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From AJR,   April 2000  issue

Leading the Charge   


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


A MAGAZINE, IT'S OFTEN said, tends to be a reflection of one person.
The same may not be true of a newspaper. But therešs little doubt in my mind that there's generally a direct link between a good newspaper, particularly one on the way up, and a strong-willed, idiosyncratic editor with a vision.
Much has been written about the increasingly corporate flavor of the newspaper business. With the ever-growing dominance of the chains and the steady disappearance of independent ownership, it's not surprising that top editors tend to be more buttoned-down than the great mavericks of the past, more worried about bottom lines and "reconnecting" and taking polls--the editor as publisher.
But, luckily, the strong editor hasn't disappeared entirely from the scene. In fact, a number of them are alive and well, and they are at the helm of newspapers that are moving in the right direction.
I was reminded of this not long ago as I watched the National Press Foundation bestow its Editor of the Year award on Jim Willse, the main man at Newark's Star-Ledger.
If you went to Central Casting and asked them to come up with the perfect Organization Man Editor, it's safe to say they wouldn't send back Willse. The son of a New York cop, Willse spent many years running the New York Daily News. His partner in crime there, current Boston Globe Editor Matt Storin, points out that there probably are few other editors of the year who insisted that the words WIN, FREE or SEX be on page one every day--better yet, all three.
Years ago, when Willse was managing editor of the San Francisco Examiner, he was in the market for a metro editor. I was one of the candidates. At the end of the interview process, Willse took me out to dinner. He was from New York, I was from Philly, and it was soon clear we had a lot in common. After a while, Willse looked up from his calamari and said, "If I knew what you were like, we would have forgotten dinner and gone to the San Francisco-Notre Dame game." Admittedly a great idea, but I'm betting it's not one they suggest at the management training seminar.
Willse is also a first-rate editor, a hard-driving guy with high standards. He won his award after taking the Star-Ledger, which not too long ago looked like it was being published during Charlemagne's time, into the modern era. The transformation was beyond dramatic. And not only the look improved. Hard-edged reporting and enterprise packages on such issues as racial profiling by police came to the fore. Willse was even brave enough to hire the great Rich Aregood (speaking of noncorporate people) away from the Philadelphia Daily News to run his editorial page.
And Willse is hardly the only example of the strong editor putting his or her stamp on a paper. Think of the papers on the upswing, and you'll find one of them leading the charge: John Carroll in Baltimore, Sandy Rowe in Portland, Rich Oppel in Austin (among others). While some may have more enthusiasm for trendy staffing structures than others, all of them are traditional journalists in the sense they know that it's about stories, good stories, ambitious stories, not focus groups and New Age mumbo jumbo.
(Another good sign: When Newhouse decided it was time to jump-start Cleveland's Plain Dealer, it turned to Doug Clifton, a hell-for-leather newspaper guy if there ever was one, rather than a polished suit.)
Now all such stories don't have happy endings. The Daily Oklahoman surprised many last year when it brought in Stan Tiner as its editor. The Oklahoman was not what you would call a real good newspaper. Tiner had gotten high marks for his leadership in improving Alabama's Mobile Register.
But the new editor was apparently more than the Gaylord family owners bargained for. Tiner rocked the boat, the boat rocked back, and before you knew it Tiner was on his way back to Mobile.
So these strong editors are not for the fainthearted. But given some of the success stories out there, if I were running a newspaper company (don't hold your breath), I'd be tempted to take the chance and put them in the lineup.

***


With apologies to the other R.E.M., it's the end of the world as we know it, and I don't feel fine.
What was the dominant subject on TV's ubiquitous newsmagazines in February? According to NewsTV Research, the answer is coverage (coverage?!) of "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."