How many top newspaper editors are from digital backgrounds? Still darn few

Upward of 1,400 digital journalists are expected in Atlanta this week for the annual Online News Association conference. That’s fairly close to the number of daily American newspapers, at last count roughly 1,380.

With digital transformation the announced top priority for newspaper companies ranging in size from Gannett to community publishers, you would think by now many would have given the editorial reins to a digital specialist. But top editors with a strong digital background remain rare.

With some rudimentary (and I am sure incomplete) checking, I could only turn up a half dozen or so.

I had noted with interest the announcement a month ago that Neil Budde, top Yahoo news editor in the mid 2000s, had been chosen the new executive editor of Gannett’s Louisville Courier-Journal. I wondered — might Budde be the first at a mid-sized or larger paper?

Not quite, but he is certainly among the pioneers. Another is USA Today’s Editor-in-Chief David Calloway, who had a decade running editorial at Marketwatch and came to Gannett’s national daily in June 2012 shortly after Marketwatch founder and CEO Larry Kramer became USA Today’s publisher.

Without fanfare, Advance has appointed two top editors this year with digital backgrounds to lead newsrooms where the company is making digital the top priority and print frequency has been reduced. Michelle Holmes, a 2012 Knight fellow at Stanford and briefly director of business development for Ustream TV in San Francisco, was named vice-president of content in late April for Advance’s Alabama newspapers and websites.

Then in September, Stephen Cvengros, who had a 16-year career with MSN and other Microsoft publishing ventures, took the same title at Advance’s and the Syracuse Post Standard.

Also Howard Saltz, editor of Tribune’s Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale came there in 2011 after a decade overseeing interactive content at MediaNews and, earlier, its flagship Denver Post.

The dean of this select group is Jim Brady, editor-in-chief  for Digital First Media and current ONA president, after stints running editorial for the Washington Post’s website, AOL and then start-up TBD (since closed). Brady is not exactly the editor of a local news operation since he oversees more than 60 of them and other Digital First ventures.

In a brief e-mail exchange, Brady told me that Matt DeRienzio, who runs several of Digital First’s Connecticut newsrooms and a few editors at smaller paper/websites have extensive digital experience.  And Brady volunteered an explanation of why there are not more: “It’s more than being slow. It remains hard to find people who understand digital and who have run newsrooms.”

Managing an accelerated change to digital is difficult whatever the editor’s background.  John Yemma, who has been editing the Christian Science Monitor as a website with a weekly print magazine since spring 2009, described the challenge in a Biz Blog post back then:

The Web is where most of our reporters and editors are having to think in new ways. If you don’t have the daily print production deadlines, you are thinking more like a wire service. How often do you update a story? How long should a post be? How do you track continuous news — and is there a role for the higher level of ordering the news content each day as we used to do in the Page One process? We are in constant conversation about these issues….
It is both an exciting time, and honestly one of some apprehension in the newsroom. Like everyone, we’ve had staff reductions (about 20 percent from last year’s budgeted level), most of which we captured via attrition and voluntary departures. The unknowns of the Web and questions about whether fast, responsive metrics-oriented journalism fits with our journalistic culture of thoughtful perspective abound. No one has answers to these questions, and I’m not pretending I do.

I don’t want to overstate the distinction. All the digitally-oriented editors mentioned above (and Digital First CEO John Paton, for that matter) have substantial experience in print as well. And the more typical top editors, coming up the ranks in print, are embracing digital, learning as fast as they can and leading development of websites and other new products on mobile platforms.

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.

With the ice broken, I would look for Gannett, Advance and Digital First to add to that cadre as top editorial jobs come open. And I am eager to see what changes this first generation of digitally tilting editors can produce. It is worth a check a year hence, but I am pretty sure the industry’s digital talk will still outpace the walk when it comes to editorial control.

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  • Robb Montgomery

    I have been saying this for years, Rick.

    The average E.I.C. could not give you a 10-word definition for almost any of the fundamental technologies that are used in digital/mobile media production.

    I had to solder together the first computer I owned. I learned to code Hexadecimal, Pascal, Basic and then I got bored. I taught myself how to do live television production, video editing and multi-track audio engineering. I earned a 1,000 hour degree in electronics before I graduated high school. That was 31 years ago.

    Genius that I was, I was lured into the news business as a photojournalist, news artist, designer, graphics editor, news editor . . . all the way up to working every day on Page One with the editor in chief of the Chicago Sun-Times.

    All but one of my editors never cared that I was a tech native, or that I knew how to code, or could somehow figure a way to be able to cut that multimedia package on deadline.

    They didn’t care until it was too late.

    I left my last desk-bound newspaper newsroom job in 2005 and have not looked back.

    I am not hopeful that ‘mobile-first’ editor-in-chief will soon be arriving to lead legacy newspapers in the US out of their slump.

    Yes, ‘Mobile first.’
    ‘Digital first’ is a already a legacy buzzword.

    Good luck.

  • redmonds

    Correspondents pointed out two digitally-orieinted top editors, I missed:

    *Debby Krenick at Newsday.

    *Dan Kline at the Bristol Press and New Britain Herald in Connecticut.

    Steve, I appreciate your savvy take on “regime change,” and I agree with you, Jane Elizabeth on the trust issue, For more in that vein, check out John Kroll’s commentary on my post.

  • yelvington

    Also … I owe Derek May a dollar for committing the sin of saying “newspaper” instead of “local media business.” Derek is our senior vice president and chief operating officer of Morris Publishing Group. He started out writing assembly language code for our publishing system.

  • yelvington

    Syracuse already had a digital pioneer in a senior editorial position — Stan Linhorst, who created in 1994. Stan used to give away little chocolates shaped like computers and free coffee to lure printies into his digital lair.

    Here at Morris, the VP/Audience position at our newspapers (responsible for the newsroom but not its day to day operations) is held by people with a variety of backgrounds including some with digital news and even software development backgrounds. I’m one of them.

    About a decade ago, Neil Budde and I were among about a dozen digital folks who came together at a session in Zurich. Our brains were plumbed by a “cybernetic psychologist” who extracted the (not surprising) conclusion that this industry would change when there was regime change — and digital people took over senior management positions. That is happening, perhaps not as quickly or as thoroughly as we might have hoped, but it is nonetheless real.

  • Jane Elizabeth

    The elephant in the (news)room: Could it be that top leaders with strong digital backgrounds still aren’t quite trusted/accepted in traditional newsrooms?