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 AJR  The Beat

From AJR,   December/January 2009  issue

The Maverick   

Veteran editor and transparency maven Steve Smith follows the rules he believes in—his own.


By Megan Miller
     

Steven A. Smith's career brings to mind a character from a 1950s western. The Seattle Times once called him "the new sheriff in town," but it seems more accurate to describe him as an outlaw. He's a man who's more than willing to break the rules if there's something valuable to gain, but who lives by a personal code of honor.

You can hear it in his description of his reporter years, beginning in 1973 at the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon. "I liked to break the rules," he remembers. "I did not honor embargoes – if I learned something, I put it in the paper. I was relentless. I was always polite, but I did not back off of sources. I'd like to think I was resourceful."

"I never got sued!" he laughs. "But it was close."

As an editor, Smith, 58, is probably best known for the Spokane Spokesman-Review's investigation of sexual misconduct by then-Mayor Jim West, which was published in May 2005. Smith authorized the employment of an outside expert to pose as a 17-year-old boy on Gay.com, to see if West would make contact. The tactic, which Smith readily calls "deception," was much debated by journalists nationwide.

Even beyond the West investigation, Smith is no stranger to controversy. He's made waves with his pursuit of newsroom transparency, which has included measures from investigating his own paper for possibly biased coverage to Webcasting daily news meetings for all the world to see. Most recently, Smith created a buzz by resigning as editor of the 88,000-circulation Spokesman-Review. He quit in October in anticipation of Publisher W. Stacey Cowles' deep staff cuts, the fourth round of downsizing since Smith arrived at the paper in July 2002.

Smith's resignation sparked serious debate in journalistic circles, including former McClatchy Washington Editor David Westphal's post on OJR questioning whether experienced editors like Smith should hang on through the tough times or just get out of the way of the next generation. Veteran editors are "handicapped by their investment in a fast-disappearing past and are sometimes slow to see how quickly the information revolution is occurring. So are they still the best people to lead newsrooms to a digital future?" asked Westphal, executive in residence at University of Southern California-Annenberg's School of Communication.

At least in his own case, Smith thinks the answer is "yes."

"I believe that my record shows that I'm as innovative, as experimental, as willing to empower young journalists who have a sense of our future as anybody in the business. So I don't think that I need to step aside to make way for new blood," Smith says.

His innovations included restructuring the Spokesman-Review's newsroom operation. Carla Savalli, former assistant managing editor for local news, gives Smith much of the credit for changing "our workflow and our culture from a one-deadline newsroom to a multiplatform information company." Under his guidance, the Spokesman-Review expanded its operation to include an active Web presence and AM radio broadcasts that began in April.

So why resign?

According to Smith, it was a question of principle, since almost half the newsroom's online staff was laid off and the paper canceled its daily radio talk show and laid off its host. "And so our multiplatform strategy, in my view, becomes impossible, and the general quality of our coverage has got to decline. It's insane to argue otherwise."

There were 104 newsroom staffers before the cuts, Smith says. Gary Graham, the Spokesman Review's new editor, says there are now 87. Smith thinks the paper can't reduce numbers that dramatically and argue that the quality is the same. "I believe in the values of journalism," he says. "I felt that I could no longer practice those values in this newsroom."

Smith's values seem inextricably connected with his heroes. He became interested in journalism at a very young age, and clearly remembers the reason.

"It was 'Superman' the TV show that did it," he says. "Clark Kent was just so cool. And I loved [Kent's editor] Perry White. The first time anybody called me 'Chief' in the newsroom, I've got to tell you, I got a little bit of a tingle. Because that's what they used to call Perry White, and he used to say 'don't call me Chief' – but I loved it."

His other role models range from larger-than-life figures–Ben Bradlee, Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow – to personal heroes like the late Knight Ridder CEO Jim Batten; Deborah Howell, his editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press; and W. Davis "Buzz" Merritt, his boss at the Wichita Eagle. Smith credits these mentors with the quality he admires most: "the courage to do what's right in the face of long odds."

"I aim, in my own way, to emulate that boldness, that fearlessness," Smith says, "which I think is a foundational quality for an effective journalist, because otherwise we just become mouthpieces."

From Howell and Merritt especially, Smith took ideas that drove him in his career-long pursuit of civic journalism. "He believes that you do journalism because you have a civic duty to inform your readers," Savalli says. "His whole philosophy is about serving the reader, and bringing the reader into the process." Jan Schaffer, former director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism and current executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, calls Smith "one of the leading civic journalists in the country."

Smith believes newsroom transparency is crucial to maintaining credibility with the public and that technology is an especially useful way to achieve this goal. At the Spokesman-Review, his "Transparent Newsroom" initiative included inviting the public to news meetings, blogging about behind-the scenes decision-making, and eventually Webcasting daily news meetings.

Some of his transparency measures, the Webcasts in particular, provoked a mixed reaction from journalists inside and out of the Spokane newsroom. "I never agreed with that, and I still don't," says Savalli, who worried "about the chilling effect that would have on the robust debate that we could have in the newsroom."

"The other thing that tended to happen was that you tended to play to the camera," she says. "So you either saw people who didn't say anything at all anymore, or people who wouldn't stop talking."

While the Webcasting brought international attention, it was Smith's decision to invite an outside organization to scrutinize the quality of the Spokesman-Review's coverage that was truly unprecedented, says Washington News Council Executive Director John Hamer.

The paper had long covered River Park Square, a downtown development project by the Cowles Co. – which also owns the Spokesman-Review. "I knew the paper had gotten a lot of sniping and grumbling and criticism for what people said was not tough coverage of the project," Hamer says.

"When Steve arrived here," remembers 36-year Spokesman-Review reporter Bill Morlin, "he did inherit the whole River Park Square mess from his predecessors, and the newspaper had been pretty heavily criticized for its coverage of that. So he had a huge task on his hands when he arrived, and that was to rebuild the credibility of this newspaper in the community."

In 2006, Smith proposed that the Washington News Council audit ten years' worth of Spokesman-Review coverage on River Park Square. The council agreed on the conditions that it have complete independence and that the paper publish its findings unedited, Hamer says.

Smith "didn't get a lot of handclaps for what he did," Morlin says. "And they spent a fair amount of money on it that came out of our newsroom budget at a time when news organizations were feeling the beginnings of the economic squeeze they're in now." The project cost about $30,000, which the Spokesman-Review split evenly with the news council.

In May 2007 the paper published the complete findings, titled "Reporting on Yourself," on three full pages in agate type. The highly critical report's introduction stated, "If there is a moral to this RPS story, it is that the publisher-editor relationship got in the way of the public interest in the reporting of a sequence of events of great importance to Spokane's citizens."

The paper also ran reaction from Publisher Cowles, former Spokesman-Review Editor Chris Peck and Smith.

"Journalists are notoriously thin-skinned and defensive, and most of them will admit it," Hamer says. "Journalists hate to admit mistakes. They hate to apologize for anything. They hate to admit that they're wrong. It's in their DNA or something. But this was just an extraordinary example of willingness to be transparent, accountable and open."

Now, for only the second time in 35 years, Smith is out of the business of providing information to the public. In 2000 he was fired as editor of the Gazette in Colorado Springs. This time around, Smith stepped down on his own terms, for his own principles.

Smith is now considering his options, including a possible transition to academia. Meanwhile, he's consulting for the Oregon Daily Emerald, the University of Oregon's independent student newspaper, where he once worked as an undergraduate. He's also speaking in classrooms, working on a personal blog and "trying to stay connected until the next role comes around."

And though Smith says he's "so much less stressed out" and sleeping for the first time in a long time, he's still an editor to the core. There is a hint of regret in his voice when he remembers, almost reverently, evenings on deadline early in his tenure as managing editor of the Wichita Eagle.

He recalls looking out on the newsroom and thinking, "'My God, what comes out tomorrow morning is going to have my imprint on it. That is just absolutely amazing.' And I think at that point I knew that I was going to stay with the editing track for as long as I could.

"It's still my favorite time in any newsroom, just to stand in the door and watch what happens on an everyday kind of night, when people are just cranking and the phones are ringing, and boy, it's a beautiful sight."