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Nov. 7, 2011, 11:30 a.m.

John Robinson: “Find thinkers who will challenge you,” and more advice for newspaper editors

The innovative North Carolina editor says newspaper leaders still need to have guts — but a different kind of guts from the good old days.

When John Robinson, longtime editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina, announced his resignation from the paper last week, the news was met with accolades. “One of journalism’s best editors,” Steve Buttry called him. “One of the best editors I know,” Jay Rosen had it. “Exemplary man, inspiring journalist.”

Though the News & Record is often referred to as a “community newspaper,” it’s actually just large enough that the “community” side of its identity isn’t necessarily implicit. It can easily fall prey to the challenges that larger papers face: detached journalists, institutional walls, and the like. For Robinson, community engagement hasn’t been a given so much as a strategy. And while he’s been influenced in his approaches by new media thinkers like Rosen, he’s applied their advice to the place where it can be most effective: the trenches of daily newspapering.

I caught up with Robinson to get his thoughts on the state of the industry and to see what advice he has to offer for the News & Record’s next editor — and for news editors more broadly.

Be gutsy — about change as well as tradition

“Editors, at least in the newspaper business, tend to be pretty gutsy,” Robinson points out. “You have to have guts to be an editor of a newspaper, particularly now.” But, then, “it’s guts in all the traditional ways: You push back against public officials who do wrong, and you listen to callers bitch about your bias, and you push back with them, and you stand up for truth, justice, and the American way.”

What editors really need right now, Robinson says, “is guts to do the nontraditional things”: to consider new approaches to newsgathering and dissemination, to be open to new ways of knowing the community they’re meant to serve. A big part of that, for editors, is simply — publicly — showing up. “Frankly, there are too few of them being active,” Robinson says — “or, actively being relevant.”

Find thinkers who will challenge you

Discovering the work of new media thinkers like Rosen, Jeff Jarvis, Dan Gillmor, and Terry Heaton, Robinson says, “caused me to try to peer around corners and see what’s coming up and question some of the traditional, newspaper-bound ideas I had. It really was just a revelation, trying to think through the provocative things that they write.”

The arguments that those thinkers make — about the need for transparency in reporting, about the power of new technologies to change how journalism is done — are largely right, Robinson says. But “my guess is that most editors either don’t buy that, or, worse, they don’t think about it very much. And that’s not good.”

That’s a particular problem given that, increasingly, editors are required to be innovators as much as managers. And finding colleagues who “challenge you to think differently,” Robinson says — colleagues like Jarvis and Rosen and their fellow thinkers — will help editors to merge those two identities. “If I were advising someone,” Robinson says, “I’d say, ‘Follow those guys. And figure out your own stimulating, provocative thinkers who make you question what you do.'”

Cultivate intimacy with your community

Robinson used to have a policy that “every new hire needed to go down and work in Customer Service for a week and answer the phones and talk to the people,” Robinson notes. “The journalists who did it hated it, as you can imagine” — largely because “most of the complaints weren’t about journalism; they were about late deliveries and wet papers and things.” While the paper didn’t hire enough new people to make that policy a regular practice, while it was around, it was a way to get new hires into a customer-oriented mindset that, ideally, they’d carry on into their reporting.

“People don’t get into the business to talk to readers,” Robinson points out. “They get into the business to report and tell readers what they’ve learned. That’s a distinct difference that we need to break down.”

In particular, he notes, editors would do well to cultivate new ways of seeing their constituencies. “If all you know about readers is getting letters to the editor and reading comments on your own website’s stories — and seeing how mean-spirited people can be — if that’s your view of the world, then I don’t blame anybody for not being accessible or talking with readers,” Robinson says. But “being intimate with readers is vital — even though they can be irritating at times. Well, you know, so can I. So.”

Carve time for engagement into reporters’ schedules

“I think the biggest problem with journalists is time,” Robinson says. “It takes time to deal with readers. At my shop, we pay people for 7.5 hours of work [a day]. And most of those 7.5 hours of work, I expect them to be reporting and writing.”

But the journalists are also being asked to respond to comments and emails from readers, and to monitor local blogs connected to their beats to stay abreast of the conversations that are happening there. It becomes a question of “what am I not going to do?” Robinson says.

So the time pressures involved in daily journalism “are one obstacle to get over — particularly now, when the technological environment is changing so quickly.”

Acknowledge mistakes openly

“One of the things that I’ve always tried to do is be direct and honest and not spin stuff and acknowledge my mistakes,” Robinson says.

That’s advice for larger papers, in particular. “If you’re a small newspaper, and smaller than ours, the whole issue of being accessible…is probably easier,” Robinson points out. “But once you get to a paper my size and larger, it’s easy to avoid readers. It’s easy to spin and obfuscate. “But openness — no matter the size of the paper — has to be a key ethic. “You would think that, for newspaper editors,” Robinson says, “that would be at the core of their existence.”

Respect the audience’s intelligence

Some of the biggest news stories of the past week, Robinson points out, involved Lindsay Lohan and Kim Kardashian. TV may be the key culprit in that, but the gossip ethic trickles down to newspapers, as well. As Robinson puts it: “We’re writing about stupid people doing stupid things, and we really need to be writing about smart people doing smart things.”

Let’s try reversing that, he says. At the News & Record, “we’re going to try to write about things that matter a little more universally.”

Respect the value of the niche

Newspapers no longer have to be everything to everyone. TV does its thing; community blogs do theirs. “People don’t buy our newspaper to see the crime-of-the-day story; they get that on TV.” A paper that’s liberated to do the reporting it deems most important can be a powerful thing. As Robinson puts it: “The sooner that we grasp that we aren’t mass anymore — that there is really no mass, that everything is broken apart — the better.”

POSTED     Nov. 7, 2011, 11:30 a.m.
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