McGuire on Media

What I wish I had done differently as an editor: My advice to editors

Last May my friend Steve Buttry invited me to write an advice to editors piece for a series he was launching for his Digital First editors. 

My life in May and throughout the summer was far too hectic to allow me to write the piece Steve requested but it never left my mind. While I dealt with family issues I often reflected on what wisdom I might be able to offer editors after being out of the editor’s chair at the Minneapolis Star Tribune for 11 years. I do not kid myself that this newspaper world is remotely similar to the one in which I lived.

I am a fellow who does not think regrets are a bad thing. I learn, grow and improve by reflecting on how I could have done things better. I think focusing on successes and regrets is important.  As I ruminated on advice I might give to editors who are operating in a radically different and more complicated environment than I did, I considered my two biggest regrets as an editor.

I lost personal control of my calendar and my priorities, and I never thought quite big enough.

I know that in these days of reduced resources many editors are going to scoff at my two pieces of advice but I actually think the tough times make them more important than ever. 1. Don’t waste your time on minor issues and process oriented meetings and, 2. think big, transformative change, not incremental change.

I dearly wish I would have set up a rotating list of five big, direction-changing issues and insisted that my calendar allow me 75 percent availability to concentrate on the five big ideas.

When I look back at speeches and discussions from 1994-2001 it is clear that many of us saw glimpses of an uncomfortable future. In 1994 I wrote an article in the ASNE Bulletin about change that is still quoted. My point is we saw the light at the end of the tunnel  and we damn well knew it was a train but we got too hung up on day-to-day survival.

I am afraid I see the same thing today. The alligators are nibbling at the butts of good editors and all they can do is jump. Only a few are concentrating on quality   and greatness rather than survival. There are arguments from a lot of the newspaper critics that the battle is already lost. That makes the options easier. leaves two options. Give up, or toss out caution and select four or five big opportunities for future-altering  change.

The second piece of advice is about those big ideas. Make them really big. Google, Facebook and all the other digital age winners have never been accused of thinking small. I argue that newspaper folks have been cursed by low expectations and I will be the first to step up to plead guilty.

Some people actually accused me of being too radical during the 90’s but I was not nearly radical enough.  I admit I blinked because of peer criticism and my own inability to mobilize my resources for the kind of smart change that would have transformed my newspaper.  Editors today cannot afford to blink. No idea should be deemed crazy and the farther away from traditional newspaper thinking the idea is, the more it should be praised.

This will seem like a digression but it is not.  I had a conversation about faith with an old, dear friend this summer. He repeated to me advice he had received from an elderly nun when he had a religious crisis. She told him “Do not make your God too small.”

In the weeks since my friend told me that, the concept has seldom left me. It was incredible spiritual advice but I have also taken it as personal  and business advice. I think we clearly have made newspapers too small. We have been constrained by tradition, fear and short-term horizons.

There are lots of people, things and circumstances we could blame  but that accomplishes nothing.

My advice to editors, and especially Digital First editors where the CEO John Paton has made it clear that the past must be shed to focus on the future, is big thoughts and total focus on those big ideas are the only sane route to the future. And that approach will be a lot more fun than running scared.

One Comment