Talking Shop: Carla Savalli

Spokesman-Review AME on why she quit, and why people will eventually pay good money to read newspapers

Last Thursday, Steven A. Smith resigned as editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, after he was ordered by his publisher to cut 25 percent of the editorial staff. Later that same day, assistant managing editor Carla Savalli followed Smith out the door. Savalli, considered a rising star at the Spokesman-Review, had been instrumental in plotting the paper’s new media strategy. CJR’s Megan McGinley spoke with Savalli on Friday.

CJR: Many on the paper’s staff saw you as eventually taking over the editor’s chair. Given that likelihood of being in a position to put your imprint on the paper, why did you resign?

Carla Savalli: I didn’t resign to send a message. I resigned because it was the right time given the volatility of the industry and of the cuts in this newsroom. It’s a devastating cut and I didn’t feel like I had as much heart as I used to to keep going. Let me also say that I absolutely respect the right of our publisher [W. Stacey Cowles] to make the business decisions he has to make for the betterment of this paper. We journalists don’t want to think about the business while we’re in the newsroom, and, there was a time when we didn’t have to. Now we do and that’s just the reality.

CJR: Do you think it’s possible to find that balance between technological innovation and dedication to public service journalism?

CS: Absolutely. I don’t think you can have technology without that foundation [of public-service journalism]. There are some who are holdouts in incorporating the newsroom with multimedia. I’m not one of them, though. But above all else, you have to have the foundation of good journalism that people rely on to be informed citizens. To me, that’s the bottom line. We just need to build on that and to learn how to tell stories differently, depending on the platform we’re using.

CJR: What needs to happen for these two things to coexist?

CS: I wish I had the answer to that. I think newsrooms need to have a certain number of resources to make that balance work. You need people who are willing to learn and experiment. You need editors and reporters who can also work on professional development and growth, and establish strategic plans for the newsroom. You need publishers who are supportive of that notion as well. Technology is expensive, though, and so are the human resources necessary to make this happen. It’s a difficult climate right now, but it has to be a vision that each party embraces. You have to have support for it to work. But, as the situation gets more critical, we can’t just focus on print. It’s being eroded. We need other revenue streams, which we’ve developed here at the Spokesman. You need to keep an eye on the core of journalism, though. It’s not just a business.

CJR: But until we get that right, how are publishers supposed to keep newspapers profitable? It seems as though they’re enacting these cuts because they just don’t know what to do anymore. Do they really have any other option at this point?

CS: I really don’t know. Publishers and media companies are doing what they have to do, and journalists in the newsrooms are doing what they have to do, too. We have a different mission, a different calling. And there’s a tension between the two right now. But I don’t know if there’s anything to be done. This may be a natural contraction in the industry right now and when we get to the other side, it may just be that the most viable publications will remain. Maybe out of that will come a new business model. But I just don’t know the answer to that.

MM: Do journalists themselves need to change to adapt to this new reality? If so, how specifically?

CS: As much as we don’t want to know about the business side of things, I think we need to be more involved in that than we’re used to. You know, it’s not our job to be marketing experts, or great advertisers, but we have to have a better global understanding of the pressures on the industry. […] We have to accept that we can no longer work in a vacuum and that we have to think of the larger picture. Now, that doesn’t have to be more important than our work, but we need to be more aware. We’re not doing anything wrong, but maybe we’re not as relevant as we need to be. Reading habits have obviously changed somewhat, and I think newsrooms could edit content for more relevancy [to people’s everyday lives].

MM: How do you mean?

CS: I think we still have some biases and what we want to cover may not be what they want to read. We tend to pick lofty topics and put all the things on A1 that appeal to us as journalists and wonks. If it’s not politics or deep analysis, then we don’t think it’s worth it. But I think there’s great value in putting a great read on the front. A real surprise. We’re not dumbing down the content, but it’s a surprise and will give people something to talk about. We can’t abandon our civic responsibility, or the boring but important stuff. That’s our mission, whether the readers want it or not. But they need a balance, with things that are happening in their neighborhoods, their schools, their churches. I don’t know if doing stuff like that will reverse the slide, but our readers have to be able to see themselves inside our newspaper.

MM: Do you think print newspapers will survive?

CS: I think they will continue to exist, but there might just be fewer. It just may be the very best will remain in print, and many others will move entirely online. But journalists aren’t going to go away. The pipeline for information is bigger than ever, and we really need gatekeepers to help us analyze content, and edit it, and give readers a road map for where to go to get the best information.

MM: Why is it important that they survive?

CS: Well, I’m obviously biased. I think that there’s something wonderful about the physical feel and smell of a newspaper. I think it’s easier to read a newspaper, since you can skim and look horizontally across all the pages and come back to things easily. In terms of utility, it’s definitely easier. But some people prefer the Web. So I think we need become more like information companies that publish around the clock on a variety of platforms. I think newspapers will eventually become niche products, edited for those people who want to read a specific thing. They’ll be smaller, and published less frequently. But they’ll be full of analysis and contextual reporting and will be a perfect complement to the Web. I think they will exist and people will pay more money than they do now for them.

MM: Is it more important to find ways to sustain public-service journalism regardless of where it is done and by whom, than to devote all of our energies to keeping traditional newspapers alive?

CS: I think that would be shortsighted. As my colleague Steve Smith told the Knight Digital Media Center, we need to focus on preserving journalism and its values, not just newspapers. I agree with that to a point, because I think it’s important to sustain civic journalism. It’s the foundation of what we do. But as I said before, my point is that we need to be globally aware. We need to understand the business pressures and work with them and influence the conditions when we can. We have to care, because if there’s no platform of any kind, then what good is the work that we do?

MM: What’s next for you?

CS: I’m a journalist. I just don’t know what my next job will be. That’s the exciting part, though. I’m comfortable with my decision and I’m looking forward to advancing. It’s sort of a second chance to do something else. But I don’t have any plans yet—check with me in six months! Right now I’m just ready to sit and be thoughtful, to think of what I might do, of what I could do.

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Megan McGinley is an intern at CJR.