Yesterday was a busy one for Josh Awtry. He was one of a handful of editors at Gannett-owned papers around the country who spent the day explaining to reporters and staff the specifics of some big changes coming their way. Gannett, which recently announced it is splitting its publishing and broadcast divisions into separate businesses, will also see several newsrooms restructured in the coming weeks.
As Poynter’s Sam Kirkland reported, Awtry, who leads North Carolina’s Asheville Citizen-Times and The Greenville News in South Carolina, was one of at least five Gannett editors to pen an open letter to readers about what to expect. At The Tennessean, editor Stefanie Murray talked about “embarking on an ambitious project to create the newsroom of the future.” In Florida’s Pensacola News Journal, editor Lisa Nellessen-Lara said the paper would add two reporters, but lose two copyeditor positions. Editor Hollis Towns at New Jersey’s Asbury Park Press wrote that his paper will be putting more resources into digital production and “flattening our management structure to be more nimble, with fewer hierarchical reporting lines and fewer managers.” (Meanwhile, over at Jim Romenesko’s blog, sources were saying reporters at some Gannett papers would have to reapply for their jobs.)
In his own letter to readers of the Citizen-Times, Awtry wrote with excitement about changes at his paper, with the caveat that such “realigning will come with some pain.” I caught up with him late yesterday to see if he could shed any more light on what’s going on with the company and the newsrooms. He’s genuinely excited about his overhaul of the two papers he runs, and he puts on a bold face for Gannett. But he’s also frank about how the changes will affect lives and careers. What follows are excerpts from our conversation, edited for clarity:
In your letter you said the paper will have more reporters. Does that mean you’re going to hire more reporters, or are we talking about moving people from different positions into reporter roles?
It completely depends. We could have some people who are in editing roles, whether they reported in their past or had an interest in reporting, or there’s something about that that speaks to them and we think they’d be amazing at it, they will have first crack if that’s a role that really excites them.
What I want more than anything is a room full of people who love their job. I want a room full of people who have some passion for this, because I think it’s a freakin’ blast. This is an exciting business. I want other people who share that and if that editor feels some passion for reporting then I want that person to be there. At the same time, if we look at the journalists we have and we decide that we don’t have the right fit for that person after folks have gone through the application process, yeah, we will consider outside candidates.
For us it’s about developing what each community needs, and every newsroom, it’s my understanding, will look at this as very, very different. I’m probably one of the few papers out there now that will have a full-time beer reporter. Really it’s about finding the right structure and finding the perfect people who are going to do the perfect jobs in those roles, and I hope that those people come from within the organization if they have the right skills.
There’s been talk about reporters having to reapply for jobs at some of the other papers. Are newsroom employees at the Citizen-Times having to reapply for their jobs?
What I can say is that this is a test, and every single role in this is—and this not management-speak—every single role is hugely different. When we talk about the very concept of a reporter—what we are asking of a reporter—it might be things that we’ve verbally asked folks to do for years and some people have done those things and some people have not done those things, but we are asking everyone to think radically different.
And for someone like me who’s been here in this seat for six months, to point a finger and say, “Hey, you people I don’t think have the skills, you people I want you in those jobs,” to me that isn’t fair. I can speak as far as my newsrooms here in Asheville and Greenville, because these jobs are so different, [the best thing] is to actually ask people to step forward and say, “Yeah, you know I’m interested in this thing.” For someone who’s been in a particular reporting role for X amount of time, this is an opportunity for them to say, “I’m interested in this other thing, this sounds appealing to me.”