Josh Awtry on taking his innovative road show to the Carolinas

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As editor of the Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho, and The Coloradoan of Fort Collins, Josh Awtry’s stints were short, but impactful. At both papers, he fortified a commitment to service journalism in both print and digital formats while also redesigning the publications in a very tight time frame. In 2012, Josh 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.

It typically takes years to change a newsroom’s culture and effect substantive change. How were you able to get buy-in from your last two newsrooms, and their communities, to turn things around so quickly?

Making sure a newsroom has your back can be tough at first. For someone who doesn’t believe in tracing others’ footsteps, there is justifiable skepticism from a cadre of people all too used to snake oil salesmen or glossy elevator pitches.

In short, you have to earn your stripes at every paper. And I think that’s a good thing.

In a newsroom, all it takes is a little success, and the realist personalities who make journalists so good at their jobs transmute that skepticism into belief. When a team feels a tangible change in how the community responds to them, or sees revenue jump because advertisers see improvements in our products, or sees digital readership and online paid circulation start climbing faster than anywhere else, the concept of “buy in” is replaced by one of innovation and risk taking.

Getting those initial successes are the hard part. After that, the team picks up the slack and starts pulling you along. And that’s one of the most euphoric feelings any leader can have.

The same goes for the community. I don’t mind if readers are skeptical — they have every right to be. All it takes to bring a community around is an incredible suite of news products. Piece of cake, right?

Most newsrooms are adjusting to the reality that they must do more with less. How much emphasis do you put on restructuring management to create more content-generating positions? For example, do you choose to wear more hats as editor so that the newsroom can have that extra reporter?

As an introvert and devout INFP, uprooting lives and duties is one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do. At the same time, we owe it to readers to give them the best operation possible.

As newsroom size atrophied, more non-management duties were heaped onto managers. Org charts became horizontal, with a lot of managers not doing any personnel or staff development. They were doing so much reporting that there was no time for editing or coaching. Under this type of contraction, newsrooms became hamster wheels where the goal was just “to get the paper out.”

If we were creating a news operation today with 30, 60 or 100 journalists, what would that look like? Chances are, not what most structures reflect.

So, yes; we sometimes need to reset the board so that assigning editors have the time they need to develop talent, coach a staff and get out of the beat reporting gig. And likewise, we need to ensure that the topics we’re covering are the ones the audience is clamoring for — not simply what we’ve always reported on. That can mean fewer editors — but ones who have the time to edit and train — and more people proportionally in the community unearthing stories.

As we transition to becoming a business that’s increasingly centered around revenue and patronage directly from our readers (as opposed to largely getting paid by advertisers), it’s imperative we gear our shops to serve a community’s needs.

Investigative reporting requires resources. How do you balance the newspaper’s need to tell the deeper stories, while maintaining the punch to cover other critical beats?

Ask anyone who’s worked for me: Telling at least one phenomenal, dot-connecting, deep, enterprising, data-punchy story every day of the week is the backbone of where we need to be. That level of journalism can’t be matched by radio, TV or part-time bloggers.

But too many places have walked away from that in favor of feeding the beast.

Readers remember us more by what we achieve than what we leave out. If that cover story really is amazing, and hits on topics of square interest, we’ll see it reflected in the digital numbers. Good journalism can economically pencil.

I favor an approach that emphasizes a rotation for deep daily enterprise mixed with shorter items. That means that the middle ground, institutional, dutiful “dailies” get left on the cutting room floor. Beat checks are important, and reporters need to stay on their sources’ radars. But intensely cutting back on the piles of 15-inch stories gives us the time we need to tell quick 3-inch stories and amazing 40-inch stories.

In a perfect world, a paper and digital operation should feel more like the daily version of a weekly news magazine — a top-notch investigative cover story surrounded by several smaller items and commentary.

In the future, will newsrooms play a larger role in generating new revenue streams by marketing content directly to consumers?

Yes — this, a thousand times over. Newsrooms bristle at the word “marketing,” but that’s only because of the connotation. Ultimately, “marketing” is a combination of listening to readers, reacting, communicating and providing the service they ask of us. That shouldn’t be a scary thing.

The entire business model we’ve been predicated on — subsidizing news through demographic reach for advertisers — is changing. The future will no doubt continue to have advertising as a part of our portfolio, but the coming decade will place a greater emphasis on direct patronage from the community.

In short, readers are going to be footing a greater portion of the bill.

This is exciting, and nothing to be afraid of — it puts newsrooms in the driver’s seat to improve the health and viability of their own teams.

The only scary part is that too many newsrooms are ill-equipped to have open dialogue with their community. Opening our ears and “doing the people’s work” is a new concept to journalists who have been accustomed to holding readers at arms’ length.

To your point above, news isn’t free. We’ve done a poor job of telling readers that. We need to trumpet that, while other people go to work as plumbers and bank tellers, we go to work to answer questions the community has. We are its inquisitive side, working on its behalf while it busies itself with supporting families and earning paychecks.

We need to remind people to use us as that resource, and that, in exchange, we ask for their support. That message must be delivered not from disengaged marketing departments, but from the people that put their shoes on the pavement on readers’ behalf every day.

You’re digitally savvy and a fierce advocate of connecting with readers through social media. What benefits have you seen from this approach?

Some might say too fierce. I’m downright chatty online — I believe our conversations between journalists and the public have gotten too serious, and we’ve lost some of our humanity on the road to impartiality.

There are two distinct types of readers emerging. One, I’ll call “classic” readers. They want the news, and they want it presented with intelligence and reported through to completion. No interaction is required — or requested.

The other segment wants a personal connection to news.

As sausage makers, here’s a butcher analogy: Plenty of people are OK walking in to the meat department and picking up a package of steaks. The other segment, though, wants to know where the meat came from. Was it locally sourced? Grass fed? Is it the farm down the street?

When the public trusts not just the core brand, but the individuals under its umbrella, we’re stronger as a result. The trick is that marketing and social chattiness can’t come before great work. We have to earn our cred in the community before we can trumpet it.

There’s often an assumption that Gannett rules its properties with a heavy fist from the corporate level. It appears you’ve been afforded significant leeway in how you structure your newsrooms. Does Gannett’s involvement end with offering you guidelines for performance?

Growing up working for other companies, I’d heard similar things. But in my two years with this company, I’ve found them incredibly open, and they give editors an incredible amount of leeway. It’s a great company for journalists who want to take some risks and try to make modern newsrooms pencil. Honestly, I’ve had a blast so far.

The company doesn’t write a script for how to save newsrooms, but they help discover tactics you can use to find your own insights. Example: They don’t tell newsrooms what topics to cover — Phoenix is about as unlike Poughkeepsie as you can imagine — but they give you tips on what rocks to turn over to figure out what those topics could be. Resources like that save us from re-inventing the wheel and let us focus on the journalism part.

This is the first of a two-part series. The rest of the interview is published here.

"... You have to earn your stripes at every paper. And I think that’s a good thing."

— Josh Awtry