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.

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.”

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.

Journalism and 20 years of leaving my comfort zone

Yesterday was my 38th birthday, and today, I’m celebrating exactly 20 years working in the newspaper industry. Tomorrow, it will be exactly 10 years working for the company that presently employs me.

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My first press pass, as an 18-year-old reporter at my hometown weekly newspaper in the suburbs of Portland, Maine.

I’ve worked as a reporter, editor, corporate director of news and publisher. I’ve handled news, sports, features, writing, editing, photography, page design, advertising sales, circulation, budgets, launching newspapers, closing newspapers.

I worked for small, family-owned newspapers for my first 10 years in the business. For the past 10 years, I’ve worked for Journal Register Company/21st Century Media/Digital First Media, which was even more print-focused than the print-focused newspaper industry when I started, and today is on the most radical “digital first” edges of newspapers that are jettisoning print.

I still don’t know what I’m doing.

So that’s my biggest failure (with a long trail of mistakes behind me), but in a way my biggest source of pride as well. If I can tackle each day at work with the attitude that I have a ton to learn and a ton of opportunity to grow, approaching 40 in a constant-state-of-change industry isn’t so depressing.

I became a daily newspaper editor three weeks before 9/11. I was 25 and struck by how how much I was just going to have to figure out on my own and on the fly. I turned to the more veteran journalists in the newsroom, and they were in the same boat, because nothing comparable had happened in their careers.

It was one of many times in my career in which stepping out of my comfort zone taught me things, made me a better journalist, a better boss, sometimes a better person. In this business, that can be a once-in-a-career news event, such as 9/11 or the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last year. But I’ve also learned from 20 years of putting myself in new and challenging or foreign situations. This included a corporate editorial oversight role I wasn’t qualified for a year into my tenure with Journal Register Co., working on the business and advertising side as a publisher, and then getting back into the newsroom full-time and trying new stuff.

I never went to journalism school, and had only one semester of college before a guy named Harry T. Foote taught me the basics of journalism. Harry had retired as city editor of the Portland Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram and now-defunct Evening Express, and purchased two weekly newspapers, the Westbrook American and South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Journal, that he combined into the “American Journal” in the suburbs of Portland, Maine. He was 77 and I was 16 when he first interviewed me for a reporter job. He went with someone more experienced (ha!). I walked back into his office a little over a year later with a letter to the editor I’d written alleging that a local bar had over-served the drunken driver who had hit and killed the mother of a friend of mine. He rejected my letter as libelous, but he offered me a job as a reporter. I started the day after my 18th birthday.

Harry’s curiosity about an incredible range of subjects, from the minutiae of local life to matters of global importance, taught me what the editor of a good newspaper is like. On one page, he’d be asking (and investigating) why the Postal Service seemed to have fewer and fewer public mailbox drops around town for the convenience of the public, and on another he’d be tackling the long-term implications of nuclear power.

Harry kept pulling on the thread of a story, and pulling, and pulling, and pulling, to the point where I swear he had public officials trained to just spit out what they were hiding to avoid the interrogation-to-completion that would come as long as certain details were missing or unclear or didn’t add up.

He taught me that people in power lie to taxpayers, to their customers, to reporters. I can’t count the number of times he would be grilling a reporter about the results of an interview they’d done where something wasn’t right, and Harry ended the conversation with a loud, “He’s lying!” as he walked back to his desk. That was our cue to get back on the phone, go back to our sources, go back to public documents, and work harder to flush out the truth.

Harry taught me how to write with a can of rubber cement, proofreader’s pen and scissors that he kept in a hardware store apron around his waist and attached to his desk with fishing line so as not to get lost in the blizzard of papers there or walk away to another part of the office. I would leave a printout of my copy in his box. He would physically cut out the fifth or sixth paragraph of a story, and move it to the second paragraph, using the rubber cement. He’d put a piece of scrap paper in his typewriter and write a new lead for me, and glue that to the top. He’d write a dozen questions in the margins. He would mark all of my spelling and grammar mistakes. And like a surgeon, from the middle of sentences, cut what seemed like hundreds of unnecessary words from my copy. I’d get the frankenedit and have to go into my story and make all of those changes. I learned how to spell accommodate and recommend after fixing them for the fifth or sixth time. And I started to learn how to get to the point faster and to anticipate the questions a reader would end up having about the holes in my story.

When the Portland Press Herald ran a story about Harry’s death last year, the photo they ran of him in the old American Journal newsroom in 1999 showed me in the background, fitting proof of his influence on me.

Twenty years after Harry took a chance on me, I’d add only a few key things to the basic approach that he taught me if I could go back in time and counsel myself about what lay ahead as a journalist and a manager of newsrooms.

1. Write about important shit. I think the biggest responsibility of an editor, especially after years of shrinking newsrooms, is to decide what not to cover – to focus his or her staff on what’s important in any given day or week or month or year. We should be working in one part of the room on how to use technology and partnerships to aggregate and curate hyperlocal and commodity news – and anything else not deemed part of our core mission. And everyone else should be investigating, writing and visualizing for our readers the stories they can’t and won’t get on their own or from anyone else. Stories that expose wrongdoing, or shed new light on our collective human experience, or even offer a solution.

2. Don’t be an asshole or tolerate assholes. I’ve done both, and still need reminding that all it does is stifle the creativity and potential of the people who work for you and with you.

3. Be transparent about your work and awesome at making corrections. This would have been great advice 20 years ago, too, but today it is an essential part of doing business. “Digital first” isn’t just a switch in preference from reading something on paper to reading it on a screen. It’s a fundamental transformation of the relationship between consumers and brands, from providing a product to providing a service. Journalists are human beings with biases and world views shaped by what they’ve been exposed to in their lives. It’s why we need to make diversity a top-priority issue in newsrooms, and also why we must emphasize transparency about where we’re coming from and what our process is like. That includes admitting mistakes when we make them, correcting them quickly, and with absolutely full and prominent disclosure of what we said that was wrong, and where and how we fixed it.

4. Put the reader first in approaching technology and collaborations. Like tech companies that put millions into user experience and product before thinking about monetization, we need a reader-first revolution in newsrooms that pursues and presents good journalism using whatever platform and partner (be it blogger, citizen, nonprofit or legacy competitor) gets the job done. Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish as the industry wrestles with the great unbundling of advertising and content.

Patch ignored early advice about one journalist-per-town model

Before Tim Armstrong launched Patch, jumped from Google to AOL, bought it from his own investment group and expanded it across the nation, he ignored early advice suggesting that the hyperlocal’s one-journalist-per-town model would not work.

Quinnipiac University journalism professor Rich Hanley says he was asked to help with a secret “beta test” of Patch in Hamden, Connecticut, prior to its later public launch in three New Jersey communities.

Patch paid Quinnipiac students to test whether one full-time journalist could provide all the content necessary to make a  hyperlocal website about the community viable.

The answer they gave – “No” – was not what Patch wanted to hear. Hanley said that their test in Hamden found the town to be too diverse, too complicated, too time-consuming for one person to handle.

Patch pushed forward with the model anyway, but used the findings, at least initially, to shape the types of communities it chose for sites. They looked for towns with a defined downtown core, high average household income, and significant digital literacy. That is, communities that were not particularly diverse, or complicated.

But after AOL took over and took Patch from three sites to more than 900 in about 18 months, Hanley said, not as much thought or rigidity, at least, went in to selecting communities.

They had a great, easy-to-use hyperlocal web platform, and were “blinded by the ease with which you can replicate digital stuff.”

“They thought they could just press a button,” Hanley said, pluck someone from a local journalism school, and have a site that would be meaningful to the community.

The clearest sign that the advice didn’t sink in, perhaps, was that one of those 900 sites ended up being a Hamden, Connecticut, Patch, staffed with the one-journalist-per-town model that Hanley and his students said wouldn’t work there.

Speaking at a Connecticut Daily Newspapers Association conference Thursday, Hanley said he did not accept money as an early Patch advisor, in part, so he’d be “free to criticize them” down the road.

Hanley said Patch expanded too fast, and without a solid plan for local advertising sales. “The second flaw was they didn’t promote the sites enough,” he said, wondering why they didn’t do things like sponsor the high school football field scoreboards in Patch towns.

Some of the Quinnipiac grads who went to work for Patch have already left.

“They weren’t learning anything on the job,” Hanley said. “They weren’t getting better. They were just burning out.”

That’s where the benefit of working in a traditional newspaper or TV newsroom comes into play, Hanley said.

“You’ve got to have quality assurance. In a newspaper, it’s the copy desk,” Hanley said. “You’ve got to have another set of eyeballs on the content before it’s posted.”

Former Hartford Courant Managing Editor Claude Albert wonders why Patch doesn’t leverage its journalists in Connecticut for “a higher aim.” If he had 80 reporters stationed around the state, Albert said, all kinds of ideas would come to mind in terms of enterprise, investigative reporting or deeper analysis of important topics.

University of Connecticut School of Journalism Dean Maureen Croteau said that the difference between Patch and many newspapers who often have less than one reporter covering a single town is that Patch editors are more in the mode of “feeding the site,” seven days a week, with everything from calendar items to breaking news.

Hanley said that they asked Patch management in the early days about their plans for investigative and enterprise reporting. They pointed to Google Map visualizations of police blotter and fire department call reports, and said “the rest would come later.”

“Think of Patch as a piece of software, because that’s what it is,” Hanley said. “And it shipped with a lot of bugs.”

Gary Farrugia, publisher of The Day in New London, said he was worried at first when Patch moved into his coverage area.

Then it ended up being “largely stenography instead of journalism, and it’s wildly inconsistent from town to town.”

But Farrugia is keeping a very close eye on it, because they have a good platform and it might be a matter of time before they or their successor figures out how to use it well.

“I’m worried about what comes after them,” he said.