A digital editor … and a brain drain

11 Feb

Pete Townshend – yes, that greybeard who played at the Super Bowl the other night – has always been one of my favorite pithy writers. Don’t Get Fooled Again’s best line may be its last – “Meet the new boss/ Same as the old boss.”

In this decade of unparalleled tumult at American newspapers, that cynical line could have been the motto for publishers. Sure, there’s been lots of talk about “dealing with change” and “transforming for a digital age.” But when it came time to hire their top editors, the new bosses have looked a lot like the old ones.

That’s why Thursday’s hiring of Jeff Light at the San Diego Union-Tribune was so refreshing.

I’ve never met Light, but I’m in serious envy of his resume: Most recently the VP of interactive at the Orange County Register. An MBA from Cal-Irvine. Impeccable Capital-J credentials as a member of the Register’s I-team (Pulitzer in ’96 for fertility-clinic fraud, a couple finalists as editor).

On paper, he’s the exemplar for the sort of digital journalists who are needed to rescue what’s left of the traditional industry. I wish him enormous success in a difficult job, and applaud the new owners of the U-T for moving boldly.

Sadly, there are still too few such bold appointments.  Let’s look at the top 40 U.S. newspapers by circulation. Since the beginning of 2008 – a time by which it was clear that the Good Old Days were gone, 10 of those shops have named a new top editor.

How many of those 10 came from digital roots?

By strict definition, precisely one – my former colleague, Debby Krenek, at Newsday. Debby’s previous role was managing editor – but she ran Newsday.com as well (and for all intents and purposes controlled big chunks of Newsday.com’s business operations too).

I’ve probably just offended any number of friends, so let me add quickly: Several more of the new editors have good digital instincts. Both Gerry Kern (Chicago Tribune) and Russ Stanton (L.A. Times) were closely involved with their shops’ digital initiatives (Russ even had the cool-but-inscrutable title of “innovation editor”). And my friend Monty Cook at Baltimore out-Twitters me exponentially.  

But there’s still a difference between understanding it as part of your job and living it day to day as your entire job. Even if we give those three a mulligan, far too many of the other appointments smack of “stay the course.”

Two of the “new 10” had previously been editors in chief at other newspapers, for example. Three others had been in a variety of editing roles at the shops they took over for 15 years or more (one for 27).

 They may be terrific editors and decent people. But, symbolically, it’s hard to convince a newsroom that it must change dramatically when the top leaders haven’t been part of the digital groups that have to lead the change.

Don’t try, either, to argue that there just aren’t enough Jeff Lights out there. There’s been a significant brain drain in U.S. newspaper newsrooms in the past two years – and I’m not just talking about the layoffs of senior writers and editors.

You could populate a terrific news organizations with the digital editors who’ve left newspapers. In fact, that’s exactly what plenty of terrific news organizations have done.

There’s Kinsey Wilson, online editor at USAToday.com (and co-editor of the whole shop), who bailed to take over as senior VP and digital GM at NPR. Or Jim Brady, who banged his head against walls at the Washington Post for so long it’s a wonder he isn’t brain-dead (hmmm – might explain the Jets fixation) – and now is running Politico’s digital efforts (including their coming Washington local startup). Or Christine Montgomery, who left the St. Pete Times to become managing editor at PBS.org.

 They’re among nearly a dozen high-ranking digital journalists who have left critical leadership roles inside U.S. newspapers in the past 18 months. Their landing spots? Start-ups, major portals, the reviving digital arms of public broadcasters.

So congratulations to Jeff, and kudos to his boss, Ed Moss.

 To every other publisher, a question: Who is the best digital leader in your shop – and are you sure they were “out sick”  that Friday a couple weeks ago?

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  1. Another drip in the newspaper brain drain | Tom Davidson - September 29, 2010

    […] this is another example of the continuing brain drain of smart digital leaders from traditional newspaper newsrooms. Many who have left talk about the […]

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