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From AJR,   September 2010  issue

Embracing the Digital Future   

Web exclusive
Retiring Orlando Sentinel Editor Charlotte Hall is excited about where journalism is heading.


By Madhu Rajaraman
Madhu Rajaraman (mrajaraman@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

Editor Charlotte Hall remembers the moment vividly.

It was 1968, and she was halfheartedly reading an 18th- century play in a building on the University of Chicago campus. "This is not what I want to do," Hall, a young graduate student in English at the time, recalls thinking to herself as she looked out a window at Chicago's South Side. "I want to be a part of life. I want to be a part of something immediate."

She felt she needed to be "a part of the action" instead of a passive observer in an ivory tower. "It was the year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated," Hall says. "It was the late '60s, a time of protest and I was studying 18th-century literature. And I thought to myself, 'this is not what I want my life to be.' "

Hall completed her master's degree but dropped out of the PhD program to pursue journalism.

Hall says she has always had the "journalistic instinct" of intellectual curiosity―her first brush with journalism came when she created her own newspaper when she was in fifth grade. Although that paper only lasted for one issue, her interest in the field endured, and Hall went on to write and edit for the campus newspaper at Kalamazoo College. It was the chance to question authority, to inform the public about issues of significance and to work under the frenzy of tight deadlines that drew her in.

Photo by Red Huber, Orlando Sentinel

On September 1, after 39 years in the field, Hall announced that she was stepping down as editor of the Orlando Sentinel on October 1, the day after her 65th birthday. She says the highlight of her career has been the opportunity to grapple with the daunting yet rewarding convergence of old and new media, all the while ensuring that the newspaper continued to function as community watchdog.

"I was initially focused on the print paper" at the Sentinel, Hall says. She likens entering the digital world to learning a new language that is absolutely essential. As Web sites emerged and flourished, "I had to become fluent in digital," she says. "The editor has to own the digital."

Hall got her start in the business in 1971 as a reporter and editor at Ridgewood Newspapers in northern New Jersey, then jumped to Bergen County, New Jersey's Record before moving on to the Boston Herald-American and the Washington Star. In 1981 she joined Newsday, where she eventually became a managing editor. Hall stayed with the Long Island daily for 22 years.

"Now, we brought Charlotte in back when she had very long hair and smoked two packs of cigarettes a day," says Tony Marro, who was Newsday's editor at the time.

Hall entered the newsroom in an era when women editors were uncommon, and dropping out of a graduate program to pursue such a course was a bold move. "It was a time where women had to work harder," Marro says. "It was a very different world, and this made her a role model for a lot of younger people."

Tim Phelps, a former Washington bureau chief and foreign editor for Newsday, was impressed by Hall's performance in a time of crisis. When two journalists covering the Iraq war for Newsday were captured and taken to Abu Ghraib prison in 2003, Hall promptly took on the role of spokesperson and advocate for the reporters. One of the paper's three managing editors at the time, she appeared on television constantly, declaring that the two men were journalists, not spies. "It was dramatic," says Phelps, now an editor in the Tribune Co. Washington bureau. "We're used to working behind the scenes, but she went out there as if she'd been doing interviews all her life."

Phelps believes Hall's appearances on behalf of the reporters resulted in better treatment of the men, who were eventually released. Hall recalls drinking champagne in celebration on the day they were let go. "My happiest day in the newsroom was the day they were freed," she says. "You feel responsible for the reporters you have there."

In March 2004, Hall headed south to assume the top position in the Orlando Sentinel newsroom. She ran the paper during a particularly challenging and turbulent time. The Sentinel, like newspapers across the country, struggled to cope with flight of readers and ad dollars to the Internet and the punishing national recession. The 2008 bankruptcy of its parent, Tribune Co., didn't make things any easier.

Hall's major mission was to oversee the paper's transition to the digital world. She acknowledges that the Sentinel, like most newspapers, suffered during the recession, but she says she's confident the revamped newsroom will pay dividends in the long run.

Hall says her main concern was making sure technological change does not compromise the paper's public service mission.

Anthony Moor, a former online editor at the Sentinel who is now lead local editor at Yahoo! News, admits he was initially skeptical of Hall's willingness to embrace new media, given their differences in news background. Moor remembers wondering whether he'd made a horrible mistake in coming to work at the Sentinel, thinking to himself, "Here's this statuesque, authoritative, blond person from New York coming to take over as the leader of the Orlando Sentinel."

In fact, Hall and Moor ended up working together quite well, embracing the digital revolution. Moor says that at one point she raced way ahead of him, reorganizing the newsroom to include staffers dedicated solely to a breaking news desk and establishing a topical blog presence before many peer newspapers did so.

In addition, Moor and Hall worked to persuade editors steeped in traditional journalism to get on board, and collaborated to come up with new ways to leverage copy for the Web by using a different style and voice.

"She challenged the orthodoxy on how we could write for the Web in a new and unique way," Moor says. "She had fun doing this so many others approached this with trepidation and a sense of mourning and loss, but she embraced the challenge in moving forward."

Hall is tough and strong-minded but respectful of others who may hold a different perspective from her own, although you would definitely need to make a strong case to budge her, says Avido Khahaifa, the Sentinel's general manager, senior vice president and director of content. She has "very clear visions and a strategic way of looking at content and priorities," Khahaifa says. He says Hall possesses "a certain digital savvy" and is good at "making sure people did good journalism" despite changes in the newsroom.

During her stint at the Sentinel, Hall spent a year as president of the American Society of News Editors, leading efforts to increase diversity in the newsroom and help ASNE adapt to the evolving journalistic landscape.

Hall says that although ASNE's annual census indicates that newsroom diversity has improved, much work remains to be done. Setting benchmarks each year was one of Hall's priorities as president of ASNE and although the nation's news organizations often did not meet these goals, she says it has been an effective means of "keeping the issue at the forefront of the discussion and creating public awareness."

Hall was also involved in the effort to make the organization, known for years as the American Society of Newspaper Editors, more open to online journalism. "We now have digital-only membership, and we have digital-only members of the board," she says.

Marty Kaiser, editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who succeeded Hall as president of ASNE in 2009, praises her work for the organization. "She had great confidence. She was a great partner and friend, and I learned a lot" from her, he says. Kaiser says Hall is seen throughout the industry as a leader and was a major figure in opening up ASNE to online news outlets. "She wanted the organization to succeed and she wanted me to succeed. Many editors turn to her for advice."

Hall emphasizes that print and digital news must be integrated in order for newsrooms to remain strong, and that this multimedia approach needs to be taught in journalism schools. However, she adds, J-schools "absolutely need to teach the basics ethics, writing skills. Writing counts now more than ever."

As for her own future, Hall says she plans to spend time with her family and travel. "I'm retirement age. I have a granddaughter now, and it's the right time to do it in my life," she says.

But that doesn't mean Hall is leaving the Orlando Sentinel behind. "Beginning next month, I will be cheering you from the sidelines, checking OrlandoSentinel.com 20 times a days (yes, 20 local visits!), following you on Facebook and waking up to the print paper seven days a week," she said in her farewell note to the paper's newsroom.

Asked about the torrent of changes confronting today's journalists, Hall says she sees a promising future, and encourages others to welcome the transformation, however daunting it may seem.

"Ultimately, it's all about the story," she says. "This is the most exciting time in journalism and media that I've seen in my career of 39 years. And I am very optimistic about where news is going."