Making the Transition  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 2011/January 2012

Making the Transition   

Steve Smith, once a high-octane newspaper editor, is enjoying life as a professor at the University of Idaho. Wed., December 7, 2011

By Stephanie Weaver
Stephanie Weaver (sweaver@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     


Steve Smith has never been one to play it safe.

He's best known from his days as editor of Spokane's Spokesman-Review, when he approved the sexual misconduct investigation of then-Mayor Jim West. The newspaper employed an outsider to pose as an underage boy on Gay.com to see if West would attempt to contact him. West did. Smith's controversial approach gained nationwide attention. West was voted out of office by voters in 2005 after the paper's investigation was published.

Smith's bold approach to coverage made him stand out, along with his willingness to experiment with new approaches to transparency. As editor, he started Webcasting the Spokesman-Review's daily news meetings for the public. And as cutbacks loomed in 2007, Smith vowed that, unlike other executives, he would not sugarcoat them by pretending that the paper would "do more with less."

The innovative editor, now 61, resigned from the Spokesman-Review the following year. As editor, he had to decide whom to lay off and what sections to cut. At the time he resigned the newsroom lost about 25 employees, about 25 percent of the staff. As the newsroom emptied out, Smith realized his job had shifted in a profound way. When it "stopped being about the journalism, it stopped being fun," Smith says.

At the time of his resignation, he had no plans for his next move; he simply needed a break. "My heart wasn't in it," he says. "I think I had burned out." Smith explored consulting, but that seemed like a shaky career path. Although various newspapers showed interest, he says, he kept looking. Then, in January 2010, Smith took a turn toward academia, when he began teaching media ethics at the University of Idaho's School of Journalism and Mass Media.

Smith started in a temporary position, filling in for a professor who was missing the spring semester. He enjoyed it. He then applied for and received a visiting position scheduled to end in May 2011. His professorship was extended a year, and now he's applying for a permanent, full-time position on the faculty.

Over time, Smith picked up additional courses, including media writing and media and society. According to Smith, there's no better way to "do good" than working with young people. "I was a passionate editor, sometimes to a fault," he laughs. "And I'm a passionate professor, sometimes to a fault."

Smith says that he hasn't "worked this hard in 20 years." And students adore him, according to Jordan Macfarlane, a senior public relations major. The 26-year-old took media ethics with Smith in fall 2010 and was his teaching assistant for the class the following semester.

"I appreciate how much he brought to the classroom through his previous career stories," she says. Her favorite? "The Jim West story, although I hate to seem clichéd."

In the classroom, Smith "always spoke with candor," according to Macfarlane. "He has so much knowledge to share. We are so lucky to have Steve. All his students are enthused about his classes and his teaching style."

Many of her classmates felt the same way. They started a Facebook page and petition in the fall of 2010 to keep Smith teaching at Idaho. Macfarlane was one of many to "like" the Facebook page and sign the petition. "It reached a lot of students," she says. The petition had hundreds of signatures, according to Smith.

Although the petition didn't go unnoticed by administrators, they had already decided to keep Smith on the job. "The petition merely reinforced what I was witnessing first hand. It wasn't a deciding factor, but sort of the frosting on the cake," says Kenton Bird, director of the journalism and mass media school.

It was Bird, a 15-year veteran reporter and editor, who brought Smith to Idaho. He had met Smith in the late 1990s, when Smith was editor of the Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Bird was teaching at Colorado State University. Thanks to a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, CSU faculty and Gazette staffers switched spots for a few weeks.

"I was able to observe his leadership firsthand," Bird says. He believed Smith's motivational skills could transfer from the newsroom to the classroom. When Bird moved on to the University of Idaho, he brought Smith in as a guest speaker. Bird says Smith turned out to be an excellent one because of his dynamic career in journalism. Smith's real life experience opened up a "much more dramatic way to teach," according to Bird. When a teaching slot opened up at Idaho in 2010, Bird immediately called Smith.

Angel Butler, a former student at Idaho, took mass media and communication as well as media ethics with Smith. "He's one of the most student-oriented professors I've had," she says. "He really cares about his students." Even in a lecture hall packed with hundreds of students, Butler stayed alert and found herself entertained by Smith's teaching style.

Now and then, he tells a personal story to his class, or as Smith calls them, "ancient, dino experiences." But that's just the beginning. "First thing you learn, it's totally insufficient to rely on war stories," he says.

But Smith believes he has some value as a dino. "My highest value, I think, is taking what I know, what I have experienced, what I believe in and maybe helping the next generation find its path," he says.

When teaching ethics, Smith has his students break into groups to discuss individual cases. "He never said 'This is right' or 'This is wrong,'" Butler says. Instead, he allows students to reach their own conclusions. "He never pre-directed us one way or another. His choices didn't dictate how we should think," she says.

Smith says he has no way of knowing what the future holds for the fast-evolving field of journalism. It's "beyond our ability to conceive or imagine," he says. But, he adds, "Print on paper will survive in some form." It doesn't matter whether the words are read on a computer or on a mobile device, or crammed into a tweet; the words are still created by journalists.

But most of his students aren't focused on journalism; he teaches public relations and advertising majors, too. Instead of focusing on print specifics, he preaches journalism's core values: truth, accuracy, and clarity.

He also wants his students to focus on fearless media figures like Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow and William Randolph Hearst, and use their stories as fuel for the future. Smith believes it's important to keep these icons and their ideas alive. His students, he says, are "stewards of this heritage."

And regardless of what lies ahead, Smith wants his student to have the drive and desire he felt when he entered the world of journalism.

"My students are enthusiastic about the future," he says. "They can't wait to get out into the world."

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