Burgeoning Bureau  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2006

Burgeoning Bureau   

David Westphal oversees the melded McClatchy and Knight Ridder Washington operations.

By Raechal Leone
Raechal Leone (rleone@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     


When David Westphal, former managing editor of the Des Moines Register, met with McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt about a job, Pruitt pledged McClatchy would grow. Eleven years after that meeting at corporate headquarters in Sacramento, Pruitt has made good on his promise in a big way. McClatchy in June acquired Knight Ridder and its 32 daily newspapers (12 of which it immediately shed), making it the second-largest newspaper company in the country.

For Westphal, who had run McClatchy's Washington bureau since 1998, that meant an eightfold increase in his staff. He oversees the combined bureau, now one of the larger ones in Washington. Located in the former Knight Ridder offices downtown, it has 120 employees, most of whom used to work for Knight Ridder. A relative handful–14 — made the four-block trek from the significantly smaller McClatchy bureau in the National Press Building.

As Washington bureau chief of what has become known as "McClatchy Classic," Westphal oversaw eight regional reporters, three national reporters, two other editors and an office manager. "For all the time I was bureau chief there, I did part managing and part writing," Westphal says, sitting at a table in the window-lined, corner office that belonged to Clark Hoyt, the former Knight Ridder Washington editor who now works as a McClatchy consultant.

"I haven't been [writing] in this new job and don't expect to."

Westphal, who now oversees the work of 10 editors, 17 regional reporters, 17 national reporters, 10 foreign correspondents and 65 people who work for McClatchy-Tribune Information Services, spends his days juggling managerial tasks — attending a news meeting, planning for the 2008 Olympics, working on the bureau's 2007 budget or looking over an online package to commemorate the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The job is similar, Westphal says, to the one he had as managing editor from 1988 to 1995 of the Register, which at the time had 225 newsroom employees. "It's obviously a challenge, and almost anything in newspapering today is," Westphal says. "I didn't feel too daunted about it. I felt overwhelmingly excited about it."

At a time of falling newspaper circulation and newsroom layoffs, Westphal's situation is rare. "If you're running a newspaper bureau in 2006, it is an unusual day when you find yourself with a dramatically increased number of people," says Butch Ward, a distinguished fellow at the Poynter Institute and a one-time managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, a former Knight Ridder paper. Westphal, he says, must decide how to use his larger pool of resources, and "the question he will wrestle with is, 'How much Knight Ridder culture do I embrace, and how much do I ask the people of Knight Ridder to simply adapt to our way of doing things?'"

Westphal's colleagues say he is well-suited for that balancing act, describing him as a good listener, thoughtful, a "cool character." He's the kind of guy, they say, who will walk by a reporter's desk and plant a story idea so gently that at first it feels like small talk. "He doesn't come across as particularly aggressive or particularly opinionated," says Margaret Talev, who reported on national politics for McClatchy before the merger and now covers Congress. "He comes across as a very calming influence, and if he doesn't like a story, he doesn't say, 'I don't like that story idea.'" Instead, Talev says her boss is more likely to praise the part of the idea that he likes and then add his suggestions for how to improve it. "It's like you always know where he's coming from, but in a subtle way."

Westphal's roots are in Iowa. He edited his high school newspaper, attended Wartburg College in Waverly and, during his senior year, edited the sports section of the now-defunct Cedar Falls Record, circulation 5,000. There, as a reporter covering the local school board, Westphal became enamored with news. "What I love about journalism is that it's about all of life — not just a piece of life," Westphal says. "So it takes you everywhere and makes you a part of everything. Who couldn't like that?"

It was also in Iowa, while working at the much larger Register, that Westphal met his wife of 10 years, journalist Geneva Overholser. Overholser, who was executive editor at the Register while Westphal was managing editor, describes her husband as "sound" and "thoughtful." "He's not quick to make judgment, but firm in his judgments when he makes them. I think he tries to get as much information as he can, and he listens well," says Overholser, a former Washington Post ombudsman who is now a journalism professor at the Missouri School of Journalism's Washington bureau.

Westphal seems to be approaching his new job in the same way. Rather than ushering in seismic changes, he has, for the most part, let reporters and editors continue covering the news. The melding of the Knight Ridder bureau, known for its investigative reporting of national issues, including its storied work about pre-war intelligence on Iraq (See "White Knights," April/May), and of the McClatchy bureau, known for its award-winning regional reporting, began June 28 with an employee meeting in the Knight Ridder bureau. Everyone received a T-shirt emblazoned with a skull, a pen, a pencil and the words "Write Hard. Die Free."

Since then, the most substantive change — aside from the larger staff — has been the way regional reporters are handled. McClatchy pays all its regional correspondents through the bureau and assigns at least one to every newspaper in the chain, although 10 write for more than one paper. The system is a departure from the one Knight Ridder used, in which newspapers that could afford to send a reporter to Washington did so at their own expense.

At the time of the merger, Westphal says five of the 20 Knight Ridder papers McClatchy kept had Washington correspondents; all 12 of McClatchy's daily newspapers had one. Giving everyone "a seat at the table" is important, Westphal says, because reporters who write for individual newspapers often have the kind of long-standing relationships with local politicians that are essential when a big story breaks.

For Michael Doyle, who has covered Washington for McClatchy's Modesto Bee and Fresno Bee for about 17 years, the change is a reassuring sign his company's culture may stay intact. Doyle says just after the merger he spoke to Westphal about his concerns that regional reporting would no longer be a priority. So far, he says, it is.

Doyle describes Westphal as an "outstanding editor" who protects his budget and his people and often grants approval for ambitious assignments. On one, Doyle headed for Phoenix in search of former California Rep. Gary Condit, who was thrust into the national spotlight after the 2001 disappearance of intern Chandra Levy and had been rumored to be living out of the public eye in Arizona. Doyle never talked to Condit, but he did collect color during interviews with family members for a report on the five-year anniversary of Levy's disappearance. "It was simply a stab at what we thought had potential," Doyle says.

Westphal also seems committed to preserving the international coverage that was a hallmark of the Knight Ridder bureau. While McClatchy and Westphal are new to operating full-time foreign bureaus, Mark Seibel, who ran the foreign desk for Knight Ridder and now oversees international coverage for McClatchy, thinks "one of the things that they found attractive was the opportunity to do that sort of thing. We've talked about some potential changes, and I'm assuming that as McClatchy gets to know what we do and what we might do..there will be some adjustments." In Westphal's first months on the job, Seibel says, the Washington editor has been unassuming, supportive and genuinely interested in the bureau's foreign coverage.

Westphal is among top McClatchy managers who say they expect the combination of regional, national and foreign reporting that comes from the Washington bureau to be potent. Another who shares that view is Howard Weaver, McClatchy's vice president for news, who says he has "huge hopes and intentions for the bureau to not be just what it's always been, which has been great. This Washington bureau, I think, is in a prime position as a leader in charting the course for a 21st-century news company."

McClatchy's circulation has more than doubled from 1.4 million to 3.2 million, or roughly the size of Knight Ridder's circulation before the sale. Ron Hutcheson, a former Knight Ridder employee and McClatchy's White House correspondent since the merger, has moved to a seat closer to the front of the White House briefing room. He says the transition has been "shockingly smooth" for himself and the other journalists in the bureau, particularly compared with the kind of turmoil they had anticipated.

Down in Gulfport, Mississippi, Stan Tiner, executive editor of McClatchy's newly purchased Sun Herald, says bureau stories, including those of his newspaper's recently added Washington correspondent, have been stellar as well. "I'm seeing more McClatchy bylines [in the paper] than anything else, and the editors are choosing the best," Tiner says, adding that his paper subscribes to more wire services than many others its size. The former Knight Ridder paper has a circulation of about 43,000 daily and 51,000 Sunday.

Rick Rodriguez, Tiner's counterpart at the Sacramento Bee, says stories from McClatchy-Tribune Information Services, the other half of the operation in McClatchy's Washington bureau, are frequently appearing in his paper where New York Times stories used to run. Before the merger, he says, stories from the former Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services were often the Bee's fourth or fifth pick. Today, "we're paying more attention to them now because they're carrying the name McClatchy."

But McClatchy's name recognition is still nowhere near that of the now-defunct Knight Ridder. Hutcheson says he got a blank look when he identified his news organization during an interview with Tokyo television. Hutcheson, who was traveling with President Bush, eventually tossed out the name Knight Ridder and explained the sale. The interviewer understood.

Steven Thomma, Hutcheson's colleague and McClatchy's new chief political correspondent, says of the change: "The short answer is I took a lot of years spelling Knight Ridder on the telephone, and now I am spelling McClatchy. Those who know McClatchy have a great respect for the name, but far fewer people know the name."

Westphal agrees that it's important to improve McClatchy's name recognition, and he believes the process is well under way. But, he adds, "You won't see the same company-wide effort to brand the name as you saw in Knight Ridder. In McClatchy, the individual newspapers take center stage on this front.... And our most important weapon will be the journalism itself."

The Sacramento Bee's Rodriguez is confident his friend will succeed in his new role. Before, "he had to accommodate 12 newspapers who all had ideas about how he should deploy his people and he was very adept at making folks happy," Rodriguez says. "I think that some folks might underestimate him because he's soft-spoken and he's quiet. But he's smart, he's well-traveled and he's well-read." Rodriguez remembers having a professional disagreement with Westphal just once; Westphal never wavered.

These days, Westphal has been working long hours to ensure success. That means fewer hours for some of his favorite pastimes — running, going to jazz clubs, playing the piano and hanging out with the three adult children he and Overholser have between them. But, he says, the new job has been rewarding: "You have a stronger opportunity to do good work, and you have a stronger responsibility to do good work."

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