Looking back over the past year or so, in many ways it was the most frustrating, disappointing period of my career. I normally would avoid looking back on it at all. I am a positive person and have been looking forward to a new job that has taken me out of the newspaper business.
But I sort of had to look back, mostly in surprise, when I learned in January that Editor & Publisher magazine, which boasts that it is “America’s oldest journal covering the newspaper industry,” was naming me Editor of the Year. The magazine announcing the honor arrives in newspaper offices this week, the week after I left the industry.
A year before I received the news, I was preparing to do two of the most difficult things of my career:
- I had decided to give up the title and job of Editor of The Gazette and gazetteonline.
- I was arguing against cutting news jobs in a pending companywide staff reduction.
I relinquished the title willingly, though with mixed feelings, eager to lead my staff on what I saw as a bold path of transformation but nostalgic about giving up a title I had aspired to for much of my career.
I failed, though, to shield the newsroom from severe companywide cutbacks. A year ago this week, I told 14 colleagues we no longer had jobs for them. The Gazette newsroom and our community lost the contributions of outstanding journalists, and good people had to start looking for new jobs and new careers. As I changed titles, I wasn’t feeling at all good about the end of my tenure as editor. (I’m pretty sure that E&P would have a difficult time finding an editor to honor who didn’t have to cut staff in the past year.)
The transformation did not go as planned. When Chuck Peters, the CEO of Gazette Communications decided to reorganize the company, splitting the content-gathering team from colleagues who assembled print and digital products, I had agreed to lead the content team. Chuck suggested Information Content Creator or Moderator as a title. While I would have been happy keeping the title of editor, I recognized that titles communicate intent and our intent was change. I countered with Information Content Conductor. Chuck agreed and I began working on assignments for the team and planning our new operation.
Explaining the new title in my blog, I acknowledged it was odd. I thought I would get the chance, though, to develop and demonstrate a new way for an organization to gather content, to give some meaning to the title.
We were barely beginning the transition to our new organization when Chuck changed his mind about the structure and leadership. He decided to add our broadcast operation to the mix and decided that then-KCRG-TV News Director Becky Lutgen Gardner would lead the information content team.
For the rest of the year, my role was unclear, unsettled and unsatisfying. Chuck suggested the title of C3 Coach, reflecting our hope that I would guide colleagues in the pursuit of the Complete Community Connection business model. I had shared an early draft of C3 with Chuck and other Gazette executives in 2008 when I was interviewing for the editor job. Chuck had started calling the company C3 and used the name for his blog, though our priorities and ideas on how to achieve C3 differed considerably. I published my Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection last April, not long after my role changed. While I was pleased with the external reaction to my C3 Blueprint, the “C3 Coach” title still puzzled people, so I began calling myself the “C3 Innovation Coach.”
I was a coach with no players. I didn’t have a staff to help me carry out C3 projects. The most meaningful proposals that I made were ignored or downsized by busy colleagues with more power and other priorities. Since April, I have contributed more to the industry through blog posts and speaking engagements than I contributed to the company by making any real change.
I spoke about C3 across the country and beyond in conferences, seminars and a video presentation. I led workshops and seminars on Twitter and journalism ethics in the digital age. I pitched in to help the Associated Press Managing Editors and the American Society of News Editors on various projects.
As editor, I frequently addressed issues of journalism and business models in my weekly column and blog. But the daily demands of the newsroom kept me from blogging as frequently as I might have liked. Chuck and I agreed that the blog was an important part of the new role we were trying to define, and I threw myself into blogging with vigor. While the workshops and conferences helped boost my profile, I am certain my blog is the primary reason E&P named me Editor of the Year.
The C3 Blueprint and my posts calling on news organizations to pursue a mobile-first strategy were my most important posts. But I also blogged about ethics, paywalls, government subsidies, Twitter, journalism curriculum, Google and other innovation issues. As frustrated as I was with the circumstances that gave me more time to blog, I am pleased that I was able to be a stronger voice for innovation. I worried, though, that an innovator without results can be little more than a blowhard. I concluded that I would be able to deliver results better somewhere else and started looking for a new job.
In one really amazing week in January, I received a job offer, watched my niece bring her adopted daughter home from Haiti after the earthquake and learned that I had been selected as E&P’s Editor of the Year. I should have bought a lottery ticket.
I might be the first Editor of the Year who sort of tried to talk the magazine out of the honor. “You know I’m not an editor, right?” I asked, dumbfounded, when E&P’s new editor, Mark Fitzgerald (whom I’ve never met), informed me of the selection. Yeah, he knew.
I told him I no longer worked in the newsroom (after I moved to a different floor, even visits from newsroom staffers became rare). I stressed that Gazette Communications was struggling in its innovation efforts, as Chuck recounted recently in his blog. I’m not sure how much of that Mark knew, but to some extent he knew and the rest was OK. I told Mark off the record that I was on the verge of accepting a new job. (The following week, I accepted the job as Director of Community Engagement for a new digital local news operation in Washington, owned by Allbritton Communications. I started this week and was in a meeting to discuss possible names for our site when E&P announced the news today).
None of my concerns or disclosures swayed Mark. I was Editor of the Year, regardless of whether I was still an editor, still working in a newsroom, frustrated with my contributions to my own company or planning to leave.
I remain amazed and puzzled by the honor. I have won a few staff and individual awards in my career (none of them, alas, rhyming with Wurlitzer) and I have a huge enough ego that I was never surprised. When I didn’t win, which was most of the time, that was a surprise (still smarting a bit from the Gazette’s rebuff last year in the rhymes-with-Wurlitzers for our flood coverage). But never did I expect to be named Editor of the Year for a year when I was barely an editor.
In noting my odd path to this honor, I want to address a suggestion I anticipate from the cynics and smartasses in this business (admitting that on some days and some topics, I am in those ranks): If anyone implies or infers that my selection for this honor means that no actual editors deserved recognition, I want to be the first to reject that notion. In a separate post, I will suggest some outstanding editors worthy of recognition, perhaps more so than me.
For the sake of the colleagues who contributed to my success (and, I suppose, to indulge that huge ego), I should note that I had a good run as editor of The Gazette and gazetteonline. The tail end of that run came in 2009 (and many times a person-of-the-year award recognizes more than a year’s work).
All good leaders know that our staffs deliver the actual results. Leaders receive credit for the tireless work and amazing creativity of our staffs.
My reputation in this business grew because of the stellar work of the journalists of The Gazette and gazetteonline in covering the 2008 Iowa floods, which swamped Cedar Rapids on my third day in town. I share this honor with the current and former Gazette news staff members who served our community and distinguished our staff with flood coverage that won the Sigma Delta Chi Award for deadline reporting, drew more than 20,000 visitors to the Year of the River photography exhibit at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and sold more than 20,000 copies of our Epic Surge book.
Any honor for my work as editor is really an honor for the journalists who did all the work, too numerous to name here. We used the flood to spur our innovation efforts, expanding our use of interactive databases, liveblogging, social media, webcasts, narrative journalism and multimedia storytelling.
I was surprised but grateful that E&P thought this all added up to Editor of the Year. I welcome recognition for the staff I once led. I welcome attention to the message of innovation that has consumed so much of my time and passion, especially since I stopped leading the news staff. So, thanks to Editor & Publisher for this honor. E&P had a tough year, too, laying off the staff and closing before being bought at the 11th hour (actually, about the 13th).
Maybe a frustrated ex-editor who ended his love affair with the newspaper business after exhorting it to change is an oddly appropriate Editor of the Year for a magazine that’s persevering after a tough year for newspapers.