John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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Ron Fournier and the Transformation of American Journalism

Posted on September 7, 2016
Basketball

On Saturday mornings and Monday evenings, a rag-tag group of press hacks and flacks gather together to shoot hoops in the Washington DC area.  There are some good players out there, if you take into consideration that the average age is somewhere north of 55, but let’s not kid ourselves.  This game doesn’t have too long of a highlight reel.

It was on one of those Saturday mornings where I first encountered Ron Fournier.  The son of a cop, with big broad shoulders and an imposing mien, Fournier has the basketball instincts of a Detroit Red Wing.

On that particular Saturday, I guarded Mr. Fournier and he guarded me.  Despite my wide girth, I am more of finesse player.  I like to shoot the three, but don’t mind working inside for a jump hook with either the left or ride hand.  I am not somebody who typically likes to bruise it up.  My football playing days have long since past.

Ron, on the other hand, loves to play tough defense.  He has a surprisingly deft touch with a Jack Sikma-type inside pivot set shot (you can’t really call it a jump shot), but his style of play is much more of knock-you-off-your-feet-while-you-get-a-rebound kind.

I wasn’t necessarily ready for the Fournier-style of basketball on that first Saturday morning, but I also wasn’t going to back down either.  Pretty soon, we were knocking into each other pretty fiercely.  The friendly-game was turning out to be not-so-friendly.

At the time, Ron was was a vaunted and highly regarded White House reporter for the Associate Press and I was a press secretary for somebody in the House leadership (I can’t remember if I was working for the Speaker or the Majority Whip at the time).  I wasn’t a source to Ron.  I spent most of my time talking to legendary reporters like Dave Espo, Alan Fram, Jim Abrams from the AP, not guys like Fournier, White House guys who were too high-falutin to talk to flacks like me.

I am sure that everybody else on the court was getting amused by our banging around.  Pretty soon, I was calling a truce.  Even back then (I have been playing in this game for 20 years or so), I didn’t have the stamina for a full-on rebounding war with a former hockey player who was bigger than me.

Ron’s style of basketball fits pretty well into the Washington journalism culture.  He is a tough player in both venues.  I think you have to be.

Fournier cut his teeth first working in Arkansas covering Bill Clinton’s political career and he followed Bubba when he eventually came to Washington in 1993.  His Arkansas ties served him well as he become the chief chronicler of the Clinton years.

Fournier left the AP in 2004 for an Internet start-up called Hotsoup.com.   The start-up never caught fire and he eventually came back to the Associated Press to become the bureau chief.  But his brief foray into the brave new world of digital communications transformed him and would eventually transform the world of journalism.

Ron was one of the first journalists to truly understand how profoundly digital communications was going to change the media.  With the ubiquity of video and the rise of 24-hour cable news, there wasn’t the same need to just report the news.  With the rise of the Internet, how newspapers were going to make money also had to change.

Why would consumers buy a newspaper for 25 cents a copy (or a dollar in the case of the New York Times) when they could get the content for free on the world wide web?  Why would they wait to buy a paper at all, when they could get the news immediately through news aggregators like the Drudge Report?

What Ron understood was that journalism had to change.  As the bureau chief for the Associated Press, he urged his colleagues to write stuff that didn’t just report the news but also interpreted the news for its readers.  It wasn’t necessarily a popular decision among the staid journalists at the AP.

The Associated Press is a unique American institution.  Founded in 1846 as a non-profit collaborative by several New York newspapers to cut the cost of world-wide reporter, the AP has been at the cutting edge of journalism for the last 150 years.  The web represents its biggest challenge and for the last ten years, AP has lost millions of dollars.

Fournier’s key insight was that to get more revenue, you had to get more people to click on the stories.  This might not be good for American journalism from a quality perspective but it became essential from a business perspective.  Clicks = revenue.  That’s the bottom line.

Ron would later leave the AP to join National Journal, a Washington DC-based news magazine.  National Journal was an innovator in the niche business of providing important actionable news to subscribers who were willing to pay top dollar to get important news from policy makers.  They were the ones who first produced Congress Daily and Hotline, daily tip sheets that gave lobbyists and Congressional staff a sense of what was really happening on Capitol Hill.

It was at the National Journal where Fournier would drop any pretense of being an objective journalist and become an opinion writer.  And nobody knew how to write opinions that got clicks better than Ron Fournier.

It’s been interesting to watch Ron evolve during this campaign.   You can’t really accuse him of liberal bias or conservative bias.  He doesn’t like Donald Trump and he is extraordinarily frustrated by Hillary Clinton.

His columns are one thing, but it is in his tweets that you can really see how angry he has become at the Washington game.

Twitter is an interesting place to observe our nation’s journalistic class.  They have lost all interest in protecting their reputations as objective arbiters of the truth.  They let their opinions rip, without any concern about how their opinions color their reporting.

As an industry, from a business perspective, journalism is a mess.  And most people (72% according to Pew) believe that reporters are biased in their coverage of the news, which doesn’t help its credibility.

I have been stunned by how the Washington media has covered Donald Trump.  Jim Rutenberg acknowledged in the New York Times that sure, reporters are biased against Trump, but in his opinion that is in the best interests of the country, a telling admission.

That is the state of journalism today, an evolution from objective reporting to advocacy clickbait.

Ron Fournier is leaving Washington to become the publisher of the Crain’s Detroit Business.  He has grown tired of the DC rat-race and he wants to see the rebirth of his beloved hometown.  And as publisher of a niche publication like Crain’s, he will see first-hand the rebirth of a brand of journalism that is sustainable from a business perspective.

We will miss Ron on the basketball court here in Washington.