After a year of change, new publisher looks to make his mark at Cincinnati Enquirer

Photo: AP

The past year has been a time of turnover at the Cincinnati Enquirer—and it’s not over yet.

Last week, the Enquirer announced that Carolyn Washburn, the top editor, had left the paper, and a national search for a successor was being launched. The news came just 10 weeks into the tenure of Rick Green, the new publisher and president of Enquirer Media, who is also making his mark in other ways: Green has tapped a new name to the Enquirer’s editorial board, and, I’m told, he has spent more time in the newsroom than the staff is accustomed to seeing from a publisher.

Washburn’s departure was abrupt. Enquirer journalists learned the news at a morning meeting on May 14, at which she was not present. By 10 am that day, the Enquirer had shared the news on Twitter. The job opening was posted the same day. (The Enquirer’s director of multimedia and visuals, Michael McCarter, is serving as interim editor.)

“It’s a good move for both of us,” Green said in an interview, describing Washburn as “someone I respect and have known for a long time, and I appreciate her great passion for the Enquirer.” He did not offer more details about the circumstances of her departure.

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CJR’s attempts to reach Washburn were unsuccessful. In an email to Cincinnati Business Courier, she said, “I have increasing passion about some issues in the community that I’d like to be involved with differently… And with a new publisher coming in, it’s a good time to let him form his own team.”

A Cincinnati native, Washburn had been the top editor for four years–a turbulent period for the Enquirer, and many other newspapers. (In a coincidence that is perhaps indicative of newspaper chain-style reshuffling, after she left the editorship of the Des Moines Register to accept the Cincy job in 2011, it was Green–himself an Ohio native who built his career in the Enquirer newsroom–who filled her position in Iowa.) As editor, she oversaw buyouts and layoffs, as well as some standout reporting, and saw printing operations moved to Columbus. Design and layout are now done in Louisville.

Then, last fall, Washburn was in charge when the Gannett-wide restructuring dubbed the “newsroom of the future” came to Cincinnati. New beats were created; staff were required to re-apply for jobs; editors became “coaches” and “strategists”; and reporters adjusted to a new workflow and, in some cases, new expectations about interactions with ad reps. The dedicated copy desk was eliminated, and when Washburn sent a memo to reporters about the rise in reader complaints, it was leaked to Jim Romenesko’s blog—but the complaints continued.

The Enquirer also saw an unexpectedly large exodus of newsroom veterans who opted to leave the paper rather than apply for new jobs. Among them was news director Laura Trujillo, who had been recruited to the Enquirer from the Arizona Republic and now works in corporate communications; Mark Curnutte, who covered social justice issues and focused attention on city’s poorer neighborhoods; and Butler County political reporter Sheila McLaughlin. The newsroom now has fewer than 90 employees, and the median age is younger than it was, though some of the longtime employees who left have recently returned.

Patricia Gallagher Newberry, who worked in the Enquirer newsroom until 1995 and now observes the paper from her faculty post at Miami University of Ohio, describes herself as a “Carolyn Washburn fan,” and pointed to numerous reporting projects that won her admiration. She also said that Washburn’s departure wasn’t surprising, and that in her view no editor would be able to put out an excellent publication with the kind of cuts and staff loss that the Enquirer has endured.

“You just can’t continue to do quality journalism if you have a bunch of young, unseasoned–I don’t want to say novices, but people who are new to town, and don’t even know what the issues are yet,” Newberry said. She added: “You’re just not seeing high-impact projects that make the paper worth buying and the website worth visiting on a regular basis.”

For his part, Green, the publisher, is bullish on the potential to do big things. “We’re building a great story here. We want to prove you can be a highly successful metropolitan news site,” he said.

While he’s careful to describe the Enquirer as a digital product, as he talked about the search for a new editor, Green put as much emphasis on what he called “really high emotional intelligence” and strong “soft skills” as on online savvy or conventional journalistic credentials. A day after Washburn’s departure was announced, he said he had a list of eight candidates in mind from “literally across the country.”

“Three or four years ago, a publisher like me filling an editor job would look for the best damn editor out there, with the most awards and the best journalism pedigree,” he said. “I still want that person. I want that hard-charging, highly successful, First Amendment-defending top editor. But I also know that the way in which we daily manage our staff is far different. I believe that emotional intelligence is crucial. You can have high standards and tremendous experience and things you want to accomplish journalistically, but you also have to get people to follow you, to buy in to your vision.”

Meanwhile, other changes are afoot. “I’m looking at our editorial board and I don’t think it fully represents the diversity and experience of Greater Cincinnati,” Green said. Last week, Byron McCauley, content coach for Enquirer Media’s chain of suburban weeklies, joined the board; McCauley is an African American father of three who lives in the suburbs, and, Green said, a “damn good journalist.” The Enquirer is also seeking to hire an investigative editor, and earlier this year the paper launched a popular storytelling event series, led by reporter John Faherty.

As it charts its path, the Enquirer is also facing renewed competition in its home market. WCPO, the city’s ABC station, has upped its online game with a longform section that has lured over at least one former Enquirer reporter. (It is also the one of the first TV stations in the nation to develop a paywall.) The startup UrbanCincy.com has carved out a niche on development and urban planning issues.

Still, the Enquirer remains a critical news source in the region of more than 2 million people, with a history to match its significance: The paper is barreling toward its 175th anniversary next April. “We’re planning a huge celebration,” Green said. “We’ve already started blue-skying.”

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Anna Clark is CJR’s correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.