Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A sudden change of plans

That's me on the left. George Wilson (center) hired me in 1978, and Tom W. Gerber (right) was my predecessor as editor. 
An item in Monday's Concord Monitor announced the departure of Mark Travis, the publisher and editor of the paper, and my return to the editor's chair for a few months to help the paper through the transition. Since my new duties will affect this blog, at least for a while, I thought I'd share a column I wrote about the change for today's Monitor:

Maybe you saw the notice in yesterday’s paper that I am back at the Monitor. At my age, I should know better.

What am I doing here? I was nearly six years into a retirement I loved when it occurred to me that the Monitor might need me. This was not a case of a retiree bored with still wearing pajamas at noon. Nor did I find the four freedoms – travel, walk in the woods, write whatever and whenever I want, spend time with my wife – unfulfilling in any sense.

My habits suit me fine. I read three newspapers a day. I read the New Yorker. I read books. I started a blog 15 months ago and have written nearly 200 posts. I have published three books since retiring. Monique and I have visited Florence, Rome, Dublin, many warm places south of here in winter, Civil War battlefields and much more. We go to yoga three or four times a week when we are in Concord. We love British (and Swedish and French) mysteries on television.

To make time for all this, I have remained blissfully ignorant of modern technology and communications. My fingers are too old, slow and clumsy to text, and I have never tweeted. I see social media as a time suck. I don’t have an iPod, iPhone or iPad. I tried a Kindle and hated it. I understand the wonders of all these devices but live happily without them.

One of the newspapers I read is the Monitor, which I edited for 30 years. I have stayed in touch with longtime colleagues there. I have watched the paper struggle in tough times for all newspapers, and I have winced at its inevitable problems.

When my good friend Mark Travis decided to leave as publisher and executive editor to go to work for an internet startup, I knew the Monitor would need help in the transition. This set the wheels turning. Because I know the paper, and know how much the paper means to Concord and the surrounding towns, it struck me that I might be the best person for the job.

Aaron Julien, president of the Monitor’s parent company, invited me to return. I’ve known Aaron for a long time, too. Years ago, Monique and I danced at his wedding on Fisk Hill. His bride was – is – Abby Wilson Julien, daughter of George and Marily Wilson, who brought me to Concord during a winter like this one 36 years ago. George was the paper’s publisher at the time.

My goals in the next three months are to help select an editor and publisher, evaluate the news operation, make recommendations and guide the news staff. I will work closely with old friend Felice Belman, who became the Monitor’s opinion editor seven months ago and created the paper’s innovative, reader-driven Forum pages. My hope is that we can migrate her approach to those pages to other sections of the paper. I’ll also call on another old friend, Ric Tracewski, the veteran managing editor, to help rethink the paper’s direction in several areas.

When I first walked into the newsroom last week, I was sleepy and self-conscious. I’m more than 40 years older than many of the editors, reporters and photographers. Why wouldn’t they view me as a fossil with sudden and murky but real power over their future? In the rocky world of newspapering in the 21st century, why should they trust a technophobic, old-school editor?

I had no preconceived notion of how to find common ground with this younger generation, but I did have experience entering newsrooms as an outsider with authority. During my career I started each editing job – four of them – by critiquing the local news report. My style in these critiques is constructive but frank. So that’s what I began doing last week at the Monitor.

The critiques aim to encourage and to incite. By recognizing good work publicly, you get more good work. By sharing techniques for improving the presentation of news, you raise journalism standards.

I don’t underestimate the challenge facing the Monitor or overestimate the difference I can make in three months, but I’m confident I’m on the right track. Wherever journalism is headed, readers will need savvy storytellers with strong values. The Monitor has been blessed with such journalists for decades, and the goal is to keep a good thing going.

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