< The Last Straw

Transcript

Friday, October 10, 2008

For Steve Smith, former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, innovation didn't stop the decline of his paper. Since becoming editor in 2002, Smith worked hard to modernize The Spokesman-Review. He streamed editorial meetings online and greatly expanded the online staff.

The paper collaborated with an AM radio station and added a sound studio. And last December, Smith even cut the staff from 140 to 104. But when he was informed of another round of layoffs, including much of the online staff he'd recently hired, he refused, and last week he resigned.

He’s been in the newspaper business for 36 years and he’s taken quite a few hits for quitting now, but he says he simply wasn't willing to impose more changes that he felt would harm the paper irreparably.
STEVE SMITH:
The layoff list includes our entire radio staff and a good chunk of our online staff, and so pioneering, advancing, innovating would become very, very difficult, if not impossible.
BOB GARFIELD:
And what about beats or projects?
STEVE SMITH:
We'd gone from three public safety reporters to one, four education reporters to one-half, one-half of a higher ed reporter, a reporter covering both Spokane City Hall and Spokane County government.

And the ability to do the kind of watchdog investigative journalism which has been our hallmark is severely diminished, not eliminated – there are some fabulous journalists left in Spokane. But you just can't stretch that size staff across our coverage area and maintain anything close to the coverage we've been providing.
BOB GARFIELD:
Let me talk to you briefly about your relationship with your management. They understand that they have to have a credible newspaper if they're going to have a credible business going forward, and yet they imposed these cuts. And at what point do you feel some sympathy for them?
STEVE SMITH:
Oh, I feel tremendous sympathy for them. My parting with my publisher, Stacey Cowles, was quite amicable. I don't agree that these cuts are necessary at this time, but I understand and respect his decision to the contrary.

And frankly, one of the reasons that I resigned is that he needs an editor who can stand up in public and say to people, this paper is going to be okay - actually, better than okay – leaner, easier to read, etc. And I was not in a position to carry out the publisher’s marketing strategy.
BOB GARFIELD:
Do you think that there is any paper anywhere in the United States that is immune to these forces that so affected The Spokesman-Review? Is there anyplace for you or anyone else to really make a go of it in the way newsmen have made a go of it since time immemorial?
STEVE SMITH:
It’s absolutely not going to be like it was. It never can be. What I try to emphasize is that the values that are at the core of our calling, the Fourth Estate value, the defending the defenseless value, the telling people what we know when we know it value, holding up and honoring and perpetuating those core values ought now to be our mission.

I'm not out to save newspapers. It may not be possible to save newspapers. But it ought to be possible to save journalism.
BOB GARFIELD:
Okay, you want to support journalistic values. How and where are you going to be able to do God’s work?
STEVE SMITH:
Well, I might end up at another news organization, which will give me a platform to prove my ideas and my theories in practice. I suppose I could end up in the foundation world or the academic world. I may be doing it as a private citizen through blogging and speaking out.

I would suspect that I'm probably persona non grata to most publishers in the United States, so maybe it won't involve newspapers. But I have no intention from leaving the scene.
BOB GARFIELD:
You know, there’s something vaguely un-American in giving up. Aren't we all supposed to stick with it, fight against the most imposing obstacles and, if necessary, just go down with the ship?
STEVE SMITH:
Well, that’s absolutely true, and I've been hearing a lot of that. There are folks who think that I cut and ran. I think the question is, is your loyalty to journalism, is your commitment to trying to find a new way, or is your commitment to a particular organization, a particular newspaper and a particular ownership?

I don't think you serve journalism well by staying with an organization which has decided that it cannot commit to our future.
BOB GARFIELD:
All right, Steve. Well, thank you very much, and best of luck to you.
STEVE SMITH:
Thank you very much, Bob. I really appreciate it.
BOB GARFIELD:
Steve Smith was, until last week, the editor of The Spokane Spokesman-Review.