By Carl Sessions Stepp
Nikki Porter describes herself as "having a reputation for eating city editors for lunch." When she went searching for one recently, she knew what she wanted and what she didn't want.
"I'm more worried about people skills than word skills," says Porter, executive editor of the 36,000-circulation Olympian in Olympia, Washington. "The old chase-the-fire-engine mentality is not enough anymore. I look for those instincts, and they are a given. But I don't want people who spend all their time with words."
What does she want?
"Critical thinking..someone who sees connections and builds relationships..communication..teaching..a team leader..a manager..a strategic planner..."
Where did she find a candidate who fit? Not on the city desk of a smaller paper, not in a reporter hankering to try management, but on the so-called soft side, at the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico, where Lavonne Luquis was assistant managing editor for features.
Luquis, 35, who had also done news reporting in San Juan, recognizes that she's a new variety of city editor.
Like most, she has more management and planning duties than her predecessors. She describes her job as one-third working with copy, one-third working with people and one-third taking the longer view of the newspaper's needs.
That suits Porter, a former city editor herself at the Denver Post, who prefers "a vision that goes beyond just city desk hard news."
Mary Kay Blake, the director of recruiting and placement for Gannett, recently asked several colleagues what qualities today's city editors need.
"The 'Front Page' manager must move to the 'Every Page' model," they concluded. That means being able to: G lead with vision, not just boss a staff; G effectively represent the newsroom elsewhere in the newspaper and community; G do "master planning" and insure "resources are being used in the most effective ways"; G have a strong visual sense and a broad understanding of storytelling; G think critically and creatively and teach staffers to do likewise; G stay current on issues ranging from labor laws to conflict resolution to flextime to circulation churn; G "have a life outside the newsroom," including "connecting with the community."
A scan of Editor & Publisher ads for editors shows wide demand for such attributes.
"Do you believe editing is more than just shoveling stories over to the copy desk on deadline?" began an ad from the Indianapolis Star. "Is coaching more than a sports term for you?"
The Monterey County Herald in California sought a "proven leader, coach, motivator" who "must excel in enterprise, perspective and responding to the needs and interests of a diverse community-oriented area."
The Duluth News-Tribune in Minnesota wanted an editor who could help the community define problems and solutions, set priorities for a staff, and "stick to them with the right blend of innovation, inspiration and communication."
When the 150,000-circulation Fresno Bee in California advertised for a metro editor, it specified someone who believes that "teamwork and collaboration is the key to motivation."
Bee Managing Editor George Baker (another former city editor, in Sacramento) says the job's requirements have evolved because the work force, the audience and the nature of newspapering have all changed.
"The old stereotype of a city editor ruling with a whip in one hand and a ruler in the other has gone," Baker says. "You can't operate that way anymore."
These days, Baker notes, "we expect city editors to deal with the staff, do good stories, produce projects, get the job evaluations done on time, field angry phone calls, deal with other people in the building..and still have time for their families."
In fact, as Vikki Porter comments, today's newspapers probably expect too much of city editors. Porter has come to believe that no one person can manage all the duties. Instead, she has tried to develop a city desk team, using the strengths of various assistants (for example, one of Luquis' deputies is an enterprise editor) to reduce stress and enhance quality.
For all the new management duties, however, the news hole still must be filled.
Jeff Cowart, an associate director of the American Press Institute (and yet another former city editor, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Rock Hill, South Carolina), calls today's city editors more enlightened and better trained. But for some, Cowart says, "what drew them to the business, the passion for the craft and the excitement of the story," can get lost, turning them into bureaucrats.
Richard Aregood, the Philadelphia Daily News editorial page editor known for his scorching one-liners, puts it this way: "The old guys were jerks, but they did know what they were doing. Charismatic oddballs you wanted to follow have been replaced by people who did well in school."
A key for many city editors today is to absorb the needed management training without losing the zest to ramrod great stories into the paper.
Roy Peter Clark, associate director of the Poynter Institute, likes to show writers a cartoon by Jack Ohman of the Oregonian in Portland (see page 36). It contrasts the old-style editor (pictured as a Camel-smoking, scotch-swigging, foul-mouthed, fat-bottomed Type A eccentric) with the new editor (a mineral water-drinking, suit-wearing, aerobic-exercising ex-smoker with a fat bottom line).
"When you ask writers which one they would rather work for, the answer is neither," Clark says. They don't want the abuse of the old system, but they appreciate a city editor who charges hard and fights for exciting copy.
That's how Olympia's Lavonne Luquis sees it too.
For all the job's changes, she says, "in terms of what we want, it hasn't changed all that much. We still want good solid stories."
– Carl Sessions Stepp ###