New executive director sought for last U.S. news council; only gutsy need apply

The Seattle-based Washington News Council is seeking a new executive director, and wants one with nerves of steel, strong values and digital acumen.

The search comes at a turning point in the history of the nonprofit news council, which is the last in this country taking complaints from readers and viewers and, when needed, holding hearings to air issues about media fairness and accuracy.

John Hamer, the council’s president and executive director, is retiring after 15 years. He and others founded the news council in 1998 and, while the organization has survived, other local and regional news councils as well as the national council that operated in 1970s and 1980s have not.

A key factor in the Washington News Council’s survival has been Bill Gates Sr. The father of Microsoft’s founder has contributed roughly half a million dollars to the Washington council over its lifetime, Hamer told Poynter by phone. But that funding may dry up as the elder Gates steps back from an active role in philanthropic activities.

Hamer said he’ll be “brutally honest” with job applicants: “This is kind of like a startup. You have to raise new funding.” But he points out that Seattle is home to many potential sources of funds, including Amazon, Starbucks and new high-tech companies that have sprouted elsewhere in the Northwest.

Beyond mediating complaints about the press, the news council awards scholarships to promising young journalists and holds forums on media issues. A project called the TAO of Journalism recruits media members to take a pledge promising to practice transparency and accountability. The program has drawn high interest and pledges from around the world, Hamer said.

Fundraising is just one of the challenges the new WNC executive director will have to tackle. The minimum qualifications for the job listed on the council’s website begins with this: WARNING! THIS IS DEFINITELY NOT A JOB FOR THE FAINT-OF-HEART. Skills sought for the next leader offer not just a window into the position itself, but the state of nonprofits and the media industry generally:

  • imagination and drive to “reboot” WNC in digital age
  • strong commitment to first amendment/free press
  • belief in holding news media publicly accountable
  • equanimity in face of skepticism from journalists
  • ability to raise own salary and operating expenses

A major task for Hamer’s successor will be to manage the council’s digital transformation. That could mean running the complaint, response and mediation procedures online rather than holding live hearings, a change that would open up the process to more citizens.

“Everyone is trying new things in journalism, why not us”? Hamer asked.

The deadline for applications is March 15. Details are provided on the council’s website.

“It is a chaotic, transformative time in the news media,” Hamer said. “Everyone is throwing things up on the wall to see what works.”

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