Longtime Editor Quits In Lincoln p.16

By: JIM ROSENBERG LINCOLN JOURNAL Star editor Tom White resigned last month ? a move that surprised colleagues in Nebraska's capital and puzzled peers elsewhere within the Lee Enterprises Inc. newspaper group.
By all accounts well liked personally and highly regarded professionally, White startled many with his cutting criticisms of parent company Lee. Moreover, the unflattering comments contained in his March 7 resignation letter appeared on Page One of his newspaper the next morning.
White spent almost half his career as a Lee editor. Sports editor Gordon Winters has been serving as interim editor since White's departure.
"My values and those I find in Lee today have diverged," White wrote. But the editor did not limit himself to this equivalent of the deliberately hazy "philosophical differences" often cited by other departing managers.
"First and foremost" of his two reasons for leaving, White wrote, was his loss of confidence in Lee's "leadership, direction and expectations for its news- gathering operations. . . . I have concluded that the company's emphasis on increasing profits and centralization, its contradictory initiatives and its frenetic, hard-boiled culture, which is often out of touch with its employees, are subverting the complex craft of community journalism, from which this company's very business once sprung."
White's second reason went unmentioned in his paper's story. His letter states his belief that "work's primary rewards should be service and joy" ? things he said he could no longer find at Lee and would seek elsewhere.
Of his 34 years in journalism, the 51-year-old White spent most of the last 15 years as a Lee editor ? and most of that time has been in Lincoln.
The Journal Star reported that although publisher Bill Johnston disagreed with what he termed White's personal opinions regarding Lee, he was disappointed with his editor's decision to leave, and would miss White "personally and professionally."
In a telephone interview, Johnston called White "a good editor" who "contributed a significant amount of effort." The former editor, he continued, played what was "obviously a major part in getting us where we are today, which was why I was disappointed that he wasn't going to stick around and continue to do it."
In Davenport, Iowa, Quad-City Times co-publisher David Fuselier, a Lee editor for 20 years, called White a "longtime friend," and "one of the people whom I most respected" and often asked for advice. "I feel really bad about what he finally came to there, and the opinions he finally formulated," said Fuselier.
White oversaw the 1995-96 merger of the Journal and Star newsrooms under former publisher Bill Roesgen, who left the paper in December at age 65.
"Tom did fantastic work" on a merger that was "extremely successful," said Roesgen, a former editorial development director at Lee.
Billings (Mont.) Gazette editor Richard Wesnick also had praise for the colleague he's known almost 20 years. The merger responsibility "was a laurel . . . and well deserved," he said. "They brought in someone who was eminently attuned" to the community and the paper.
For his part, Roesgen cited a "gradual estrangement between
. . . myself and the corporation" after the papers' merger was complete as reason for "a mutual decision" for him to retire. "I think they were as happy to see me go as I was to go," he said.
Regardless of any differences with Lee, Roesgen said the company acted in good faith and treated him well.
"I think I probably lasted longer as a publisher than anybody I know of who's left the company in recent years," he said. "Generally, retirement is earlier than 65."
A source close to Lee remembered that although a personable man, "Roesgen was always a prickly pear cactus" in the organization, compared with many of its other managers. "He always stood up for what he believed in."
In the early 1970s, Roesgen was at the very small Kingsport, Tenn., Daily News, where White was sports editor. In the mid-70s, Roesgen joined Lee to run its Billings paper. After working at another paper, White was hired by Roesgen and eventually became managing editor. Within months of White leaving for a job at another newspaper company in California, Lee sent Roesgen to the state capital as publisher of its Helena Independent Record.
Three years later, White returned to Lee, spending 10 years at its Lincoln Star. Roesgen, meanwhile, had moved on to run the chain's Bismarck (N.D.) Tribune.
During that period, the possibility of merging Lincoln's two dailies was dicussed several times, according to Roesgen, who said there was a sense that neither paper would accept the other's editor.
Davenport's Fuselier recalled that in Lincoln "they essentially merged two papers that hated each other" ? an assessment seconded by Roesgen.
So, in 1994, White was called from Lincoln to serve as editor of the Racine, Wis., Journal Times, where Roesgen had become publisher. Roesgen said that when he was asked to take over as publisher in Lincoln the next year, to see to the merger of that city's papers, Lee vice president of newspapers Ron L. Rickman wanted White there as editor. (Rickman would not comment for this story; calls to his office were returned by Fuselier.)
Roesgen's retirement and White's resignation were only the more visible departures at the Lincoln paper last winter. The controller and production manager left in January. The prepress manager also is gone, and in December the news and editorial page editors resigned.
Johnston stressed that White's departure "was entirely up to Tom" and unrelated to the other newsroom vacancies, where, he said, both editors left on their own for jobs elsewhere.
Of those recent departures, Roesgen said that although "some of them were voluntary and some of them were pushed," in most cases Lee acted with reason and that it probably felt "Lincoln was a little too independent."
Co-owned, before the merger, with the Seacrest family, the afternoon Journal "was operated somewhat independently, and the people there didn't see themselves as Lee people, or that they were in the Lee culture as well as the company would have liked . . .," said Roesgen. "It probably was not too healthy for the company to have that kind of situation here."
Referring to changes occasioned by the merger, including a switch from family ownership to full ownership by a publicly held company, David Stoeffler, editor of Lee's La Crosse (Wis.) Tribune, remarked, "The staff is obviously still skeptical."
Roesgen also suggested that though the individuals left at about the time Johnston took over, reasons leading up to any resignations or removals predated his successor's arrival. "I think most of them were corporate decisions," he said.
"To be honest," he said, Johnston "was my choice . . . to get the job." At the time, he added, it was no secret he thought Johnston "a pretty solid guy." Johnston had served as general manager in Davenport and as publisher elsewhere in Lee.

Assigned to write the editor's resignation story by city editor Kathleen Rutledge, Walton asked for and was given a copy of White's letter to Johnston, who, he said, had no objection to commenting on the resignation and

Page One story quotes acid criticism of
corporate parent; six other managers also exit Nebraska daily
Lincoln Journal Star editor Tom White's resignation story, written by reporter Don Walton and published on the front page, contained white's biting criticism of the newspaper's parent company, Lee Enterprises. Publisher Bill Johnston provided the reporter with a copy of White's resignation letter and was quoted in the story as disagreeing with White.
responding to the criticisms.
"It was kind of an interesting story, and one that has created a lot of attention and conversation in the community," said Walton, the paper's people and politics reporter.
The city editor said that while some in the community expressed surprise upon seeing the editor's comments quoted in the paper, "there was no displeasure among readers. They were certainly interested in what the editor had to say, and maybe a little amazed to read it in the paper."
Not a part of discussion regarding the story's prominent play, Walton said that "Kathy Rutledge . . . drove that decision."
The city editor told E&P that, "traditionally, when we gain . . . or lose editors, we run a front-page story" ? something that was "just fine" with management, she added.
The reporting staff was pleased to see their paper print White's remarks, according to Rutledge, who said, "In this instance, it was our decision to treat it as we would any other news story."
Noting that the publisher "had the final say" on printing the story, she remarked, "The truth of the matter is that I instructed the night city editor to call the publisher and run it by him ? which we did."
Johnston saw no problem and said to run the story, said Rutledge.
Crediting Johnston for his "gutsy" decision to run the story as written, Roesgen conceded that it "would have given me pause."
White had "some strong feelings," said Johnston. "The only way to deal with that, as far as our coverage, was to deal with it straight up and run it in the paper."

Three weeks after submitting his resignation, White had little to add to what he'd already written.
"I don't know that I can put my finger on it. . . . There's no specific point," said White of what finally moved him to quit.
Whatever he sought to achieve, improve or overcome at Lee could not be accomplished by working within the organization, he said, after "I obviously have tried to do so for a long time."
His decision to quit, said White, was unrelated to joining the Journal and Star ? except in the sense that he did not leave until the 2-year process was complete.
White is pleased with the outcome. The merged paper is "a lot stronger" than its predecessors, which "were duplicating efforts," he said. "I'm very happy with the progress we've been able to make."
Under more satisfactory circumstances, he added, "We could have done better ? still could do better."
"This was not personal," White said of the circumstances of his resignation. "There is no one I have any hard feelings about ? but I have differences."
Those differences loom large for White's former publisher.
"I think more than anything else, it's a clash of personalities between him and the top people at the company," said Roesgen, who added that the latter have no editorial background and that "the two sides don't really understand each other."
"Editorial departments are just a different animal," he later remarked. "They don't appear to these people the way they do to the people who work in them."
Surprised not by White's resignation but by his verbal blast at Lee, Roesgen said that while he understood White's talk of "contradictory initiatives" and a "frenetic, hard-boiled culture," he disagreed with the notion that Lee was overly concerned with squeezing out profits. "I don't see the company being more money-grubbing than any other company," he said.
Fuselier was another who saw "a lot of things that are personality related."
Calling the resignation "very specific" to Lincoln and "not really a company issue," the Davenport publisher declared that "what Tom said is not shared by any editor, or any of the publishers, in Lee" ? an assertion few challenged (and none for the record).
"He went through a change of publishers there, and that's always a trying time," said Fuselier, who added that "some natural fallout" from such a merger is to be expected as "the culture adjusts to those really dynamic changes."
"The merger of two newspapers can't be fun or easy," said La Crosse editor
Stoeffler, who pointed to the work force reduction resulting from the newsroom consolidation. Stoeffler remembered White as a "quiet guy" who played "a leadership role" on meeting competition from the merging Milwaukee dailies when White was in Racine and Stoeffler worked in Madison, Wis.
"There certainly was discussion there about the possibility of further reduction," added Stoeffler (who was among at least three Lee editors and another from a neighboring state's major metro who interviewed in Lincoln in recent weeks for White's old job).
Based on what he'd heard, Stoeffler said he doubted there would be more cuts.
"I understand the new publisher is very supportive of the staff size and resources that are there," he said.
Some in Lincoln, however, worry just about the adequacy of the existing staff. One employee, who asked not to be named, thought "the staff is . . . generally concerned about whether we have sufficient [human] resources."
As for Lee's role in Lincoln, Fuselier maintained that "corporate takes a very, very hands-off position toward newsrooms. It's a very decentralized company."
"True," said a veteran of more than one Lee newsroom, "but it's not exactly benign."
Mike Berry, who's spent all but two of his 241/2 years with Lee at the Kewanee, Ill., Star-Courier, said his experience shows Lee "moving toward decentralization ? putting more power in the hands of the individual enterprises."
Managing editor at the chain's smallest daily, Berry didn't agree with White's assessment of Lee and said he had "always found the people in corporate to be very supportive," citing resource-sharing projects and his own "Group 4" within Lee that keeps in touch on matters of "mutual concern."
Berry, who knows Bill Johnston from his days as general manager in Davenport, which printed the Star-Courier, and from former Kewanee publisher Richard Johnston, Bill's brother, said he was not surprised that the Lincoln publisher disagreed with White or that he printed his former editor's parting words.
One person who used to work with White at a Lee paper said his mention of a "frenetic, hard-boiled culture" was really directed at a few individuals. Asked the meaning of his description of the corporate culture, White said, "I think you have to live it to know it" ? to gain some understanding of Lee groupwide and over a number of years.
White conceded that most companies have some of the "contradictory initiatives" mentioned in his letter, but he offered no examples at Lee. "There's no specific action that was taken that I can point to," he said. "It's incremental over time."
His only references were to issues for editors related to what others would describe as "producing better products" and to some "restraint on resources."
Johnston remembered he and White were "communicating very well" and that the editor never complained of a big problem stemming from lack of resources.
"That never came out until the day he walked in and put that [letter] on the table," said Johnston. It was then, he continued, that White "communicated to me that he had been considering this for several years."
The publisher pointed to Lee's planned $20 million investment in a new plant and equipment for Lincoln's letterpress operations as evidence of its willingness to dig deep for needed resources. "We certainly have a basic disagreement on Lee's commitment," said Johnston.
To that, White responded that a new press will no doubt print a better-looking paper, "but that doesn't deal with reporting issues."
Listing some "frustrations," White said Lee "has no vice president for news, it has no corporate officer who has a news background, it has no development program of any significance for its newspapers and television stations beyond what each of those properties might offer."
Some in Lee cited the Audience Team and money devoted to training as evidence of corporate-level editorial support.
Billings Gazette editor Richard Wesnick said he and White "helped create" the team's forerunner, the Editorial Steering Committee, "and got it up and running a number of years ago."
Editors at Lee's 19 newspapers periodically elect several from their number to the team "to help provide resources, training and assistance to the various properties," said Wesnick.
A way for the papers' editors to stay in touch, the team schedules annual meetings, brings in speakers and provides regional and local training, according to Wesnick.
Corporate assistance has been forthcoming, he said, and each year Lee provides "training grants for use by the properties above and beyond what the individual properties budget. That's been a boon."
Stoeffler said a total of $40,000 has been allocated for such training. In a competitive process, each newsroom is eligible to apply for individual or group training (for one or several papers). Calling it "very successful over the years," Stoeffler said it has been "especially helpful for the smaller papers, but larger papers have taken advantage of it pretty much every year."
Wesnick said "extensive use" of the funds has allowed him to send editors, reporters and photographers to national seminars, and the papers have had experts in various fields conducting regional seminars and training.
Stoeffler noted that the sum Lee budgeted for the Audience Team exceeds the allocation for the earlier editors' committee, (where, he said, there was "little effort to try to push editorial projects"). "I've been challenged to spend it. I was literally told 'we don't believe you guys can spend your budget, because in the past you haven't been active enough."
The Audience Team, he said, is trying to shift more to marketing and a customer focus, which has "stepped up the effort to get us to try to work together with our circulation and marketing departments to find out what it is that people want in our newspapers and figure out how to give it to them."
The team currently consists of six editors and representatives from circulation, human resources and broadcasting.
Stoeffler and Wesnick cited meetings this month in Davenport (for Lee's Midwestern papers) and Billings (for its Northwest papers), which will look into resource sharing, as examples of the sort of programs Lee funds at the request of editors, as well as the more active, leadership role Lee wanted the team to assume.
Wesnick said resource sharing has taken the form of an electronic bulletin board for exchanging photos and Lee's three Wisconsin papers' coordination of Super Bowl coverage of the Green Bay Packers to better compete with the state's larger papers.
"Obviously, it's an effort to be efficient," said Wesnick, "but it's also an effort to improve our editorial content."
A Lee reporter and editor for 19 years who's held his current post for the past 28 months, Stoeffler said he was told that discussion at past editors' meetings mostly concerned making and saving money.
In contrast, he said, meetings today are more focused on the importance of the quality of content to the company's future.
"Contrary to what Tom seems to be saying, it strikes me that the company is going in the opposite direction," said Wesnick.
And though he conceded that any emphasis on profits is inescapable for a publicly held corporation, Wesnick added: "We believe that we need to get there by being good . . . and that's all I hear coming out of the mouths of our corporate officers ? go out there and produce good newspapers."
Fuselier found it "perplexing" and Wesnick thought it "interesting" that White left as he did less than two weeks after a three-day meeting of Lee editors in Albuquerque.
"He seemed absolutely fine and upbeat and gave no indication there was anything wrong at all," said Fuselier.
Another individual familiar with the meeting said a discouraging distrust of editors' professionalism seemed to be the final straw for White.
"It was not what he would have considered a development meeting," said the source, who asked not to be named.
Wesnick said the Albuquerque meeting was designed to make participants' papers "more relevant and more essential to people's everyday lives," which he said is now essentially the focus of Lee.
The meeting was jointly organized by the Audience Team and Lee's Circulation Change Task Force, which Wesnick said is chaired by Lincoln's circulation manager.
Most who attended, he said, thought "it was a breakthrough-type meeting," though he acknowledged that having editors and circulators talking together may have made some uncomfortable.
A sampling of anonymous meeting review forms showed a range of reaction: from one who sought "more separate time" just for editors, to another who thought the best aspect was allowing editorial and circulation to "share responsibility as well as vision."
Winona (Minn.) Daily News managing editor Jim Galewski, whose 28 years at the paper stretch back beyond its sale to Lee in 1979, was disappointed to learn of White's complaints.
He stressed the February meeting's focus on cooperation between departments and among newspapers and he equated Lee with "commitment to community."
Some in and out of Lee see the new direction as a manifestation of the controversial notion of public journalism. Depending on why and how it's carried out, such an approach is not necessarily a bad thing, according to Roesgen.
Speaking figuratively rather than financially, he said Lee's corporate leaders "seem to think you can paint a newspaper by the numbers. There's a sense that if you ask enough questions of enough customers, you'll know what to do."
Noting recent coverage of Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Barlett's Freedom Forum speech dismissing focus groups (E&P, April 12, p. 12), Roesgen said he, White and other experienced journalists believe "we do know the answers to those questions."
At the same time, he said he approves of the company's determination to become customer friendly and obtain customer information.
"But there isn't a lot of concern for the inspiration side of it that Tom would like to represent," he added. "So, he was just out of sync with the current company philosophy."
On top of that, Roesgen pointed to more familiar struggles with cost, especially in down years, noting he'd been "on both sides of that fence" and understands why management comes to some of its decisions.
"But there hasn't been any great crackdown on resources here at all," he said. "It hasn't been a bad situation. In fact, I think Tom had plenty of resources to do whatever he wanted to do."
That contrasts with White's earlier experience editing one of Lincoln's two dailies.
"He didn't have the resources at that time," said Roesgen. "It was a constant struggle. The two papers were starving."
During White's original tenure in Lincoln, circulation of his morning Star caught up to and surpassed that of the evening Journal.
Two years ago, Lee bought out the Seacrest family's share in the company that produced both the 93-year-old Star (owned outright by Lee since 1930) and the 128-year-old Journal (which Lee owned in part) and announced it would merge the papers and cease publishing an afternoon paper.
"They made it as painless as those things can be," Roesgen recalled, noting that "there were still plenty of people to do the job" even after the early retirements and voluntary buyouts that avoided layoffs.
As for the editor, two years later "he walked without anything," said Roesgen. "That took a certain amount of guts."
In the end, the editor who Lee recalled to Lincoln's house-divided was among the several managers who, for various reasons, did not survive its reconstruction.

In his brief resignation letter, White wrote that he appreciated the "privilege to help guide the paper's formation and evolution," said he was leaving admired friends and colleagues with regret and much gratitude, and ended by saying, "I wish them grace."
Assuring there was "no ill will," publisher Johnston remarked, "I wish him all the best of luck."
For now, White may have more luck, and certainly has more interest, in the classroom than the newsroom. Exploring employment possibilities related to journalism and hoping to find a teaching or advisory position, he said, "I intend to stay in Lincoln ? so the options to stay in the newspaper industry are not very good."
? (Lincoln Journal Star editor Tom White's resignation story, written by reporter Don Walton and published on the front page, contained white's biting criticism of the newspaper's parent company, Lee Enterprises. Publisher Bill Johnston provided the reporter with a copy of White's resignation letter and was quoted in the story as disagreeing with White) [Photo & Caption]
?(Lincoln Journal Star publisher William Rosesgen (in a 1987 photo) left the paper in December at age 65-three months before editor Tom White resigned. "I think they were as happy to see me go as I was to go," he said) [Photo & Caption]
? Web Site:http://www. mediainfo.com
?copyright Editor & Publisher- April 26, 1997.


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