Josh Awtry Q&A Part 2: On design hubs, new challenges and killing Peanuts

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Josh Awtry served brief, but impactful, stints as editor of the Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho, and The Coloradoan of Fort Collins, where he fortified a commitment to service journalism while also redesigning the publications in a very tight time frame. In 2012, he was named Gannett’s Innovator of the Year.

Now he’s rooted in the Blue Ridge Mountains, accepting the challenge of leading the Asheville Citizen-Times and The Greenville News.

As he settles into his new role, we asked Josh to share his thoughts on innovation, his career path and the state of the industry. This is the second part of our conversation;  part one is here.

There are worse places to be based than Asheville in the fall. But Fort Collins is also a beautiful area, so what made the opening in the Carolinas attractive at this point in your career?

Leaving Fort Collins was tough. We loved that town dearly, and expected to be there a long time — heck, we’d just bought a house seven months ago.

But, at the same time, several factors coalesced. One, The Coloradoan underwent an amazing transformation. The staff was galvanized, revenue was climbing, digital readership was higher than it had been in years and community feedback was great. I found myself staring at the ceiling at night, wondering what places we could go together next. There was a plateau in our evolution — not an end point, but a place that was the perfect spot to set up camp and approach an all new set of challenges.

It was the perfect time to bow out of the spotlight and cede the course to someone who can bring entirely new ideas to the table. The leaders in that newsroom will take the place to all-new heights — I can’t say enough good things about every one of them.

Likewise, my wife and I have always had a soft spot for the Blue Ridge and Smoky mountains. We used to vacation here back in our Myrtle Beach days. I always said that, if I could choose, I’d never live somewhere I couldn’t see a mountain again, and that rules out a lot of places. This is a gorgeous, lush and verdant place, and the mossy hikes and waterfalls presented an amazing opportunity.

Plus, I’m a sucker for a fresh challenge. I like meeting new people and seeing what we can learn as we try to solve the journalistic equation in an all-new place.

On the design side, how involved are you with the Design Studios? You had Colin Smith as your team leader in Phoenix and had worked together before. In the Carolinas, you’ll be working with the Louisville studio. Do you give a general vision of your preferences or are you hands-on?

Colin Smith is an über-talent. He’s twice the designer I am (Colin would humbly say three times the designer), and also a good friend. I won’t lie — I’m going to miss his expertise.

When it comes to design, I’ve been more hands-on than I’d like to be. Going hands on to make a sketch or mockup can give a young designer a path to getting out of a rut. It’s something I’d rather not do — I still remember the burn of having to actualize someone else’s sketch — but, especially with new teams, it can help to get our volume levels in sync and help us build a shared vocabulary. After doing that a bit, we’ll have similar styles in our heads when we say, “make it big!”

On the topic of the Studios, do you miss having your own desk on site, or has technology made this an outmoded approach? Do you think more newspaper chains will consider a hub-based setup?

Like most editors out there, I was nervous about a loss of control with the move to the studios and designers that weren’t in the same room.

But it hasn’t panned out that way. The studios are made up of people, just like any newsroom. You get everything from enterprising designers, content-minded designers, veterans or rookies to inquisitors and paginators — just like anywhere else. The trick is in team-building from a few states away.

The one aspect of the studio that can be at risk without people in local shops is the nuance of experimentation. The “what ifs” that come from the best designers can be lost without a receptive back and forth between the designer and local editors. Ultimately, like I said, people are people — with the right communication, anything is possible.

What is the worst feature that newspapers still offer? How about the most under-appreciated feature newspapers offer that journalists overlook, but readers covet?

That’s a great question. As the Guy Who Once Killed Peanuts, I’m coming to learn that some of these features have a longer shelf life than we think. The heady days of when we thought we could woo a generation over to a broadsheet are fading fast, and our print readers ask for a modicum of consistency.

I would be hesitant to pull the weather page — there’s still pleasure and information to be found in tracing high and low ribbons and data wonks love the almanac information.

But stocks? Especially listings that don’t involve local companies? I think it’s time.

You’re one of the youngest newspaper editors in the country. Could your success open doors for young journalists to take the leadership reins or to try bolder approaches in their local markets?

Ha! I’m a stone’s throw from 40 — I keep wondering when people will stop calling me young!

I don’t think it has anything to do with age — as long as your mind is nimble and spry, things will work out fine. Likewise, it’s important to young journalists that they don’t lose the traditions of the past. Hold close what has worked — good, shoe-leather journalism and knowing that news decidedly never happens in a newsroom — and meld that to digital analytics and deep dives on reader habits

Ultimately, this is an amazing time to be in journalism. Fifty years ago, journalists knew exactly what they needed to succeed; 50 years from now, they’ll have all of this transitory stuff figured out.

But right now — this decade — we get to determine the course of the future. It’s a heady responsibility, and I love every day on the job.

Give us a memorable moment … 

It was last year, during a Coloradoan staff retreat. As part of the exercises, we were going around the room, talking about our proudest moment in recent memory.

One journalist had been a fairly steady adversary when I came to the Coloradoan, and had undergone a major career shift as part of our restructuring. The round-robin came to her at the retreat; she looked over at me and said that her proudest moment was “when we stopped talking about filling the paper and started talking about journalism. I never thought I’d see that again.”

Wow. How many times does a person get moved to tears at a corporate retreat? Today I number that journalist among my closest allies and friends. It was a vote of confidence that we were headed in the right direction, and validation that the uncomfortable moves we sometimes have to make can make us all stronger in the end.

A close second would have been the feeling I got when a reader “knitted” a doormat out of a year’s worth of newspaper poly bags as a “thank you.”

And one you’d rather forget …

There are two things that I carry around. Once, to save my budget for news stringers, I axed the Peanuts comic strip. It had been in reruns for 11 years, and I figured that the money could be better used for local news coverage. Readers heartily disagreed, and, to this day, any work I did at that paper would be overshadowed by my legacy as “the editor who killed Peanuts.”

Also, when I was in college, I redesigned my college paper to make it “cooler,” which mostly consisted of adding a lens flare to the nameplate. I feel totally bad about that.

"Hold close what has worked — good, shoe-leather journalism and knowing that news decidedly never happens in a newsroom — and meld that to digital analytics and deep dives on reader habits."

— Josh Awtry