September 29, 2009

Does Star-Ledger editor retiring mean less news coming?

Another goodbye at an Advance Publications was announced to staff Monday at noon and I don't think it's the last one.

Jim Willse, editor of the Star-Ledger, announced today he's retiring in October - a quiet sendoff, please - and that managing editor Kevin Whitmer, 42, will take his place.

I'm surprised Willse has stayed as long as he did, yet grateful that he did. The 65-year-old editor told staff he plans to travel - I hope he gets to sample more of his favorite jazz, Celtic and world music, and Celtic first hand. He also said he will continue teaching, becoming a visiting professor at Princeton University where he's taught and spoken numerous times since coming to the New Jersey newspaper in the 1995.

Willse is a great Scrabble opponent so I hope there's time for that too.

It's been a painful year for Willse who came to the Star-Ledger when hiring was possible and watched about 200 people leave his newsroom in the past year. At a Princeton University symposium on Newspapers in Crisis in May, Willse recalled how Dec. 31, 2008, the day 150 walked away with buyouts, was one of the worst in his professional career, almost a "mass funeral."

Some wrote off any hope of the news organization recovering from losing so many experienced reporters, editors and employees. Yet as noted on his DNA2009 bio, the organization has morphed into surviving organization. It has taken changes, including revising the Ledger Live video program, hiring replacements at a  wage that even Willse agreed was not good and sharing political coverage with other New Jersey newspapers.

I think you get a hint that more bad times are coming if you listen to what Willse says to editorial interns, at symposiums, in video, on podcasts, and online. There's always a cautionary intro that no plans are made, are solid but I think the three-days-a-week publishing schedule of the Advance Publications in Bay City, Flint, and Saginaw, Michigan, is likely to happen in New Jersey and other cities with Newhouse newspapers.

At a  lunch with interns, Willse echoed what he said at the Newspapers in Crisis symposium: Nearly all of the advertising revenue at the Star-Ledger comes from three days -- Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. He drops hints that a news company could still effectively inform its readers by  printing three days a week and relying on a news website on other days.

In May, he warned that newspapers need to get out of the printing and distribution business and restructure the newsroom. One report quotes Willse saying
“Of our 330 journalists, half were involved in processing the news as opposed to generating the news. We have to concentrate on journalism that matters, and on good writing.”
You know that's why he was pleased to bring back a political reporter in time for the governor's race.

Willse, who grew up with a father who shared what he read, always knew the type of news organization he wanted - shocked that when he came the Star-Ledger did not have its own photography department, pleased with the Pulitizer Prize that came once it did. (See After the Fire. a project that Willse credits with helping to build morale in the newsroom in his interview with The Digital Journalist.)

Willse carried the torch for watchdog journalism.

“Newspapers find things that people don’t want the public to know," he said at the May symposium. "It’s hard. Sometimes you get a story, sometimes you don’t.” 
A dogged reporter like Dustan McNichol (who also speaking that day), “would read stuff that no one else would read.” With the buyout, Willse said, “all that went away.”"

That same day, Willse related that he had just hired 24 reporters at $700 a week, prompting an audience member to ask where Willse thought those reporters, making $36,000 a year, might live — in a pup tent?

After the laughter stopped, Willse agreed that the new hires are “clearly not a long-term solution. We can’t survive by indulging in child exploitation.”

He has many ideas for the 400-level course, Inside the News Business, on the spring 2010 schedule. The description promises to help students to understand where news comes from; why it matters; the digital revolution, citizen journalism; the economics of news; and where it is headed.

Willse can teach that because he hasn't stopped learning, recently a fellow for the Knight Foundation's Transforming news organizations for a digital future, on Jeff Jarvis's Guardian Media Talk USA podcast discussing the CUNY New Business Models for News recommendations, and elsewhere.

He thinks about possibilities - and is willing to discuss them, then change his mind. Remember a joint community guide? Or these projects?

It is not surprising that he's returning to Princeton, where he has been a short-term fellow at Princeton, including in 2001-02 when he taught "Documentary Journalism" as the Harold McGraw '40 Professor of Writing and the current Ferris Professorship of Journalism and Public Relations.
A video of the presentation, Newspapers in Crisis in the Region, is still available at Princeton. Or watch the video below, when Willse talked with The Star-Ledger's Brian Donohue about the future of the paper in October 2008.

Meanwhile, I'm hoping Jim will have time to drag out the virtual Scrabble game once more.

Ledger Live - 10-08-08

I've written about the Star-Ledger before.


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