Ask A Pro
Assistant vice president/news
Why do you love newspaper journalism?
Looking back on my 15 years in journalism, I have faced a few crossroads. Hurricanes, floods, gunfire, racism. But few situations have affirmed my motivations for being and staying in this business more clearly than what happened during the closing weeks of the year in 2000.
In the cold days of mid-December, at the height of the dot-com explosion, I received a call from a headhunter in New York who was trying to find a senior-level editor/creative director for a major online news site, MSNBC, near Seattle.
They were looking for someone to lead their visual and creative efforts online and in conjunction with their TV/cable operations, and several people had recommended me for the job. I was told that the person would have a staff of Web designers and producers in Seattle, as well as a team in L.A. and New York, and would also be working closely with their partners at Newsweek and the Washington Post.
MSNBC had been known as innovators online and, as news sites go, was among the best and most-used. They were staffed with veteran journalists and had the backing of two massive corporations - Microsoft and GE/NBC. Something told me they stood the best chance of surviving the dot-com shakeout.
And, by the way, they were talking about paying about twice as much as I was currently making in San Jose. Housing in Seattle, where the job was, cost half as much.
It sounded too good to be true. I had been known as a bit of a techie, as well as a solid journalist and innovator, so the prospect of moving to cyberspace was intriguing. Still, something didn't feel right. But I decided I at least had to check it out.
Back in San Jose, life was good. The editor and I had been having long-term, ongoing conversations about my next steps. I had joined the paper a decade earlier, worked my way up from design director to AME/Graphics to AME/News, running the daily 1A meetings. I had even taken a year away from being an AME to go back and become a reporter and assigning editor. After several years as an AME, now responsible for all the visual areas, the daily news operation, technology and online, I was starting to think about possible leadership roles in the news-gathering operations of the paper. So, after the MSNBC call came, and, after telling my bosses in San Jose about the MSNBC inquiry, things began to accelerate on that front as well.
I had scheduled a vacation around Christmas - my wife and I were flying with our 3-month-old daughter to Florida to meet her grandparents - and I knew my time was tight. With all the other things now in motion, I thought I needed to see quickly what the MSNBC deal was really all about, so I could know whether to proceed or cut bait early. I really didn't want to waste anyone's time.
So, the Tuesday before the Christmas vacation, I hopped on a flight to Seattle and spent the day at the Microsoft campus in Redmond. It was a beautiful complex, with rolling green hills and warm, brick and metal buildings. I parked my rental car and walked through the brisk, Northwest morning air toward a cluster of buildings.
I found the building I was looking for, and met with one of their day-side editors over coffee in one
of their many cafeterias (catered, of course, by Starbucks). He was a charming, energetic man with a British accent.
He talked about their urgency, how they were up against CNN.com every day, how they coordinate news coverage with New York, how their staff was a mix of ex-newspaper people and ex-broadcast people, with a few engineers thrown in for flavor. He talked about news, he talked about editing, he talked about writing and he even talked about the importance of graphics.
But, as I listened to him and others there during the day, one thing became painfully obvious. As good a news operation as it was - and MSNBC was among the best at what they do - and as appealing a place it would be to work - I went to school in Seattle and have always wanted to return there to raise my family and settle down - something was missing.
A soul was missing.
At that time, before the Web world imploded, news Web sites like MSNBC were drawing talent like moths to a flame. They were the hot place to work, paid big money, and often did excellent work. In fact, Microsoft and MSNBC alone had previously lured away at least a half dozen Mercury News writers and editors over the past few years.
But, as time went by, reality set in. Often, too many of the jobs at news Web sites were nothing more than shoveling copy from one place to another, copy that was as often about some scandal in Washington as it was about a snowstorm in Buffalo. In their quest to elevate news of the moment, they had reduced news to a simple commodity.
What was missing, however, was the direct, tangible connection to readers and to a community.
What was missing was a soul.
As I flew back to San Jose from Seattle that day, I knew this wasn't the right thing for me. I knew I needed to be working in a place, and each day creating an instrument, that would reach out and connect with my neighbors and make an instant difference in their lives. I knew that I was simply unwilling to trade the image of a young woman sitting at a Noah's Bagels, sipping her coffee, reading her morning Mercury News and learning something about her community. I was unwilling to trade that for the image of a drive-by tech junkie, clicking on my news site for a few brief seconds a day, in between downloading MP3s, answering e-mails and ordering plane tickets.
I wanted to work on something that really mattered. And that thing was called a newspaper.
So yes, I ended up staying at the Mercury News.
I was later promoted to deputy managing editor, responsible for the local, city, regional and state news operation, overseeing nearly 200 journalists and a $12 million budget. From there, I was chosen as one of the prestigious Nieman Fellows at Harvard University, spending a year opening up my mind.
And, following that year, I will return to San Jose, but as Knight Ridder's assistant vice president for news, helping guide the journalism for 31 newspapers nationwide.
I will still be connected to our communities. I will still be helping to create newspapers.
Why? Because it matters to my neighbors. It matters to my community. And it matters to my soul.