rupert Murdoch bought it in 1984. The San Francisco Chronicle then hired Mutter to infuse the competitive spirit into a sleepy newsroom that some compared to a cruise ship. Mutter emphasized local news and investigative work.

The staff was talented and capable, Mutter says, but their chops had been dulled. He recalls asking one reporter to turn in a story by 5 that afternoon. Taken aback, the reporter said he had never reported and written a story in the same day.

"Well, today you will," Mutter replied.

"I wasn't always as elegant about it then as I would like to have to have been," Mutter says, "But I make no apologies for wanting to change" the paper.

"He was like a hurricane sweeping through the newsroom, asking people what they did, suggesting they go out and cover more stories," says Rob Gunnison, a former state capitol reporter for the Chronicle.

"He was very brash," says Gunnison, who is now director for school affairs at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. "He was confrontational and, frankly, the paper needed a lot of confrontation."

Chronicle reporter Carl Nolte echoes Gunnison. "A hurricane blew in when Alan came," he says. "He did not believe in doing things the way they [had been] done."

Steve Wiegand, now a senior writer at the Sacramento Bee, covered the state capitol for Mutter at the Chronicle.

"He's profane, he's obnoxious and he's overbearing and he's intense, and I like him," Wiegand says. Mutter "could get on your nerves, but he could also take it."

Wiegand recalls an instance during the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. Walter Mondale had accepted the presidential nomination, and Wiegand was writing the paper's lead story on deadline.

Mutter stood over Wiegand's shoulder, asking questions and "backseat driving," until finally Wiegand turned around.

"You wanna do this yourself," he asked.

"No," Mutter replied.

"Then shut the hell up and go away," Wiegand told him. And he did, Wiegand said.

Mutter doesn't remember that particular exchange, but says it sounds like him.

Mutter rose to became the paper's assistant managing editor; there was no managing editor, so Mutter had the paper's number two spot.

In 1988, he left newspapers to work for a cable company, InterMedia Partners. Previous experience covering business and finance had piqued Mutter's interest in the business side of journalism. Plus, the new gig doubled his salary. He rose to chief operating officer before leaving in 1996 to explore the Internet business.

Since then, Mutter has served as CEO of three Silicon Valley startups: an Internet service provider, an online classified advertising and e-commerce technology company and a firm whose system ensured the secure transfer of online media files.

"All my friends always said, 'How the hell could you be the CEO of an Internet company? You don't know anything about any of this stuff,'" Mutter says. But, he adds, 'being a CEO is a lot like being a reporter but better, because you have subpoena power. You get to ask questions until the answers start to make sense."

Mutter's savvy in the editorial and business sides of journalism apparently impressed officials at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. This January, he began teaching a course there on the future of journalism in an age of disruptive change. Among other reasons, Mutter took the job to "be in touch with non-geezer people," now that his daughter is in college, he says.

As his students lamented the difficulty of finding jobs, Mutter told them the wealth of information now available means there's a crying need for journalism. It's crucial to figure out how to make it profitable again, and the only way to do that is to scrutinize the industry, he says.

"I wish every day that I could just go back and be city editor," Mutter says. "I wish it could all be again. But it isn't going to be, it can't be, it's not gonna be. So let's get over that and let's get on to what we have to do to save frickin' journalism."

Kumar (pkumar@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.

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