Letter from the epicenter

Editor & Publisher Editor Mark Fitzgerald notes that with the departure of Rusty Coats from E.W. Scripps and the newspaper industry, "that's two Internet thinkers gone from the business in this young year. E&P's current Editor of the Year departed Gazette Communications in Cedar Rapids, Iowa for a digital startup in D.C."

The Editor of the Year, of course, is Steve Buttry, whose wife, Mimi Johnson, perhaps, wrote the best account of his journey to the exit door.

If you add just more weeks to Fritzgerald's timeline, you also get to Rusty Coats' spouse, Janet Coats, who left her job as executive editor of the Tampa Tribune in December to move to Knoxville to be with her husband. She was an innovative and forward-thinking editor who guided the newspaper through a brutal reorganization.

The departures of these three and those that came before them may be a clue of the upheaval and human stress at the epicenters of change in the newspaper business, those stress points where the traditional business print model and what must be the future digital-based business model most forcibly collide.

The three are part of a growing list of people I've drawn inspiration and copied "best dish" recipes from for years who have exited the newspaper business. Most have retained their love of the news business or journalism, but have moved on from "the paper." They were the pioneers pushing, pulling, cajoling their organizations and the entire industry to move into the uncharteed future. For example, Rusty Coats' colleagues in the Newspaper Association of America's Digital Media Federation voted him their "Online Innovator" in 2005.

These, like those before them, began as print journalists and who became leading digital news thinkers and leaders and doers before moving on. They will be missed from an industry that badly needs them. Yes, there are young people in the newspaper industry with energy and drive and ideas and optimism for its future. There are a handful I could name in my own newsroom and several more scattered about the building, which houses both the Knoxville News Sentinel and the E.W. Scripps' newspaper division's corporate interactive group. Smart, talented, and committed people seeing a future.

But there's a grim reality as well. In a recent NewsU.org seminar Mark Briggs, who himself left newspapers for a news related startup, noted "culture eats strategy for lunch" and "when you bring change back to an organization, the organization's first instinct is to crush the change."

Many interesting things are happening at newspapers and they are evolving, but the incubators for the news forms of the future seem to be occurring outside the walls of traditional media companies. The really interesting things in digital news and information are happening everywhere from behemoth Google to small startups like Dave Cohn's Spot.Us or  Michael van Poppel's BNOnews. It's harder to find truly innovative efforts at traditional media companies, particularly their flagship nameplates.

Among the start-ups, some of the innovation is ironically being nurtured from fortunes made in traditional media, like the Knight Foundation's initiatives. Janet Coats' new role is developing a program to fund innovative New Media journalism for the Patterson Foundation in Sarasota, Fla., which recently received a fresh $200 million in an estate settlement.

It will be interesting to see where these pioneers cut new trails. Best of luck to them. All us journalists need it.

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