Archive for February 24th, 2009

I can think of few jobs as exciting or as important (to me) as being editor of a newspaper. I was so delighted to get the job as editor of The Gazette that it seems weird to give it up. Voluntarily, even.

My wife, Mimi, knows how much I loved being editor. My colleague Mary Sharp, The Gazette’s longtime Iowa Editor, knows what the title means to a career journalist. I had nearly identical conversations recently with each of them. “But that’s what you came here to do,” each of them told me, in nearly identical words, in separate conversations about the fact that I would be relinquishing that title.

No, I responded. I didn’t come here to edit the Gazette. I came here to help transform this organization and the newspaper business. I can do that better by leaving behind the entrenched titles, structures and thinking of a business that I love. So now I take on a new job and a new title: Information Content Conductor.

As I have reported before in this blog, Gazette Communications is splitting content creation from the making of products. Lyle Muller, the new Gazette editor, and I will explain this change further in the coming weeks in our columns and blogs.

With Mary’s assistance, I will lead an organization that will seek new ways to develop content that is richer, deeper and more meaningful than is allowed by the limitations of our products. Lyle and other colleagues will work to continue serving our community with excellent products using content from my organization and others.

We will share details as we fill positions in both of these new organizations and finish realigning our company in the coming weeks.

But let me tell you this much about our plans: My new title sounds odd at first (yes, to this old editor, too), but each word tells you something about what we are doing:

Information. We will continue providing factual, independent news and information for the community. While the tasks, presentation and means of delivery will change, integrity and truth will remain the core of everything we do.

Content. The kind of content we provided in the newspaper was pretty simple when I started my journalism career in 1971: stories, columns, editorials, lists and photographs. Graphics became a big deal in the 1980s. The future of content is far more diverse: all that as well as databases, videos, audio, slideshows, text messages, blogs, tweets, interactive multimedia, comments, questions, live chats, interactive maps and more that we can’t yet imagine.

Conductor. As much as I have loved the title editor, it doesn’t describe what I will be doing. Maybe the title will change someday, because I know the work will change as this organization and my job evolve. But for now, conductor seems the most accurate term. As a musical conductor does, I will be orchestrating the work of creative people. As a railroad conductor does, I will interact with the public to provide an orderly, satisfying experience. As an electrical conductor does, I need to carry energy in the staff and the community.

I wish that we were launching this new venture in a thriving economy with a larger staff. But the economic challenges that forced us to reduce our staff this week underscore the necessity of transformation.

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In the first 37 years of my journalism career, the worst day was July 24, 1992. That was the day I was fired. The publisher of the Minot Daily News called me into her office and told me I was no longer the editor.

The proudest day of my journalism career was June 12, 2008. That was the day the flood surged through Cedar Rapids. Less than a month ago, I nominated our staff in several categories for the Pulitzer Prize for their outstanding journalism in covering the flood under difficult circumstances that day and in the months since.

Tuesday was worse than the day I got fired. It was the day I had to tell 13 colleagues they would no longer work at The Gazette (another got that unfortunate news Wednesday). These were many of the same colleagues responsible for my proudest day. Every one of them deserves a job with this company. Every one of them deserves a job somewhere in journalism or somewhere in this community. But Tuesday I had to tell them they no longer had jobs here.

I am not asking for sympathy, just stating facts. Save your sympathy for my colleagues and friends (I hope we’re still friends, but I understand if we’re not) who are worrying about how to pay their mortgages and feed their families. Save your sympathy for my colleagues and friends who wonder if they will ever work again in this profession they love. Save your sympathy for your colleagues and friends who have lost their jobs at so many other companies in our community.

The nation was starting to show signs of economic trouble when I came to work at The Gazette two days before the flood. The real estate market was already slumping so severely that my wife, Mimi, and I did not even bother trying to sell our condominium in Virginia (we’re thankful to have a renter).

The newspaper industry was slumping, too. Newspapers have succeeded in drawing large audiences as people move online for news and information. But advertising rates online are nowhere near as strong as in print and newspapers haven’t done a good job of developing other revenue streams from the digital marketplace.

I came to Gazette Communications because I saw this as a company that was committed to transforming to meet the challenges of the digital age. We are doing that and I believe we will succeed and prosper. My next post (coming later tonight) will explain some of those changes further, including my new role. I believe we will eventually grow and provide new jobs for journalists.

The events of the past nine months have deepened the challenges facing this company: The flood had a severe economic impact on our community and our advertisers; credit markets melted down, plunging the nation into our greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression; the newspaper industry’s decline accelerated, with two companies seeking bankruptcy protection in the past week; newsprint prices continued to soar.

The decisions we carried out Tuesday in the newsroom I lead and throughout Gazette Communications were inevitable and unavoidable. Employees own stock in this company and they knew the financial figures that forced this week’s decisions. They had, in fact, been expecting the cuts for weeks. Some departments were already cutting staff in smaller numbers as they reorganized, a few here, a few there. We have been, and after these cuts continue to be, larger than most comparable newspaper companies. Everyone knew that our current revenues couldn’t continue to support that workforce.

But knowing the cuts were coming and knowing they were necessary didn’t soften the blow.

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