News Leadership 3.0

October 07, 2008

Should I stay or should I go?

It’s not easy to leave, but the “good fight” may best be engaged outside the newsroom
How can you fight for journalism?

The resignation of Steven A. Smith as editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. last week doubtless got other top newsroom editors asking whether leaving was the best course while firming up the resolve of others to stay. Smith, whose newsroom faced major layoffs, said he left to free his voice and to look for other ways to fight for journalism. One of his top deputies also resigned, saying she had lost heart.

Roger Plothow, editor and publisher of the Post Register in Idaho Falls, offered one response—urging top editors to stay because their talents are needed more than ever in newsrooms. Plothow may have meant well, but I thought his response offered a “one-size” solution to a resignation question that has more than one answer—an answer that, as Smith said last week, “is always personal.”

I want to examine a couple of phrases that Plothow used (for context, read the full post here)—“the good fight” and “easy way out.” We use them a lot in different contexts, but I’m not sure we agree on what they mean when we talk about today’s newsrooms and traditional news organizations.

1. Plothow urged editors to stay in the newsroom “to fight the good fight.”

The “good fight,” I think, is for the pre-digital values of journalism that will help citizens understand their world in the digital era. It is not necessarily for all of journalism of the late 20th century. Some news organizations may be worth fighting for, but the good fight most certainly not is for news organizations that want to cut themselves out of the future.

When I hear the phrase, I think of all the editors who steadfastly fought a version of “the good fight” that helped lead the news industry to its current state. I am talking about those who ignored or resisted the Internet well into this decade, those who scoffed at efforts to make journalism more relevant (remember how the traditionalists pounded civic journalism in the 1990’s?), those who simply rejected change out of hand as bad for journalism they know, love and recognize.

Hindsight is 20-20 and other factors have brought the industry low. But it’s impossible for me to hear the phrase “good fight” without asking “whose good fight?” and “which one?” In one high-profile case, John Carroll and Dean Baquet epitomized the “good fight” during their tenures at The Los Angeles Times—They fought for staff numbers they wanted to produce prize-winning national journalism. But they arguably failed to pay enough attention to fundamentals (local news) and innovations (the Web) that might have prolonged the tenures of the journalists who lost their jobs this summer. Whose “good fight” was that?

2. Plothow’s letter fails to recognize that the “good fight” is taking place outside newsrooms as well as inside them. Walking away from the newsroom does not mean walking away from the “good fight” for journalism. The “good fight” is to deliver important and relevant news and information to citizens and their communities. That is happening all over the world and all over the Web. The idea that news will come only from traditional newsrooms is an arrogance we cannot afford. That is not to say print newsroom have not and are not still important sources. But the model is evolving. Many experiments are in play. Many people are taking risks. Journalists and news organizations should be part of this, and many journalists who have left their newsrooms are. News organizations that favor draconian cuts for short-term profitability risk taking themselves out of the future news game.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has recognized this by shifting considerable funding to programs and individuals that stress innovation in gathering and delivering news and information. The Knight News Challenge and the Knight Community Information Challenge recognize that individual innovators and entrepreneurs are a likely (or perhaps more likely) than a hunkered-down, slow-to-change news industry to serve critical information needs in a democratic society.

That doesn’t mean everyone should leave. I applaud the many newspaper editors who are pushing to innovate quickly across platforms—even when they take grief from all sides for doing so.

3. Plothow says: “In a way, resignation is the easy way out.”  Easy? It is never easy to acknowledge that you can no longer contribute to an organization you love.

Here’s my experience: I left The Oregonian in 2003 after 19 years. (Economic problems were just beginning, buyouts had not been considered so there was no pressure to help the organization financially.) I simply no longer felt I could contribute as significantly to the journalism that newsroom was producing as I had in the past. I needed to contribute in a different way, in a different place. I left behind a great news organization and people I loved. Easy? It might have been easier to stay in my comfort zone, collect my six-figure salary, build my job seniority, enjoy the gorgeous Pacific Northwest and hope that my motivation returned. But what about my colleagues who would have to dig deeper because I was contributing less? What about the editors who were ready to do my job better than I could? Easy to leave? No. But it was fair and right.

Carla Savalli, the Spokesman assistant managing editor who resigned shortly after Smith last week, expressed a similar loss of passion following the latest cuts (about 25 percent of the newsroom staff for a total of 50 percent since 2000). Savalli had led many of the newsroom’s innovation efforts that were part of a push to develop new revenue streams that would save journalists’ jobs. In an interview with Columbia Journalism Review., Savalli said:

“I didn’t resign to send a message. I resigned because it was the right time given the volatility of the industry and of the cuts in this newsroom. It’s a devastating cut and I didn’t feel like I had as much heart as I used to to keep going.”

I don’t assume Smith or Savalli or any other editor is taking the “easy way out.” And there is no shame for any editor (or any journalist for that matter) who does not feel he can lead to step away and make room for someone who will bring more passion to the task.

In 2007, Eric Newton, vice president/journalism programs for the Knight Foundation, offered this advice to journalists in his introduction to “News, Improved,” a book I coauthored with Tim Porter:

“If you are a good journalist, stuck at a news organization that doesn’t seem to believe in its own future, what should you do? Leave? Yes, actually. If reasonable efforts - such as those described in this book - are not being tried, train yourself as best you can and go. The 20th century killed 1,000 daily newspaper newsrooms and 1,000 radio newsrooms. Media evolution doesn’t favor the big or strong. It favors the nimble. Be nimble.

Newton was talking about professional development for journalists. Today, I would apply his words to larger questions that newsrooms and their leaders face. Here are questions I would ask myself:

1. Is the ownership of my organization looking forward, investing in the future? Can I see this in an R&D budget, in staff time devoted to innovations, in rewards for successful new ideas?

2. As a leader, am I moving the organization forward in spite of the business reality my organization faces? Am I a skilled enough leader or am I willing to learn to be one? Am I open to innovation or am I willing to be more open?

3. Can I bring passion to the job every day and move my newsroom into the future with fewer staff and other resources?

I hope as many committed journalists as possible stay in newsrooms and bring the best values of yesterday’s journalism into day’s world. I hope your answers are: 1. Yes. 2. Yes. 3. Yes.

If not? You can find better places to “fight the good fight” for journalism.

Should you (not the other guy) stay or should you go? What factors do you (not the other guy) consider in making this choice? Please share your ideas in the comments.

Update: David Westphal, who recently left McClatchy for USC, offers his take on this topic in post at OJR.

Westphal asks:

“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?”

Here’s the full post.


Well said.

I think #3—Carla’s point—is under-emphasized. Given the cutting of staff, of expenses, of paper & of content, editors can simply become burned out. You get into journalism to be a journalist, but spend much of your time as an accountant.

I’m not at that point, but I can see editors getting there. You’re tired of doing things that hurt your journalism and you become ineffective in fighting the good fight.

Me, whenever I get into that dark place, go talk to the folks in the newsroom about the stories they’re working on or how they’re designing A1. That always reminds me why I got into the business.

Thanks John. I agree that Carla’s comment is very, very important, as is the courage I think it took her to leave The Spokesman-Review right now. And I’m glad to know you’re fighting the good fight where you are!


Anyone reading your column without also reading my original comments would likely be misled about what I wrote.

For starters, I acknowledged that the decision to resign goes beyond making the ultimate protest. “It’s a highly personal thing and I’m sure his reasons are far more complex than making a simple protest,” I wrote.

Then, you acknowledge that we all probably disagree on what the “good fight” means, but you proceed to provide an interpretation of the phrase. Fighting the good fight certainly doesn’t mean acting as a surrogate for profit-obsessed publishers who don’t care about journalism. In most cases that’s not what we’re talking about, is it?

Perhaps I didn’t adequately articulate my position in my short comment to Jim. These are tough times, and it’s easy to become cynical or even hopeless. If we are faced with the choice of betraying our fundamental values or resigning, it’s an easy call. But it’s almost always more nuanced than that. As I said—I know Stacey Cowles and I’m sure he’s doing what he believes he must to preserve one of America’s best mid-sized papers.

(For what it’s worth, I’ve received a handful of kind e-mails thanking me for my comments and suggesting that they have helped to stiffen the resolve of the writer.)

With respect, it’s easy to throw darts and revisit how we got here, particularly from the sidelines. It’s much more difficult to roll up our sleeves and commit to preserving our journalistic institutions from within them.

We need our best people to see this through. We lose them at our peril.

Roger Plothow
Editor and Publisher
Post Register
Idaho Fall, ID

Great post, Michele

I’ve worked for many years to help journalists and news orgs adapt to the changing media landscape. But here you touch on one part of that shift with which I really struggle.

While I can see many options for how journalists can adapt to the changing media landscape, I’m concerned that top leaders at many news orgs might have relatively fewer opportunities if they jump ship from the newsroom. These are folks who generally are pretty far along in their careers, with houses, kids in college, etc. And also, I suspect their newsroom-management skills might be less applicable to finding a home in expanding industries, like search. Therefore can be much harder for these folks to switch to a field that’s gaining (not losing) jobs, or to jump to a startup, or to go independent.

I’m curious: If some of these folks do jump ship from the newsroom in order to keep good journalism afloat, where do you see them swimming to?

- Amy

Amy: Tough question. I am still figuring out the answer. For myself, I write about journalism and newsrooms, help develop training programs for journalists and work with foundations to develop resources for journalists. I also live the consulting life, which means direct deposit is only a distant memory. So I know facing a smaller or less regular paycheck is scary and very tough.
A few ideas for editors in search of their passion:
—If a person is limited by finances and/or family, there is plenty of room to grow and try new things in the newsroom, experiences that may lead to a different role in the organization or to an as-yet-unrecognized opportunity outside.
—A news executive who wants/needs to stay in the same community may want to look at work that does good—for nonprofits or even private companies—and calls on the considerable leadership and management skills of newsroom bosses.
—Those who have freedom to move can help journalists in developing countries. These editors may have to learn some digital dances along the way, but they can readily meet a deep hunger to understand and employ traditional journalism values in many countries.
What have I forgotten?

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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