For new editor, massacre leads to her first directive: Report the hell out of Parkland

Right out of the University of Central Florida, Julie Anderson was covering two cities and an appeals court beat for the Daytona Beach News-Journal. She juggled general assignment stories, too, and, between breaths, imagined a day when she could be in charge.

Last Thursday, after decades of work and “so many jobs I don’t know how many I’ve had,” Anderson walked into the South Florida Sun Sentinel as its new editor in chief.

She spoke to the staff first, beginning with the her overriding editorial concern at this moment: Report the hell out of one of America’s biggest stories, the lingering aftermath of and changes emanating from the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, just 11 miles due west.

The Sun Sentinel has gotten both scoops and steady day-to-day coverage so far. Its community ties have been strong; before the massacre, Parkland student David Hogg worked as a reporter for the Sun Sentinel’s Teenlink vertical.

AndersonAnderson was emphatic about Parkland, on all angles. “We’re not going to give any ground on that,” she said.

Then she explained the “how” to the assembled journalists. She spoke of teamwork, based on the management principles of Peter Drucker, of not being afraid to experiment or take risks. The paper, long known for its intense focus on local coverage, also would concentrate on individual self-improvement, she said — and on being smarter about the work it would be doing.

In an interview later, Anderson, who had been senior vice president for content and business development at the Orlando Sentinel, admits she has a ton to learn about the South Florida news environment. Once a newsroom fighting a spirited two-front battle with the Miami Herald to the south and the Palm Beach Post to the north, the Tronc-owned Sun Sentinel now has content-sharing agreements with the Herald. Anderson says she has to check to see if her property had the same arrangement with the 120-year-old Post, which was put up for sale last fall by Cox.

The three South Florida dailies have been the site of myriad breaking news stories training generations of reporters (disclosure: I worked at the Sun-Sentinel from 1995 to 1998). Long before Parkland, hurricanes, Cuban boat-lifts, Haitian refugee swells, hanging chads, real estate booms and busts, the ValuJet crash and the killing of Gianni Versace happened there.

Weirdness and chaos still occasionally reign: President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago is just 28 miles north of the newsroom.

Unlike her predecessor, Howard Saltz, who was both editor and publisher, Anderson will just do the newsroom job. Tronc last week hired Nancy Meyer as general manager (and publisher) for the Sun-Sentinel, the Orlando Sentinel and the Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia. Tronc dismissed Saltz last month after seven years at the Sun Sentinel’s helm, and critics said he had censored controversial coverage by the paper.

Saltz's supporters note that under his direction, the Sun Sentinel won its first-ever Pulitzer, in 2013, for an investigation that showed how local police officers routinely endangered the general public through reckless driving. It also won national awards for investigations on police forfeiture laws and breakdowns in the mental health system. While Saltz did delay publication of a story about a Hallandale city official accused of corruption, he said it was because the story had holes. Once those holes were filled, the story was published.

Anderson wants strong regional coverage and to increase the outlet’s digital transformation, in line with Tronc, which also owns the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News. While Tronc has been known for squeezing profits in the past, it may have money for investment with the sale last month of the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The company said it was promoting Anderson from Orlando for her digital expertise, something she began learning in 1994. Although Anderson brings reporting, editing, management and leadership chops, her digital days promoted the characteristics she is looking for in her employees — curiosity, resiliency, flexibility and the ability to learn new skills quickly.

“We look for people to turn on a dime,” she says, whether it is learning a new platform, not being afraid to start a podcast or jumping in to write a newsletter.

“So, fearlessness, like a journalistic Emma González?” she was asked.

“Yeah, fearlessness,” Anderson replied.

When Anderson got into digital, “I was told, ‘Carpe diem.’ I was told, ‘You’ve got to fill the gray spaces.’ That’s a lot of spaces. I decided to just do it, and make them tell you to stop.”

Taking on new tasks and  jobs — even lateral jobs — expanded her skill sets and her contacts. She did jobs she hadn’t been done before. She learned something else, an important lesson for those coming up behind her.

“You have to be forward and ask for what you want,” says Anderson, the latest in a series of women promoted to run some of the nation’s biggest papers. “You have to basically have good mentors and tell them what your aspirations are and what you’re working for. They can’t read your mind, and if you wait for them to do it, it’s probably not going to happen.”


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