Willse Had Successor Chosen, Firm Plan to Leave

By: Joe Strupp When Editor Jim Willse of The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., told the paper's owners he planned to retire, he offered a plan that included his replacement, Managing Editor Kevin Whitmer, and a firm decision that he would not stay, according to Steve Newhouse, one of the top executives at Advance Publications.

"We tried to talk him out of it," Newhouse, chairman of Advance.Net, said about Willse's initial notice of retirement. "But he had his plan and someone in mind and when he decided to make a change for himself, he had everything laid out. He came to us with his decision and his plan."

That plan included Whitmer, a Star-Ledger veteran since 1996, a choice owners gladly agreed with, Newhouse said.

Newhouse made his comments Tuesday, a day after Willse announced he would retire in about a month after 14 years at the paper. Asked Monday about his decision to leave and his replacement, Willse said he was not asked to retire, adding only that Newhouses made the final decision on Whitmer. He also said he agreed with the choice. He would not say if he was asked to stay on when he informed them of his decision to retire, calling it a personal matter.

Willse added that the newspaper's past year of cutbacks and buyouts did not push him to retire any sooner than he would have. But he did want to make sure the paper was on an "even keel" before he left.

"I always intended to stay for another year," he said after announcing his retirement, noting the timing following the paper's big 2008 buyout cuts. "I think it's healthy for an editor not to stay too long at the party. Considering the economics of the business, it is a time to have a change in leadership."

Willse, who turned 65 in March, has seen the paper go to the heights of winning its only two Pulitzer Prizes under him and the depths of cutting one-third of the newsroom through buyouts a year ago. "It was my great pleasure to be editor mostly through good times and some tough times," he said. "But we could be having the best year in our history and I would still be retiring. I'm 65 years old, isn't that enough?"

Willse admits the smaller staff is more of a challenge for his replacement, but is not concerned that the paper has lost any of its journalistic force through cutbacks. "We feel we have made great strides toward making the paper everything it can be," he said. "I think we are way ahead of schedule."

As for Whitmer, a Star-Ledger staffer since 1996, Willse says having an in-house replacement helps a smooth transition. "It gives the paper a continuity that is very helpful in moving forward. It is not just Kevin, although he will be a leader. I told them I was very pleased that the editorial leadership would remain at the control."

Asked what his greatest accomplishments were, Willse noted: "the Pulitzers are nice. One of the rules of newspapers is you can't have too many Pulitzers." But, he added, "We took pleasure in having a paper that was worth a read, day in and day out, front to back. We always wanted to be a good value in all parts of the paper, every day of the week. If you do that well, the prizes come with it."

Willse would not say last year's buyout cutback was the worst moment, but stated: "it was difficult for me and the entire newsroom." He stressed that having most of the cuts occur within a matter of weeks made it easier. "The trauma was limited in time," he said. "In some newsrooms, there has been an erosion. In ours, it all happened at once so we got our feet on the ground. If you have to take drastic measures to streamline, it is best to do it quickly."

With plans to travel after he leaves the job in about a month, Willse also will teach at least one course a Princeton University. He says he remains a fan of newspapers and is hopeful about their future: "The challenge that we all face is to maintain quality journalism at a time when the digital revolution has really changed the ballgame. Everyone is looking for the answers."

Can newspapers find them? "I believe we can," he added.


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