January 13, 2019

This is one of 15 profiles in our series on journalism’s last decade. For the rest of the stories, visit “The Hardest Decade in Journalism?

Mark Russell wasn’t afraid of much in 2008.

He was the managing editor of the Orlando Sentinel. Orlando was a growing community and a great news town. And he felt passionate about watchdog reporting.

“The Orlando Sentinel was part of Tribune Co., which was in the throes of ownership changes, including the ill-fated ownership of developer Sam Zell. But the company, more or less, survived Zell and his team of ‘media managers’ who had little to no experience running newspapers. I guess I’d say my biggest fear was that journalism would take a back seat to managing the profits of the business, and that happened for a while under Zell’s ownership. But we survived it, and we never forgot our mission to do good stories, sometimes even about the owner himself.”

Now, Russell is the executive editor at the (Memphis, Tennessee) Commercial Appeal, which is part of Gannett and the USA Today Network.

Here’s what he told us about the past decade:

In the last 10 years, what are the biggest changes you’ve had to make in your job?

Upping my digital fluency. I spend as much time strategizing how to grow our digital audience, digital subscriptions and maximizing mobile engagement as I spend discussing beat development, staff mentoring and other and story ideas. That’s a good change as I think an executive editor has to lead from the front on these issues central to a newsroom’s success.

I recall, when I started as managing editor of the Orlando Sentinel in 2004, I had to “schedule” three lunches with our digital editor so I could get a crash course on the specifics of the company’s digital strategy. Now it is an ingrained principle that digital acumen is a primary skill for the top editor.

Another change: A decade ago, I was on social media but not really immersed in it. Now I am a primary practitioner, using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and experimenting with a host of other social media sites to deliver content, engage with readers and non-readers and build and burnish the Commercial Appeal brand. And I worry that I am still not doing enough.

In the last 10 years, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen journalism go through?

Of course, the most noticeable change is smaller newsrooms, driven by depleted revenue from a transformed business model. Our Commercial Appeal newsroom is half the size it was when I started five years ago. That is a common scenario in newsrooms. We’ve had to make some tough calls on what we cover and give up. But we also have become a more nimble newsroom and the staffers left are more immersed in our digital strategy. I worry that we have folks doing too many things at once, but I also recognize that folks who have remained in this business love what they do and are committed to it despite the challenges.

The other big change is the changing habits of readers. We are delivering content through a variety of platforms. Ten years ago, it was primarily print and digital (and desktops ruled). Now, if I had a nickel for the folks who say they read us on a desktop, I might be able to get a $1 coffee at Mickey D’s. Mobile has taken over, and that has profound implications on our revenue, delivery methods and even our engagement with readers. When I go to a crowded Starbucks, I am usually the only one reading a printed edition (and I usually have three papers and a magazine or two). Everyone is looking at their phone and listening to something (podcasts, music, whatever).

What are you doing now that you didn’t expect to be doing 10 years ago?

The newsroom and executive editor’s complete immersion in digital metrics. It is a good thing, but I could not have predicted this 10 years ago.

Looking back, what do you wish you’d done or changed faster?

That’s easy. If I had a crystal ball and could see the extent to which our mobile audience would grow — and our print audience would be depleted — I would have more vigorously sought to develop journalism to drive digital engagement. More listicles on food, music, other cultural items. I would have crafted watchdog strategies that delivered projects that worked on traditional platforms, social media and mobile only. I would have required every staffer to be fluent on social media and to build their followers and develop an online community around their beats. It is how we are going to grow.

Looking back, what are you glad you didn’t give up in your career?

My commitment to watchdog reporting. From the Orlando Sentinel coverage of Trayvon Martin’s death and the hazing death of a Florida A&M University band member, to the ongoing stories in Memphis on city government and criminal-justice issues, I recognize that those are some of the most valued and consequential stories we do.

How have newsroom layoffs impacted your work, your newsroom and the city where you live?

Yes, our newsroom is smaller and the layoffs have made it harder to cover the region the way we did 10-15 years ago. Yet we also are a more nimble staff, do a better job on trending/now stories than we did with twice the staff. And we have a newsroom filled with folks who don’t remember what the newsroom looked like 10 years or even five years ago. So they are not encumbered with the muscle memory of what we used to be and busy creating a newsroom that works.

And I know I am fortunate that we had the ability to turn over more than half our staff by hiring 22 talented and diverse staffers since Jan. 1, 2018.

10 years ago, where did you think you’d be now?

Exactly where I’d be — as executive editor. And I can’t think of a better city, news town and place to work than in Memphis, The Commercial Appeal and Gannett.

Where do you think you’ll be 10 years from now?

Since I’ll be 66, I hope I am semi-retired and teaching the next generation of journalists, and watching the industry I love evolve, thrive and deliver compelling content. I’ll probably be reading stories on whatever device is popular from my driverless car as I go to the nearest golf course!

What’s the best thing that’s happened in journalism in the past decade?

This is a hard one, but I’d say the focus on specific topics — sometimes called verticals — that have delivered tailored, expanded content on such topics as politics, sports, food, music, race and culture and demographics.

For example, it would have been hard to imagine a decade ago the existence of sites such as USA Today’s For The Win, The Undefeated, The Athletic, The Root and the political sites. When I talk with my neighbors and friends and ask a simple question, “What are you reading?” they talk about sites like these that deliver content directly to their inboxes. They are obviously not looking at network TV news or reading content in a paper or even going to a news.com website, but they are still consuming lots of content.

That demand never went away. How we deliver it has changed dramatically.

What’s the worst thing that’s happened in journalism in the past decade?

The false narrative that journalism is no longer relevant or, worse, that we are practitioners of fake news or we are somehow enemies of the people. And, of course, this was building long before (Donald) Trump took up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. A longtime friend in the news business told me 17 years ago that we in our business needed high schools to require media literacy so that people would understand the value of the First Amendment,  journalism and how their lives would be enriched by the news media. He was prescient in that sentiment.

What are you the most excited about now in your career?

The ability to help mentor the next generation of news leaders and watch my newsroom grow. I still get up early, excited about what the news day will bring — and what watchdog and enterprise stories we can do to help mid-South residents understand Memphis and how it works and doesn’t work.

What are you the most afraid of now in your career?

That’s easy. I am most afraid of our important, consequential work getting upended because our business model is further disrupted.


Correction: We got Mark Russell’s title wrong. He’s the executive editor. We apologize for the error. It has been corrected. 

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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