Industry Insight: What Steve Buttry Taught Us About Transforming the News Industry

By: Matt DeRienzo
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Seven years ago, Steve Buttry graced the cover of Editor & Publisher standing in front of printing presses, holding a laptop computer opened to the Cedar Rapids Gazette’s web page. “An Editor in Transition” was the headline used with his designation as the magazine’s 2010 Editor of the Year.

Buttry, who died Feb. 19 after a third battle with cancer, was recognized as much for his growing role as both a pioneer and scribe of the newspaper industry’s digital transformation as his leadership of a Cedar Rapids newsroom hit by historic flooding days into his tenure.

The newspaper industry never stopped being “in transition,” and neither did Buttry, going from reporter to editor and back a few times before helping lead the American Press Institute’s landmark Newspaper Next project (if only we had listened to its recommendations way back in 2005), playing a critical role in pioneering local news startup TBD.com, teaching at Louisiana State University, and leading innovation and training efforts at Digital First Media, where he was my colleague and became my friend.

One of Buttry’s most important and difficult-to-hear messages to newspaper staffs he was pushing and pulling into the digital age was that constant change was going to be the routine for a long time to come. The transition to digital has no end point, because new tools and platforms will come along to disrupt what you’re doing as soon as you think you’ve mastered the previous ones.

Among the many other things the industry can learn from Buttry’s career:

Share your work. Buttry was constantly learning new things, and constantly teaching others. If he figured something out, or found an example of what others were doing that worked, he would take the time to document what he’d learned and share it with the industry. And if he was leading a training session at an individual newsroom, or presenting at a conference, he’d upload his presentation for the rest of the world to see. His blog, “The Buttry Diary” lives on as an invaluable repository of training materials and guides to not just digital transformation, but also the fundamentals of strong writing, reporting and copy editing.

Engage your community. “Community engagement” was far more than a buzzword term for Buttry because he understood like few others that the transition to digital for journalism was not just about a switch from paper to computer and phone screens, but a fundamental change from mass media to a service that required deep relationships with readers, who he believed should be treated as full participants and stakeholders in the work we do.

Grow and transplant digital DNA. Buttry was quick to call out newsrooms who gave lip service to digital but were really just “on the web” and not “of the web.” Obvious signs, to him, included stories that did not link to other sources of information, stories that were published later than they should have been because of allegiance to print edition timetables or due to the constraints of print-driven staffing, and stories that fail to take advantage of the multimedia tools available on the web—from simple video and document embeds, to interactive data visualizations.

Buttry was a big advocate for “putting the digital people in charge,” believing that newspapers would never fully make the transition unless there were more people in top leadership positions who were themselves “of the web.” He got into several big arguments with legacy journalists about whether it was necessary for a newspaper’s top editor to be active on social platforms such as Twitter. His stance, of course, was damn right, they should be.

He supported early adopters and experimenters, who were often in a lonely fight against the inertia of legacy newsroom culture. And a book could be written about the lengths that Buttry took to network and help others network, a big part of which was aimed at diversifying the industry in order to strengthen it.

Dismantle excuses. Finally, with his trademark calm (outward, anyway), Buttry pushed back on the many, often quite legitimate, excuses that met his push toward using digital tools to gather and present the news and engage communities. No time for training? How about the editor formally schedule someone to cover for you an afternoon a month? CMS makes it difficult to put links in stories? Let’s sit down right now and find a workaround. Then, of course, he’d sit down and blog about how they were able to overcome those obstacles.

There’s a big hole in the world of journalism left by Steve Buttry’s passing, but he left many words, examples and protégés to help fill it.

Matt DeRienzoMatt DeRienzo is executive director of LION Publishers, an organization that supports local independent online news publishers from across the country. He is a longtime former newspaper reporter, editor, publisher and corporate director of news.

Published: April 21, 2017

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