No Clear Direction at ‘USA Today’

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By: Mark Fitzgerald and Todd Shields

One day after USA Today Editor Karen Jurgensen’s resignation, the executive suite was silent about any choice for a successor while the newsroom seemed to quietly stew over the turn of events.

Management at the Gannett Co. Inc. paper’s headquarters have held no staff meetings and made no announcements since Jurgensen’s departure late Tuesday, said one veteran newsroom staffer.

“Nobody knows a damn thing … There’s been no follow-up whatsoever,” said the staffer, who insisted on anonymity. “We’re sitting here in a vacuum waiting for something to happen.”

USA Today spokesman Steve Anderson, who has been besieged by inquires since the resignation, said Wednesday that nothing had changed since Publisher Craig Moon’s statement in a memo to the staff Tuesday that, “we will fill the position as soon as possible.” Neither was there any more specific timeline on Moon’s comment that he hoped at some point this week to release parts of the still-confidential report on the numerous fabrications and instances of plagiarism by USA Today’s former star reporter Jack Kelley.

Jurgensen’s resignation came almost exactly one month after USA Today published the results of an internal investigation documenting that several of his most sensational stories — including an account of a supposed death at sea by desperate Cubans and his supposed eyewitnessing of heads rolling down the street after a Jerusalem suicide bombing — were wholly or partly fabricated. A investigative report by three veteran journalists — John Seigenthaler, who was USA Today’s first editorial director; Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists; and William Hilliard, former editor of The Oregonian in Portland — was given to Moon on April 13. (Kelley resigned in January when questions about his reporting first emerged.)

Some newsroom speculation about a successor editor centered on candidates from inside the paper, but no one would talk with E&P publicly about it. The newsroom vet said choosing a new leader represented a chance to end a “culture of fear” that had engulfed the newsroom. “The newspaper needs now to be in an environment where this can’t go on. … This should be a place of joy in accomplishing a mission,” the staffer said. The staffer added that internal speculation on succession was unfocused, with no apparent frontrunner. The need for a change seemed to rule out several newsroom figures, including Managing Editor for News Hal Ritter and Executive Editor Brian Gallagher. “There’s an opportunity to bring in somebody who’s a real ‘A’ player” to lead a newsroom that, at least for now, “is adrift,” the staffer said.

The nation’s largest daily, USA Today faces the classic choice of any company in need of choosing a successor, said an expert on organizational behavior in business.

“The general rule is, if an organization is doing well, you look inside. If it’s not doing well, you look outside,” said Keith Murnighan, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Ill. He noted that McDonald’s Corp., which has been on the rebound in recent months, named a successor from inside extraordinarily quickly on Monday when its CEO James Cantalupo unexpectedly died of an apparent heart attack hours before he was to address a franchisee convention. As The Wall Street Journal noted, by 9:30 that morning, when Cantalupo was scheduled to address the convention, McDonald’s had named Charlie Bell as the new CEO.

The public interest in a successor at the self-styled Nation’s Newspaper should not surprise anyone — even were it not coming on the heels of the Jayson Blair scandal that felled the executive editor and managing editor at The New York Times, Murnighan said.

“The newspaper industry itself has made so many industries transparent, that it itself is now transparent,” he said. “That’s quite an irony isn’t it?”

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