In terms of missing something or wishing we had done something differently, it is just the overwhelming scale of the disaster and the knowledge that if we had a thousand reporters and photographers that there would still be big stories that would remain untold, and learning how to pace ourselves to tell the story over the long haul.
LCB: You were hired as executive editor of the Daily Oklahoman a few months after CJR dubbed it it “The Worst Newspaper in America,” and “a fat, incurious monopoly” that was “locally known as the Daily Disappointment.” Why did you want that job? And, although you were there for less than a year, plenty of people — including CJR — were enthusiastic about the changes you made there. What did you take away from that experience?
ST: I was offered the job, and after reflection I accepted. Accepting the challenge was consistent with my career and to some extent the general pursuit of the American dream. The paper was about twice the size of the Mobile Register, and I saw a great opportunity to provide journalistic service to an entire state. I think the newspaper succeeded in that regard during my stewardship. I left Oklahoma a better editor and with good memories of the many who received us warmly during my sojourn there.
LCB: We were put in touch by a PR firm that contacted us to say you would be in New York this week and available to talk about the Sun Herald’s Katrina coverage. Why now? Seems like part of a Knight Ridder good will/PR push. Is this the good news story Knight Ridder has to tell these days?
ST: It had long been planned for me to be in New York to address students at Columbia University on the Sun Herald Katrina coverage (even though I ultimately had to cancel because of pressing duties in Mississippi). I believe the firm’s intention was to simply make me available to you for an interview and the decision was yours as to whether you believed that would be newsworthy. As this question suggests, you are perfectly free to ask whatever you like. I truly don’t believe it is part of any “PR push,” but you would have to ask someone else that question.
LCB: Five years ago, you were quoted in a CJR article fantasizing about something you dubbed “The Newsroom Trust,” whereby a certain percentage of a newspaper’s profits would be set aside for “the operation of a superior newsroom,” “above and beyond the regular newsroom budget … [to] allow for excellence that many editors no longer see possible.” Where does this fantasy stand today, in light of all the cuts your parent company and its peers are making?
ST: I think the “Newsroom Trust” idea is one that still has value, perhaps more than ever. I don’t think of it so much as a fantasy — instead, I think it is a serious idea that deserves a broader discussion.
I imagine, however, that very few of your readers will have any knowledge of the general idea, so let me quickly try to outline how the Newsroom Trust would work.
It begins with the premise that while a newspaper is a business, it is not just a business. The news and information a newspaper provides has a civic value that is separate and apart from any business or financial plan.
In the modern era, where most newspapers exist in a publicly-held arena and are subject to market pressures that impact journalistic quality, it would be important to create a mechanism that protects the journalistic enterprise from those pressures.
The Newsroom Trust would be that mechanism, providing for a universally agreed upon minimum funding base which would be regarded as sacrosanct and untouchable.
The Trust would be based on a principle such as percentage of the local paper’s profit margin, or share of the overall paper’s annual budget.
If all newspapers were subject to this requirement there would be no advantage gained from cutbacks in news-gathering activities. Those companies who wanted to spend more obviously could, but all would be expected to spend the minimal or foundational base amount to produce the news and information necessary to meet the civic needs of the communities served.
There is a lot more to the idea, and I would welcome a discussion that might add other layers of thinking to how the trust might serve to protect the valuable journalistic franchise which I believe actually has a core financial worth in addition to its civic value.