Remembering Steve Buttry, teacher of journalists
It was only fitting that Steve Buttry, 62, was the first to Twitter with news of his own death.
A journalist for more than four decades, Buttry was a tireless evangelist for digital transformation who encouraged reporters and editors to engage with their audiences face-to-face, in the comments below stories and especially on social media.
So when the tweet came from his account sending readers to his obituary — and making one last inside joke about his travel gripes — the outpouring came quickly.
The big through-line for Buttry's career was teaching. As a coach, he helped writers find their voices. As an executive, he helped editors discover their audiences.
When I was an intern at the Chico (California) Enterprise-Record in 2012, Buttry — then the digital transformation editor at Digital First Media — stopped by our newsroom as part of a national tour of the company's newspapers. He imparted digital wisdom to a room full of journalists who'd witnessed a total revolution of the news industry in a few short years. His last job was director of Louisiana State University's director of student media, where he helped students produce their student newspaper, newscast and yearbook.
A two-time cancer surviver, Buttry also documented his battle with pancreatic cancer on his blog, The Buttry Diary. He was unsparing and honest on the blog, which for years had been a clearinghouse for his ideas and advice about the practice of journalism.
Shortly after Buttry's death, Poynter asked journalists who knew and worked with him for anecdotes illustrating his character and commitment to journalism. Their stories are below.
Kristen Hare, reporter at Poynter.org
"When I was a young reporter working on my first big enterprise project, Steve Buttry was my coach. He was also my cheerleader, my confidant, and, until the day I emailed him asking for help, a total stranger.
I’d spent a year with a family in rural Northwest Missouri while the husband was deployed with the National Guard. I had notebooks full of story. I had drama — the wife was unexpectedly pregnant. I had tension — the husband wasn’t around for the big and small moments in their growing family. I had relevance — more and more people serving with the National Guard as weekend warriors were suddenly fully deployed for years at a time and whole communities were changed because of it.
But I had no idea how to put it all together.
I’d heard Steve at a National Writers’ Workshop, I think. And, afraid I was going to ruin an amazing story, I emailed him and asked if he could give what I’d written a look.
Steve wasn’t the only person I emailed. I think I reached out to writing coaches around the country.
He was, however, the only one who wrote back.
He walked me through how to think about the structure of my story. He read several drafts, always honest but gentle with his feedback. And on the day the special section came out and it felt anticlimactic and scary, he reassured me that that was normal, too.
Because of his example, when I get an email from a young journalist who wants to interview me for a class or just ask about something, I try my best to respond.
Years ago, I took for granted what a huge gift he’d given me — not coaching or long-distance encouragement or even empathy. He gave a young, scared reporter his time."
Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola's School of Communication
"I can still see Steve at our Poynter 'Big Ideas' conference in 2009, a gathering for which the price of admission was an idea that was good for both journalism — and business. How could we not have Buttry in that group? Ever the teacher and do-good disrupter, Steve evangelized about the importance of re-thinking traditional relationships inside news organizations and with our communities.
"At the same time, he tweeted ideas non-stop, blogged his observations, and of course, shared his slide presentation on The Buttry Diary. Outside the sessions, he coached other participants, many of whom were newbies at innovation and change management. That magnanimous multi-tasking was the essential Buttry."
Jim Brady, CEO of Spirited Media
"This is less a story than a reflection. In my view, Steve's greatest skill was his ability to translate anything into the language of journalism. Many have tried to train journalists on how to use new digital tools before they explain the journalistic value. Steve understood that the key to getting journalists excited about new tools was STARTING with how it would impact the journalism. Once he sold them on that, teaching them the technical tricks of the trade was easy. His patience, warmth and sense of humor were all tools that served him very well in his effort to make newsrooms think differently about social tools."
Matt Waite, professor at the University of Nebraska
"In 2013, Steve helped organize a focus group meant to help SPJ create programming for young and early career journalists. They recruited some really bright young journalists — I still think I ended up there by mistake — and put us in a room at their convention in Anaheim to talk about challenges early career journalists face. In a room full of young people, Steve was the youngest by a long way. His energy, interest and passion ran rings around the rest of us. You couldn't help but feed off it. That's what I'll remember about him — his energy and enthusiasm for what he was doing. His example has always been inspiring."
Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation
"Back in the winter of 2010, nearly seven years ago, I interviewed with Steve for a job at TBD, the local venture he and Jim Brady were building in D.C. It was one of the most memorable job interviews I've ever had. We shared guarded optimism about the opportunities new technologies afforded journalists to report, tell stories and find new sources — and pragmatism about how hard it would be to build new cultures, practices and business models support them. Steve impressed me then as a reporter, educator, editor, potential colleague and his commitment to journalism as a profession and vocation."
Where some veteran journalists might have been skeptical of my digital-first background, with no traditional newsroom experience, Steve instead peppered me with questions about how TBD should approach engaging the public, working collaboratively with communities to report the news instead of readers or eyeballs. Although we didn't end up working together at TBD, in the years since I have been grateful to him for sharing his wisdom as he explored the next phase of his career.
While I was devastated to hear about about his diagnosis and then his prognosis, I was also deeply inspired to see him turn his considerable skills to documenting and sharing his last story, covering the impact of cancer on his life and his family, sharing what he saw with grace, dignity and insight. I'm glad I knew him and will miss his thoughtful voice online."
Andrew Beaujon, senior editor at Washingtonian
"When I started working with Steve at TBD I was its arts editor, and I still thought the homepage required my protection. We'd partnered with people from other local publications to run stories off our section fronts, and someone from Steve's pod had placed a story on the arts front that I thought wasn't any good. Rather than deal with it in a productive manner, I sent a tart email not realizing the author of the piece was copied on it. It was all pretty embarrassing, and required a phone call from me to the person I'd insulted, but Steve handled it well and sent out a piece of advice that I still think about: 'Let's talk more than we email.'
Last Thursday Steve was supposed to be in D.C. to accept an award, and a number of people who knew him gathered in the Marriott Marquis to say hello. Steve didn't show for obvious reasons, but a bunch of journalists who'd never met or only knew one another from Twitter connected in person and talked for an hour about what we'd learned from Steve. It was perfect: One more set of connections."
Kelly McBride, vice president of Poynter
"He and I teamed up to do 1-2 day ethics training for newsrooms across the country. I think we did a dozen or so together. We were scheduled to arrive separately in some city that I've forgotten and both our planes were delayed. We both got in past midnight, and checked into a generic hotel.
Halfway through the next day, Steve casually mentioned that he got to his room, got his suit hung up and got ready for bed, only to pull back the covers to find... wait for it... poop. Yes poop, in the bed. He said there was no doubt what it was.
He called the desk, they put him in a suite and comped the room. But Steve was so non-plussed about it, that he didn't even mention it until halfway through the day. And even then, his voice hardly modulated at all. Unflappable."
Jeff Sonderman, deputy director of the American Press Institute
"Steve lived his life for other people. Every time he had a choice between taking credit and giving credit, he gave it. Every time he had a chance to help someone learn or grow, he took it. He lived out loud, on Twitter and his blog, not for his own ego but because he knew that he and others would be wiser through the exchange. Steve had many, many great accomplishments of his own. But what endures at the end of it all is that he lived his life for others. Those people — their love, memories, and bettered lives — are his legacy."
Jeremy Bowers, senior software engineer at The New York Times
"I think it was late 2011, and there was a Poynter event in D.C. at the National Press Club. I don't know how I got an invitation. The folks in the room were C-level news executives and masthead editors. By chance, someone introduced me to Steve, and we had a great chat about structured data and new story forms. I was a nobody; the lowest-level programmer on an unknown programming team in the Washington Post newsroom. Steve didn't care. He just wanted to talk to someone about data journalism. And it was wonderful."
Chris Krewson, editor of BillyPenn
"There's probably no bigger source of DNA in Billy Penn than TBD, into which my boss, Jim Brady, hired Steve. So we were definitely conscious of working in the shadow of something seemingly everyone in journalism knew about and loved. The first reporter-curators we hired here — Mark Dent and Anna Orso — both saw the job description via Dan Victor, a journalist Steve had hired on that initial team, along with Mandy Jenkins and Jeff Sonderman. I'd imagine that's just one of many stories about how Steve has deliberately, or accidentally, influenced newsrooms big and small through his tragically too-short career."
Dan Gillmor, professor at The Walter Cronkite School at Arizona State University
No single anecdote captures what a terrific journalist, teacher, and — most of all — human being he was. I first knew Steve when we worked together in Kansas City in the mid to late 1980s. I was the newsroom nerd. Steve was anything but a nerd back then, but he was a great colleague and friend.
When the information ecosystem changed, so did he. Steve re-made himself as a journalist for the Digital Age. He saw amazing new potential for the craft if we used these new tools in smart ways, and was tireless in promoting the possibilities.
What never changed, and what will always be more important, was his essential kindness and integrity. He was a consummate family man, and a dear friend to so many. Nothing matters more than that.
Mandy Jenkins, head of news at Storyful
"When I first started working with Steve at TBD in 2010, it didn't take long for me to notice how often he was on the phone. At first, I thought it all had to do with his day job — recruiting staff, setting up the site, etc. — but I soon learned that a lot of those interactions were in addition to everything he was doing at TBD.
I'd walk by his desk and hear him giving a lecture to a journalism class halfway across the country, a favor for a professor friend who needed some guest knowledge on social media. He'd be huddled on his phone giving advice to a friend or former colleague facing a newsroom challenge. He'd stick around in the evening to write up a job recommendation letter or two.
At the time, I thought, 'What a waste of time. Doesn't he have enough to do?' In the years since, I learned from his example and experienced for myself the value of building a network based on support.
Over the years of knowing him, I knew Steve to (almost) never say no to helping a fellow journalist. He gave me several huge favors that got me where I am today — and I know of many others who can say the same thing. He was an inspiration to so many, who I hope will continue to live by his example."