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Farewell to MPR's own Bob Collins

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Bob Collins speaks to colleagues at a retirement potluck.
Bob Collins speaks to colleagues at a retirement potluck inside MPR in St. Paul on Thursday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Sometimes you hear the phrase, "it's the end of an era," and you think, "yeah, right." Well, here at Minnesota Public Radio, it truly is the end of an era. Bob Collins is retiring. 

You're probably familiar with Collins from his NewsCut blog or from his irreverent conversations about the news with the Current's Mary Lucia. But Collins started working at MPR 27 years ago as an editor. 

He retires from MPR News Friday. He's doing a special "Theft of the Dial" segment on Thursday afternoon.

Listen to a highlight reel from Collins' years with MPR News, from "Fantasy Legislature" to his chats with Lucia — and yes, the NewsCut blog.

MPR News' Tom Crann interviews Bob Collins

What kind of story attracts you the most?

Human stories. People call it human interest, which is too bad because that is kind of a way to also say it's not that important. I have long said that if you get in your car and you drive from one end of the state to the other and you listen to public radio all the way you'll want to kill yourself by the end of the trip.

(Laughter) Why?

Well because as news people, we have gotten into this this thing that news has to be all serious and it has to be all problems and I'm saying that's not news because it obviously is, but it's not the whole picture.  

Sometimes I think we need to be reminded of the entire picture of what we're doing as a species and humans and what defines us and who we are. So I find great satisfaction in telling those stories of just people living their lives doing interesting things. Who are on journeys that they will insist is not newsworthy but that everybody else will find it interesting if only somebody would tell them.

So I think that tends to be a nice balance to the daily news. The very serious the depressing stuff leads us to a sense of despair. And people who despair don't do anything. They're paralyzed. Nothing changes, nothing gets better. In the big scheme of things I'm not sure who we help by leaving people in nothing but despair.

What did you try to do with news cut when you got this? Because this was a pretty big deal and it was pretty innovative for MPR.

I guess. I mean the bottom line here's the dirty little secret.  

The reason we started NewsCut is because I was the managing editor of online at the time and there was somebody better they wanted to hire. And so they needed to find a spot for me. And so I had gone out to a political conventions when I was running the political unit here back in the 90s and I very rarely cover the politicians at these things because I found they were more interesting people right around these thing and I would tell those stories so they said, "Why don't you just go do that?"

So I would just run around the state and find interesting people doing interesting things. The highlight of which I think that changed and got NewsCut some recognition was the 2009 Red River flooding up in Moorhead. Mike Reszler who was my editor at the time, the guy they wanted to get here, said to me, "You know I think you should go up to the Red River and just do that thing you do." And I had no idea what it was. 

Bob Collins holds a button printed with a photo of himself
Bob Collins holds a button printed with a photo of himself taken by his brother in the 1970s during a retirement potluck inside MPR in St. Paul on Thursday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

But I got up there and I met three families the Johnsons, the Brummers and the Morses on one street in Moorhead. And I just stayed with them for a week or ten days or so. And I did it all in real time, which is a different way to tell a story.

So you live with them as the water crested and then receded.

Yeah, and things changed from minute to minute. You know one minute you think you got it. Next thing you think your house is about to get swept away and you're gonna lose everything. And it was really a transformative week for me as a way to tell stories differently and to also get involved in news and stories. It's OK I think as a journalist, although I hate that word, to want people to win you know to root for them to root for them

Especially against the rising water.

Whether it's against nature or somebody else you want the best for people. And it's OK to champion that sort of thing.

But you know we've redefined ethics over the years and we've pretty much redefined humanity right out of the news business in many ways.

So you've managed to put some back in. Is that what you set out to do?

It's all I had! I mean I couldn't do real news. We have real reporters to do that sort of thing. So I had to kind of find a niche for this blog to try to get people to read it. So I spent most of the time just trying to experimenting to find out what would work. And that seemed to work.

You say at the bottom of NewsCut that your posts are not news stories.

Well, because so many people complained about what I wrote.

I've never understood that because I and others like me who work here and don't work here get our news from NewsCut. You find stuff out, that's news.

Public radio, public radio journalists, this newsroom, is scared to death about an opinion that it will get out. I understand that, that's our credibility. 

So the fact they had somebody on staff giving his observations I think we we called it so that we didn't have to call it opinions that scared a lot of people that made them very uncomfortable including a fair number of people in the audience. 

Bob Collins and Mary Lucia in The Current studio
Bob Collins and Mary Lucia in The Current studio circa 2009.
Bob Collins | MPR News 2009

You know I just wrote a post today about the fact that we're pigs to the environment. We're just pigs. It's based on all this junk that was left out at some Memorial Day celebration in some beach somewhere.

I just don't think we serve anybody by just being stenographers in the news. There's got to be more to what our purpose in life is than just writing down and reporting what everybody else you know what somebody is saying without some context. Especially since a lot of these, politicians I'm referring to primarily, who are well schooled in how to manipulate that. If we're not calling it out, if we're not willing to do that then we become a part of that process. I don't think that's what we should be doing.

Hear the full interview by using the audio player at the top of the page.