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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  1. Jack,
    Thanks for this article. It was certainly shocking to learn yesterday of Rusty’s departure. I was always amazed by the insights he provided each time I heard him speak in Knoxville.
    I understand there can be a high level of frustration when trying to midwife the level of change required in “traditional” media, as you mentioned earlier in your post.
    I wish the best to Rusty, but also to you and everyone at Scripps. I am confident the level of talent I have seen from all parties involved should allow everyone to find success.

  2. I liked newspapers better when reporters considered themselves “ink-stained wretches” instead of elitist cultural crusaders (see: any NY Times writer) intent on garnering Pulitzers.
    My local newspaper insulted me and as much as said, “We don’t want your kind.”
    So I left as soon as alternatives presented themselves.

  3. I doubt any of these consider themselves “elitist cultural crusaders.” Buttry started his “career” delivering newspapers while in junior high school in Columbus, Ohio. Rusty Coats grew up on a farm in Indiana. Janet Coats is the from the small East Tennessee town of Ooltewah. Not exactly roots of the cutural elite.

  4. We have an industry which does not care about the customers’ opinions or preferences. And, surprise, industry sales decline each year. To paraphrase an infamous former newspaper editor, “We are the deciders!”
    The naked truth is that all but a handful of major newspapers are far to the left of their target market. When the customers in the target market object to the left slant, editors and journalists ignore or dismiss them. So the customers leave. Until newspapers become customer oriented, they will continue their death spiral. And by customer oriented, I do not mean lecturing customers on why their preferences are wrong and dictating what their opinions should be.
    This is business 101: Any product or brand that refuses to acknowledge and accomodate the tastes and preferences of their market is doomed.

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