Forty-three years later, I remember my first professional newsroom like it was yesterday. There was crazy Bob Feit, from Hungary, whom we simply called Feit (as in yelling, Feit!!). He ran our financial wire service with utter joy, leaping atop his desk and waving his arms when big breaking news hit. Then there was Dave, the slot man. A Brit, he ate onion sandwiches for lunch every single day and re-edited the copy that young rim men (it was always "man" or "men" back then) like me produced from copy we ripped off a wire machine. Dave would then pass his work to Carmine, better known as “Ace,” from Staten Island, a gruff but lovable teletype operator. It was a fast, clean system. We mastered it.
I like my nostalgia, but recognize I must resist clutching onto it as the path to the future. Such restraint is critical for all journalists as they face a Herculean challenge: how to build workflows that produce journalistic experiences that meet the needs and expectations of audiences that live their lives on mobile devices. Across the industry, 60% to 80% of any news site’s traffic comes exclusively from mobile users with devices that vary in form factor, format and connection speed. Complicating this is the distributed nature of news consumption. Social can no longer be seen solely as slinging traffic-driving links. Every newsroom must also create mobile content that lives independently on the multiple distributed social platforms. Still, journalists remain steeped in processes that service print paradigms. These procedures can be self-defining, forging identities that are often reinforced by imposing buildings. The stately Time-Life Building in New York with its rabbit hutch offices comes to mind. For decades, it drove a mental hierarchy that made digital transformation, yet alone mobile transformation, almost impossible.
For me, the mobile challenge faced by the Los Angeles Times is exhilarating. Throughout our newsroom — and others owned by Tronc, our parent company — it requires editors, reporters, photographers and graphic artists to think expansively about their roles. Everyone needs to work with one another to understand how each does their specific job, in turn putting an end to silos. A number of years ago, I attended an event at Harvard for the launch of Riptide, an oral history of how the digital revolution disrupted the news industry. On stage, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman of the New York Times Co., said he advised his "new reporters to take an engineer to lunch.” His point: They needed to understand a developer’s role. Today, that message applies to editors and reporters who must grasp the ins and outs of visual storytelling on phones.
I believe life is about moments — and last week marked the anniversary of a big one for me. On Thanksgiving morning in 2006, I was at my then home in Washington, D.C., reading an article in the Atlantic. The author put forth a novel concept for the future of news not unlike one I was developing. Furiously waving the magazine, I barreled down some steps shouting, “This guy’s got the same idea I do!” My wife, amused by my behavior, calmly said: “How would you feel if someone did it before you?” On that day I became an entrepreneur.
Let’s fast-forward to late last August. I was at a farmer’s market in New York when I got a text that would be a next moment. It asked if I'd be interested in learning about the changes afoot at the Los Angeles Times. I was intrigued, knowing that Ross Levinsohn and Mickie Rosen, two people I’ve long known, worked with and respected, were behind it all. Looking up from my iPhone, I took a deep breath and said to my wife: “What would you think if I interview for a job in Los Angeles?" Her response: “Go for it."
Two moments and whoosh — here I am at The Times, a storied brand unlike any other in American media history (just pick up “The Powers That Be” by David Halberstam to learn why). To be its editor in chief is equal parts humbling and daunting. I say that even after five years at the New York Times, where legendary editor Abe Rosenthal once upbraided me in his private office for making a wisecrack at his 3:45 p.m. news meeting; and Katharine Graham, on a train from Cuzco to Machu Picchu, grilled me on my job at Newsweek (once owned by the Washington Post); and Norman Pearlstine, then Time Inc.’s editor in chief, critiqued my start-up business plan line by line and number by number.