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From AJR,   April/May 2012  issue

An Optimist at the Helm   

Carl Lavin moves from launching startups to overseeing CNNís homepage. Tues., March 26, 2012.

By Carl Straumsheim
Carl Straumsheim (@cfstraumsheim) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.     

"The best time to be a journalist is now."

No, that quote wasn't ripped from some J-school's recruitment brochure, but rather from Carl Lavin's personal Web site. And his Twitter profile. Lavin, who much earlier in his 30-year career recast himself as a pioneer of online journalism, has joined CNN as lead homepage editor.

Maybe that's why he's so optimistic?

"You run into some pessimism at times when you talk to journalists. I understand that. Change can be traumatic," says Lavin, who started work on Monday. "But there are incredible tools and opportunities that just did not exist before.... We're on the verge of something much, much bigger."

Lavin, 55, left his last full-time gig--managing editor of Forbes.com--in October 2010 and has since focused on helping launch startups. Asked why he is returning to work for a large news outlet, Lavin replies simply that his new employer "is a terrific organization with great leadership and fantastic reach.

"The home page of CNN.com is one of the most popular news pages out on the Web, and the people who are managing it now are doing a terrific job," he says. "I hope I can help them make it even a little better and draw an even larger audience."

Meredith Artley, managing editor of CNN Digital, says her organization wanted to hire both a stellar editor and an amiable leader. "And we found him in Carl Lavin," she says. "We joke internally that having this job makes you simultaneously the most popular and the most detested person in the building, because everyone wants a piece of the home page."

Artley pointed to Lavin's performance at Forbes as one of the main reasons that elevated him above other candidates. "Forbes is a strong site, and they did a lot under Carl's leadership," Artley says. "In my view, the pace and relevancy of Forbes expanded while he was there."

Lavin bet on the Internet in the 1990s while working in the New York Times' Washington bureau, where he helped establish a continuous video newsdesk. "It started as the Web started," he says.

Since that first foray into online journalism, Lavin has, in his words, taken "evangelist" positions at other news organizations―including the Philadelphia Inquirer and Forbes―to train journalists and demonstrate to them the reporting power of social media.

Lavin and his wife, Lauren, have spent the last few weeks preparing for their move to Atlanta. Their four children are not joining them ("They're all invited!" Lavin points out), but they have joined their father on social media. Case in point: When Lavin asked his Twitter followers to contribute to this profile, Austin, Seth, Carter and Celeste pounced on opportunity, lauding their father's mentorship. "Man, do I have stories!" Austin Lavin said.

Michael Oreskes, senior managing editor of the Associated Press and a colleague of Lavin's at the New York Times, says Lavin's successful transformation has been the driving force behind his career in journalism. "The genius of Carl Lavin is that he's both a really terrific journalist and a really great guy, so he really inspires people to work with him and do even better journalism," Oreskes says.

Recently, Lavin's online savvy helped found Main Street Connect, a network of local news sites. Shrugging off comparisons to sites like Patch, Lavin says "local news―news that helps people navigate their local life―is essential and hard to find for anyone in any community. The goal of any news organization has got to be to provide unique, relevant news to a community."

Lavin did exactly that while at the University of Chicago, banding together with a group of friends to launch a weekly newspaper on the south side of the city. He graduated with a degree in biology, and connects journalists' search for the truth to the established steps of the scientific method. "The result should be the same, and it should be replicable," he says.

Lavin's academic background inspired his most recent project: ClearHealthCosts.com, a site meant to educate consumers on buying health insurance, which Lavin describes as "the one thing all of us buy without knowing the cost or being able to research the cost.

"In any market, when pricing is opaque, there's very little pressure to keep pricing down. Transparency is important in keeping prices down."

ClearHealthCosts.com's CEO (and another of Lavin's coworkers at the Times), Jeanne Pinder, called Lavin's work on the startup "enormously helpful."

"He's got an unusual knack to understand what the readers want," Pinder says. "He's got a very analytic mind in approach to the news."

Although Pinder admits to having tried to lure Lavin into accepting a full-time position at ClearHealthCosts.com, she expects he will thrive at CNN. "He embraces innovation," she says, and he "puts the reader first."