John Robinson was named editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., a little while after I left. He had been there before, but I hadn’t crossed paths with him.
Thanks to this newfangled thing called “the Internet” and my desire to keep tabs on a paper and a town that I love, I wound up “meeting” him online. We had been ahead of the curve on the Web, and John was determined to keep the N&R there. In a town that earned the nickname “Blogsboro,” John aggressively went into blogging himself.
It didn’t always work, mostly because the Web was turning nastier. The N&R didn’t shy away from controversy in a town that still had a few racial fault lines. (See “sit-ins” and “Klan shooting.”) The comments on John’s blog attracted the usual gang of idiots and wingnuts wishing him all manner of ill for being “liberal.” (In other words, daring to notice that Greensboro didn’t end at the train tracks.)
But even if a handful of readers were never going to look past the “bias,” other journalists were noticing. The N&R’s efforts finally got the attention they deserved. John was invited to speak at USA TODAY.
Sadly, I couldn’t go. But what he told me is a classic illustration of the snobbery of big papers — even at USA TODAY, which is itself sneered upon by certain people at certain Northeastern papers. A couple of higher-up editors and managers were at his talk but were clearly inattentive. And that’s sad, because a dose of John’s enthusiasm for experimentation is what we needed.
And a paper the size of the N&R (once over 100K daily, now a bit less) should have less time to innovate than USA TODAY. The editors gathered in our posh conference facility had far less on their plates than the staff at the N&R. Newspapers prove that higher-paid people don’t necessarily work harder or produce better quality than lower-paid people in the same profession; it’s often the inverse. People who choose to stay at mid-sized newspapers are often the most capable journalists you could meet. (People who stay at smaller newspapers are either really attached to a particular town or truly masochistic.) Our editors had no reason to act like this whole discussion was an imposition on their time.
John had the fortune of being an editor in the Internet era and the misfortune of being an editor when newspapers lost their revenue streams. His newsroom is considerably smaller than it used to be. And yet the people I know at the N&R, whose workloads have only increased over the years, seem to appreciate that they’ve been a part of something special during his tenure.
Keeping up a good local paper while the media landscape and economy collapse isn’t easy. Best of luck to John and his successor.