The Sisterhood of the Traveling Editors: How top newsroom managers get picked

Whether you're the Manny Acta of newspaper editors or the Tony LaRussa, you can expect to find a similar job. (Photo by Keith Allison via Flickr)

Whether you’re the Manny Acta of newspaper editors or the Tony LaRussa, you can expect to find a similar job. (Photo by Keith Allison via Flickr)

Rick Edmonds writes at Poynter of his surprise that at newspapers, “top editors with a strong digital background remain rare.” I don’t share his surprise — first, because the lack of digital natives in top newsroom jobs has been obvious to many of us; second, because the reasons this is true go beyond whether publishers understand the importance of online journalism.

A question of definitions

Edmonds takes a narrow approach to seeking “strong digital backgrounds,” mentioning by name only those who have worked for purely online-focused operations. He acknowledges that many editors with print-side resumes have focused on digital. “Still, at risk of aligning myself with the newspapers-are-dodos crowd, I do find it odd that so few companies will roll the dice at this juncture with an editor whose primary expertise is digital innovation.”

This underestimates to extent to which print-side people would view anyone with online experience — whether outside a newspaper newsroom or inside it — as equally “other.” The mere fact that so many newsrooms still have separate online editors and online staff suggests that a digital focus makes you an outsider. So in looking for top editors with a strong digital background, I wouldn’t limit myself to those who’ve worked outside of newspapers.

I would, however, limit the search to digital natives — as I’ve defined that in a previous post: Not people who just talk about online journalism or supervise it, but those who have hands-on experience. And there, we start to see why the lack of digital native editors isn’t just about online. Publishers tend to look at a certain career level when choosing top editors. That’s not just about age, but also about how far up into the hierarchy someone has already progressed. In a lot of newsrooms, rising in management means being more and more distanced from hand-on journalism. And in a lot of newsrooms, even for those not near the top rung of the ladder it’s easy to avoid any direct experience with how the websites are put together.

The insularity of the industry

I suspect that if Edmonds had widened his focus to include publishers as well as top editors, he’d have found that the people in those jobs are even less likely to have online experience. And my educated guess would be that the percentage of publishers and other top executives whose experience is entirely or mostly outside the newspaper industry is only incrementally higher than the percentage for top editors. I say that mostly because the exceptions — such as Mark Thompson, former BBC director general and now CEO of The New York Times Co., and Mark Willes, from General Mills to CEO of Times Mirror Co. — draw a lot of attention.

If the tendency to look within the (narrowly defined) industry is true in the boardroom, it’s far more true in the newsrooms. Top editors aren’t just managers, they’re living manifestations of Journalistic Values. Having a top editor with a news background — not just a newsroom background, even, but specifically within the news departments as opposed to sports or features — is a point of pride with a lot of journalists I’ve known.

Not that reporters get to vote on their editors. But newsrooms are islands within newspaper companies that are, technically, manufacturers. If throwing the reporters the bone of having a newsroom vet at the top will keep them happy, or at least relatively quiet, so be it.

Editors and baseball managers

Finally, there’s a phenomenon that reminds me a lot of the way baseball managers are selected. Once you get to be a manager at the pro level, it doesn’t seem to matter whether you succeed or not; you can almost always find another managing job. Call it the Manny Acta Syndrome.

Back in the day, newsrooms operated differently. Reporters and copy editors floated from paper to paper, city to city, but the top editors were most often men with long ties to the community and the particular paper. Eventually — I think with the rise of corporately managed organizations such as Knight-Ridder and Gannett — the equation flipped. And even organizations that were generally decentralized, such as Advance Publications, became members of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Editors.

I’m most familiar with the history of The Plain Dealer, one of those Advance papers. It once had editors like Paul Bellamy, who worked at the paper for decades and was its top editor from 1928 to 1954. Even as the tenure of editors at the top declined, they were PD vets like Philip W. Porter, who was there for 44 years, holding the top job his last three.

When I got to the paper in 1986, the executive editor was Bill Woestendiek. He had run the paper’s editorial page for only a year before getting the top job. Before that, he’d been editor of the Arizona Star. He was succeeded by Thom Greer, who had been sports editor and then managing editor. Then a string of out-of-towners: David Hall, whose previous stops as a top editor were the Record in Bergen County, N.J., and the Denver Post; Doug Clifton, former executive editor of the Miami Herald; Susan Goldberg, who left the top job at the San Jose Mercury News. Current editor Debra Adams Simmons was Goldberg’s ME, but before that had been editor of the Akron Beacon-Journal. She, in turn, selected as her managing editor Thom Fladung, who’s a Northeast Ohio native but hadn’t worked at The PD (he had most recently been the top editor in St. Paul).

The story’s the same at a lot of other papers, particularly those in chains that shuffle editors internally. Where once the editorship was a reward for loyalty and a way to preserve the paper’s traditions, now changing editors is often seen as a way to reboot. Where once the staff included a lot of newcomers while the editor knew everyone in town, now the staffs are settled but the editors start from scratch. (I have my opinions about the wisdom of these changes, but that’s a future post.)

And a lack of success — as judged by circulation, at least — doesn’t stand in the way of being hired. What matters is the particular credential of Having Done This Before. As I said: Manny Acta Syndrome. Acta managed the Washington Nationals, taking them from near-mediocrity to utter failure in three seasons. As a reward, he was brought to the Cleveland Indians, where he generally repeated that performance. And though he’s taken a broadcasting job, he is (as of today at least) a candidate for the vacant Chicago Cubs job. Once you get into the managerial merry-go-round, you can ride forever, and it doesn’t matter much how well or poorly you do.

So: With newspapers tending to hire from within the industry, and more particularly from within the ranks of existing top editors, it isn’t surprising that digital natives have had little success at breaking into the top ranks. But I suspect that will change in a hurry. Edmonds mentioned some hires. He might have pointed to the recent post by Steve Buttry asking for digitally savvy people to apply for Digital First Media editorships. DFM has been the leader in publicly staking its bet on digital; Advance Digital, though not as likely to make public declarations, is also facing the future. Some older editors are voluntarily removing themselves from the picture as they realize they can’t keep up. We may have finally reached the tipping point at which publishers are willing to look outside the managerial merry-go-round, even outside the industry itself, to produce real change in their newsrooms.




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