Local Edition: '...Local journalism scares the sh*t out of me right now'
Hey, it’s boss week here at Local Edition. This week, we’re going to spend a little time with a Florida editor who doesn’t fit many molds (started as a designer, doesn’t care for sandy beaches, etc.)
As a reminder, this is week three in our four-week conversation about why we’re still in journalism. (You can subscribe here.) Hang around after the boss talk for a peek at week four. And thanks to everyone who has been reading, sharing and writing to me about Local Edition.
Having an audience of journalists is stressful, (you catch allllll the typos. Do not write me about those extra ls). But it’s also been really exciting to hit send each week and hear back from people around the country about what’s working where you are. Keep ‘em coming.
OK, enough feelings. Let’s go to Sarasota!
Meet Tony Elkins, deputy managing editor at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Tony has been at the Herald-Tribune since 2006. He’s part of a little-engine-that-could kind of place that wins big awards, recently unionized and isn’t afraid to experiment.
He also doesn’t love beaches.
"Siesta Key may have just been named the 5th best beach in the world and No. 1 in the U.S., but I would much rather be in Bryson City, North Carolina, hanging out in the Smoky Mountains, driving mountain roads and hiking than baking on a flat beach and drinking too many beers," he said. "Sorry Florida, I love my friends, the people here and my newsroom, but you can keep your sandy shores and constant humidity."
Tony and I spoke via phone last week. Our conversation was edited for length.
So what’s the recipe for making local news healthy again? Just kidding. Let’s start a bit lower to the ground. Tell us about your career. Why have you stayed in local journalism?
I was on a biology track, thinking about going pre-med, but I had a really, really, really good adviser who said, “You’re not going to make a good doctor.”
I'm Comanche and Kiowa, and a member of the Comanche roll, so storytelling is in my blood. Journalism seemed like a good choice. I was the editor of my college paper and interned at the local paper. I graduated in ‘97, and the job market was fairly good. I had offers from PR firms, I had offers from journalism, I had offers from design agencies, and ended up going to work for a newspaper in Texas as a designer, and that kind of launched my career.
Getting out here and seeing what the Herald-Tribune was doing...they were playing way outside their league. The journalism coming out of this place was just outstanding.
As I moved up, I was a designer, then feature design director, then design director, and that kind of morphed into an AME position. Through that, I learned how the entire newsroom worked. It was always cool being a designer because you’re the last one at the end of the line...you have to literally talk to everyone, and that’s how this position I’m in now came about. I was one of the few people talking to everyone in the newsroom.
You see a lot of designers moving up into these innovator roles in a lot of organizations. Look at Joey Marburger at Washington Post. People of that ilk come from the design side and they think a little bit differently than the rest of the newsroom. I think that’s really important now, being creative and nimble and looking for different solutions and not doing journalism like we did 20 years ago.
Last week you wrote me that you’ve stayed in local journalism to help your colleagues figure out how to survive and thrive. Tell me about how your view of our industry has changed as you’ve become a newsroom leader.
When I first started, the sky was the limit. When I came to Sarasota, I was designing one tabloid section a week. That’s how flush with cash our industry was. We’re talking serious, double-digit margins. As my career has progressed and I became a manager and I started looking at what was happening with the industry, I started...paying attention to the business side of it.
The industry’s in flux, there’s no doubt about it. We’re coming in line with normal businesses. I think if you see the financials for most papers, we still make profits. It’s just you have to operate differently at a six percent profit margin than you do at a 20 percent profit margin.
...What I’ve done is accept that, OK, this is the way it’s going to be, especially with large firms and hedge funds and investment firms investing in newspapers because we’re a business.
That’s what we can never lose sight of. We’re a business. The revenue allows us to do journalism.
...I’ll be completely honest, local journalism scares the shit out of me right now, not because of the business. It’s not because of the layoffs. It has nothing to do with what media pundits write about. I’m 41, and I go to all my friends and go, "hey, talk about your community." "Oh, I don’t read anything about Sarasota.’" "What do you mean?" "I read BuzzFeed, The New York Times. I read Entertainment Weekly."
We have all this information at our fingertips – Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. People will spend their time on the stuff they care about...No one cares what’s going on in city government.
OK, people do. Just not a lot anymore.
What do we do with that as people who cover local communities?
Media companies can be their own worst enemies. I think we spend too much time lamenting what we lost, not enough time telling the community what we do.
How do we engage with the community, and how do we sell ourselves? How do we tell people, hey, this is important and this is why you should care? We still have someone covering city hall, we still have someone covering schools, we still have someone covering health. We still have all these beats.
I think we’re at the point where newsrooms have to start looking at things and go, “OK, we’ve been doing business the same way for 100 years. Society was that way then. What’s society like now?”
...If we reinvent ourselves the right way, local journalism can thrive. Newspapers generally are the only ones digging into stories, and they’re the best gauge at the watchdog level in those communities. There’s still a market for that. How do we still do that and then show our advertisers that we’re still worth the cost of advertisements?
Do you think the answer is just repositioning for advertising or are there other revenue streams that make sense?
It’s hard. That’s why no one’s saved newspapers yet. But how do you take what’s happening on the national level to serve your local revenue streams? That goes beyond traditional advertising. It goes into acting like an advertising agency, doing social media, doing brand marketing and acting more like a creative suite than just, "Here’s an ad that we’re going to put in the newspaper."
Is that something that you can see happening in Sarasota?
Definitely. That is one great thing I can say about Gatehouse. They give us the chance to try new things. It doesn’t hurt that the senior vice president for news led our newsroom. We’ve never been told no. If we have a good idea, we try it.
I think newsrooms are so stuck in our dogma that we’re holding ourselves back. Change has to start in the newsroom. Don’t look to corporate to save us. Those corporate entities don’t know your community. So try something.
I often see newsrooms like yours full of people who are really dedicated. But they’ve been through years of layoffs, the newsroom is significantly smaller and they have so much more work. How are people at the top of corporations connected with people in the newsrooms right now — or are they?
At least at Gatehouse, we have really good on-the-ground support. Certainly more than we did with previous owners. They give us tools to be successful. I feel like I have some level of knowledge on that considering we’ve been owned by The New York Times, Halifax and Gatehouse within five years.
On a newsroom level, you’re seeing what I always called in-line editors get way more involved with newsrooms now. Ten years ago, it was impossible to manage a 200-person newsroom in a small community and know everyone by name.
Now, every editor works...they have a stronger relationship with their reporters, and they work across multiple departments. I’ve seen a lot of newsrooms coming together. It’s almost like this solidarity out of necessity.
Everyone in this newsroom goes far and above what they’re asked to do. Anyone in the industry now is here because they love journalism.
I was looking at your newsletter this morning. The common thread is, people love being journalists. This is all I’ve ever done. I can’t imagine not being a storyteller in some form. That may change. I want to shoot a documentary one day. I want to do all sorts of things with media. But they’re all about storytelling.
If you’re in it now, you’re in it. It’s in your blood.
OK, so let’s get back to where we started, for real this time. What do you think is the recipe for making local news healthy again? And is there one recipe like it used to be, or is it going to be community-to-community?
I think it’s going to be community-to-community. I have a very, very simple recipe. I just don’t know how to put it in the oven. If you want to survive and thrive, you have to be nimble. It’s all about accepting change and implementing change. If something doesn’t work, kill it and move on.
What else should we talk about?
Something I think managers need to pay more attention to right now: Get out in your newsrooms. Talk to your employees. Don’t forget that all these journalists that work for you are people, too. I think we have a tendency to take journalists for granted.
Journalists view this as a calling. It’s not. It’s a business, but they view it as calling, and they are willing to put in hours and hours and hours and go to that late meeting, file a story and still be at their desk at 9 o’clock. They’re dedicated.
It’s a profession that’s really odd. And you have to remember that even though they view this as a calling, even though they’re that dedicated, you have to view them as people. You have to care for them. You have to pay attention to them. You should always know what the pulse of your room is. That’s hard, especially when you go through layoffs or anything (else).
That gets lost in the “Oh my God, we’ve got to cover this.”
Just go out and talk to your people. Collaborate. Take risks. Have fun.
That’s why a newsroom our size can win Pulitzers. You have to be innovative. You have to take chances, and you have to have fun.
Thanks, Tony, for being the first boss featured in Local Edition. If you know any bosses I should feature here, please let me know.
Next week, we’re wrapping this cycle up with a look at what we’ve talked about, where to learn more and what we have coming up next.
In the meantime, check out what Joy Mayer is doing with local newsrooms working to build trust with their audiences. Get your ONA pitches in. Seattle and San Diego, Facebook is heading your way this month. And there’s still time to apply for Poynter’s Local News Innovation program.
Now excuse this Missouri native while I prepare for a week on sandy Florida beaches with too much beer. No shade, Tony, but I gotta work on my shell collection.