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American Journalism Review
Help Wanted  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   November 2002

Help Wanted   

Newspapers are finding it increasingly difficult to fill top-level editing positions.

By Don Campbell
Don Campbell is a lecturer in journalism at Emory University and a former Washington reporter, editor and columnist.     


One night early in September, in the Philadelphia suburb of Wyncote, 7-year-old Ariella Rosenthal popped the question to her mother: When we move to San Francisco, she asked, "Can we get a house with a hill?"

"Why do you want a hill?" Inka Rosenthal asked her daughter. "Well," said Ariella, "because I want to go sled riding in the winter when it snows." And when Inka looked at her and said, "It doesn't snow in San Francisco," Ariella burst into tears.

It was a typical question for a 7-year-old who is about to move 2,500 miles west to a strange city, leaving behind a big backyard with a very nice hill for sledding after winter snowstorms. It's also the kind of question that nags at any parent, and it cut to the heart of the dilemma that former Philadelphia Inquirer Editor Robert J. Rosenthal had in late summer. After a lifetime in the East, did the offer to become a managing editor on the West Coast trump family concerns about a dramatically different lifestyle?

"It's going to be difficult," Rosenthal said after accepting the job, especially for the three children, ages 7, 9 and 11. "I'm an East Coast person, and looking at houses out there, believe me, we're going to live differently. We'll never live this way. Here we have a big house and four acres and 200-plus-year-old trees. Forget it in California."

In a year in which an unusually large number of newspapers had high-level vacancies, the story of how 54-year-old "Rosey" Rosenthal went, in 10 months, from being editor of one of the most prestigious newspapers in the country, the Inquirer, to managing editor of the undistinguished but newly ambitious San Francisco Chronicle, gives some insight into the pressures and processes involved in filling top jobs. Newspapers in Minneapolis; Chicago; Indianapolis; Detroit; Atlanta; Denver; Boston; San Francisco; Philadelphia; Spokane, Washington; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Albany, New York, among others, had vacancies this year for editor or managing editor--or both. Some searches dragged on for months.

Such a large number of vacancies--and the time it's taking to fill them--raises the question of whether there's a shortage of high-level newsroom talent in the country. The short answer, say management experts, publishers and news executives, is no; the real problem is that it's harder these days to find the right person for the job, for many reasons:

* The jobs of editor and managing editor are more complicated than they used to be, and employers are thus much more deliberate in their hiring. Just being a good journalist rarely is enough these days to make the cut. "I found plenty of good candidates--I was looking for a great candidate," Inquirer Editor Walker Lundy says of his eight-month search for a managing editor. After a Hamlet-like performance in which Lundy agonized about whether to hire an outsider or stay with an insider, he ended up promoting Deputy Managing Editor Anne Gordon.

Management consultant Toni Antonellis says that expectations of job candidates are a lot higher these days. "You need a very diversified skill set," she says. "You need to be collaborative [across the organization], but yet hold true to journalism. There are different expectations now on how you'll participate as part of an executive team. As an employer you've got to look at their journalism, their personality, their leadership, their collaborative skills."

"The editor's job is increasingly challenging," echoes management guru John Lavine, who runs Northwestern University's Media Management Center. "It's broader. There are more people to deal with. It's not just getting out the paper. It's knowing where the paper needs to go, knowing who you've got and who else you need to get...to hold and expand your readership."

* Editors often have to be willing to do more with less, given the demands on public companies by Wall Street analysts and stockholders. This makes top jobs less appealing and drives some editors out of the business. It was one of the reasons that ultimately forced Rosenthal to resign as editor of the Inquirer (see "Identity Crisis," January/ February). And the subsequent publicity didn't cast the Inquirer in a good light. Lundy says that "two or three [candidates] seemed spooked" by what they'd read about the cutbacks in Philly.

"I'm looking for someone who can face reality and move on, who doesn't make excuses," says Indianapolis Star Editor Terry Eberle, who spent nine months recruiting a managing editor. "A lot of my questions [to candidates] go to: If we have to reduce staff, how would you deploy them? What would be your priorities? Can you look ahead strategically, long term?"

* Not enough people are ready or willing to go through the recruiting process. Middle-aged job candidates may have spent their entire careers at one paper or may not have done a job interview in 15 or 20 years. They're wary of the disruptions a move will mean for their families. Younger, midlevel editors may not have received the mentoring they need to be serious contenders for executive-level jobs. And if they're stars, notes Lundy, "they're probably being treated like stars already and may not want to move."

"Not a lot of people in the 40-year-old range have been groomed," says Antonellis. "The consequence is that many people in the market are at the tail end of their careers. They've got five to seven years left."

Howard Weaver, vice president for news at McClatchy Co.--which conducted high-profile searches for the two top editors in both Minneapolis and Raleigh this year--says there's "an awful lot of very qualified people out there. But at the same time, people are pretty selective. The changing climate in newspapers has made [candidates] think hard. They think of who the employer is as well as how they can do the job."

In Philadelphia, the Rosenthal family had known for many months that change, possibly including a move, was inevitable. Last November, after more than 22 years at the Inquirer and a tumultuous four-year reign as editor that saw two large staff buyouts and a costly libel suit, Rosenthal was shown the door by Publisher Robert Hall.

The reaction that night from daughter Ariella was poignant, if premature. "But I don't want to be poor," she protested. That was an unlikely prospect. Rosenthal had already received four or five phone calls that day soliciting his interest in other jobs. But he didn't launch a search immediately. When he left, he says, "I didn't have any lines out. Nothing. I had not looked for a job in 22 years."

He soon adapted to what it was like to be unemployed. "I learned that when something like this happens that mentally, creatively, you have to shut down a tremendous part of your brain or you're gonna go crazy," Rosenthal says. "The creative part of me sort of went on about 20 percent. I played a lot of hockey."

In the spring, he taught as an adjunct at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and became a candidate for the dean's job there. He was a finalist for what he calls "a very good job" at the Associated Press. "There was a consistent flow of people contacting me out of the blue," he says, and he was offered other jobs, some outside journalism.

But there were reminders that, above all, he was a mostly-out-of-work former big-time editor. He usually dressed casually for the teaching gig at Columbia. But one morning, he put on a suit because he was giving a talk in New York. When he crept into his sons' bedroom to give them a kiss goodbye, 9-year-old Ben said: "You look good today. Does this mean you have a job?"

The first contact that would lead to the San Francisco job came in April at the American Society of Newspaper Editors' convention in Washington, D.C. Chronicle Executive Editor Phil Bronstein, whom he'd never met, asked Rosenthal if he'd like to chat with him and Assistant Executive Editor Narda Zacchino about an opportunity at the Chronicle.

They had begun a search for a managing editor in March after Chronicle ME Jerry Roberts resigned. Bronstein had been named executive editor after the Hearst Corp. took over the Chronicle in 2000 and merged the staffs of the old Examiner, of which Bronstein had been editor, and the Chronicle (see "Bad Blood," July/August 2000). The merger created much angst as the combined staff tried to fathom who was really in charge. Other contenders to share power with Bronstein fell away rather quickly, and Roberts was the last to go.

Replacing him was a challenge. Bronstein says that he didn't have as big a network as some people who'd moved around a lot. He'd been a San Francisco journalist his entire career. He'd gone from being an investigative reporter and foreign correspondent to executive editor at the Examiner. He was not noticeably active in editors' groups, and now he was top editor of a newspaper four times as large as the one he previously had run. In 1999, the year before the takeover, the Chronicle's daily circulation was 475,000 to the Examiner's 111,000. Now, the Chronicle's circulation is 525,000.

"What I learned," Bronstein says, "is that there is not really a system where you can come up with a list of all the people who are really good, and some of whom are certainly ready to move up.... Even though we ended up choosing someone who was very well known, and clearly I believe the best choice, who knows who else was out there, someone not necessarily on everybody's list, but who might be ready for a bigger job?"

The greater difficulty was to find someone who could motivate 500 staffers from two different newsrooms to work harder and smarter--in a union environment. Someone was needed who could, in the words of one reporter, "make the ambiguity go away" and make a lot of people who don't much care for each other work in harmony.

And that someone would also have to be creative enough to help make the Chronicle a lot better. Especially its Sunday edition. Under the old joint operating agreement between the Examiner and the Chronicle, the Sunday paper had been what Bronstein calls a "bizarre, balkanized operation that was doomed from the beginning," put together by two newsrooms that didn't speak to each other. It was embarrassing, Bronstein says, that if you wanted to know what the rest of the world thought of the cultural scene in the Bay Area, you had to read the New York Times Arts & Leisure section.

The new managing editor would have to deliver all that at a time when the Bay Area economy was in the pits, and might get worse.

In Philadelphia, all Rosenthal knew about these things was what he'd read in the trade press. He'd been to San Francisco only four or five times, always on business, and his German-born wife, Inka, had never been there. So, when he came home from ASNE in April and told her he'd met with the editor of the Chronicle and was going to critique the paper but didn't know if it would get beyond that, the reaction was muted. It was just another place they might go.

Rosenthal reviewed a week's worth of Chronicles and then, in the course of an hour, wrote "from the gut" a 1,000-word critique of the paper. "It was a critique that was critical," he says. "It was honest and fairly tough." He described stories the Chronicle was not doing, opportunities missed, everything from news display to a brief that he thought could have been a front-page story if done right.

"I was looking from all the candidates for a sense of how they viewed the paper, and obviously through that, a sense of how they viewed newspapering and what needed to be done," Bronstein says. "I got a pretty good idea of that from Rosey's critique, but I have to say that a number of the critiques I got were really impressive. So I'm not sure it was the critiques...that made the difference."

It certainly didn't hurt Rosenthal's cause, because shortly thereafter the Chronicle invited him to visit San Francisco. He had already decided from the meeting at ASNE, he says, that he liked Bronstein. "I thought he was smart...candid. He laid out a complicated and difficult situation, and said he felt it was almost like starting a new newspaper. He didn't paint a rosy, bright, b.s. picture."

By the time Rosenthal got to San Francisco in June, he was one in a stream of job candidates making the journey--editors, MEs and deputy MEs from the East Coast, the Midwest, the Northwest and Southern California. At that time, the Bay Area was just one of many destinations for job candidates.

In Philadelphia, Walker Lundy and Knight Ridder recruiters had talked on the phone to an estimated 75 people about the ME job there. At least half a dozen were invited to Philly for lunch or meetings with Lundy.

In Minneapolis, the editor and publisher screened "a number of good candidates" for the Star Tribune ME post and narrowed the search to four finalists, says Publisher J. Keith Moyer. Those four were run through a gauntlet that included being questioned by the entire staff. A lone internal candidate, AME Scott Gillespie, ended up winning the job. Boston Globe Editor Martin Baron talked to a number of people about his managing editor slot, but opted instead to ask Executive Editor Helen Donovan to add those duties to her portfolio.

In Indianapolis, the ME job opened up just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. One of the first things Star Editor Terry Eberle discovered was that no one could take time away from September 11 coverage for a job interview. He advertised on several journalism Web sites, and by early 2002 had received more than 30 applications. He whittled that down to what he calls "six legitimate applicants" and did a critique swap with each of them, in which they critiqued a week of Stars while he evaluated a week of their papers. One candidate was eliminated because of a weak critique, and eventually four of the remaining five were invited to Indianapolis for lengthy interviews.

Two of the candidates were from Gannett, the Star's parent company, and two were outsiders. Eberle says he was under no pressure from corporate to stay within Gannett, "though I thought it would be good to get someone who knew the Gannett culture."

Eberle had a recruiting plan based on experience: "I've moved six times with Gannett," he says. "I appreciate that family issues and lifestyle are more an issue than they used to be. Moving a spouse is an issue. So [we] spend time with the candidates showing them the city. I try to find out ahead of time what some of their interests are. I get Chamber of Commerce videos on the city and send them to the candidates. You have to sell spouses on the city, and you have to sell the community to them."

And the candidates had to sell themselves. When they arrived in Indianapolis, they faced two-and-a-half days of interviews with Eberle, the publisher, all assistant managing editors and an assortment of staffers--about 20 people in all.

After the interviews, Eberle called in everybody who had met with the candidates and asked what they saw as the strengths and weaknesses of each person. The one chosen for the job, Richard Luna, managing editor of Gannett's Salem Statesman Journal in Oregon, was "strong on how he dealt with people," says Eberle. "And his critique of the paper mirrored my own critique of it."

In San Francisco, meanwhile, eight candidates made the trek to Mission Street, and others had been sounded out at the ASNE convention, some at the suggestion of the Youngs, Walker & Co. recruiting firm.

Some of the eight "clearly did not" do the homework they needed to know the area and the market and the paper, Bronstein says. Others knew the market but didn't quite measure up for other reasons.

"Certainly, the people we considered seriously were all qualified on paper, very qualified, very impressive people," he says. "It's not that there's a dearth of qualified people out there. It's a fairly small group, there's no question about it, in terms of qualified, unless you want to take a chance--and we talked to some folks who were a little farther down the masthead, some of them really impressive. But I don't think it's experience. I really don't. I think you make a decision about who best fits your specific circumstance."

The drill for Rosenthal, as with the other seven on-site candidates, was to meet with Bronstein, Zacchino, Publisher John Oppedahl, department heads and small groups of reporters. After each round of meetings, Bronstein solicited feedback from those who'd met the candidates. Since Rosenthal's qualifications were not in question, there were three real issues hanging in the air: Would a former top editor at a Pulitzer-laden major metro take a managing editor's job at another paper? Would he be in charge of the newsroom and report directly to Bronstein, given Zacchino's title as assistant executive editor? And could he afford to move to high-priced Northern California?

Both Bronstein and Rosenthal say the first two issues were discussed at length but resolved fairly quickly: He would and he would. Oppedahl told him he'd also be a member of the newspaper's executive committee. And, says Rosenthal, "Once they settled the financial questions, that showed me they were serious. The end result is I think they've treated me fairly."

So why did Rosenthal stand out in a field of "very impressive people," especially given the subtext to Rosenthal's candidacy that went something like this: Is a middle-aged white guy from the East Coast the right person to direct news coverage in an exotic cultural stew like San Francisco?

His résumé was strong, of course, and he made a very favorable impression on people in the newsroom. He created a buzz among reporters by talking their language. "There was a real enthusiasm for him," says Chronicle investigative reporter Lance Williams. "He's a big-league newspaperman. He's ambitious. People liked him a lot."

But what really made the difference was the insatiable curiosity that Rosenthal showed about the city and the entire Bay Area. It quickly demolished any skepticism about his East Coast roots. When Bronstein took him around to meet an assortment of characters from the city, he saw story ideas everywhere.

"Rosey not only has a fresh perspective, he has a refreshing perspective," says Bronstein. "He really does bring a sense of wonder and awe to the Bay Area. He sees things not only in a new way, but he's impressed--as people ought to be--with what goes on. He sees stories that those of us who've lived here a long time may not see. Or may take for granted."

Bronstein tells people that he and Rosenthal have similar résumés--they're about the same age, and they've both been investigative reporters, foreign correspondents, editors--but very different personalities. It's the latter, Bronstein says, that makes theirs a "complementary relationship."

"Complementary" is a top code word in editor recruiting these days; another is "chemistry." The key to any new hire is the chemistry established between a publisher and editor, or an editor and an ME. Editors need managing editors who complement their strengths, rather than duplicate them.

Observers of the Chronicle are no doubt waiting to see how this kind of management jargon plays out in practice. Bronstein and Rosenthal are certainly different. Bronstein, a swashbuckling, movie-star handsome man who is married to actress Sharon Stone, is considered to be aloof and a bit of a loner. He seems interested mostly in investigative projects.

Eric Brazil, a retired reporter who worked with Bronstein for more than 15 years at the Examiner and the Chronicle, says, "I never had a discussion with him about a story, and I wrote 250 stories a year.... He was not a hands-on editor, and he's never been one of the guys." By contrast, Rosenthal is, in his own words, "more exuberant, more emotive, more outgoing. I love mingling with reporters." It sounds like a perfect match, even if some people who know both men wonder if it will last. These sources question whether two men with big egos can happily coexist.

Rosenthal is both sanguine and realistic.

He says he was impressed by the candor of everybody at Hearst about the challenges facing the Chronicle and by their avowed determination to make it a much, much better paper. "I can tell you that the conversations I had with Hearst corporate were very different than any I ever had with Knight Ridder," he says.

"There were other things that ran across the board that would have been interesting, exciting, high profile," he adds. "I knew there's not a perfect solution when you leave a job like I did, especially when you're the editor of a big paper. There are not that many jobs out there. But I'm very happy with this outcome. And if I went into this without being nervous or a little uptight, I'd be stupid."

In the second week of August, Rosenthal took Inka to San Francisco for her first visit. San Francisco doesn't require the kind of selling job that Indianapolis does.

Inka liked the city, so in late August, the Chronicle formally offered the job to Rosenthal. On September 11, while the nation was absorbed in the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, he accepted. Then he told Inka, "We're going to San Francisco." He would later say, "I think she was glad that it would get me out of the house."

He also had a job offer on the table in New York, so he called and turned that down. He then called a headhunter who'd been pursuing him to say he'd been spoken for.

On Friday the 13th, Rosenthal was secreted in Bronstein's office and the newsroom was gossiping as staffers were called together around the metro desk. When Bronstein walked out of his office with Rosenthal in tow, the staff broke into applause. "I certainly don't think they were applauding for me," Bronstein says. "I've been around awhile."

As summer slipped into fall, there were a lot of typical decisions to make in the Rosenthal household: where to live in the Bay Area, when to move the family, what school districts to consider. And Ariella had come to terms with life without snow in San Francisco. "We explained to her," Rosenthal says, "that there's great skiing not far away."

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