Gannett puts a digital guy in charge of a newsroom, me

A little more a than a year ago, I was doing data journalism and consulting for Czech TV, and Kvapilová Pavlína, the head of online at the time, said to me incredulously, “Why aren’t you in a newsroom?” It was a good question. For the last four years, I’ve had a great time working with news organisations all over the world to seize the opportunities of digital media, but I missed working in a newsroom.

I won’t miss it any longer. Today, I started my new job as the regional executive editor overseeing two Gannett-owned newspapers in Wisconsin.

I met with journalists at one of the papers, and the first question that most of them asked was why someone with my background would come to Sheboygan and Manitowoc, Wisconsin, to work with their newspapers. The decision was a mix of professional and personal reasons that I’ll be explaining over the next few days, but the key professional reason was that to get the opportunities I really want – the opportunities to drive not just digital innovation but also the editorial direction of a news organisation – I needed experience managing newsrooms.

Last October, Rick Edmonds of Poynter asked “How many top newspaper editors are from digital backgrounds? Still darn few”. Jim Brady of Digital First Media gave this explanation:

It’s more than being slow. It remains hard to find people who understand digital and who have run newsrooms.

This isn’t a criticism of Jim, who I count as a friend, but it is difficult to deny that this is one of those brilliant professional Catch-22s. You don’t have the experience so you can’t get the experience. The industry has rarely promoted newsroom leaders from the digital side. Over the past five years, I have seen more broadcast and print editors take over online leadership roles than I have digital editors take over multi-platform roles. In effect, we have had a digital ceiling. That might change for the next generation of digital leaders, but or mid-career digital journalists like myself, that’s been the reality.

I’ve been a digital journalist since 1996, and I’ve held ground-breaking positions for the BBC and The Guardian. I’ve helped launch innovative multi-platform programmes for the BBC, and Suw and I were part of the launch team for India’s Firstpost. However, up until today, I hadn’t run a newsroom. Now, I’ll be running two. Lowell Johnson, the GM for the two newsrooms, and Mike Knuth, the Executive Editor of the Green Bay Press Gazette and former executive editor and GM of the two papers, deserve a lot of credit in seeing an opportunity to bring me on board and convincing me that this was the right next step in my career.

I was inspired to make this move by friends such Brett Spencer at the BBC and Alison Gow with Trinity Mirror, who came from digital backgrounds but took on overall leadership roles in their respective media. It’s opened up great new opportunities for them, and I am thrilled by the opportunity that is before me.

After years of writing about how I think local editors should engage with their communities and about rethinking the role of the newspaper in the 21st Century, I finally get to put my ideas, and myself, to the test. I have long been hungry for this challenge.

Back to Rick Edmonds at Poynter, he wrote, “With the ice broken, I would look for Gannett, Advance and Digital First to add to that cadre as top editorial jobs come open. And I am eager to see what changes this first generation of digitally tilting editors can produce.”

Watch this space. This job will definitely keep me busy, but I’ll be writing here and elsewhere about I navigate this new phase of my career. It’s going to be a wild ride sometimes, but damn it’s going to be a lot of fun.

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