Challenging (Washington) Times  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2011

Challenging (Washington) Times   

Ed Kelley leaves the Oklahoma paper where he has spent his entire career to assume the helm of the embattled D.C. daily. Thurs. June 23, 2011

By Andrew Damstedt
Andrew Damstedt (adamstedt@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     


It's hardly a secret that newspapers have been hit hard in recent years, with circulation and ad revenues plummeting. But the Washington Times has suffered more than most.

In addition to dealing with the industry's structural problems in the digital era, the Washington, D.C., daily has endured ownership changes, elimination of key sections of the paper, even, according to published reports, threats of a shutdown. Its circulation of 50,000 is half of what it was four years ago.

So why would Ed Kelley leave his position as editor of the Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, where he has spent his entire working life, to take the helm of the beleaguered Times, long overshadowed by the much larger Washington Post?

The answer, in part, lies in that old real estate maxim: location, location, location.

"At this point in my career, to be able to help lead a news organization in the news capital of the world is an opportunity that is simply too big to resist," Kelley says.

It also doesn't hurt that his two sons work in the D.C. area.

Kelley, 58, who starts his new job on July 1, does not minimize the travails his new employer has experienced. "They've gone through some stressful times, but most news organizations have gone through stressful times," he says.

"Hardly any metropolitan dailies have avoided reductions in force, buyouts, attrition. Obviously the Times is no different.

But, he adds, "I feel confident with the new set of investors and the management team that the Times has a really bright future. If I didn't think the Times has a bright future. I wouldn't be leaving Oklahoma City."

Last fall the Times was reacquired by a group led by its founder, Unification Church leader the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, from a group headed by Moon's eldest son, Preston. It was under Preston Moon's leadership that the paper experienced corrosive turmoil, massive cuts and the death threat. The metro, life and sports sections, which had been eliminated, have since been revived.

When he takes the helm next month, Kelley says he wants to help reinvigorate the print product and increase traffic on washingtontimes.com; promote partnerships with radio and television news outlets; and help develop the Washington Times' presence on tablets.

"I want to spread the Times brand across other mediums besides just the print product," Kelley says.

Kelley, who started at the family-owned Oklahoman as a summer intern in 1974, oversaw the paper's transformation to focus more on the digital aspects of producing news. Going online, he says, has been the biggest change in the news industry during his career, and the Oklahoman takes the transition to digital news seriously.

Kelley says he has worked hard over the past decade to get the Oklahoman's staff retrained to think digitally. "Our mantra here is report for online, then write for the paper," he says.

He says all reporters at the Oklahoman have been trained to use inexpensive video cameras to shoot what he calls "tier one" video. "If they're out on an assignment interviewing the superintendent of schools, do their interview for print or online. Then they'd say, 'I'd like to ask simple questions for the camera.' They'd do that, and once the story is posted online, there'd also be a short video that goes with it... Reporter-generated video provides a lot of traffic videowise to the site."

The Oklahoman also emphasizes online chats and photo galleries, and Kelley himself did a brief commentary video daily, called Oklahoma Matters, in which he offered his take on topics of interest in the Sooner State.

"An old dog like me you can teach new tricks," he says.

Joe Foote, dean of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma, says he has been impressed by Kelley's aggressive efforts to propel the Oklahoman into the digital realm.

It was "a massive change of direction. Almost overnight he transformed the paper into a digitally led paper from one that had very little online presence and as a result became a leader in that transition," Foote says. "It takes a great deal of leadership to for that happen."

Foote says that after the Oklahoman ended its partnership with the local CBS affiliate, "within several months, through trial and error, it developed an impressive video presence."

Kelley says the relationship with the TV channel lasted for about six years before the news outlets decided to part ways. That, he says, left the Oklahoman with a problem: how to produce quality video that visitors expected to see. And so, the paper built a studio and hired staffers with video experience.

Kelley also hammered out a content-sharing agreement with the family-owned Tulsa World, the state's second-largest paper behind the Oklahoman. Joe Worley, executive editor of the World, says the arrangement came about after both papers reduced their staffs. The deal was sealed with a handshake at a restaurant in Stillwater, a town between between the papers.

Says Kelley, "We were competitors, and that's always a good thing, for news consumers to have two sets of eyeballs at a news story or event of some sort. In a perfect world, you'd always have two sets of eyeballs. But one is better than zero."

The Washington Times has long been known for its conservative editorial page. As he did at the Oklahoman, Kelley will oversee both the news and opinion operations at the Times. He told the Washington Post that he was "comfortable" with both papers' embrace of "limited government, personal responsibility, strong national defense and free trade."

While Kelley, who grew up in Perry, Oklahoma, decided early that he wanted to be as journalist, management was far from the first thing on his mind. "When I was in high school, I thought I was going to be the world's greatest sportswriter," he says. "And by the time I was about 20 or so, I realized, 'you know what, I don't think I have the talent to do that.' So I made the switch to general news. Daily journalism looked like an interesting way to make a living in that no two days were going to be alike. I was always interested in sports, but I was always interested too in politics and history. I like to write. So I've sort of known really since was in high school what I was going to do."

He started as a fulltime reporter with the Oklahoman in 1975 after graduating from the University of Oklahoma, then worked for the paper in Washington, D.C., as a correspondent, then bureau chief. He came back to Oklahoma City in 1990 to become the paper's managing editor.

The biggest story of Kelley's career came the year before the Oklahoman launched its Web site: the Oklahoma City bombing.

Ed Martin, former general manager of the Oklahoman and now chairman of advertising firm Ackerman McQueen, says Kelley is a man of character, but also a tough-minded editor. He says those aspects came to light during that crisis.

"That was the biggest single story of my career," Kelley recalls. "I was the managing editor of the Oklahoman at the time..which at the time was the top position in our newsroom. And so overseeing our coverage not just the day or two after but for months after, that later included the trials of the two men who were charged in the case, and of course every spring there are anniversaries."

Kelley says he saw that event as two big stories: the first, the crime itself and the second, the people affected by the blast. He says he knew that at times other news organizations would beat the Oklahoman on reporting about the crime, but he didn't want to get beaten on reporting about the people.

"So many people knew a victim; it affected everybody not only in Oklahoma City but in many cases throughout the state," Kelley says. "That was one aspect throughout the story that I felt like we could not get beat on. Over time other news organizations were going to go back home, they were all going to go away, but we were the ones who would be left behind. I felt like these were our people and that we had to get their names, find out who they were. We had to talk to their families. We had to run and find photographs and get them in the paper."

In 1996 Kelley was named editor of the year by the National Press Foundation for his leadership of the paper's coverage of the bombing.

David Thompson, the Oklahoman's publisher, has worked with Kelley for 30 years. During the last eight, he was publisher and Kelley was editor.

"We got a call from Mr. [Edward] Gaylord at the same time," Thompson says, recalling how the former publisher and editor of the paper asked the two to take the top jobs. "We have had a wonderful working relationship. We have reformatted the newspaper on two occasions, as all media companies today. These are not the easiest of times. But we've navigated the waters well, if not better than most."

But, Thompson says, while the paper will miss Kelley, no institution is just one person.

"Knowing Ed is not with us but in the capital city of the country, we will miss him dearly," he says. "He has had a major influence on this newspaper and our company."

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