"A Huge Commitment to Covering Local News”  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 2012/January 2013

"A Huge Commitment to Covering Local News”   

Former Sarasota editor Mike Connelly takes the helm at the Buffalo News.Tues., November 27, 2012.

By Karly Moll
Karly Moll (karly.moll@gmail.com) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.      

What differentiates a great editor from a good one?

Longtime Sarasota Herald-Tribune Publisher Diane McFarlin says it's the ability to command a newsroom while also holding true to your core values and beliefs.

McFarlin puts Mike Connelly, her executive editor at the Herald-Tribune for nine years, squarely into that category. She says his emphasis on producing good journalism combined with his positive energy helped make the paper a unique environment for news reporting.

"Mike made the Herald-Tribune one of the best papers in the country, in my opinion," she adds. During his tenure, the paper won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2011 and was twice a finalist, particularly impressive for a paper of its size. The Herald-Tribune's daily circulation is about 60,000.

Now McFarlin and Connelly are breaking up their longtime partnership. After 13 years as publisher and nine years as executive editor of the Herald-Tribune, McFarlin on January 1 will become dean of the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications. And Connelly started work earlier this month as editor of the Buffalo News, owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway.

McFarlin says Connelly made the Sarasota newsroom a collaborative place for both the paper's staff and members of the local community. "He would invite readers into news meetings," McFariln says. "Of course, the editors were talking about what stories would appear in the paper that day. Mike would then try to engage readers into the conversation. I think this was very telling of how he approached his job."

Connelly, 55, also wrote a regular column in which he explained why he and his fellow editors made certain news decisions. "It helped our readers understand the thought process that went into story selection, which was especially important when a story had some measure of controversy," McFarlin says. "It was that sort of openness and transparency made the community so close to the Herald-Tribune."

Deb Winsor, the paper's digital editor, says she was sad to see Connelly go. "The challenge for those of us that are still here is to keep all of the momentum that he established moving forward," Winsor says. "He preached stories that are meaningful in the community. He really helped us move forward and taught us how to identify the big story and then dig deeper."

As for his new gig, Connelly's predecessor says he is walking into a very good situation. "Michael will have a talented, committed staff and a great news town, so I'm looking forward to seeing what he does," says Margaret Sullivan, who worked at the News for 32 years before becoming the New York Times' public editor in September. "He has an impressive background, and I'm sure he will bring fresh ideas and enthusiasm to the job."

A native of Iowa and a graduate of the University of Iowa, Connelly began his journalism career in 1981 as a copy editor on the Wall Street Journal's national news desk. He also has worked at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Baltimore Sun and Congressional Quarterly, where he was vice president for operations and then vice president for product development.

In Buffalo, he succeeds an executive editor who was in the top job for nearly 13 years. "Every editor brings something different," Connelly says, "I am excited to learn about the local community and staff and move forward from there. I have had a lot of experience working with some big companies, and I hope that will translate to the newsroom."

He adds, "What I do bring is a huge commitment to covering local news and going beyond the stories that happened yesterday."

A strong believer in print journalism, Connelly also stresses the importance of the News' digital offerings. "There are a lot of people who like to get their news and information through digital products," he says, "And we will build the best digital products and the best digital experience for them as we can."

Connelly also thinks it's important the News start charging for digital content, which it hasn't so far. Owner Buffett, who has acquired many other newspapers in the past year, has embraced that strategy, as have other news outlets. The paper's daily print circulation is about 143,000.

Although Connelly is dedicated to the newsroom, he is also dedicated to his family. He has always valued balancing the two, which is often a challenge in journalism, and understands its importance.

"He talked about that when he first came to Sarasota," Winsor recalls. "While he was working his way up, he was also the father of two young children and set a good example for us. Work/life balance was absolutely a part of his belief system."