About four years ago we were doing a short front-of-the-book piece on Gil Spencer, a wonderful editor who was retiring from the Denver Post after 46 years in the newspaper business. I told the writer to call another Great American, Rich Aregood, who had worked with Spencer at the Philadelphia Daily News.
"There aren't many editors that you really love," Aregood told the writer. "The staff would have climbed mountains for him."
Journalism needs more Gil Spencers.
Not carbon copies, to be sure. But more editors with the energy and vision and force of personality to inspire a newsroom and put their stamp on a newspaper.
In his piece "Firing Up the Newsroom" (see page 28), AJR Senior Editor Carl Sessions Stepp reports that in his travels as a writing and editing coach, he encounters too many somnolent newsrooms. There's a direct connection, he argues, between newsroom atmosphere and the excitement level of the printed product. And what's too often missing, he says, is a dynamic leader to energize the place.
Not long ago I was talking to an insider at a metropolitan daily about how things were going there. The insider replied that the paper seemed uneven, excellent one day and flat the next, drifting without a consistent focus. And that, in the insider's view, was a result of the lack of strong leadership.
Days later, I had virtually the same conversation with a reporter at another paper.
Not that the landscape is entirely bereft of terrific editors. In recent months AJR has examined a number of newspapers with positive momentum – New Orleans' Times-Picayune, USA Today, the Baltimore Sun. In each case high-caliber newsroom management is leading the charge.
But too often these days top editors are preoccupied with budgets and other managerial concerns, pinned down in meetings or stuck in glass offices, far removed from the daily ebb and flow.
Talk to reporters at many papers and you often get the sense that they are starving for an inspirational figure to follow into battle.
Today's newsrooms are far more democratic than their predecessors, and in many ways that's a good thing. Nobody would want to go back
to many of the despot-driven papers of yesteryear.
Nevertheless, there still needs to be a strong presence to set the tone and motivate the troops.
The answer isn't the editor as micromanager. After spending many years in newsrooms, much of the time in editing and management roles, I'm convinced that this is the way, or at least one way, to go: Surround yourself with the right people, show them that you have confidence in them and believe in them, give them plenty of running room, and let them make you look good.
Another key is establishing a positive atmosphere that fosters creativity, while setting high standards and doing everything you can to see that they are met.
While many things go into being an effective editor, there are two critical tools that shouldn't be forgotten: directing the news meeting and working the room.
The top editor doesn't have to dominate the meeting and doesn't even have to conduct it. But the meeting presents a wonderful opportunity to make abundantly clear what the values and direction of the paper are.
The editor can help steer a decision subtly through the artful use of body English, or intervene forcefully to get the train back on the track. The editor can make sure the meeting isn't merely a mind-numbing recitation of budget lines, but an active seaých for the best material to put into the newspaper. The editor can convey a sense of urgency, a conviction that we're not just going to settle for what's easy and available, we're going to keep looking and working until the ingredients for a vibrant, compelling edition are in place.
It's also good to keep in mind how important a newsroom presence is. An engaged and engaging editor can reap huge rewards from taking the right kind of walk through the newsroom, doing a little schmoozing here, checking a lead there.
Shortly after I came to the Washington Post in 1984, Ben Bradlee gracefully began to transfer the day-to-day leadership of the place to then-Managing Editor Len Downie, who later succeeded him. But it was still fascinating to watch the impact Bradlee had as he worked his magic on a walk through the newsroom.
I've often thought of the contrast with a very different encounter. I was telling the editor of a paper I worked for that it was great that he was so enthusiastic about his minions' work, but it would be even better if he could convey that enthusiasm to them. Oh, the editor asked, do you mean the bureau reporters I never see? No, I replied, waving at the newsroom, those people out there.
There's no shortage of reasons for today's charisma deficit. But one major cause is the increasingly corporate nature of the newspaper business. It's hard to imagine many of journalism's great idiosyncratic editors flourishing in such a culture.
Yet forceful personalities at the top are needed now more than ever. The newspaper business is surrounded by new competitors. But those caricatures of newspapers as an endangered species, as relics of a bygone age, are surely overblown.
*he latest circulation numbers contain some upbeat news, and some experts predict that newspaper circulation is about to enter a growth period.
©hat would be an exciting development. Let's hope we have the exciting, and excited, leaders to propel their newspapers and drive those numbers as high as they can go. l