An Interview With ASNE’s Incoming President
Rick Rodriguez, executive editor of the Sacramento Bee, and a longtime colleague and dear friend, will be the new president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Rick started his career as a kid working for the Salinas Californian, his hometown newspaper. He worked for the Fresno Bee and later joined the Sacramento Bee as a reporter in the Capitol bureau. From there, it was a steady rise up the ladder: assistant bureau chief, assistant managing editor, managing editor, and then his current post.
He is a graduate of Stanford University, and will be the first Latino to serve as ASNE president.
Before taking the gavel at the annual convention next week, Rick, who is currently ASNE vice president, sat down for an interview.
Favre: You once said you took a pay cut to leave a job in a tortilla factory and take a job as a newspaper reporter. What drove you to become a journalist?
Rodriguez: I was working at a Mexican grocery store that included a tortilla factory, when I went to work as a copy boy at the Salinas Californian. I did take a 10-cent an hour pay cut. I had just graduated from high school, where I had been editor of the school paper for two years. I went to work at the Californian at a time when Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union were beginning to organize in the fields. I went out to the front lines, first to translate, then I fairly quickly started writing stories. I had a ringside seat to history, and coupled with the fact that I loved to read and write, I was hooked on the profession. What really sealed the deal was the support I got from a series of mentors throughout my career, great journalists and people who respected my work and made me want to reach higher.
Did you ever dream that you would someday be president of ASNE?
Never. It's quite an honor to be selected by your colleagues for such a high-profile position. I'm truly honored.
Your umbrella theme for your presidency is "Unleashing the Watchdogs." Why did you choose this theme and what do you hope to accomplish?
I've always been interested in investigative and public service journalism and it seems now as much as ever that kind of journalism will set us apart from other media. What I hope to do with that theme is to bring attention once again to a kind of journalism many of us entered the profession to do. Editors today have lots of demands on them that they didn't have 20 years ago. But we still have control over what kinds of stories we pursue and where we can make a difference. Investigative journalism that is done fairly and thoroughly gives us the unique content the Northwestern readership study talks about. And my theme will also help us to focus on ethical standards, issues of credibility and First Amendment issues. I also think it's a topic that resonates throughout newsrooms. At the same time we're doing the serious journalism, we also need to encourage newsrooms to have fun doing the journalism.
What other goals do you have for ASNE in the coming year?
Another major goal is to get cooperation and coordination between ASNE and other journalism groups. Too often, we spend time reinventing the wheel when what we ought to be doing is building off of each other. There are limited resources available, so let's work together to accomplish the goals we share.
You will be the first Latino elected ASNE president and you have spent much of your career fighting for diversity in newsrooms and in coverage of communities. How do you think the industry is doing in this area and what should be the next steps? How do we attract and retain more journalists of color?
The industry is just doing OK. We've obviously made strides over the past 20 years, but we have a long way to go. It takes work to bring diversity to a newsroom because it's a combination of recruiting, nurturing and retaining. Attracting journalists of color will be difficult for years to come partly because I don't see a lot of serious commitment from many companies and partly because not enough students of color are going to college, let alone selecting print journalism as their majors or career choices. In California, for example, a new report shows that about half of Latino and African American male students don't graduate from high school. Right there you're starting with a vastly limited pool of potential journalists. ASNE can act as a bully pulpit, and it has been a leader in extolling the virtues of diversity. But the real movement has to come from individual companies and newsrooms. Success in diversifying a newsroom really takes commitment from the top. Without it, it won't take hold.
What are you hearing from colleagues across the country about the future of the newspaper business, and do you sense there is less or more angst among newsroom leaders?
There is still a lot of uncertainty and angst among editors. The industry is changing. The demands on editors are changing. There are different kinds of competitive pressures. But editing a paper is still a great job because as an editor, you can control where to use your resources, how you can make a difference in a community, and how you can entertain and inform your readers. It's still fun and challenging and like no other job.
If you look down the road a year from now, how will you measure the success of your year as president?
I guess if we've made people think about critical issues like the use of anonymous sources, readership, diversity, ethics, and we've established relationships with other groups that help advance our profession, I'll be happy.
Committee work is the heart of ASNE. What are some things your committees are working on in their efforts to make newspapers better?
We have lots of good things going on, a lot of them tied in with the watchdog theme. We'll focus on providing an ethical foundation for aspiring high school and college students. We'll have what we hope to be a national dialogue on the use of anonymous sources through our Ethics and Values Committee. We're setting up a pilot program through our Diversity Committee to have our newsrooms work with local ethnic media to cooperate on stories that we might not ordinarily get. Our Readership Committee will be looking at how we can respond and attract those who say they are "too busy to read." That's just a sampling.
You have followed the readership studies carefully for the past few years. What are some of the lessons editors should take away from what has been learned?
A few really stick with me. One is the need to produce unique content, which is why I am really sold on investigative reporting. Another is that people say they don't see themselves in newspapers. We need to find ways to connect with our readers, to learn and write about what is important in their everyday lives. And again, I think we also have to be entertaining, fun as well as useful.
What advice do you have for young men and women who want to be journalists? And what should journalism schools be doing to help prepare students for a successful career in newsrooms?
You have to start with a solid ethical foundation. I'm concerned about recent reports that large numbers of high school students don't believe in or know about the First Amendment, that many college students see nothing wrong with plagiarism. I would tell students and journalism schools that credibility is something we need to emphasize. It's something that can set us apart. As far as journalism careers go, I'd tell students that there is always going to be a need for people who can clearly communicate. In the future, those who do it well will be in great demand and those who can do it in different media channels will be even more in demand.
How have you gone about creating a culture of watchdog journalism in your newsroom?
We're doing it piece by piece through hires, training, and an emphasis on beat reporting. I think the best watchdog journalism starts with good beat reporting. Managing editor Joyce Terhaar and I have emphasized that and it has paid off. As for training, we've brought great investigative reporters to speak to us; we've done computer-assisted reporting training; we worked with IRE to bring a Better Watchdog conference and in-house training here to Sacramento and about 50 Bee reporters and editors attended. We've given reporters time to do some terrific impact journalism. I think the culture is well on the way to being established but there's much more to do.