Robert Rivard is a newsman, editor, publisher and fount of knowledge regarding San Antonio’s path over the past few decades. Currently, The Rivard Report is covering multiple major issues including the racial justice protests and COVID-19. We were so honored to get him on the show.
Justin Hill: Hello in Bienvenido, San Antonio. Welcome to the Alamo Hour discussing the people, places, and passion that make our city. My name is Justin Hill, a local attorney, a proud San Antonion and keeper of chickens and bees. On the Alamo Hour, you’ll get to hear from the people that make San Antonio great and unique and the best kept secret in Texas. We’re glad that you’re here.
All right. Welcome to the Alamo Hour. Today’s guest is Robert Rivard. Robert needs a little introduction in San Antonio. He’s the editor and publisher of The Rivard Report which I think personally is the premier news outlet in San Antonio and one of these few news outlets that isn’t focused on clickbait and things like that. I really appreciate the fact that they focus on news that matters to all of us. Robert is a published author. He was previously the editor of the San Antonio Express. He’s worked at Newsweek. He’s won numerous awards, including editor of the year in 2000. Robert, my law firm supports The Rivard Report, I think everybody should support The Rivard Report.
I personally want to thank you for what you all do and how– Sunlight’s the best disinfectant and you all are the best sunlight in the city. Thank you for being here and thank you for what you do.
Robert Rivard: Thanks for the kind words, Justin, and thanks for your support. Thanks for the invitation to everyone listening today or watching to join in that support.
Justin: Yes, and I’m going to encourage everybody, if you have not reached out to The Rivard Report and support it, every little bit helps. You all do what you all do, which is great for the city. I’m also messing with this video right now, because of course when you get here, one of my biggest guests, I’m going to have some technical difficulties. The audio is on though. Robert, we start every episode and we go through every episode with a little bit about caller commentary, where you’re from, what do you do, what do you like, when, and why did you move to San Antonio?
Robert: I moved here with my wife, Monika Maeckle and our two very young sons in 1989. I left Newsweekmagazine in New York, my wife wanted to come back to Texas and raise the boys here. My whole career, before I joined Newsweek, was in Texas starting as a sports reporter at The Brownsville Herald and moving to the news side there and then up to the Corpus Christi Caller and then the Dallas Times Herald, which sent me to Latin America to cover civil wars in the 1980s and that’s where Newsweek and I connected.
It became time to make some choices between the fast track of my career in New York and around the world. I was managing Newsweek‘s bureaus all over the world, which was a very exciting job for me, but for my wife with two young baby boys, it wasn’t the ideal family situation. I was smart enough to listen to her and choose family over career and that’s what brought us to San Antonio, back to Texas in 1989.
Justin: Where are you from originally?
Robert: Well, I was born at the top of the mitten, as we say in Michigan, in Petoskey on Lake Michigan. I’m French Canadian by heritage. Rivard, down here it could be Riveda or Rios. I spent my boyhood in Michigan. My father was a traveling salesman. I moved around, lived in a number of states; Pennsylvania, and New York, Kansas. I eventually found my way, as a young man, down to Brownsville and that’s where I started my journalism career.
Justin: Top of the mitten to the bottom of the state.
Robert: Top of the mitten.
Justin: How far from Traverse City?
Robert: Very close, an hour.
Justin: I’d never heard the mitten thing. I lived under a rock, I guess, but I have a good friend and that’s what she said. She did this and pointed to the top.
Robert: Top of the mitten.
Justin: Okay, now I know.
Robert: Here’s a mitten on my key chain.
Justin: Okay, fair enough.
Robert: I keep close to my roots.
Justin: Well, she just kept sticking her hand up at me and saying, “Top of the mitten.” I thought she was having a stroke or something, I had no idea what she was talking about. What are your personal main sources of news?
Robert: Well, I’m a little obsessive-compulsive about news. Before I came here, I was reading The Atlanticmagazine online. Everything I read is digital, I haven’t seen print products for years. We still get the Sunday New York Times. My wife likes to have the physical copy and I find myself enjoying going through the pages there, although I’ve probably read most of what I’m looking at days earlier online. Every morning or every night, really, before I go to bed, I read The New York Times and Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, the three national publications. Most of what’s in their morning publications is online the previous evening, and I want to read that. I obviously read everything that we publish and I still read the Express–News. I can’t read mysanantonio.com, I couldn’t read it when I worked as editor there.
Justin: Okay. What is the difference, because I can’t figure out why one is like us weekly of news and one still seems to be news?
Robert: It’s clickbait.
Robert: You want to tell advertisers that millions of people are coming to your site, so you put Eva Longoria in a bikini on a slideshow and you’ve got a couple of man-bite dog stories and junk from all over the world.
Justin: You won’t believe what he caught in the Gulf of Mexico dot, dot, dot. I see those.
Robert: Yes. At least advertisers of a certain age and demographic fall prey to that and think they’re connecting with large audiences. The expressnews.com, they have some very serious, very accomplished journalists there still even after all the downsizing over the years, and they’re doing some great work.
Justin: We’re going to get into that more, but that’s part of the influence that is not with The Rivard Report, is you do not have the pressures of advertisers and things like that, to where you feel the need to get this clickbait numbers up. You all are nonprofit, right?
Robert: That’s correct.
Justin: And nonpartisan.
Robert: We’re nonpartisan, we’re non-profit, and it doesn’t mean that we don’t have pressures, because we have the pressure of raising several million dollars a year to support the 20 full-time people that are working there, and the number of freelancers and the overhead and so forth. It’s a different kind of situation, but it does give us some editorial independence from the for-profit model. The primary independence it gives us, Justin, is that most newspapers, virtually all newspapers, are owned by corporate entities that are not located in the communities where they publish.
The financial and economic disruption in the media business has been such that most of those corporate owners no longer pay any pretense of caring about community, putting community first, being a public trust. It’s all about making the bottom-line work and surviving in a very competitive world where the internet’s disrupted everything. Many journalists across the country have done what I’ve done. I was early doing it. We’re eight and a half years old. There’s 230 nonprofit digital media sites now in American cities across the country, some more successful than others. We’re certainly in the top 10% of those entities for both the size of our audience, our revenue streams, the quality of the journalism we’re doing, but it’s happening everywhere.
We can’t pretend to fill the role that US newspapers once played in communities, where they were everything to everybody, but we do our part in helping fill in an increasingly large vacuum.
Justin: We’re going to talk a little bit more about that. You also had a history with the San Antonio Light, which when I moved here didn’t even exist. There’s all that history there that is gone forever, but we’re going to talk a little bit about that. A little bit more about your San Antonio love and connections and fields, what are some of your favorite places in San Antonio that are off the beaten path?
Robert: Well, the river defines the city for me. I’m a cyclist, I like to be on road bike. I was the founding captain of the Third Street Grackles cycling team back in the day. From 2005 to 2015, we raised about $500 million for multiple sclerosis research and rode the MS 150 every year-
Justin: Very cool.
Robert: -to the coast or later to New Braunfels when they changed the course. I’m not doing those kinds of long-distance rides, but I’m still on my bike all the time. I was at the protest. For the last several nights, I’ve been on my bike riding along the protest to observe as a journalist. I like the river, I particularly like the Mission Reach. Very few people are familiar with the four-mile extension of the Mission Reach below Mission Espada that’s opened up and it is amazing. We have some of the amazing urban nature in San Antonio. My wife is a citizen scientist, Monika Maeckle. She founded the San Antonio Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival at the Pearl.
Justin: I went this year to one of the events at the Stables.
Robert: She was, I think, the real catalyst for us becoming the first Monarch Champion City in the United States when Ivy Taylor was mayor. She’s written a lot about urban nature both for her blog, the Texas Butterfly Ranch, and just also for The Rivard Report and I get to tag along on all that.
Justin: I had no idea your wife was Texas Butterfly Ranch.
Robert: The other day, I spent time with her and a biologist or a botanist from the San Antonio River Authority removing Chinese snail eggs from the King William Reach that are invasive. Somebody took their pet snails out of an aquarium and threw them in the river and we now have an invasive species problem. My wife’s out there, doing battle against Chinese snails. Of course, I’m in a kayak next to her tagging along.
Robert: That’s my idea of a good time when I’ve got downtime. One of our two adult sons, Alexander, who’s a schoolteacher and owns a coffee business in town, he’s kind of a pro-level Scrabble player and I’ve become addicted to Scrabble later in life. I can’t seem to beat him except when I get lucky, but Scrabble keeps my brain working, the wiring good keeps me young.
Justin: I’ve decided I’m really good at Scrabble if I picked my opponents wisely, so that’s sort of metric, but it’s great. I didn’t know your wife was part of the Texas Butterfly Ranch. We got certified at– my home is a certified Monarch waystation now. We planted all the things and did all the water. We’ve got local milkweed, not the tropical, so we’re taking it all real seriously.
Robert: You’re going to make her very happy.
Justin: Yes, now it’s great.
Robert: She oversaw the 300 pollinator gardens initiative in our tricentennial year-
Justin: Oh, cool.
Robert: -and those signs that you have of her, those are her signs.
Justin: Well, tell her that. It’s something I don’t tell people because it’s a weird thing I do at the home, but–
Robert: More people are doing it than ever before.
Justin: That’s great to know. Okay. What is the single biggest challenge for an independent nonprofit news outlet like yours?
Robert: Well, the biggest challenge for me was at age 59, starting something from scratch. I say that because I came out of a 30 or 35-year career at the time having worked for five major global media companies. I didn’t necessarily consider myself a corporate guy, but I was not part of what my friend Graham Weston called the startup culture of San Antonio. After I retired from the Express News or really what I call my divorce from the Express News, Graham invited me out to Rackspace and he said, “Leave your suit at home and we’re going to come get your corporate skin off.”
I said, “Graham, I don’t have any corporate skin.” He goes, “Just come out here.” It was coming out into the land of tattoos and piercings and low office lighting, and that’s really where I started to hang out with people that were mostly in their 20s and 30s that were completely focused on starting up their own enterprises, whether they were software enterprises, or whatever they were doing, they were trying to solve problems with technology. It really helped me pivot at an age when most people really are coming toward the end of their career and not reinventing themselves. Frankly, it was one of the most enriching experiences of my life.
Justin: When you took him up on that, did you know that the next goal was to start an independent web-based media or a news service?
Robert: He was urging me to do that, to keep my voice in the community. I had him backing me, and I had the greatest philanthropist the city or state’s ever known, Charles Butt, the CEO and chairman of HEB. We shared many philosophical viewpoints toward the need to improve public education outcomes in the inner city. He was somebody I greatly admired for the company. It’s philanthropy, his personal philanthropy. Those were two really strong mentors who helped me see my way through with Monica who helped me co-found The RivardReport really as a blog and it just took off.
It took off in terms of audience, it took off and people wanting to advertise to the point where a couple of years into its publication, people started approaching me about buying equity positions in it. I tried very hard because I had been up in that startup world. I’d been one of the first things at Geekdom when it was at the Western center and then at the Rand. I was going to use the money to scale up because I think we were four people at the time. Ultimately, we were never going to make the kind of money that venture capitalists want on their investments.
Some of the same people who were very philanthropic beyond Graham and Charles, but people like Lew Moorman, the president of Rackspace, John Newman, Chico Newman, the head of Newman Family Foundation. They convinced me to go nonprofit. That was 2015. That was not an easy step to take because my wife and I had built with sweat equity quite an enterprise and it was really something that was having an increasingly influential place in the media landscape. It meant surrendering it all, including our own financial investor to a nonprofit, but it was the right thing to do and there was something about the community’s perception of The Rivard Report once it became nonprofit.
I thought it had been building fantastically but it really took off after that. We really quickly scaled up to the size we’re at now, as people started to become donating members, more philanthropists joined us. Many of the leading foundations in San Antonio made significant multi-year commitments.
People wanted quality, credible journalism, and civic engagement that we were offering where we weren’t doing the crime blotter, we weren’t doing clickbait, we weren’t doing celebrity gossip and news. We weren’t intensely negative. We weren’t sensational. The college-educated, engaged citizen, the person who votes, the people that are really making the city go, they wanted something that was of higher purpose, and our mission-driven journalism as a nonprofit really resonated with people and the result is what you see today.
Justin: The donors’ list is a who’s who of San Antonio, philanthropists and foundations. Now, I was going through it before you got here.
Robert: It’s pretty impressive. I have a really strong business team. It’s run by three of the four people are Trinity grads, Jenna Mallette, our chief operating officer, Katy Silva, our development director, Kassie Kelly, our membership director, and then Laura Lopez, who’s a roadrunner me, UTSA, she’s our event coordinator. When we look at what we accomplish, not only with our individual and business membership base, which is in the thousands now, but also just with our annual City Fest, our annual education forum, our annual medical forum, we’re doing civic engagement events every month, and now we’re doing them virtually. They’re attracting really strong audiences of community leaders, people in the neighborhoods that just have a real appetite for that kind of what I would call really nutritious journalism.
Justin: It’s media, it’s dense, it’s actual information about real issues instead of a glossing over. The funny thing is when I’ll see or cover something, there’s not alternatives to the coverage, it’s stuff that nobody’s covering that I think what makes you also more so invaluable to the city is there’s no alternative means of getting some of that information in terms of which I’ll cover.
We’ll get back to it, but you personally also write. I always make sure to read yours because there are always a more macro feel it seems to me. Is there any specific type of coverage that you prefer? Do you like the politics? Do you like the culture? Do you like what’s happening in the city? Is there a specific angle that you prefer to cover?
Robert: Well, I’ve always been a writing editor. Of course, I was a reporter and writer for a long time at different newspapers and then at Newsweek, but I’ve always believed that editors are the strongest editors lead by writing, and that the reporters and others who are in the organization can see that you’re not asking people to do anything that you’re not more than capable of doing yourself. I’ve also just had a front-row seat on the city now for decades, and so I’m something of an institutional memory as is Rick Casey who writes for us on a weekly basis. There’s just no substitution for people that have been witnessing the events, and the individuals, and the entities in the city that constitute its history over a period of contemporary time.
I write a weekly column. It’s an opinion column. I have a take, sometimes people disagree intensely with it but that’s okay. I think I’m provoking thought and debate and conversation. I don’t try to be sensational and I express my beliefs, but I also understand there is alternative points of view and we invite people to have the same homepage space that I get to write commentaries, which is very unusual. We’re a two-way street and you can’t find that in other media. There may be a letter to the editor in the newspaper that nobody reads or hardly anybody reads, but we’re offering people the homepage with the same social media newsletter promotion that my work gets.
I wanted to teach some of the younger reporters an old dog’s trick from my Newsweek days. At the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic here and the ultimate, the ensuing economic shutdown, social shutdown, I started writing a weekend review piece that really just gives the casual reader or someone that’s just too busy to read everything every day, because we do publish so much. Here’s a roundup of how this week, how much happened in this week, which is it’s extraordinary sometimes when you look back and go, all of that happen in a seven-day period. I try to give, put a lot of writerly voice in that and not make it just a wire service kind of story. That may be a feature that survives the coronavirus era in the city and that we continue afterwards.
The column, it’s a weekly endeavor and it keeps my voice in the community and I stay connected to community leaders and talk to them and I think I have their trust and confidence. That’s something that’s been hard-earned over the years and it’s a privilege. I recognize it as such and try to exercise it responsibly.
Justin: I didn’t realize that you were doing the weekend review but it’s funny you said that because there are so many fires right now in terms of a news cycle. Just the economic fallout of the pandemic is its own, just the health side is its own, the riots are their own. The coverage I’ve had of coronavirus has been fantastic, but I was just thinking about that before you got here, that’s a ton to juggle for somebody that doesn’t have giant corporate means behind them. You all are doing a great job.
Robert: I’m going to challenge you on one word and say we haven’t had riots in the city.
Justin: Fair enough.
Robert: We had some scattered looting and property damage, but when you compare that to the damage that’s been done to some of these African American families, that’s the real damage, what police have done to unarmed black men in the country. That includes cases that we wrote about today on The Rivard Report that occurred here in San Antonio in 2015 and in 2016, and we wrote about them in the context of the police union contract, which makes it almost impossible for San Antonio Police Chief William McManus to fire a rogue cop.
I’m writing about that this Sunday and I’m going to mention a Washington Post investigation that was done in 2017. It’s slightly out of date now, but I’m certain the data would still hold. It looked at the top 55 US cities over a period of a decade, 2006 to 2017, San Antonio had the highest percentage of fired police officers for misconduct that arbitrators gave them their jobs back in defiance of the police chief’s decision to fire them. It creates a climate of impunity among people that wear badges and carry guns.
90% of those officers are going to be stand-up people. They are given an enormous responsibility as our protectors and they exercise that responsibility with character and integrity and diligence, but people do slip through. There are bad apples. The inability of the police chief to permanently take these people who are unfit for duty and get them off the force, it just breeds a subculture within the police department of impunity that’s very dangerous. That has happened around the country. We’re not alone. We have a situation where I don’t think any rational person can argue with the statement that people of color live in fear of police.
I’m white, I can empathize with that, I can sympathize with that, but I can’t really know it. I’m not in the mood to run into police either myself, but I feel pretty capable if it does happen that I can handle myself and I’ll be okay. I don’t do things that should get me in trouble, so I shouldn’t get in trouble is how I feel. African Americans feel like they’re not doing anything that should get them in trouble but they’re in trouble anyway and that’s the difference. That has to be addressed and it has to be addressed in the city. Even if we’re mourning George Floyd and what happened in Minneapolis right now, we should be talking about the fact that it can and does happen here and it will happen again if we don’t do something about it now.
Justin: I think that’s a great segue. I wasn’t really planning on going there, but before you got here, I was speaking to a friend of mine who’s an African American gentleman and I just said, “How many times a year do you get pulled over?” He said, “At least four.” [chuckles] It is two different experiences compared to me. I said that maybe I’ve been pulled over four times in my whole life. One of the things that I hear mixed perceptions on is the idea that San Antonio doesn’t deal with these problems.
You’ll hear people say, “No, no, no, we have all of those problems. You just don’t hear about them.” What is the reality in your experience covering San Antonio, what is the best source of information, and what do you think San Antonio is failing on other than the inability to fire police officers, which is obviously a problem? Where do you think we fail on race relations?
Robert: Well, I think we fail on a number of fronts. I don’t think you can talk about racial injustice without talking about economic segregation. It was a real wakeup call last October when the US census released its annual list of cities with the highest percentage of population living in poverty and there was San Antonio in the number 1 position having supplanted Detroit. I’m a Michigan native so you won’t hear me talk bad about Detroit. It was the first big city that I experienced, and I loved it as a boy, but Detroit’s arguably the most troubled city in America over the last 20 years.
Just surpassed Detroit with a higher percentage of people living in poverty is something that ought to stop every San Antonian in their day and make them just over a moment of silence consider the implications of that. The responsibility that all of us have as citizens no matter how much we’re prospering in our own lives and careers to say that’s something that we need to own, even if it’s historically the result of policies that date back a century or more, which it is, housing policies, policing practices, how people define citizenship for people of color in our history, people that were predominantly of Mexican descent versus how they defined citizenship for Anglos.
I see that as something that’s incredibly important to look at. We’ve been publishing this year a series called Disconnected, all about that economic segregation where we took every person on The Rivard Report team and had them delve into an aspect of that in their own areas of expertise. It’s been very powerful narrative storytelling that we’ve been doing. Just as we concluded the first iteration of that series over, I think about 13 weeks, the coronavirus pandemic hit.
We’ve seen 125,000 people lose their jobs since March in this city. Think about that. Sure, there isn’t any number of 25-year old individuals that live in an apartment somewhere that have lost their job, but there’s also households with dependent spouses, dependent children. Those workers, many of them have lost or never had healthcare benefits, they don’t have savings, they’re working poor, they’re hourly wage-earners who already were probably qualified as working poor people, even though they were employed, they probably had more than one job. Suddenly, they’re out of work, there’s a little bit of a social safety net through the stimulus bill but that’s limited and its short-term. Those funds will start to run out this summer, and so the economic disparities in our community are only going to grow more dire because of the pandemic and the economic shutdown in the months ahead.
We’re not going to recover quickly. There’s not going to be that economic be the that the Trump administration and others are hoping for, it’s going to be a long, slow, painful and very uneven recovery with some of us doing better than others. The city and the county and the private sector, the nonprofit sector, the business leadership, everyone’s going to have to come together in some way, shape or form and own this and work together to both enact policies and also to fund initiatives that will soften the blow for people.
Justin: When Ron was on the show, he mentioned that this is an opportunity for the city to also take a second stab at addressing that inequality because you have so many people that are now on the same boat, and so the discussion of people that maybe always would say, “Well, I’m not them,” are now those people that they weren’t feeling much empathy for. From a systemic or structural standpoint, what do you think San Antonio is doing poorly in terms of rising people up out of poverty, do you think it’s education, or job opportunity, or higher paying jobs, all the above?
Robert: I actually think we’re doing a lot on the public education front, it’s very good. There’s a lot of talk right now about developing a vaccine for the coronavirus, right? The vaccine for poverty is a good education and we’ve known that for a while. That’s a nonpartisan fact and it’s not subject to dispute, you break generational poverty by taking the next generation and giving them the same economic opportunities as people in the middle class or higher and enjoy. Educated people almost by and large end up leading lives that have purpose and meaning and choices and they’re not going to fall into poverty. They’re going to have the education and the tools that they need to provide for themselves and their families.
Increasing the investment and the focus that we put on, particularly the inner city public schools is critical. I’ve seen us do that and we’re continuing to do that, when voters go to the polls on November 2nd, or sorry, on October 22nd, because we all vote early now and to choose a president. We’re also going to vote on renewal of after eight years of the Pre-K 4 SA initiative and adding Pre-K education for our four-year-olds, before they enter kindergarten. We were an early national leader when Mayor Julián Castro was mayor, and Cheryl Scalia was city manager, and we initiated that. That initiative by the way was chaired by Charles Butt at HB and by General Joe Robles, the CEO of USAA. We had two very powerful business leaders whose credibility was unshakable, lead that, and it was still a tough election.
Justin: Yes, I remember that.
Robert: It was not a foregone conclusion by any means. There are still people today who don’t look very closely at the program and what it’s accomplished to question that one eight-cent sales tax. I think it’s critically important that we renew that tax and continue that program and continue to invest in our four-year-olds, particularly the four-year-olds that are in the inner city and get them to where they are going to be by the third grade, reading, critically-thinking, and the equal of their counterparts, their peers and more prosperous school districts.
Justin: I’m just going to go where this goes. You’ve brought up Mr. Charles Butt multiple times who couldn’t be a bigger advocate for public education in the state of Texas and maybe anybody. San Antonio has the strange thing happening with our public school system, with the rise of public charter schools becoming a big force in the city. From that standpoint, do you think that is, in any way, creating these public education islands among our inner city, different areas that are in inner city in which children can’t get to a public charter due to transportation issues, but that public charter is taking public money away from their local school? Are you seeing that? Are you hearing about that? Is that just some of the fear-mongering you hear?
Robert: It’s a complex proposition. I think people that take an absolute side, one way or the other, aren’t addressing the complexity, but the fact is public charters wouldn’t exist if the public school districts were performing at a higher level in the day. Many of those public schools were failure factories, including the high schools in the San Antonio Independent School District, our biggest inner city school district. That gave rise to the public charters because parents want something better for their children right now. They don’t have time to be part of a reform movement. They want something for their children right now, and that really fueled interest in public charters.
Public charters, in turn, forced school districts to finally become more competitive into change and adapt. There’s just no way the calcified school board of the San Antonio Independent School District would have hired a change agent like Superintendent Pedro Martinez if they weren’t threatened by the loss of students, the loss of revenue, they gave in and only over their dead bodies. Several of those school board trustees are gone now and we have a pretty laudable school board in charge. What Pedro has done over five years with a lot of help from the business community and others is really amazing. The charters exist because there was a demand that was not being met, but yes, they do siphon off students, they do siphon off revenue from public-
Justin: From teachers.
Robert: -teachers from the public school district. There’s a saying among people that follow education, that the school district can’t get rid of a bad teacher and the charters can’t keep them.
Justin: [chuckles] Fair enough.
Robert: There’s so much turnover, but for me, the issue is whether or not the state of Texas is keeping the playing field level and holding charters to the same standards as the districts. I think that’s a very fair issue for exploration. The bottom line is the charters aren’t going away, the school districts aren’t going away. All of us need to come together and figure out how do we improve public education outcomes because it’s the only long-term solution to addressing the poverty problem.
Justin: You mentioned Graham Weston and I’ve discussed this with friends that one thing San Antonio lacks is that marketplace of jobs that are higher-paying. We’ve got lots of low-paying labor jobs. We have some high-paying executive and technology jobs, but we don’t have a big industry and maybe that’s going to be cybersecurity or one of these that’s going to breed these higher-paying middle-class jobs. Are you seeing that changing? Are we getting better in terms of upper middle-class higher-paying jobs? Are we about the same? What have you seen in the trends in terms of the marketplace for jobs?
Robert: There’s actually been a significant shift in San Antonio over the last decade from being a brain drain city to a brain gain city, and that’s happened in two ways. Number 1, more and more of the young, highly-educated millennials who are from here have come home. That would be our two sons, Nicholas and Alexander. They both left to find their fame and fortune somewhere else. It’s not that they didn’t like life in San Antonio, but the opportunity wasn’t here. As the city has changed and evolved, more opportunities have been created, and they came back.
Then there’s the educated migrant that comes in, the person that’s attracted to that Rackspace job, or now that many spin-offs from Rackspace. I actually, particularly because I came out of this emerging tech district down on East Houston Street, where The Rivard Report was located in its early years, I’ve seen countless startups become profitable going concerns, business to business, software development companies and others. They’re paying young people very well, very competitively, and those are very good jobs and they’re attracting people from Austin, and Denver, and other cities to here. We have a very enviable cost of living ratio, so if you get a good professional salary here, you can purchase much more housing than you can if you happen to be in Boston or on one of the California cities-
Justin: Or Austin.
Robert: -or Austin.
Justin: It’s crazy. [chuckles]
Robert: Yes. I know prices have gone up here and people are lamenting that, and we have our own unique housing issues, but if you’re a professional in this city, you can live very well on a good salary.
Justin: The trend you’ve seen is that it is getting better in the marketplace for those types of jobs has increased?
Robert: I really think it is. We’re still a small business economy despite the HBs and USAAs and Boleros, and Bank of Americas, and others. Those are all great companies, but we’re a small business economy, and it’s a great place to be a small business, and at least it was until the shutdown. I think there’s a lot of great job creation that’s going on out there.
You mentioned cyber. We’ve had thousands and thousands of US servicemen and women cycle through the Air Force here and then go on. We’re finally starting to capture them and keep them as they come out into the civilian world with their own ideas about solutions to technical problems, and so you’ve got the National Security Agency that has an enormous footprint here. They operate very quietly, but one of the biggest intel-gathering sites outside of Fort Meade, Maryland, and we have the 24th and 25th Air Force Wings at Lackland. We have any number now of dozens and dozens of cyber companies that have spun off out of all that and will continue to spin off. There’s a high-paying software engineering jobs, they attract people, people start families here. Once we get people here with their family, we got them.
Justin: I think that’s right. I love San Antonio and I always tell people it’s the best-kept secret in Texas. Part of the reason I love it, I could probably go on and on and talk to you for hours on everything, but let’s go back to The Rivard Report. The Rivard Report is not mainstream media, as you hear people talk about now, what is your goal with The Rivard Report?
Robert: Well, we were very careful about who we hire.
Justin: That’s your cut, by the way. That’s your gift for coming on.
Robert: Well, thank you. We explained to people coming in, we’re a non-profit with a mission. Our mission is to help use quality, credible, nonpartisan journalism in our growing number of civic engagement events, to better inform and connect people in the city and make it a better place for people to live, work, and play. We want to see San Antonio become a better city, meaning, a more equitable city, a city where more people share in the prosperity, a better-educated city, a more environmentally-responsible city, a healthier city that addresses its Type 2 diabetes, it’s epidemic of obesity and adolescent obesity. Those are all things we care about. We don’t want to just be on the sideline going, “Oh, we’re throwing stones at the glass plate,” as the media. We want people to be able to use our journalism and act on it.
Justin: Do the reporters have pretty open latitude on what they want to cover and basically in their area of specialty?
Robert: It’s a very collaborative thing. We have Emily Donaldson who covers education. We have Roseanna Garza who covers health. Brendan Gibbons who covers the environment and energy. Iris Dimmick who covers local government and I could go on and on. Nicholas Frank, arts and culture. They’re all drinking out of fire hoses. The demand for what we do, it just grows exponentially, but our staff remains small, talented, passionate, driven, but small, and there’s only so much they can do.
Justin: Was Brendan with the Express-News at some point?
Robert: He was with the
Justin: I always catch myself reading Brendan’s and Irises, just consistently I always read their articles.
Robert: Graham Watson-Ringo, our managing editor was the head of expressnews.com. She came over to our side. They’re talented people and we’re really happy to have them. There’s any number of people at the Express–News, I’d love to have on our staff, if we could wave a magic wand and find the money and convince them that we were worth trying out, but it’s a very collaborative process. It’s also controlled somewhat by the news and so everybody’s been a coronavirus reporter. Since the death of Mr. Floyd in Minnesota, everybody has been a black lives matter reporter. We only have two photographers. The Express–News, I probably saw three photographers every night out on the streets documenting the protests and–
Justin: People are putting themselves in danger being out there.
Robert: They are. My staff has a very young staff. A couple of people, it’s their first or second job in journalism. I have reporters and photographers that are in their early 20s. I’m 67.
Justin: [laughs] Well, good for you. You’re keeping them all on their toes.
Robert: I used to say that I had people on our staff that were young enough to be my sons and daughters. One reporter approached me and said, “Would you mind not saying that because you’re closer to my grandfather’s age than my dad’s age.”
Justin: You’re fired. [laughs]
Robert: I’m careful about that, but there’s people in their 20s or 30s or 40s, they’ve learned a lot. Some of them never covered anything like this before the pandemic. Some of them never covered street protests, which can be very intimidating. I told you before off of a microphone at Scott Ball, our veteran photo editor was documenting, photographing the incidents of looting on East Houston Street and he was threatened to stop and when he didn’t, several people surrounded him, hit him, knocked his camera to the ground, and made off with his $5,000 camera or our $5,000 camera were The Rivard Report is spending $5,000 of our scarce resources this week to replace that and that hurts. That’s intimidating for people if you’ve ever been through it.
Justin: I have met Scotty, couldn’t be a nicer man. He came and photographed us and he’s just such a nice man. They’re out there putting themselves in the middle of it to make sure you get a good story about it.
Robert: Well, that’s one thing we haven’t covered, saying he’s a nice man. The people that work at The Rivard Report are wonderful human beings. They’re caring people, they’re dedicated, they’re passionate. We’ve curated our– building our team very carefully, and with one or two exceptions of people not working out, we’ve just built a remarkable team of people that really matter, and newsmakers notice that.
They feel like they’re treated fairly that reporters don’t misrepresent what they say. The reporting is accurate and credible and that when we make mistakes, we’re quick to admit it and try to correct our errors. The culture, the workplace at The Rivard Report, at least before we started working remotely, but even our remote work culture is a very good one. It can be better, and we know that, and we’re trying to work on areas where we can improve, but it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in a really long and varied career.
Justin: That’s great. It makes your product so much better when everybody likes each other and morale is good. You touched on this a second ago, we had Dr. Rohr-Allegrini on I think episode number 2 talking about at the epidemiologist. She’s written a handful of articles that have been published in The Rivard Report. You all welcome guest columns, I guess you would call them. How do you all judge what is worthy of publishing because I’m sure you get stuff you don’t publish?
Robert: On occasion, we get something that we reject or if we get something that’s blatantly self-serving, it goes over to the business side. Somebody can buy a corporate-sponsored post. Those are, when they’re done well, are very effective, but people in the community from the mayors and university presidents are invited to write all the way down to artists, neighborhood activists, teachers, nurses, anonymous people that have never had a platform like that. It’s an extraordinarily rewarding thing for people to be able to tell their story and to have the community. People are always surprised how many people in the community say, “Hey, I saw your stuff on The Rivard Report.” You probably know that as having contributed one of the articles to the Where I Live series. It’s a really popular feature.
Justin: It’s great, it’s fun.
Robert: We solicit some of those, like this week, we’re out talking to many African-American leaders in the community, asking them to either participate with our reporters or to consider writing a commentary. I believe today, we posted a commentary from one of the senior officials at the San Antonio Independent School District, an African-American, a commentary on the current situation. Then many people would just come forward and say, “I disagree intensely with something that you wrote Bob,” or something else, or “I’ve got to take on something.” We work with them. We’re kinder, gentler editors, and we get their material into publication, and we give it the same social media newsletter promotion of our own work, and it’s who we are.
Justin: I saw that first-hand because I don’t know if you remember, but Manny Pelaez wrote an op-ed about a lawsuit verdict here that he got hired post-verdict to help with the appeal. I’m a lawyer by trade and that’s what I do day-to-day and I found it very offensive that he was almost, in my opinion, indicting our jury system here in San Antonio. It created an uproar in our little industry of people who actually go to the courthouse and try cases, people who are friends with the judges, and people who think our juries here are great. Sometimes we lose, but they usually get it right. We were trying to figure out how we wanted to approach it and then we all said, “Well, let’s sit tight because we figured there would be some response.”
Now, Ricardo Cedillo, the lawyer on the other side, he wrote his response. I thought that was really important that you all made sure that both opinions got out there because one of them was– I did not think a fair representation of what was going on, but it got corrected and Mr. Cedillo got to write his, pointing out what he thought were fallacies and those arguments. I saw it first-hand and I think that’s very important that both sides get to have a voice, but at that time, I was pretty surprised at what I was reading and I was thinking, “Who wrote this?” Then I saw somebody with an interest.
Robert: That’s the way it’s supposed to work. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but the intentions are to make it always work perfectly.
Justin: One of the things in your mission statement was above and beyond news is community engagement. Why is it important to you as a newsperson to have that as a focus or portion of your news outlet to also have the community engagement angle?
Robert: We’ve got to go to where people live. We’ve just seen with the shutdown of the public school system that literally, there’s a couple of 100,000 households in our community that don’t have high-speed internet connectivity. Those students became lost at first to the public school districts. Some still are. There was no way for them to compete on the field of distant learning with those families that had households with high-speed internet, tablets, smartphones, desktop computers-
Robert: -and parents that educated themselves and were able to participate in the process, which is a key in distant learning. One of the things the inner city school officials have told me, Pedro Martinez and others, is you’re not just connecting with the child, you’re connecting with the whole family. You’ve got to embrace the whole family to make distant learning possibly works. Some of these kids are in very small houses with a lot of distraction going on. They don’t have quiet workplaces.
They don’t maybe have a parent that can help them with that algebra, or geometry, or reading, and it’s a real challenge. When we take events out into the community, we’re often reaching people that might want to read us but aren’t necessarily reading us with frequency. They might be reading us when they go to the library or BiblioTech and have access to a computer, but they’re not connected the way you are or I am.
Robert: We found that going out into the neighborhoods and listening, we’re broadening our base of sources of people that we report about and contact for reporting that were introducing The Rivard Report to people that have never heard of it, even though we’ve been around now for eight-and-a-half years. Not a week of my life goes by, Justin, where somebody doesn’t say to me, “What have you been doing since you retired,” which is a real wakeup call to me about marketing and promotion.
Justin: What’s funny when you said it was a blog earlier, I just had a flashback to when you all first started. It looked like a blog and it felt like a blog. Now, it’s all the bells and whistles now, but it really was just a news blog at first.
Robert: Well, then I surrounded myself by smart people and things got better very quickly.
Justin: [chuckles] Fair enough.
Justin: Like we discussed, I had terrible audio in here until somebody came by and told me, “That sounds terrible, you have to fix that.”
Robert: People love civic engagement. We just did a series over three weeks in May of education forums. We had 550 people tuning into the first one.
Justin: That was on Zoom or something?
Robert: Yes, it was on Zoom. It was on Crowdcast than other platform, but–
Justin: My wife went 20 years in person or maybe a year ago and she said it was full to the gills.
Robert: Yes, we do one every year at the Mays Family Center and we sell it out, I think 650, 750 paid people for lunch and it’s a festival.
Justin: Do you all make any money from those things?
Robert: We do. It’s not our primary source. Our revenue model though is diversified, which is one of the reasons we’re a healthy nonprofit. We sell advertising and marketing. We make sure that advertising and marketing is held to the same high standards that our editorial content is, so there’s a lot of advertising on other digital media sites in town that you don’t see on our site, but we make advertising and marketing revenue. We have the individual and business membership support that I’ve told you about.
Those are the recurring annual donations. They range from $25 for the young person who doesn’t really have a lot of money but is giving us a debit card, $5 a month or less, all the way up to people that have given us six-figure commitments, particularly the third leg of that is foundations and philanthropists and major donors, and then we make money from our events. We don’t make a lot of money, but for example, the education form that your wife attended, that probably yielded enough money after everything was paid for that we gave out $50,000 in grants to participating education nonprofits that helped us plan that event.
Justin: That’s great.
Robert: We’re going to do that again this year even though it’s virtual. That’s impressive. No one else in the media is giving away money to other nonprofits, but that builds a sense of that we’re from here, that we’re in this community, and that we’re people’s neighbors and that we’re here not for profit but because we’re invested in the community.
Justin: Eric Cooper from the Food Bank was on two weeks ago and your organization has it, the Food Bank has it. There’s something about certain nonprofits that the leadership’s passion for their goals sells everything for itself. I can’t imagine Eric Cooper walking into a room and saying, “Give me money. I need your money,” but I can hear him just say, “I love people. I’m going to feed people. We’re here to help.”
You just want to give them money. You all have tapped into something like he has that the passion makes people want to support it because they know it’s great for the community. What’s next for The Rivard Report in terms of growth? Where you all want to be? Are you all hoping to add some arms or angles to what you all do or what’s the plan?
Robert: First of all, by the way, Eric Cooper, if there was a hall of fame for nonprofit leaders in San Antonio, he’d be the first person in.
Justin: He’s got that thing Mr. Rogers has, he makes you feel warm and you want to be around him. I’d never met him before, but there is something-
Robert: He’s a remarkable human being.
Justin: -biblical about that guy. He really is just a genuinely wonderful heart.
Robert: He has built up the San Antonio food bank which is called the San Antonio Food Bank, but it serves dozens of counties into one of the largest enterprises of its kind in the country, so we can take great pride in that. What’s coming from The Rivard Report is we’re going to emerge from this pandemic and the ensuing economic shutdown stronger than ever. Not a lot of nonprofits are going to be able to say the same thing. A lot of them are in crisis and I understand that and I’m sensitive to that, but our audience grew by hundreds of thousands of pageviews month-over-month just from people that heard about us for the first time or realized how important a source of news and information we could be in this moment. They’re all signs are that audience isn’t dissipating as the curve flattens.
As we broaden our reach both in terms of who’s reading us in our own geographic reach, I hope that we broaden our membership and our donor base. If our budget grows, we’ll grow prudently. We’ve never missed a payroll and I’ve never lost a night’s sleep over payroll. I’ve had a great board of directors and by being conservative in our spending and ambitious in our journalism, that’s been a good business model and that’s what we’ll adhere to, but we are one of the fastest growing cities and regions in the country. I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I want to add people over the years. We need more of everything.
Justin: Is there any specific area of coverage that you think, “We’re pretty close, we need a reporter just for that”? Or, “If we had money, this is the first reporter,” would it be a poverty reporter or somebody about the inner cities? Anything specific?
Robert: All of the above. More people covering government, people covering race relations, more people covering community and neighborhoods. One education reporter should be three education reporters. Two photographers should be four or at least one with a video camera. We could use a stronger weekend operation. I need more fluency in Spanish on our staff. I told you that we have an African American managing editor that we’re proud of that came from the Express-News, Graham Watson-Ringo, but we don’t have an African American reporter. That’s something that needs to be fixed and that’s just not right in the day and age we live in, so we’re not perfect. We have a lot of areas that we can improve on.
We need another columnist. I have my own transition plan that’s taking shape for the next generation of leadership at The Rivard Report on both the business side. I’m the publisher and I’ll eventually turn those publishing reigns over to a new publisher. I’m the editor and I’ll turn the office of the editor over.
I want to write my column for some time to come, but the day’s going to come where I want to go write another book, and I want to do some other things, travel more, fish more. We need another strong voice to come along, Rick Casey is iconic, but Rick is my age. It would be great to have a person of color with that voice and standing in the community, particularly in San Antonio, we’re such a Latino community. There’s a lot of areas where we need to add talent and throw away. If the community continues to support us and that support grows, we’ll deliver
Justin: Robert. I try to keep this right around an hour. We’re getting there, but before we get off the air, tell people how they can support, tell them where they can learn more about The Rivard Report.
Robert: We’re a 501(3)(c), so 100% of whatever you give is tax-deductible and not only that, we’re in the middle of a $100,000 challenge grant from the Newman Family Foundation. They are doubling the gifts that a lot of people are giving us, particularly those that joined in our leadership circle and $1,000 and above, but as I said, membership starts at $25. You just go to our homepage, there’s a donate button and you can click on that and donate securely. You can become a recurring member and give a little bit every month, if you want, instead of a single payment.
If you still have a checkbook in your possession and you want to write a check and put it inside an envelope with a stamp on it, you can mail it to us. It’s all there on that donate button. Businesses in particular are welcome because we appreciate their expression of their vote of confidence and letting us put their name on our wall is they support the work we’re doing in the community. Individuals, we encourage not only the individuals to join, but for individuals to advocate with their employers to join.
Justin: My law firm’s a sponsor, we expect to continue to do so. If anybody has questions about how we do it or what we do or why we care about it, please reach out to me. That’s going to do it with this episode. Robert, thank you so much for being here. I hope I can get you on again when your transition plan’s happening, or after it’s happened, or any other time, when you have anything you want to share, I hope we can be a platform to help serve the same mission you are serving. Thank you for being here.
Robert: Well, it’s been a pleasure being here and I invite you to meet some of the talented people that I work with and-
Justin: Love to.
Robert: -have them on, they’re wonderful.
Justin: I would love to. That’s going to do it for this episode. Guest wishlist continues, coach Pop, Shea Serrano, Patty Mills. We’re going to try to get some of you all on, you’re doing great things for the city. Personally, I just love coach Pop and want to talk to him. That’s going to do it for this episode. It should be up on the following episode number 18. That’s it. Thank you.
Thanks for joining us on this episode of the Alamo Hour, you are all what make this city so great. We hope you join us next week. In the meantime, subscribe to our podcast, check us out on Facebook at facebook.com/AlamoHour, our or our website, alamohour.com. Until next time, Viva San Antonio.
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