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Archive for February 28th, 2009

This will be my column for The Gazette (now appearing on Mondays):

Journalists should experience the glare of media attention now and then.

We’ve had the tables turned on us the past couple weeks at the Gazette Co. Journalists who are used to asking the tough questions and deciding what news and facts were most important have fielded inquiries from television and print reporters. We’ve watched and read news reports and blogs with uncomfortable facts, annoying errors and snarky viewpoints.

As the editor who took on an unfamiliar title and delivered some bad news to people who lost their jobs, I spent much of the time in the spotlight.

The media attention began the week before our job reductions, when KGAN got wind of changes taking place at The Gazette and focused on us in a weeklong series on turmoil in the newspaper business. I noted some of the TV report’s errors right away in my blog, though I won’t belabor them here and didn’t blog about all the errors they made. I hope and believe that our staff members identify themselves better in approaching people for interviews and check their facts better. I hope and believe we provide better context and depth in our reporting.

But the fact is, KGAN smoked out the story that something was up at The Gazette and I give them credit for that.

When we started giving employees the unfortunate news Tuesday that some of them were losing their jobs, the glare intensified. I fielded inquiries from the Associated Press, Des Moines Register, three different KGAN staff members and IowaIndependent.com (and I might be leaving out a media outlet or two).

My boss, Gazette Co. President and CEO Chuck Peters, announced late in the day that I would be leading our new operation to develop content independent of specific products. While my organization will include most of the staff of what used to be The Gazette’s newsroom, I will no longer hold the title of Editor. That title goes now to Lyle Muller, a leader on our staff for the past 22 years. We will work closely together, my staff providing news, information, photos, videos and other content and Lyle leading efforts to use some of that content to produce an outstanding newspaper.

Chuck, Lyle and I responded to 37 questions and comments Wednesday in a live chat with the public at GazetteOnline. We received more than two times as many questions as we had time to answer. Many were skeptical or downright hostile.

As I announced Tuesday night in my blog, my new title is Information Content Conductor. I won’t repeat here the explanation I gave in the blog for the title. But here’s the central reason for changing the title: Editor is a role focused on a packaged product, a newspaper (Lyle’s role). My role is going to focus on generating content independently of packaged products. It’s a huge change for this business and a new title, even a title that sounds strange, sends an important message to our staff that we are serious about change.  A journalist doesn’t relinquish the title editor lightly, but I felt I had to.

My new title was mocked by Iowa Independent Managing Editor Chase Martyn, who accused us of “gimmickry” (a fair criticism, even if we disagree) and “shortsighted planning” (a conclusion drawn without a single inquiry about our planning). Martyn wondered whether my designation comes with a funny hat (not yet, but I wouldn’t rule it out; we are saying this start-up venture will require us to wear multiple hats).

That blog was mild compared to the diatribe by former staff member Josh Linehan, who left voluntarily before last week’s staff cuts. Linehan proclaimed himself to have more guts than his former bosses, whom he didn’t name but described as charlatans, idiots and liars, though he never had the guts to voice these views face to face to me when he was here. And his self-righteous commitment to the truth didn’t extend so far as to call or email me to check his facts. He also wondered how we sleep at night, without bothering to do the research to see that the question had been answered.

Of course, the media glare isn’t all uncomfortable. Arizona State University journalism professor Tim McGuire cheered me on in his blog, agreeing that our industry has to innovate more seriously than we have so far.

I don’t particularly like the spotlight. I’d rather be the one asking questions and stating opinions. So here’s a question: Would we really be innovative if we didn’t face some skepticism? And here’s an opinion: After we succeed, the skeptics will adopt our approach (if they’re still in the business), but they won’t admit they were wrong.

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While I’m suggesting a way to save this year’s American Society of Newspaper Editors convention, I’ll go a step further and suggest how to save two organizations of editors: ASNE and the Associated Press Managing Editors should join forces.

I don’t know the details of the history of the organizations, but ASNE and APME have been redundant for as long as I can remember. From where I sat, editors who vigilantly stamped out redundancies in newspaper copy have carefully protected it in their organizations because that meant both the editor (or executive editor) and the managing editor both got to have a convention junket during the year.

ASNE, formed in 1922, was once so exclusive that you had to answer a series of questions that verified that the buck stopped with you in your newsroom. APME came along 11 years later, also for senior editors but accepting those on the next-to-top rung. So for decades the top two editors in most newsrooms each had a convention to attend each year and everyone ignored the obvious fact that both conventions were dealing with the same issues: journalism ethics, public service, diversity, training, changing technology and timely issues that came and went.

That was great when newspapers were making high profits. I enjoyed gatherings of both organizations, four ASNE conventions and APME meetings in at least four states (APME has a stronger presence at the state level; I was president briefly in North Dakota and I think I just agreed to serve on the Iowa APME board, though the conversation was pretty informal). Over time, the organizations became hardly distinguishable at all to those of us in newsrooms across the country.

ASNE’s current membership requirements are nearly the same as APME’s. Both organizations serve mostly the same purposes for mostly the same people. And both organizations have too many members looking at our budgets and our to-do lists and deciding we can’t afford the money or the time to attend their expensive conventions.

So here’s a suggestion: Merge the two organizations. Follow my suggestion for a virtual ASNE convention this year. Find some foundation support to subsidize registration and travel for this year’s APME convention in St. Louis (not yet canceled, but stay tuned). Plan a low-cost joint convention in 2010 (maybe a weekend instead of nearly a full week). Continue those state meetings that really help far more editors than either organization’s national meetings.

And continue helping us be better leaders for our news staffs. ASNE and APME should show us how to adapt and survive, not how to die.

Update: Tim McGuire supports this call for a merger and provides first-hand knowledge about background, including links to a 2008 Jerry Ceppos piece for Poynter (I’ll be seeing Jerry this weekend at an API ethics seminar in Reno) and a 2000 ASNE reporter piece on discussions then, as well as a Steve Smith blog post on ASNE’s convention cancellation.

Seriously, put aside the rivalries and obstacles. Join forces and help this industry adapt.

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