It was as a seventh-grader, growing up in Canyon, Texas, that Nicole Carroll first developed the journalism bug. There wasn’t a newspaper at her junior high, so she and some friends started one, The Eagle’s Eye, and distributed mimeographed copies in the lunchroom.
Today Carroll gets to take what she calls “a lifelong passion for news” to a much bigger stage. She leaves the top editor’s job at Gannett’s Arizona Republic to become editor-in-chief of USA Today with a print circulation (including insert sections in regional papers) of 2.9 million and websites that draw 92 million uniques a month.
“It’s a privilege,” she told me, concluding a phone interview yesterday.
Carroll said that she intends to double down on an editorial strategy that has made USA Today, once mocked as a nutrition-lite “McPaper,” a regular generator of high-impact reporting projects that draw heavily on data and on the news staff of its 109 regional papers. USA Today’s own newsroom has roughly 300 journalists and the regional papers 2,000.
“I want to focus first and foremost on investigative reporting,” she said. “The need has never been greater.” A second emphasis will be to “innovate in digital storytelling.” That will include a generous portion of video, including 360-degree experiences in which Gannett has been a pioneer.
Last year at the Republic, Carroll oversaw a notable multimedia project titled The Wall. A nine-month effort, it covered not just the Arizona border but sections in Texas, New Mexico and California as well.
“I’m proud of it for a number of reasons,” Carroll said. “We wanted to educate people about it and let them make up their own mind.” Also a video team created an interactive map showing what you see at any point along the length of the Mexican border. Aerial video, bots and podcasts were all deployed.
USA Today Network papers from the other three border states were drawn into the project, and the Detroit Free Press pitched in with help setting up and editing the videos.
While explanatory rather than an expose, the work did have an investigative edge. “By reviewing property records, we were able to document the number of pieces of private property that would be impacted,” Carroll said, if President Trump’s signature campaign promise of a “big, beautiful wall” were to happen.
Another story, examining autopsy records in Texas, suggested that official estimates of the number of deaths of Mexican immigrants attempting to cross the border have been substantially under-counted.
Carroll succeeds Joanne Lipman, who left the company after three years to complete and promote a book on women in the workplace. She will be the third woman to be USA Today’s top editor (the New York Times had one; the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post have had none).
Lipman also was the editor of the USA Today Network and drove a series of cooperative projects that drew on the staff of the regional papers as well as USA Today’s own. For now, that position is not being filled. Carroll will coordinate the work with Randy Lovely, her predecessor at the Republic, who now oversees editorial operations at the regional papers.
Carroll, 50, who joined the Republic in 1999 and climbed the ladder to the top job, has a host of industry honors. She just received the National Press Foundation’s 2017 Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year award. She has been a Pulitzer Prize juror three times and the Republic has been a finalist in the breaking news category twice in the past six years.
In a press release announcing Carroll’s promotion, Maribel Perez Wadsworth, president of the USA Today Network, praised Carroll as “a dynamic community leader, committed champion of the First Amendment and a tireless advocate for her readers … We are proud of Nicole and look forward to seeing her energy and passion make its imprint on USA Today.”
The Republic fought and won two First Amendment cases in the last year, Carroll said, one refusing to surrender a reporter’s notes that a defense attorney was trying to obtain, another contesting a judge’s order not to use a prosecutor’s name in a high-profile trial.
Except for getting a master’s degree at Georgetown University and early reporting and editing jobs at Gannett’s El Paso Times and USA Today, Carroll has been an Arizona lifer. She is married to a Phoenix attorney and has three children.
She is known, among other things at the Republic, for being a hands-on editor who chooses to spend working days at a desk in the newsroom rather than in a corner office.
I asked if she was going to be able to do the new job, which begins March 7, in whole or in part from Arizona rather than USA Today’s suburban Washington, D.C., headquarters.
“No, I want to move there,” she said. “I plan to be in the middle of it.”
Correction: The original version of this story garbled the name of the city where Carroll launched a newspaper while in seventh grade. Additionally, it said that The Wall Street Journal has had one woman as top editor. Journalist Karen Elliott House was publisher of the Journal but never managing editor.We apologize for the mistakes.