McGuire on Media

Downie and Wallace: Attitude makes the difference

Monday morning, around 10 am,  I browsed through Romenesko and discovered an item from Editor and Publisher about Len Downie, the editor of the Washington Post. The piece described Len’s matter-of-fact attitude about facing more cuts in the Post Newsroom.

Len’s quote:”We have been able to cope so far and I expect to be able to continue to be able to cover the news,” Downie told E&P. “It is going to be very similar to what we have been doing for the past few years now. To restructure the newspaper, which we have constantly been doing.”

The first time I really got to know Len Downie was roughly 25 years ago over dinner at the legendary Joe’s Stone Crab. I remember being amazed at his earnest, unflappable demeanor. In a radically changed news environment, I am even more amazed that after 25 years Len has lost none of that calm determination.

At 1:30 Monday afternoon I went into a conference room here at the Cronkite School at Arizona State to hear one of our Hearst visiting journalists, Julia Wallace, the editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, talk about the future of the newspaper business. My notes aren’t as good as they should be because I was so taken by Julia’s positive, determined attitude to lead her newsroom through this morass of change that has besieged the business.

Julia’s message was not sugar-coated. She called the newspaper business changes in the last two years, “seismic,” and acknowledged that when Andy Grove told ASNE in 1998 newspapers faced an “inflection point,” he was painfully accurate. She talked about how much trouble the daily newspaper faces, and she was refreshingly hopeful about the opportunities for the Sunday paper.  Her message about online was hopeful too. Her strategy to make print and digital dramatically different  made a lot of sense.

I was especially taken by Julia’s description of the reorganization of the AJC newsroom into four distinct areas: digital, print, news and information and enterprise.  She described “news and information” and “enterprise” as the “pitching” departments and the print and digital areas as the “catchers.”

Julia Wallace’s analysis of the state of the newspaper business was impressive, precise and frank.  Her prescriptions for building a newsroom to deal with those changes seemed inclusive, motivating and efficient. And those are not what impressed me most.

Like Len Downie, Julia Wallace is clearly an editor who has chosen to stand and fight with optimism, enthusiasm and imagination. That has not been easy to find in the last few years. The stooped shoulders, the state of siege and the overall pessimism of editors had become tangible. And, let’s be honest here, I retired five years ago, largely because I saw what was coming. I have become far more comfortable talking about potential solutions from the sidelines than fighting the daily battles. I am pleased that recent conversations indicate more editors are shedding the negative yoke and developing a more can-do attitude.

So maybe it was part of a new, exciting trend when Julia talked about spending her time on planning what she was going to do in the next five years. She spoke reflectively about how she could make sure the right values to serve democracy were in place . She mused about the negativity of the word “preserve” and talked  enthusiastically about “creating.”

The newspaper times are tough beyond belief. I candidly admit I am pleased I am studying those difficulties from the lofty perches of academe. However, I am even more pleased that people like Len Downie and Julia Wallace, and a few others I talk to, are choosing optimism and fight over pessimism and flight.

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