Do newspaper editors have a special obligation to stay in their depleted newsrooms and continue the fight, even as staff cuts threaten to shrink legacy news-gathering operations? Or will newspapers and their Web sites be better served by new leadership that’s less wedded to the past and more inclined to see the future as hopeful?
This was the topic of a lively conversation among some journalism faculty last week at USC Annenberg, following Steve A. Smith’s decision to resign as editor of the Spokane Spokesman-Review. Smith’s announcement (followed by the same-day exit of assistant managing editor Carla Savalli) was deeply felt here because of his pioneering involvement in digital transformation, here at the Knight Digital Media Center as well as at Spokane. But Smith told Michele McLellan last week that he could not stomach an additional, 25 percent cut to his news staff. “The journalism that’s important to me is no longer possible,” he told McLellan. Michele has more thoughts on newsroom leadership here.
There can’t have been too many editors who haven’t wondered the same thing, and asked themselves whether it’s best for them to stay or to go. Several of my new USC faculty colleagues — I’m newly installed as “executive in residence” here — were adamant that editors had an obligation to stay, arguing this is the worst possible time to jump ship.
Of course, decisions like this usually have multiple dimensions: Does the editor have other good options? Is she or he nearing retirement? Is the editor versatile enough to make the gargantuan leap to the Internet world? Is he or she skilled enough to maintain a strong leadership position despite overseeing repeated staff cuts? Family interests also interject themselves, as occurred this week when Wisconsin State Journal editor Ellen Foley resigned, citing her husband’s cancer. Then, too, it may not be the editor’s decision to make. Many publishers will no doubt have something to say.
Still, it’s an important question: Veteran editors are well versed in the practice of journalism and the press’ critical role in society, but they’re handicapped by their investment in a fast-disappearing past and are sometimes slow to see how quickly the information revolution is occurring. So are they still the best people to lead newsrooms to a digital future? As I listened to the faculty discussion, my mind went to Doug Clifton, who left as editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer last year and indirectly, at least, raised these questions as he left the paper. In an interview with Editor & Publisher, Clifton said then, “If I were 10 years younger, I would say this is just an extraordinary moment in the development of our business that requires creativity, and imagination, and new approaches to doing things.” He also observed that the Plain Dealer had “younger people who are fired up, and it’s their time to step up and do what I, on my best day, could probably only wish to do.”
Doug was 64 when he left, a man of wide interests who was eager to engage some of them with more gusto, which he now does from his home in Middlebury, Vt. One of the most effective defenders of the First Amendment of our time, he’s now interim director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, a member of the local museum board and a Habitat for Humanity volunteer, for starters. Doug was a man ready to step away from the newspaper world and enter new ones.
But since I’m only a few years younger than Doug, his comments last year caught my attention, because I saw in them larger grist than the standard-issue retirement remarks. Last week I wondered what he thought of Smith’s decision to leave. He said this in an e-mailed response: “While I sympathize with Steve’s decision and respect it, I wonder if it was the right way to go. Yes, the ability to do good journalism is compromised when resources are cut back. But the need is for a major breakthrough in thinking. How do we fulfill our First Amendment obligations and remain a profitable business? The second part is vital because volunteer citizen journalists can’t do what the press, as an institution, has done for 200 years.”
Doug also replayed his decision to leave Cleveland in a way that surely will have meaning for many an editor pondering the future.
“I came to the decision as I approached 65 that I was coming up with the same answers for curing readership problems that I’d offered for the past nearly 40 years. Good writing, powerful, meaningful reporting, urgency, passion. Master that and all will be well. I guess I’ll go to my grave believing that, despite no evidence that it works. In fact, the quality of journalism over the course of my career was never better yet the decline in readership was never steeper. Obviously the world became vastly more complicated and the number of variables in the equation became infinitely more challenging. Still I clung to the notion that doing the same good things better would reverse the tide.”
Although I have no evidence to support this, I’m guessing editors so far overwhelmingly have decided to stay and lead through this extraordinary digital transformation. This is certainly the case at McClatchy, where I was Washington editor until just a few weeks ago. In the last three or four years, the editors’ chairs at McClatchy’s 30 papers have been quite stable. I’ve been struck by how many of that mostly Boomer crowd have embraced the digital transformation.
But I suspect this question — Who best to lead the newsroom? — will only get bigger. Steven Smith’s newsroom has lost nearly half its staff. Chances are the Spokesman-Review and many other newsrooms will decline still more in future years. Meanwhile, the pace of digital change likely will accelerate, with editors under pressure to completely reimagine how people receive (and contribute to) news and information. Having managed their newsrooms through repeated rounds of downsizing, will veteran editors be the best people to lead their newsrooms to the Promised Land? Or will young journalists with no investment in the past (for good and ill) be better choices? There isn’t a right and wrong answer. But these are questions we’re going to hear about more and more.
What’s your view? Who best to lead newspapers into this new and uncertain era?