The Tao of Steve Buttry

That feeling when you can’t do anything to help a friend who has done so much to help you.

steve-buttry

Steve Buttry

Steve Buttry, my former colleague at Digital First Media, who became my friend in the trenches of that work and in the time since we both have moved on, told me he had cancer almost exactly two years ago. Over dinner at a conference in St. Petersburg with his wife, Mimi, he was upbeat and optimistic. He had a more positive attitude about a coming fight with cancer than I did about – well, pick a stupid, minor life annoyance that pales in comparison.

But that’s Steve. At DFM and in jobs before and since, he was always the guy who, in the face of ridiculous legacy media bureaucracy or entrenched culture, believed there was a big picture way forward. And the guy who got right down to work on the specifics and logistics of moving forward.

Two years ago, I had just quit a job that I loved out of frustration and dismay with the direction our company and the industry were taking, and was preparing to strike out into the unknown. And Steve surprised me, repeatedly. First with an out-of-the-blue blog post complimenting me – an invaluable selling point for someone who was about to look for work in a market with a lot of competition for a shrinking number of top newsroom leadership jobs.

It was the nicest gesture of many nice gestures in the days after I left my job, but Steve didn’t go away. Next he wrote me a recommendation letter for a fellowship that was the most thoughtful, kind, and exaggerated words anyone has used to describe my professional abilities. Then he wrote another. Then he provided half a dozen (or more? because I lost count long ago) references for jobs as I frustratingly made it to the finalist stage – but not beyond – for positions.

In between, Steve would send me listings for jobs that he’d heard about or been approached for himself – the kind of opportunities that aren’t advertised. I kept thinking, how do you have the time – and mental presence – to be thinking about other people like this?

And I also thought, what did I ever do for you? Why are you going out of your way to be so nice to me? Still? And the answer was I hadn’t done anything to deserve it. I was just lucky enough to know a guy who got up every morning and thought about helping other people. And I know that there are dozens – no, probably hundreds – of other people who could tell similar anecdotes about him.

Since that dinner, Steve and Mimi have spent an inhumane percentage of the past two years in hospital rooms. And always-optimistic Steve, in the public blog posts he writes with the philosophy that others who are struggling might benefit from transparency about his experience, is now confronting resignation about a diagnosis that no longer offers much hope.

It sucks. And 2016 sucks. And the many, many people who know Steve and Mimi feel helpless. But we are holding them in the light, and sending love with every thought of them.

Five years later, lasting lessons from the Ben Franklin Project

Five years ago, Journal Register Co.’s new CEO used the 4th of July to run a companywide experiment aimed at declaring the newspaper chain’s “independence” from legacy media thinking and expensive, clunky and print-focused content management systems and workflows.

ben-franklin-logoThe Ben Franklin Project involved putting out a day’s worth of news – print editions and digital – using only free online tools and with a focus on engaging the power of the audience in our reporting.

It was a genius kickoff to John Paton‘s aggressive plan to transform a print newspaper chain into a “digital first” media company (he later renamed the company Digital First Media) because it forced culture change. There was no top-down, companywide rollout of a new system for managing content, or print production, or ad scheduling. Employees at all levels had to get together and figure out how to do it and what options worked best for them. And newsrooms across the country quickly started sharing their best ideas with each other rather than reinvent the wheel. The process resembled what has been described as “SaaS” (software as a service) navigation.

Some of the free online tools that were crucial in pulling it off – Google Docs, for example – became ubiquitous in DFM newsrooms and ad departments. Bigger immediate changes proved elusive. The company embarked on a multi-year rollout of an expensive and cumbersome legacy CMS that made the mistake of forcing print and website management into the same system – limiting the web severely.

But the lasting impact of Ben Franklin was to teach people how to be entrepreneurs and problem solvers – the proverbial teaching someone to fish. In this new digital world, changes and opportunities would arrive daily, and Ben Franklin was aimed at developing the skills and mindset to learn, adjust, react and change accordingly.

Jeff Jarvis, a Paton advisory board member when Ben Franklin launched, wrote yesterday that he was reminded of the Ben Franklin Project when he heard that Telemundo was experimenting with a national newscast shot only on mobile devices. Of course Telemundo isn’t going to ditch its traditional camera equipment and switch regularly to mobile. But the challenge of putting out a professional product on new tools will force everyone in the organization to learn how to use those new tools, and will give them the skills and mindset to tackle the next learning experience, too.

Paton stepped down as CEO of Digital First Media on July 1, almost exactly five years after the Ben Franklin Project. The company has laid off hundreds of journalists since some of Paton’s digital plans started to be dismantled by the company’s hedge fund owners a year and a half ago, and the strategy focused on deep expense cuts in preparation of a potential sale.

In many newsrooms, expense cuts have included most of the people who learned through Ben Franklin and other Paton initiatives how to be digital media entrepreneurs. At The Saratogian and Troy Record in New York, DFM buyouts last week led to the departure of the executive editor, editor, sports editor, chief photographer, a copy editor and a sports reporter, on top of layoffs last month that eliminated the city editor, digital editor, assistant sports editor and a photographer position.

Which brings us to another point about lessons from the Ben Franklin Project. Journalists don’t need to be employees of a legacy media company to do strong local journalism that pays their mortgage. You can build a website, learn how or partner with others to sell and schedule ads, or build other forms of revenue, and be your own boss. Increasingly, that kind of declaration of independence shows the most promise for lasting investment in community journalism and stability for individual journalists. Consider it your own Ben Franklin Project.

New overtime rules could have huge impact on struggling newsrooms

National overtime eligibility changes President Obama announced yesterday could have a massive impact on the budgets and workflow of local newsrooms, and it’s unlikely that newspaper publishers already focused on cutting costs have taken it into account yet.

Beginning in 2016, the threshold for qualifying as an exempt, salaried manager will be annual wages of $50,400, up from the current $23,660. In between lies MANY city editors, sports editors, even managing editors and editors in small newsrooms across the country who average far more than 40 hours a week and work lots of holidays without getting time and a half.

It’s bad timing for any publisher implicitly counting on low-paid managers to pick up the slack after newsroom layoffs.

And stepped-up scrutiny of overtime rules and eligibility carries a great deal of financial risk for newspaper publishers in general. With all of the downsizing that’s happened in recent years, there are many newsrooms with employees who are being paid as exempt managers but don’t manage anyone anymore and probably should be paid hourly. There are reporters submitting time cards that say “9 to 5” or “40 hours” when a cursory review of their work or time in the office will show they’re working overtime and not getting paid for it. And the problem might be worse than ever at newsrooms trying to maintain comparable coverage after the layoffs of the past few years.

If the Department of Labor starts pursuing wage and hour complaints at newsrooms, the consequences for publishers who are looking the other way could be massive. Right before I started as editor of The Register Citizen in Connecticut 12 years ago, then-owner Journal Register Co. was hit with two Department of Labor lawsuits over the course of three years. Reporters and editors were paid tens of thousands of dollars in back wages based on the amount of time they said they worked vs. what they were encouraged to put down on their time cards.

Related: Unpaid internships are also a risky way to pick up the slack.

A new problem in local journalism: Tracking its decline

Ken Doctor raises an important point midway through his recent Nieman Lab post exploring “10 numbers that define the news business today.”

“We seldom see much reporting of buyouts and layoffs these days, as some publishers concluded that the industry’s problems were only being exacerbated by its reporting on its own staff changes.”

That’s happening right now at my former company, Digital First Media, as buyouts and layoffs are quietly taking place across the country. This is on top of additional cuts in various places that happened a few months ago with little fanfare.

Cuts in big newsrooms such as Denver, St. Louis and Chicago will continue to make news, but we don’t hear about the smaller local newsrooms who end up losing two of their remaining four reporters. Unless, of course, it’s as outrageous of a cut as happened at the Saratogian and Troy Record in New York’s capital region this week, where the executive editor, editor, sports editor, chief photographer, a copy editor and a sports reporter all took buyouts – on top of the company eliminating the digital editor, city editor and other positions a month ago.

You get what you measure, and if we don’t have a handle on the extent of local journalism’s decline, we can’t properly address it.

As Doctor said:

“We can only guess at the math: How many fewer stories — online as well as in print — are 20,000 fewer journalists producing? What don’t communities know about themselves that they might have known a decade ago?”

Update: John Robinson has written an excellent take on the issue at his blog Media, Disrupted.

Related: “Journalism companies are dead, long live journalists.”

Magically, issue of journalists taking sides in gay marriage debate disappears

Last year, when the U.S. Supreme Court was hearing arguments in a case challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act, some journalists were joining friends and family in changing their Facebook profile avatars to the red equal sign in support of gay marriage.

11214255_10153431973267300_3205695421136508227_nSome editors and reporters who worked for me at the time joined in, and it sparked a discussion among the top editors at our company. The near-unanimous consensus was that it was inappropriate for journalists to overtly take sides on a public policy issue that they might end up covering. I was in the minority in this discussion, but completely understood and respected the point. Maybe if the equal sign logo didn’t have such a campaign lawn sign-like feel to it, if support had been more subtle, the thinking would have been different.

I’m not sure what the consensus was at other media companies at the time, but I’m guessing pretty similar.

Fast-forward a little more than a year, to the hours following the Supreme Court’s historic ruling that gay marriage is legal in all 50 states, and suddenly, media outlets seem to be taking a very different approach.

CIcAdbhUcAABgGENewer national online media outlets such as Buzzfeed, Huffington Post and Mashable, which all changed their Twitter avatars to rainbow themes Friday, were perhaps never as resolute as legacy media in trying to be “objective” about the gay marriage issue, but today are stridently taking sides.

“We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women’s rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides,” Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith told Politico.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who has long criticized what he calls a “view from nowhere” misguided attempt at objectivity by media outlets, praised the direction they took in handling news of the Supreme Court’s decision Friday.

rosenThis included a CNN tweet that said “Every. Single. State.” with a “#lovewins” hashtag and a rainbow-colored heart.

The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and its online news outlet, PennLive.com, are taking it much further.

In an editorial posted shortly after news of Friday’s Supreme Court decision, they announced that letters to the editor opposing gay marriage would be treated the same as letters suggesting that black people should not be allowed to vote or marry someone from a different race – thrown in the trash:

“As a result of Friday’s ruling, PennLive/The Patriot-News will very strictly limit op-Eds and letters to the editor in opposition to same-sex marriage.

These unions are now the law of the land. And we will not publish such letters and op-Eds any more than we would publish those that are racist, sexist or anti-Semitic.

We will, however, for a limited time, accept letters and op-Eds on the high court’s decision and its legal merits.”

Daily newspapers should follow The New Republic and examine own record on race

Jeet Heer‘s remarkable cover story dissecting The New Republic’s history of racism should get major daily newspaper editors thinking about commissioning an independent, critical look at their own publication’s legacy on race.

we6ozgbrpy6q57oo0klrThe New York Times, for example, just eliminated a beat dedicated to the issue. Editor Dean Baquet says issues of race need to be tackled throughout the newsroom, not relegated to a single specialty reporter. It would seem to be the perfect time to examine the Times’ track record on race and how newsroom culture over the years has shaped it. Maybe Heer could write it.

For publications such as the New York Post, an honest, New Republic-style self-assessment of the past would be the only possible way to begin to think about changing their perception in huge segments of the community. If the Post was actually interested in that.

When I led the New Haven Register’s newsroom, it was a frank (but very limited) admission that we had allowed open racism to fester in our story comments that led us to seriously confront the bigger issue of newsroom diversity.

If we’d stepped back much further than that, we would have seen how decades-old, maybe centuries-old perceptions had shaped who we were and how we were seen by our own community.

In 1973, two years before I, the future Register editor, was born, a remarkable critique of every daily newspaper in New England was commissioned by the New England Daily Newspaper Association and the New England Society of Newspaper Editors. Ben Bagdikian was among the veteran journalists sent out to examine each newsroom. It resulted in a book that I’m lucky to have in my position, called “Evaluating the Press: The New England Daily Newspaper Survey.”

From the critique of the Register:

“No particular emphasis is given locally to reporting concerning minorities, although New Haven has a large black population. (Then-editor, the late Robert J.) Leeney said the paper has a responsibility to serve the inner city, but doubts that the paper is important to the black community. The Register has two blacks on its staff; Leeney said the paper has been unable to hire more because (a) they get better offers from other papers and (b) he senses that they come under special pressure from the local black community, sometimes making their positions untenable.”

A few years before, but not addressed in the book, the late famed civil rights attorney Catherine Roraback, working with the NAACP, had threatened legal action against the Register. They claimed the paper had conspired with city officials and business leaders to manipulate perceptions about the black community through warped coverage of crime and other matters.

In hindsight, I wish that when we were confronting diversity and its impact on news coverage, I had hired a smart, independent outside journalist like Jeer Heet to examine the Register’s historical and present treatment of race.

The Register and other daily newspapers serious about covering and serving their entire community still could.

Proud of what we made as I leave Digital First Media

Harry Foote, my first editor at my first newspaper job in Westbrook, Maine, pulled me aside after a particularly rough day in 1994. I’d missed or made mistakes on more than one story. I was 18 years old. He was approaching 80. He handed me a copy of the latest edition of  the paper, pointed to three or four things I’d written, and said, “You won’t remember what you missed this week. You’ll remember and be proud of what you made.”

I keep returning to that advice today, which will be my last as editor of the New Haven Register, Register Citizen, Middletown Press and other publications in Connecticut. I’m leaving Digital First Media after working for it and its predecessor companies for the past 11 years, or nearly 30 percent of my life. I’ve worked as a statewide and regional editor for DFM for the past three years, as a publisher the previous three, and as a corporate director of news before that.

I could write a book about the frustrations and lessons from the past three years of our attempts to rapidly shift from legacy print structure to digital first journalism business model under hedge fund ownership and in a corporate newspaper chain environment. I’m not sure anyone would want to read it.

So I’m taking Harry’s advice. In the past 11 years at Journal Register Company and Digital First Media, I’ve come to know hundreds of people who have dedicated their lives to journalism, who work long hours for low pay, and put up with all kinds of crap (including plenty from me!) year after year. Cynical exteriors aside, at the heart of it, they care about strangers and are in journalism to improve people’s lives.

When I consider what our team in Connecticut has done and been through in the past three years:

This group of journalists in Connecticut accomplished these things despite constant uncertainty and change in the industry and company, multiple rounds of staff reductions and a nonstop agenda of training on new tools.

And they did it during a period of tremendous personal loss for our team, in which we saw the passing of the beloved Ann DeMatteo, George Mihalakos, Neal Buker, Michael Bellmore and Bridget Albert.

Although I’ll be moving on to not-sure-what-comes-next (hey, know someone who wants to hire me?), I’ll be excited to see the next few years of accomplishments from DFM newsrooms across the country and our group in Connecticut in particular.

Connecticut’s newsrooms will have strong and compassionate leadership from Mark Brackenbury, promoted today to executive editor, fresh off receiving the Local Media Association Editor of the Year award last week in Philadelphia. Backing them up are an incredible group of leaders, reporters, photographers and designers who made all of the above and a lot more happen over the past few years.