Heading Home for A Big Challenge  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2008

Heading Home for A Big Challenge   

By Kevin Rector
     


Just days before his official start as executive vice president and editor of the San Francisco Chronicle on February 4, Ward Bushee seemed excited. He was moving home, he said, and to his hometown newspaper.

"I've made it really clear that this is all about being able to go home and work for a paper that I've admired for many, many years in a city that is home to me," said the longtime Gannett editor, who left the top job in the Arizona Republic newsroom to join the Hearst-owned Chronicle. "If you grow up in Northern California, I think there's always an attraction to get back to the coast and be near the beauty and the people."

A Bay Area native and the son of a newspaper editor, Bushee, 58, began his career under his father's wing at California's Watsonville Register-Pajaronian, and stayed in the state working at a number of smaller publications until 1982, when he left to help launch USA Today. For the past two decades, he's bounced around the country as one of Gannett's top editors from South Dakota to Nevada to Ohio to Arizona but now has made his homecoming to the Golden State.

And what a time to return. In the past few months, the state's journalism industry has been anything but golden, especially for top editors.

In October, Sacramento Bee Editor Rick Rodriguez left the paper in a disagreement over the paper's Web operations. Then, Carole Leigh Hutton was ousted after a short stint as editor of the San Jose Mercury News. Most recently, a quite vocal disagreement over budget cuts at the Los Angeles Times led to the departure of Editor James O'Shea.

Though Phil Bronstein whose job Bushee inherited and who is now an editor at large with Hearst left on better terms, it was not because the Chronicle has fewer challenges than its California counterparts. Bushee is taking the reins of a newsroom that has suffered major hits to its advertising and circulation revenue in recent years (see "San Francisco News Blues," October/November). While such declines are hardly uncommon in today's tough newspaper environment, the Chron lost $330 million between 2000 when Hearst bought the paper for $660 million and 2005.

One factor in the bleeding was Hearst's promise not to make layoffs after merging the Chronicle with the Examiner a promise that left the paper with a massive staff. But when cuts finally did come, they came fast and in large numbers. Last year nearly 25 percent of the Chronicle's newsroom staff was cut in just one of a series of slices that brought the paper's roster down to about 300 and resulted in the departures of nearly a dozen of the paper's top editors.

Says Bushee of his new gig: "I think it's the biggest challenge I've ever faced."

Chronicle President and Publisher Frank J. Vega says the daunting realities facing the paper played a role in the selection of Bushee. "Ward has a very easygoing personality," Vega says. "He's very inclusive in terms of bringing people into the process and having people feel that they are being included in the future. That part of his personality is important in that we've been through a lot this year... It's important in terms of bringing the newsroom together in moving forward."

It was also Bushee's reputation as a "quintessential newsman" and his history of integrating online and print content that brought him to mind, Vega says.

"Traditionally we're in the top seven or eight newspaper Web sites in terms of page views and unique visitors each month, and I thought it was very important to have someone coming in who had a solid background in terms of the online side of our business," Vega says.

Bushee was at the helm of the Arizona Republic last year when Gannett rolled out a new "Information Center" model that shifted its papers' focus from the print product to content in general, evening the playing field for print and online.

Under Bushee's lead, the Republic combined its Web and print staffs, shifted resources to ensure stories could be posted during early-morning hours, expanded its site to include more suburban coverage and began soliciting information from online readers.

"He very much enjoys and respects the traditions of the print newspaper, but he also realizes that for an ever-increasing percentage of news consumers, the Internet is their preferred means of getting their news," says Randy Lovely, who succeeded Bushee at the paper.

A week and a half into his new job, Bushee said he was spending time meeting individual members of the staff, a process he calls taking the "temperature of the room."

Although he says it's too soon to talk about specific plans for the paper, Bushee expresses a commitment to serious journalism and a desire to continue what he calls a history of journalistic successes at papers he previously headed.

Of course, not everyone was so happy when Bushee was named the Chronicle's editor. A story in the Bay Area alternative paper SF Weekly criticized his history with Gannett and insinuated he would have a corporate mind willing to slash away at news content in favor of increased profits.

"He's a big, boring departure from Phil Bronstein," says Will Harper, the weekly's managing editor. "Bronstein is a real San Francisco character. Bushee just seems like your boring, button-down guy."

But while critics may not love Bushee's Gannett connections, Gannett certainly loved Bushee. During his 30-plus-year career with the company, Bushee was named its Editor of the Year three times and was awarded its President's Ring for top editors 12 times.

And corporate connections aside, by most accounts there's not much to say about Bushee that isn't positive. Find his name in stories written about his move to the Chronicle, and it's almost always attached to phrases like, "well-earned reputation as Gannett's golden boy"; "reputation as a troubleshooter"; "personable and friendly"; "known for tackling the Web with vigor."

"I can't say he made everyone happy, because if you do that you're doing something wrong. But he had the ability to communicate very well," says David Kranz, who was managing editor at the Gannett-owned Sioux Falls Argus Leader in South Dakota when Bushee was executive editor there almost two decades ago. "I don't think I ever heard him scream at anybody..or even get mad at people. But he could be very firm. If he wanted something done a certain way, he would make sure it got done that way."

Madelyn Jennings, who was Gannett's senior vice president for personnel when Bushee was at the Argus Leader, says one of the most telling examples of Bushee's character is how he dealt with an on-the-job accident in 1990 that left him with a broken vertebra in his neck.

Bushee had criticized the South Dakota Air National Guard in an editorial, saying its jet flyovers were potentially dangerous for citizens. In response, the Air National Guard invited him to participate in an "orientation flight" so he could see how the jets worked. The promotional ride abruptly ended, though, when the A-7 fighter jet Bushee was in collided with another plane. Bushee and the pilots ejected Bushee on fire and parachuted down, and Bushee was rushed to the hospital with burns and a broken vertebra.

"Right after the accident he was bruised and banged up, but he's such a cool guy, he just sort of took it in stride," Jennings says. "I was in his living room with him and he acted only as if he had just fallen off his bicycle."

His move to the Chronicle means going back to his roots, Bushee says, and brings him closer to his family. His son just graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and his daughter attends City College of San Francisco.

Back home, back near the newsroom where he saw his father do the work that led the Register-Pajaronian to a Pulitzer and where he learned newsroom lessons he still carries with him today.

"I think the thing that was important about the Pajaronian was the sense that great journalism can be done at any level, but you have to set the standards for what's important," Bushee says. "I think that's a model that any paper should subscribe to at any level."

Another lesson he's brought with him: "Relationships and commitment to people in the room help build the foundation for making things work well."

"I think about him and the word 'ease' comes to mind," Jennings says. "He's almost Zen-like in his low-key ease. That means people feel comfortable around him, feel comfortable in expressing their opinions whether he agrees with them or not."

"Ward is a California surfer dude through and through, so he's a very relaxed, personable guy, but no one should ever underestimate what's below the surface," Lovely says. "He's very serious, very committed and takes the responsibilities we have very seriously."

But he's not entirely serious. If he gets the chance, he says, he might start surfing again.

Kevin Rector (krector@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.

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