Thanks to lucrative buyout offers and stock options, some top newspaper editors are walking away from their jobs prematurely. Some are driven off by fierce profit pressures, while others are just ready for second careers.
By Valarie Basheda
Valarie Basheda, a former AJR managing editor, is an editor at the
ATIME TO REFLECT. A time to dig ditches. A time to travel.
A time to leave newspapers.
Maybe it's just a coincidence. Or maybe it's a sign of the times. But a number of high--ranking editors have recently bailed out of the business--before their time, so to speak.
They're not at retirement age. They're not badly thought of, and some are even beloved. But instead of taking that next step up the newspaper ladder, they are stepping out of the business, often exchanging their suits and ties for shorts and sandals.
There is no one reason why they are fleeing. The turbulence caused by the newspaper recession certainly had a hand in it for a few. Some, like former managing editors William "Butch" Ward of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Thad Keyes of Boulder's Daily Camera, downsized themselves out of a job. At least one is literally following a higher calling: Editor Tim McGuire of Minneapolis' Star Tribune plans to conduct seminars on work and spirituality when he quits next year.
"Every time you lose a shining star, it gets a little bit darker," says Lillian Swanson, assistant managing editor/ombudsman at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Because the reasons are so varied and personal, media watchers aren't calling this a trend--yet. But they are concerned about the loss of many talented journalists who carry decades of knowledge and experience out the door.
"There's a tremendous drain on the talent pool in our business and that does worry me," says Gregory Favre, distinguished fellow at the Poynter Institute and a former executive editor of the Sacramento Bee. Favre says he hopes the departures resonate in corporate offices. "It's tougher. The angst and anxiety and stress in newsrooms today is at a high point and getting more and more as Wall Street demands more and more."
Brian Stallcop, who left his job in July as editor of the Sun in Bremerton, Washington, agrees that corporate bosses need to take notice. At 38, he is the youngest of the recent group of editors who are leaving.
"I don't know if this is a trend or one guy ahead of schedule for his midlife crisis," says Stallcop. "But I think newspaper companies need to be concerned about losing their best talent because those people have other options."
IT WAS THE RELENTLESS pursuit of profits that drove Stallcop out of the newspaper business. And the relentless pursuit of profits will be the focus of his new business--as an investment representative.
"It's kind of a delicious irony," Stallcop says. But, he adds: "It's kind of hard to be on the pointy end of the spear of building shareholder value." As a stockbroker, he won't have a personal attachment to the companies he's recommending.
Stallcop says the change was a natural, as he ran an income tax business on the side while working at Norfolk's Virginian--Pilot from 1992 to 1995. He's been investing in the market for 13 years and has always been interested in helping people with their money.
The former editor now gets up when he wants, throws on shorts and flip--flops, and sits on a couch in the den of his Port Orchard home brushing up on municipal bonds, annuities and other financial investments as he prepares to get his securities license. When he looks up from his thick binders of study material, he sometimes spies deer in his backyard.
This temporarily laid--back change in lifestyle won't last, though. Once Stallcop gets licensed, he and his wife plan to move to Bend, Oregon, where he'll set up and run his own office as an investment representative with Edward Jones. He'll make a small salary--he says he took a more than 75 percent pay cut--for the first year. Then he's on his own.
"I got my first paycheck and it was $300 for a week," he says. "And it was pretty shocking. I thought, 'There¹s like a zero missing or something.' "
Stallcop's decision wasn't predicated on any buyout offer. But he did exercise his stock options in parent company E.W. Scripps to tide him over until he gets his business going. He hopes the pay cut is temporary.
Stallcop, who was named the paper's managing editor in 1995 and moved up to editor three years later, says he made this admittedly scary leap because he had lost his enthusiasm for the job. In Bremerton, the Sun is the major source of local news. Although the city is just a 35--minute ferry ride across Puget Sound from Seattle, the water creates an isolating natural barrier for Bremerton, home to a Navy shipyard. The big--city dailies and TV stations rarely cover it.
Stallcop tried to build on that local franchise by devoting the Sun's A section entirely to local news--a move praised by the staff and readers‹and by spending time in the community as a United Way volunteer, among other things. He built up local, sports and business coverage. But then he dismantled much of that as budget cuts gradually trimmed the 33,000--circulation paper's editorial staff from 52 to 40 positions.
"This is the big disconnect between building shareholder value to realize that newspapers are a living, breathing part of the community," says Stallcop. "They're the conscience of the community; they're the town crier. When you stop covering those things because you don't have enough reporters, the community notices, and they'll tell you."
In the community of his own paper, staff members say they noticed something else: that Stallcop's enthusiasm was waning. "This is a tough business, and if you don't love it and have this burning passion for putting out a great paper, you should leave," says Sally Farhat, a business reporter at the Sun. "I admire Brian for his decision because, like he said when he made his announcement, the passion was gone. And you have to have that."
Stallcop says he understands Scripps' motivation. He says it's a good company, and one that he would recommend as an investment to future clients. But what's good for investors isn't necessarily good for readers, he says.
Good journalism, he says, is "something that doesn't fit into any cash flow operating formula."
AT THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, Managing Editor Butch Ward was the guy you went to during a crisis. Talk to Inky staffers, and you'll hear he's capable of feats of newspaper management derring--do. There's the time he came up with a plan to get the paper out when the power failed for almost a day. Or the time he saved Sunday's page of album reviews from a production snafu that would have killed them.
"He was really the newsroom's go--to guy," says Marc Duvoisin, a former assistant managing editor/enterprise at the Inquirer who is now with the Los Angeles Times.
But ask Ward about these triumphs now, and he acts like he had little or nothing to do with them. And that, staffers say, is also true to form. He's not the "I'm--great--and--I'll--tell--you--how--great--I--am" type.
So it's no surprise that he's a little uncomfortable over all the fuss about his departure, and what some people, naturally, are reading into it. A Jay Harris wannabe, he is not.
"I'm not sending a signal to our compatriots that it's time to get out," says Ward, 49. "That's not true."
But as it did with Harris, the former San Jose Mercury News publisher who resigned in protest of budget cutting by parent company Knight Ridder, downsizing clearly had something to do with what Ward calls a "really personal" decision.
"For the kind of work I want to do, I thought I might be better able to find an opportunity to make a difference outside the newspaper business," says Ward, a 19--year Inky veteran.
When Ward announced to the staff through a memo that he was taking a buyout, it "stung," says Ombudsman Swanson. The easy--going editor who plays guitar and sings Beatles' tunes was clearly beloved by the staff.
"He cares about everybody and everything," says Larry Lewis, an Inquirer reporter who with Ward belongs to a contingent of Inky staffers dubbed the "Crab Cakes" for their Baltimore roots. "He covers the spectrum‹the people, the story and the people in the story."
When Lewis' wife died in March, Ward was the first person from the paper to call him. After her funeral, Ward stayed with Lewis until everybody else had left. "He didn't duck out," says Lewis. "He's a rare, rare person."
Despite their friendship, Lewis didn't attend the catered goodbye lunch the paper held for Ward. "It would have been too sad for me to see." Says Swanson, who did: "It was painful."
Yes, there was some of the usual clowning around Inquirer parties are famous for. People were amused when Ward opened one of his presents, a Palm Pilot, and had to ask what it was. They laughed at the mock front page with a photo of Ward and the Beatles. But they didn't stage any of the renowned Inky skits that usually featured reporters mocking their editors. The staff just wasn't in the mood, Swanson says.
At the paper, Ward had been at the forefront of a second round of buyouts within a year ordered by parent Knight Ridder. One star after another, including Duvoisin and Pulitzer winner David Zucchino, chose to take the offers, leaving behind an angst--filled newsroom.
Despite the departures, Ward says the Inquirer will remain a great paper and that his decision wasn't purely based on newsroom finances. The paper's circulation has continued to slide, and editors have disagreed on which strategy would best win readers back.
"Looking ahead, the decision to stay would have meant confronting all these readership challenges, the challenge of a declining readership, with a significantly reduced workforce," Ward says. "When I took a look at the job that lay ahead, it seemed like a good time to look for a new adventure."
Now, several weeks after he left, Ward is not sure what shape that adventure might take. Because he doesn't want to leave the Philadelphia area for family reasons, he may well be out of newspapers, although not out of journalism. He recently spent some time working on a research project at the Poynter Institute and is noodling around for some possible work with a nonprofit.
Of course, there's always his rock band, H and the Beatlemaniacs. The group performs about 12 times a year, raising money for various charities. (Ward has also shared his singing and strumming talents with colleagues. At an ASNE meeting last December, Ward and the Poynter Institute's Roy Peter Clark performed a spoof of the early Motown song, "Money": "Margin isn't everything, it's true/Give me 40, I'll make due," went the lyrics.)
Ward says while championing the cause of excellent journalism will always be "dear to his heart," he's always had a life outside journalism, and that's one reason why his transition is less scary.
"In the afterlife, there's not going to be a newsroom."
"SO I'M NOT the only stupid one," says Thad Keyes when he hears of other editors taking buyouts. Like Ward, the former managing editor of Boulder's Daily Camera isn't sure what he's going to do with his new--found freedom since he took a buyout in July. For now, he's been backfilling a ditch in his yard because a sewer line backed up and doing what he calls "combat gardening." For the uninitiated, that means moving trees and wheelbarrows of dirt--basically rearranging your yard.
And that's as far as his plan goes.
"You look at yourself and say, 'I'm 53 years old,' " says Keyes, who worked at the paper for 24 years. "There's a sense of exhilaration for me, a sense of risk that I like."
The catalyst for Keyes' new life also had its roots in budget cuts.
The Scripps paper, like most others in the country, was going through staff reductions and budget trims. When the Colorado daily's longtime sports editor took a buyout, "it got me thinking," says Keyes. "Initially I was so distressed, I was so discouraged. I thought it was really going to hurt the paper. I didn¹t want to do the [cuts]."
The newsroom lost 7.5 positions and faced newshole reductions. "You have all these bad thoughts about Wall Street," he says. "It's a hell of a lot more fun growing a paper than it is streamlining one back, so it's a bit selfish, too."
Once he got a budget plan together, he felt better about the paper and its future. He says he loved his job and the people he worked with. But his thoughts had already wandered down a different path.
"There is a point at 24 years, no matter that you love your job, no matter that you love your newspaper, no matter that you think you're on top of your game, you start getting curious," says Keyes. "I think in hindsight it just acted as a catalyst for change. You just start thinking about change."
Daily Camera columnist Clint Talbott says Keyes takes "incredible institutional memory" out the door. "I think, personally, it's a loss to a lot of people because he¹s such a pleasure to work with. He's a reasonable man, he rarely got upset, he's funny, he wasn't a little Caesar. He came off as a regular guy who wanted to do a good job."
When Keyes made his announcement to the staff at an impromptu meeting in the newsroom, they were stunned. Their former boss does not like to be the center of attention, they say, and his face turned red as he relayed the big news. "To my surprise and horror, I started telling them in this calm, methodical way," Keyes says. "Twice I stopped, because I was going to start bawling."
Luckily for him, the sports guys came to the rescue. "That's OK, Thad, [the Denver Broncos' John] Elway did this, too," new Sports Editor Neill Woelk quipped.
Now, standing in his garage near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Keyes is looking at the big red bucket that was a going--away present from the staff, along with a pitchfork, shovel, hoe and rake to use in his "combat gardening." He says he's not sure if he's out of newspapers forever.
"I'm taking a walk for a little while, kind of the way you walk into the woods, seeing which doors you come across and opening some," says Keyes.
But with the decision still fresh, Keyes is allowed to question himself.
"I do feel a little crazy," he says. "Why do you leave something you love?"
WHILE IT'S TRUE that chasing hefty profit margins has helped drive some editors out of journalism, it's also true that many couldn't afford to leave had it been otherwise. The drive for money is behind the staff--reduction measures--and the generous buyout offers that are making so many editors' second careers possible.
Keyes, who is married with two children, says he couldn't have walked away from his post without the backing of a nice buyout offer. Although he plans to work again, he says he has time to think about what that might be. (In the meantime, he tore his cornea wrestling with a cherry tree in his yard, although not seriously.)
Will Corbin, former editor of Newport News, Virginia's Daily Press, says a buyout provided him with an opportunity to travel. His wife Linda received a Fulbright Scholarship to teach in Austria, and he will go with her overseas. He hopes to work with a foundation while he¹s there and is not sure whether he'll return to newspapers.
"Many of my colleagues have expressed intense envy," says Corbin, 51. "Six months from now I may be going crazy because I want to get my hands on a newsroom. I won't know that until I'm gone."
"The Corbinator," an intense, high--energy editor open to new ways of practicing journalism (see "Reader Friendly," July/August 2000), thinks the newsroom departures are mostly a function of the buyouts, paired with many Baby Boomers reaching a stage in their lives when they want to do something different. Among some of the other managers who have left recently are Editor Paul Knue and Managing Editor Robert Kraft of the Cincinnati Post; Marietta Dunn, an assistant managing editor in charge of the copy desk at the Philadelphia Inquirer; and Barry Rascovar, deputy editorial page editor at the Baltimore Sun.
"The outlook in the business is challenging," says Corbin. "It looks like it might be fun, but I'm not sure I'm going to do it."
The fact that reporters and editors are abandoning journalism at midcareer for less grueling fields is not new. But some media watchers wonder whether the recent "brain drain" signifies something different. Newspapers and newspaper companies have been trimming staffs across the country, usually through a combination of early retirements, buyouts, attrition and leaving unfilled positions open. They include about 1,200 at the New York Times Co.; 1,700 at Knight Ridder; 1,400 at Tribune Co; and 429 at Dow Jones.
Retired Inquirer Deputy Editor Gene Foreman worries that the business' continuous downsizing will make it less attractive to talented people. "It compounds the frustration of people moving up," says Foreman, who teaches at Penn State University. "They don¹t see any great journalistic rewards, only management headaches."
Foreman says the long--term consequences of buyouts are more damaging than adjusting to a smaller staff because the talent pool gets diluted. "Nobody's coming into the pipeline to mature several years later as key players," he says.
"It's something that concerns me as someone who cares deeply about newspapers to see people leaving and who are encouraged to do so by corporate," says Foreman. "They create the incentives and environment to leave."
Former Inquirer Editor Maxwell E. P. King, who left his post at the age of 55 in 1998 after 33 years in the business, says journalism has been shifting from a public service to a commercial culture. "For people who are Butch's age, who came in the business in the midst of that shift, there's a sense of loss for those people," says King, now executive director of the Heinz Endowments. "It's not surprising that people go to other fields."
The emphasis on profits is hardly unique to newspapers, he says, but its impact is more acute there because the industry used to be so oriented toward public service.
That culture also means there are more economic pressures in the business today. Editors spend more time poring over budgets and less on good stories. "It's a brutal process," King says of cutbacks. "It consumes your time. If you're a top editor, you're diverting all your time to those issues."
That's part of the reason he left, he says. "I felt there might be possibly another world out there and, by God, there is."
CORPORATE JOURNALISM HAS provided its higher--ups with another way to leave--by granting them generous stock options. Editor Tim McGuire of Minneapolis' Star Tribune says without them he wouldn't be able to afford his future career as a speaker on spirituality in the workplace. ###
"Because of equity and the like, there is a new independence among editors than [there was] 15, 20 years ago," says McGuire, 52, who plans to retire June 13, two months after his term as president of ASNE ends. "Equity has shortened the longevity of newspaper editorsŠ. I think by and large it's a good thing. We¹re an industry ripe for change."
His decision is not related to current events, he says, and was made when McClatchy bought the paper in 1997. "Editors spend their life doing; they are in the center of things," says McGuire, who has been running newsrooms since he was 24. "I got to a point in life when I"d like to reflect more."
McGuire says he got turned on to learning again in the 1980s when he went to law school. A Catholic lay preacher who attends weekly prayer groups, he's been doing graduate work in Catholic studies. One of his goals is to make speeches about work and spirituality and the search for meaning. "I struggle spiritually along with everybody else, and I'd like to share that struggle," says McGuire.
The editor also admits he was getting worn out by the job. "You are living on a high wire for many, many years and that does take a toll," says McGuire. "I'm still relatively young. That's why I'm doing it now. I don't want to get bitter and broken down."
Staffers say they were not surprised to hear of McGuire's new career. "He's been acting a lot more like Father Tim than Editor Tim," says C.J., the Star Tribune's gossip columnist. "Around the newsroom, people just kind of roll their eyes [at his future career], but Tim's a different type."
And full of contradictions. He loves to gamble and attended the Triple Crown this year. It's not unusual for him to sprinkle a few curse words into the conversation. And he makes it clear that he's not doing his new career for charity--he expects people to pay for his expertise.
When he's at the paper--which is less frequently these days as he travels on ASNE business--he sits in an office with no door. His legendary laugh is often heard through the newsroom. "Sometimes he's in there cackling like a madman," says C.J.
Brash and cocky as a young man, he established a reputation as an innovator and collaborator, says Gregory Favre, a former McClatchy corporate executive who first worked with McGuire at the Texas' Corpus Christi Caller--Times. "I obviously think he¹s one of the best around," says Favre. "It will be a loss, but it will be a gain somewhere else for others."
McGuire has his detractors and supporters. While C.J. says he's not perfect, she fears the newsroom will be less humane without him. "Tim leaves the Star Tribune as a millionaire," she says. "I'm not worried about him, I'm worried about those of us left behind."
One who took a more traditional step out of newspapers is Pam Luecke, 48, former editor of Lexington, Kentucky's Herald--Leader. Luecke traveled across the Kentucky/Virginia border to set up shop in a different Lexington, where she is launching a business journalism program at Washington and Lee University.
Luecke, who started her career as a feature writer and later became a business writer, had always intended to teach at some point, although maybe not this early. But when she heard about the position late last year, "I took a look at it and said, 'Wow, that's a great job,' " she says.
She calls it a rare opportunity. She goes in as a full professor with tenure as part of an endowed chair at the small liberal arts school. She notes that her decision, which was made before the newspaper recession's impact was felt in Lexington, forced her to weigh her future opportunities in newspapers against the chance to do something different.
"I enjoyed being an editor a lot," Luecke says. "I had a wonderful publisher and a wonderful staff and many good friends thereŠ. These are tough, complex personal decisions. For me, it was a decision to start a new chapter in my life."
While she says the long hours and responsibility of being a newspaper editor weren't a factor in her decision, she has enjoyed her newly flexible schedule. Although she goes to work about the same time, at 8:30 a.m., "I've rediscovered evenings," she says. She hopes to take up the piano again, something she had no time for while she was editor. She's gotten used to not being on deadline, and has exchanged her suits for more casual dress.
Luecke is working out of a temporary building while the historic, red--brick structure that houses the journalism program is renovated and rewired. She is one of eight full--time faculty and will spend several years designing the business journalism sequence. She's set up an advisory committee to give her feedback on the fledgling program.
That's not surprising, say colleagues. Luecke is known for doing her homework and having an extensive background in whatever she does. Sandra Duerr worked at the now--defunct Louisville Times when Luecke was the business editor. Luecke knew the players and the companies, she says.
"She really knew how to understand the companies' books and not be bamboozled by the slick PR," says Duerr, now executive editor of San Luis Obispo, California's Tribune. "She set a high standardŠ. I just think she's terrific. She's a really caring individual who has the best interests of the community, the newspaper and the staff at heart."
Susan Tompor, personal finance columnist at the Detroit Free Press, also worked for Luecke at the Times and calls her "a terrific boss."
As part of her job, Tompor covered an electric company strike that involved sitting endlessly in a hotel corridor outside the negotiating room. She was working on her MBA at the time and had a night class.
Luecke "allowed me to go to the night class and she went and babysat the hallway until I got done with the class," says Tompor. "Sure, I was up the rest of the night with the negotiating team. But what an incredible amount of class. She was kind enough to realize that even though I was single, I still had a semi--life and needed to get some of my own things done. No fighting, nothing. She was just willing to do it. I'll never forget that."
For colleagues of the departing editors, it is often such memories that will remain with them. For the Inquirer's Swanson, it will be the lunches she and Butch Ward grabbed at nearby George's Diner--she eating grilled cheese, Ward eating tuna salad.
For Erika Stutzman of the Daily Camera, it's the way Thad Keyes thanked her for little things, such as compiling a list of events taking place at a new mall. "He was a very encouraging person," says Stutzman, who puts together the paper's technology section. "It's kind of rare in a [business] where somebody's so busy all the time."
The editors who have left have memories like that, too, even as they express a sense of adventure at their life changes. Yet for some, there's also an unspoken sense of possibilities lost and concern for the future. Yes, it's still a great business. Yes, there are still many talented reporters and editors and great newspapers. But in this long--simmering debate about profits versus public service, which side is going to win?
Stallcop, for one, is not optimistic.
"I don't think there's really a solution," he says. "I think if there was, I might stay in the business. But I was going to be on the losing end of the battle."
"I don't leave mad," he says. "I leave sad."