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Theft of the blog: Yes, there is a real Bob Collins. This is what he’s like

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Editor’s note: Bob Collins will get the last word today, his last with MPR News. Before that, however, we tossed the NewsCut keys to a few folks who know the guy and the things he’s built. 

Here comes Tom Weber, an MPR News reporter and news host from 2008-2018.

By Tom Weber

When Bob Collins announced last year that today (his 65th birthday) would be his last day at MPR, he also tweeted he wouldn’t write a farewell post on the blog he created, NewsCut. Classic Bob.

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I hope he’s changed his mind and a swan song is imminent. But just in case, I’ve invited myself to sing a little on behalf of a friend who’s made immeasurable contributions to MPR and Minnesota.

“It’s exhausting,” Bob told me over lunch last year, to make a blog that “didn’t suck.” That’s one reason to retire! But take a moment to realize how much it didn’t suck: Bob has tweeted recently that these final months of NewsCut have been the blog’s most read. Ever.

I remember daily emails at MPR, ranking stories with the most web traffic. Bob usually made multiple appearances in the top ten. I suspect that’s even more true today and it’s not a coincidence. That’s because Bob figured out something the rest of journalism has been slower to adopt. More on that in a moment.

After realizing he was literally at the top of his game, Bob probably could’ve delayed his departure. But he’s not. Aside from going out on top and being exhausted, Meniere’s is a third reason. It’s an inner ear disease that leaves him essentially deaf some days.

At its worst, Bob can’t make phone calls - a must for journalists. Even in-person interviews offered no guarantee he’d be able to hear. Depends on the day. He was doing better last month but noted this week he can’t really understand anyone. The disease also took away his true love: Being a pilot. It’s unfair at so many altitudes.

But Bob remains jovial and upbeat, and he’s been shedding an "ornery curmudgeon" persona in recent months with every tweet about his new dog and update from Target Field, where he’s an usher. But let’s be clear: The grump thing was never real.

The real Bob Collins was -- and is -- the guy who buys baseballs with his own money before each game just to give away to young fans. Please, Meniere’s, stay away from Bob’s ability to stand in the upper deck. And please, Twins, let Bob throw out the first pitch soon.

A curmudgeon wouldn’t care about MPR’s history enough to give tours to new employees so they could learn their past.

Where he is ornery is in advocating for proper digital archives. With every new iteration of MPR’s website, more of the oldest NewsCut posts and other early MPR website features disappear. It’s a crisis on the Internet -- archiving its oldest material. Bob’s has been a constant clarion call, with little to show. Those stories are gone.

But back to my initial point: Bob’s departure is a critical junction for my former newsroom colleagues. Journalism, writ large, is navigating several areas of tumult. But I believe Bob’s blog, quietly churning out content that often drew the most traffic to MPR’s website, was part of the answer.

NewsCut has come to occupy a place somewhat akin to a newspaper columnist. Thoughtful journalism but the freedom to throw an elbow. Yet, most of the time the elbows weren’t opinion - they were just boring old truth. However, in a world where people no longer accept the same facts, truth comes off as opinion.

Bob didn’t care. What a grump. And if you didn’t pass the smell test, Bob said that, too. Those were the elbows.

When a phony-but-triggering controversy was manufactured over a sign at Fort Snelling, Bob’s headline read “Nothing irks some white people like accurate history.” Just this week, Bob noted a high school’s inability to call something racist when - wait for it - the yearbook included a photo of a student in blackface. In each case, Bob smelled something and said so. I suspect each post got a lot of readers.

But it’s lazy to label Bob an opinion writer and be done. Bob has been navigating new journalism better than most of public radio, which still treats us to stories that regurgitate sound bites from two sides and end with a creative version of “we’ll see what happens.”

Audiences now expect journalists to go the next step and tell us when someone is just wrong. Media that still try to split the difference will be left behind, I believe.

Public radio faces several crises. This content conundrum is one. It’s hard to blame reporters, given ever-increasing demands and quotas to churn out more product on more platforms. A lot of journalism today is keeping your head above water and as such, we should forgive stories that can be quickly written with decades-old templates.

But the inability to say in a "fair and neutral" news story that someone is just wrong is what will eventually drive away audiences. It’s not about biases; we all have them. It’s about transparency and how we admit our biases so we can get to work. I see this working better at newer media companies like Crooked, which produces the podcast “Pod Save America.”

Pod Save isn’t journalism; it’s left-leaning analysis. But the company did produce a stellar bit of journalism in a podcast called “the Wilderness.” It studied the ails of the Democratic Party and what Dems have to do to win. It started from the perspective that the host, former Obama aide Jon Favreau, wants them to win. From there, actual journalism ensued.

I think Bob was doing some of this all along: Starting from a different place than other reporters, then letting the journalism happen. There’s a lot of newsroom timidity in what and how to cover that Bob just didn’t have time for. He was ahead of journalism in decrying unwritten rules to largely avoid reporting on suicides.

He relentlessly reported about mental health before others caught on. And his overarching goal was to tell stories about everyday Minnesotans while also saying, bluntly, when they were dealt a crummy hand. From there, good journalism ensued. We should be grateful for people who give out baseballs to youngsters and finds ways to break through the media noise. Both things are good for Minnesota.

I have no information on the fate of NewsCut, but Bob has said he thinks it will end when he leaves. That would be tragic because NewsCut has been the thing MPR produces that’s closest to the new kind of journalism that audiences expect.

Bob also once told me his blog never got any real promotion (but still thrived) because the company never really knew what NewsCut was.

I have an answer: It was part of the future of journalism. And it’s walking out the door.