Late last year, Mike Wilson became the first person in 35 years from outside the offices of The Dallas Morning News to be named the paper’s top editor. The man he replaced, Bob Mong, joined the News in 1979, held the top job since 2001, and led his newsroom to nine Pulitzer Prizes. On February 16, Mong became editor emeritus and moved to the editorial offices upstairs from the newsroom to make way for Wilson, 54, who was quietly recruited over the final four months of 2014. Mong retired from the paper in May. (Full disclosure: I write a regular opinion column for the op-ed section of the News.)
Wilson’s career traces an interesting arc. He took part in the heyday of long-form literary journalism at The Miami Herald in the ‘80s and ‘90s, fighting newspaper wars in South Florida and later along the Gulf coast when he joined the St. Petersburg Times in 1995. “I feel like one of those guys who served in World War I, World War II and Korea,” Wilson told me of those years. “There was a lot of fear of being beaten by the competition.” At the Times, Wilson covered religion and ethics—including work on the paper’s investigation of the Church of Scientology as a managing editor, a post he took in 2009.
In December of 2013, Wilson jumped to the bold new world of data-driven digital news, joining Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com as managing editor. After nearly a year, he returned to newspapers, taking the helm at the News, where he faces his next battle of survival, of sorts. He recently wrote his first column for readers–an unassuming piece about summer interns, actually. He has also announced a series of buyouts for (167) newsroom staff and is planning a complete restructuring of the newsroom to flip the priorities of the delivery platforms for The News: digital first, followed by a high-quality metropolitan newspaper.
I recently talked to Wilson by phone about his time at FiveThirtyEight and his plans for the News. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
What did you learn about how digital was shaping not just the industry but newsgathering toward the end of your tenure at the St. Petersburg Times? And in 2013, you went to FiveThirtyEight. Here’s a literary journalism guy at the top of his game going to a data-driven, start-up, digital news site. What kind of move is that?
The decision was really personal, not so much professional. The last of [my] three kids graduated from high school in May 2013. [W]e were empty nesters; my former wife helped raise these kids in Clearwater, [Florida] along with me and my wife of 12 years, parenting cooperatively.
So when I looked around I thought that I’d never worked on the national stage and I wanted to do it. And I wanted to live in New York City where I met my second wife, Alisa. Right after that, my son sent me the job announcement posted by Nate Silver for FiveThirtyEight. I don’t think I was a sophisticated digital thinker when I was at St. Pete. I was kind of learning with everyone else.
That was a time of existential crisis for companies like ours. We were worried about survival all the time. Even so, I had a deep belief in what we did. If we weren’t putting time and money into those kinds of things [in-depth, enterprise, investigation and long-form narrative] then who would? I was sentimental about work that is important.
But part of the appeal was that for once [with ESPN’s backing] we were not worried about revenues. I had a mutual friend connect me with Nate. Nate is a very sweet, courtly person. He’s a really nice person. I started work on December 6, 2013, staffing up.
When I arrived there was no site design, no copy flow, no editors and no standards. On March 17th, we launched the website and the first six months it was like building the plane while flying the plane.
Compare what it’s like to produce data-driven stories versus the news, which sometimes is driven internally by investigations and enterprise but at least as often by events. Also, is it hard to do data-driven journalism? Isn’t there a lot of sifting through mounds of data kind of looking for the needle in the haystack?
Data stories are hard to publish because you have to get the data, which often isn’t easy, and then you have to analyze and make sense of it.
So, at FiveThirtyEight, we wanted stories that were going to be connected to the news. For Ferguson, for example, how many white police kill a black man and are prosecuted is an incredibly complicated story. It turns out that the federal data, for instance, is underreported. Days and days go by [before we publish something] whereas most journalists cover the protest.
Given the goals you had in going to FiveThirtyEight and New York, why did you leave so soon? You had only been there 10 months or so when James Moroney, the publisher of The Dallas Morning News, contacted you after contacting several candidates on a list that he had from Mong. Candidates needed to fit three requirements: experience running a big newsroom, an acumen for storytelling — and pure digital experience, a rare combination.
Yes, I had coffee with Jim in New York last August. We really hit it off. I liked the way he described his role as publisher and saving the democracy. [At an event held jointly by CJR and the University of Texas School of Journalism, Moroney pledged to continue to invest in accountability journalism even as digital eats away at profit margins, saying: “We are here to save the democracy.” It was an applause line nearly two years ago and continues to be one, it appears.]
I went home that night and talked to Alisa, who was really loving being in New York, and I mentioned living in Dallas. And she said: “Texas?” I was enjoying FiveThirtyEight and New York myself and didn’t want to leave either in a hurry. Jim sent follow-up emails about digital and investigative journalism. He also wanted to know who I am as a person. I think that I’m a very good communicator; I’m a pretty laid-back, soft-spoken person.
But it also helps to have someone just shoot from the hip. Jim has suggested that I look for those qualities in the people I surround myself with. It’s a good fit.
So you got the job. Was Bob Mong looking over your shoulder as you made the transition as sort of co-editor for a while? Since then you’ve announced a kind of overall vision for The News–and you’ve also announced buyouts which always make people jittery. What’s the plan and how are people taking it?
I talked to the staff in May, first. Essentially I urged people to imagine the newspaper we can be: A website which delivers vital information to North Texas quickly and also curates and produces a great city newspaper. But I also said that we were going to need new skill sets, which are now mostly print and need to be mostly digital. Through evolution or revolution we would need to do that.
A big number, about half of the staff, was within striking distance of retirement. Jim and I talked about that. And I’ll emphasize it’s a buyout, not a layoff. This will give some people the chance to retire or go do something new. For people who stay, the question is, will we help them learn the digital skills they’ll need? The answer is yes. But that’s where the anxiety is.
On the website, we’re organized by verticals–like news and sports, yes, but also, say, the Cowboys and education. We’re going to put digital editors in charge of each vertical. Then we’re going to curate the best of the work into a great [print] newspaper.
So we’re going to need web producers in every department. We’re going to need more people who can produce data visualization and more developers. And we all need to be better at building audience online. We are all salespeople now.
Our mission will be to deliver news and information of vital interest to the people of North Texas, as well as Texas… When I say Texas, what I mean is our coverage of the state government, which is a service for our readers. [In Austin, Brandi Grissom of The Los Angeles Times and the Texas Tribune is taking over as bureau chief for Christy Hoppe who is returning to reporting.]
I think, too, that collaboration is more in the offing for us. I imagine doing more with the Texas Tribune. We are already partnering with KUT Austin [on its daily statewide newsmagazine Texas Standard.]
What’s the timeline? When do you move from concept to execution and something users and readers can see and touch?
Well, at the beginning of June we began a re-examination of three things. Are we covering areas and issues our readers want us to cover? That doesn’t mean we don’t define what we think they need to know, but are we being responsive? Next, do we have the skills we need to do journalism on the web? And finally, how do we need to be organized to be effective online?
Right now, we’ve got 22 or 23 newsroom people studying it. There are reporters, photographers, some editors and it’s not based on seniority. Their report is due to me by mid-August. And I expect to make some decisions on it around September 1st. The buyouts will start then and we’ll start to build that organization and fill it in through the end of the year.
What about the business side of the equation? Moroney has said himself that digital advertising will never by itself support this level of newsgathering. And what about profit margins? In April A.H. Belo, the parent company, reported $65 million in revenue but just $300,000 in profit in the first quarter.
Well, I know that we’re going to get the maximum out of ad revenues and sponsorship but I also know the answer here is not a legacy news organization. I see potential in the recent acquisitions [the company acquired Speakeasy a digital advertising agency and has also acquired marketing companies]. Those are profitable and they help sustain our journalism.
The one thing we are sure of right now is that the organization we set up this summer and fall needs to be responsive and that means you can’t set it up and leave it alone. You’re never done.