Steven Smith departs and the question arises: Who should lead newspapers' online transformation?

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?

About David Westphal

After almost four decades in newspapering, I've made the jump to academia at USC's Annenberg Journalism School in Los Angeles. I hope to use my recent experience as head of McClatchy's Washington Bureau to write about the revolution that's taking place in journalism -- and in particular to study new-media business models. I'm a senior fellow at Annenberg's Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, and also affiliated with the Knight Digital Media Center.


  1. Overall, editors and reporters seem to have done a fine job of embracing the Internet. The fall-down seems to be on the business side.

    I am busily running around South Central Florida making online video ads, but none of these ads are for old-style newspapers or TV/cable outlets.

    They’re either for the businesses’ own Web sites or for AT&T’s online Yellow Pages.

    If the newspaper and TV people want to get in on the Internet ad gravy train, they need to stop whining and start developing new, innovative, Web-based ad products.

    Without a sound business behind them, even the best journalists can’t “save” a media outlet.

  2. David,

    Thanks for opening up this conversation. It is an important one. I’m going to weigh in, maybe shed a bit more light on my decision. But mostly I hope I contribute to the discussion.

    First, in my earlier interviews I made it clear that this was a difficult personal decision. I was not attempting to make any larger statement or send a signal or even lodge a meaningful protest. My decision did not change the situation at the SR in any way.

    I’ll try to summarize my line of thought after it became clear that I would be ordered to make cuts leaving a newspaper staff somewhere in the low 80s.

    My loyalty, I told myself, is not to any one particular organization. Staying to fight the good fight at a newspaper where the good fight has been lost may seem to some like a proper “going down with the ship” response.

    But my loyalty is to journalism, to the craft and the values at its core. Those loyalties outweigh my loyalty to an organization that will be so reduced as to make it nearly impossible to uphold those values.

    Further, as editor of one of the most progressive, digital savvy, multi-platform newsrooms in the country, I could not comfortably stay with an organization that is, essentially, selling its future for short-term benefit. The current cuts will decimate online, eliminate an AM radio initiative (or worse, turn it over to marketing) and kill numerous innovative platform and content experiments planned for this year and next.

    If my loyalty is to journalism and my commitment is to finding a way forward for journalists and the industry, how could a decision to stay at the SR — continuing to pick up my hefty paycheck while laying off people I hired, our future — be seen as anything but a cowardly abandonment of a larger responsibility.

    Let me make it clear that I respect Publisher Stacey Cowles and his need to dramatically cut costs throughout the newspaper company, not just the newsroom. He is the owner/publisher of a newspaper that faces the same economic problems confronting all American newspapers. He has an obligation to his family (the other stockholders) to preserve the SR as a viable business. I left on amicable terms, never disputing his need for economic stability, but clearly disagreeing with what I view as a short-term strategy.

    Further, as someone who has championed transparency, how can I possibly stand up and honestly suggest to readers and advertisers that the paper will be as good or even better when all of the downsizing is done, something the publisher requires of his editor. I have been too honest about disastrous cuts in the past to change my tune now.

    I am 58 years old. I am not retiring. I am not abandoning journalism or journalists. I know I have expertise to share. I know I have been a voice for innovation and experimentation. And I know I have championed, successfully, revolutionary newsroom change for nearly two decades. I hope to find another place in journalism, another platform.

    Besides, I need a job. I have two kids in college and an ex-wife.

    Last point…I am not Doug Clifton, though I consider Doug a role model and mentor from our shared time in Knight-Ridder. I understand the reasons he may suggest it is time to turn this industry over to new generations of young turks. To an extent, that is true.

    But I disagree that us old farts can’t be leaders into the new era. My colleagues at the recent Knight Digital Media Center conference are innovators and leaders. They know what must be done and their years of experience and craft knowledge actually enhance their ability to drive change.

    There are dinosaurs in the old-fart ranks, to be sure. But all editors know that many of our youngest come out of journalism school so steeped in the mythology of the ’60s and ’70s (the generation their professors too often represent) that they become the greatest obstacles to newsroom change.

    Look to leadership from those who have the vision. Some of those will be editors like me, old curmudgeons who are not ready to give up just yet, who won’t go down with one ship while the fleet remains in jeopardy.

    Thanks for the opportunity to vent, David. I hope this helps explain my line of thinking.

    Steven A. Smith

  3. Too many editors from the Woodstock era still think they can rock and roll. Sigh. Personally, I remind myself that there really is a difference between the younger digital generation and those of us who are eligible for AARP.

    Can we pay attention to the market and the trends? Yes. Can we be web and tech savvy? Sure. Can we think strategically? Absolutely. But many of the web’s social/cultural impacts will still be lost on even the smartest of us.

    Sage newsroom leaders will recognize that they have employees who “get it” better than they do –and find ways to unleash their intelligence against all the obstacles that hold our business back.

  4. David Westphal says:


    What an illuminating and helpful post. I think it’s safe to say your departure has become a crystalizing moment for many of us because of your pioneering new-media work at Spokane. (If Steven Smith and Spokane can’t make it work, then…)

    Your own story makes a powerful case that veteran editors not only get it but can be innovative leaders in the digital revolution. Perhaps that isn’t the biggest issue. Maybe the larger one is the other part of your story — the difficulty of watching the dismantling of the news organization you’ve built, and still believing that it’s capable of the kind of journalism the community needs and expects. (A Washington bureau chief told me recently, “I can see us being successful at half our current size. The part that doesn’t work for me is how I lead from here to there.”)

    One other piece of your post sure got my attention: “But all editors know that many of our youngest come out of journalism school so steeped in the mythology of the ’60s and ’70s (the generation their professors too often represent) that they become the greatest obstacles to newsroom change.”

    Lordy, does that ever need to change!

  5. Neal,

    Good editors of any era built their success on the work of people smarter than themselves. The good editors of this era will certainly turn to the people in their newsroom who do get it, regardless of age.

    An open newsroom, where all younger staff can participate in decision-making, can sit in on ALL meetings, can walk into any editor’s office or even dominate strategic planning committees is a newsroom that will see, embrace and shape the future.

    A newsroom that relies on one senior editor’s vision will always be limited.

    But that is nothing new.


  6. David Westphal says:

    Bringing this back around to the starting point: Michele McLellan’s blog.

  7. Two former colleagues and friends (David and Neal) have raised interesting questions. I don’t know Steve, but I have no reason to doubt his sincerity or his anguish over the decision he made.

    But I would say that if those are the young people he is encountering from journalism programs, he should start recruiting in other places. Most of us in journalism education are running as fast as we can to try to figure out how to train students for the new world of journalism, whatever that may be. And we certainly need to do a better job of exposing students to the notion that journalists also need a good grasp of business principles and the ways and means of attracting and keeping audiences in this new era.

    It is true, though, that we also are still trying to teach our students that some of the old values still apply. Values like accuracy. Values like digging hard to provide accountability and oversight of powerful institutions. And that writing and language precision still matter, despite the medium. If those things make us and our program a throwback to the bad (good) old days before the Web, so be it. I won’t apologize for that.

    Wendell Cochran
    Journalism Division Director
    American University

  8. I’m sorry, but I don’t see how Steven A. Smith’s departure is anything but addition by subtraction.

    Newspapers don’t need wildly inconsistent cartoon characters “leading” them by running around like Yosemite Sam and making nonsensical proclamations. Age-based committees blended with calls for a wire editor — years after most metro papers had created wire editor positions — while simultaneously calling for an end to AP service are precisely the milkshake of unoriginal, incompatible ideas that newsrooms can no longer afford to drink.

    There are far too many pseudomanagers and pseudoeditors in place at newspapers today. Just off the top of my head, even subtracting Smith, we still have people like John Temple, Janet Coats and others not worth naming who have absolutely no business being in a newsroom, much less masquerading as a supervisor. They need to be fired today. Every day they remain in place is a day indicating newspapers have lost their way.

    The industry has managed to give away every advantage it might have possessed. If the question is who should lead, the answer is likely not in any of today’s dysfunctional, underperforming newsrooms.

  9. says:

    While I respect Steve Smith’s decision to call it quits, it comes no where near the respect I feel for journalists who take the economic punch and stay on their feet. Now more than ever, newspapers need leaders — passionate, forward-thinking leaders who understand that the mission of journalism is too important to throw up our hands and walk away.

    Boiled to its core, journalism comes down to the conversation between an editor and a reporter, the give and take of what is fair and essential and what isn’t.

    Looking behind at the good old days guarantees that newspapers will stumble forward. Steve still had a strong news staff. One of the best in the Northwest, innovative and willing to take up the challenge. I’m sorry he abandoned them when they needed his leadership the most.

  10. Steve Smith was making bold moves at the Spokesman-Review. Many readers, like myself, were deeply saddened upon reading of the Smith resignation. If not for Steve Smith, we would have never uncovered the corrupt mayor in 2005. This is what journalism is all about. The watchdog.(Spokane Mayor Jim West was recalled)

    I hope Steve will continue with his vision at a large newspaper which will be willing to fund true journalism. In my opinion, publishers need to realize this is a new world and profit margins will be smaller largely due to competition with the internet.

    David Elton
    Spokane, Washington

  11. Here’s another example of old people thinking they’re doing great!

  12. I completely understand Steve’s decision to leave the Spokesman Review — and applaud it. The opportunity cost was too high for him to stay. Ask yourself this: Imagine you are in your 50s and working at a place where you no longer have the tools you need and there is no prospect to get those tools for several years. But you can go somewhere else and accomplish something that not only benefits you, but may significantly improve the industry as a whole. You are faced with ending a career providing moral support or going elsewhere and leading another group (or potentially an entire industry) forward. Despite the emotional appeal of taking one for the team, any objective analysis of this situation provides an easy answer. It’s time to leave.

  13. As a former colleague of Neal and Steve, just at the tail end of the baby boom, all of the above points have some validity to me. I’m not an old dog and certainly not a young pup, but I see both ends of the spectrum. As a former print staffer and the current Web Editor in a mid-size daily metro market, it’s clear the issues we face are nearly universal. The allocation of dwindling resources is the biggest challenge to me. Until a viable new revenue model emerges, the content editors can only balance the demands of the print and digital platforms best as they see fit with the resources we can afford. Bigger change does take empowerment of all groups in the company or the buy-in to the problem and resulting solutions won’t occur. On a personal level, it’s tough to be honest with young journalists about the realities of the business without crushing their idealistic spirit. Our societal role is still vital, but the means of how we will fill it going forward aren’t clear. We definitley need to be more open, in all senses.

  14. Newsroom cuts can take their toll on editors, to be sure, and those of us who have watched Steven Smith’s work at the Spokesman are familiar with the hefty price that newsroom has paid in recent years.

    While I appreciate the discussion on how those cuts impact editors, I’d like to offer a slightly different perspective — one I believe truly stretches the leadership skills of editors young and old (I’m three weeks short of 40, so I won’t put myself in either category). How do we keep the talented crop of new journalists in this profession?

    There are plenty of people out there who will tell them to bail; we need more who will remind them of the value of our work. We need them desperately. We need their fresh ideas and their unflinching determination to root out stories.

    Yes, the economy is downright awful, and the industry is changing rapidly. Still, we see thousands of people in colleges across the country who want to pursue journalism/communications degrees.

    As a small newspaper editor, I regularly interact with journalists at the very start of their career. For the most part, they are as eager and passionate about journalism as those who have earned a few paychecks in this profession. What they’re looking for is editors who aren’t afraid of the future and can convince them they made a wise career decision. They’re looking for those who will tell them they can still make a living by telling compelling stories, pursuing truth and demanding accountability.

    Steve McClure
    Moscow-Pullman Daily News

  15. David Westphal says:

    I agree that finding the right words in talking with young journalists (old journalists too) is terribly important. Fortunately, candor is easiest, it’s best, and it’s not all gloom in doom. Yes, the news biz is indeed going through a digital-induced transformation that is going to be with us a while, and it’s going to change journalism (and many more enterprises) in a big way. And yes, it’s quite likely to continue shrinking most legacy news organizations. BUT… Out of this disruption is uncommon opportunity for creativity, innovation, the possibility for a young voice to be heard like never before. (Actually, at my old shop, McClatchy Washington, EVERY reporting voice already is being heard like never before because of the digital revolution.) And finally, the combination of skills journalists learn today — the tried-and-true attributes of storytelling, truthtelling, fact-finding, fairness, combined with competence in the digital, multi-platform world, is a hell-on-wheels concoction that will prepare young journalists for successful careers, come what may.

  16. says:

    Excellent column – got me thinking, and I posted a response on my blog (link below):

    –Carrie Brown, assistant professor, University of Memphis Department of Journalism