Newly hired Executive Editor Lauren Gustus is overseeing the Fort Worth Star-Telegram after the recent retirement of longtime newsroom boss Jim Witt. Based on Gustus’ public statements on June 7, things could get squirrelly at the city’s only daily newspaper.
Talk about a mealy-mouthed communicator.
The article described how Gustus was taking over as newspapers are “adapting to the shift of readers and advertisers from printed to online products, including new apps, videos, and podcasts.”
OK, true and clear enough.
Then the story says that succeeding in the digital era, according to Gustus, requires being relevant community partners while producing authoritative journalism that brings people together to improve the lives of residents.
Huh? Let’s look at those two things separately.
“Relevant community partner”: Partnering with the community sounds nice and cozy, but a newspaper must be prepared to write scathing articles about its own community at any time and should act like a friendly but skeptical acquaintance rather than a partner.
“Producing authoritative journalism that brings people together to improve the lives of residents.” No problem with the “producing authoritative journalism” part. But the rest sounds like feel-good claptrap. Newspapers should not be overly interested in “bringing people together” — whatever that means.
Let’s hear what Gustus has to say in her own voice.
“It’s about being relational,” she told the paper. “The goal is to deepen engagement with those who read us and to grow new audience [sic] by offering relevant content that’s tailored to the platform that people are using.”
Relational? Deepen engagement? Offering relevant content? (Does she mean “news stories”?) Who speaks like that?
Gustus, 36, comes to Fort Worth from the Fort Collins Coloradoan. She covered sports for a couple of years at the Los Angeles Daily News after graduating from Pepperdine University in Southern California in 2002. She served as assistant sports editor for three years at The Salt Lake Tribune and as senior editor over sports and features for six years at the Reno Gazette-Journal in Nevada.
She became senior editor for content at Fort Collins in 2013 and executive editor the following year.
In 2015, Gustus was profiled in Editing Matters. In the digital magazine of the Society of Editors and Proofreaders, she was credited with guiding the Coloradoan newsroom toward the digital age by increasing the paper’s online and mobile presences, including experimenting with mobile apps. That sounds promising. All newspapers need to be thinking about online, apps, and streaming these days. Thinking about “cyber,” in other words. But the most important thing is writing solid investigative stories. Let’s hope Gustus remembers that. The Star-Telegram has seen its paper grow continually smaller and less interesting while its subscription prices rise and its service to readers diminishes.
After leading the Coloradoan newsroom for a year, Gustus discussed in another article some of the improvements that had been made during her tenure. She mentioned creating a standalone business section, a new weekly entertainment section, a home section, and an Explore section focused on hiking and biking. Increasing business coverage sounded promising. The rest of that sounds like the type of non-news filler that is hurting papers rather than helping them survive.
Comments left at the bottom of the Star-Telegram story include one person who described Gustus’ quote as “straight out of marketing and advertising’s Content Marketing 101.”
“Seems like a lot of jargon to me,” wrote another. “Bad bizspeak. If she ever uses ‘robust,’ run screaming.”
Another reader summed up her feelings more succinctly: “I weep for the future.”
Last week, KERA conducted an interview with Gustus, who expressed herself more clearly but not always for the better. The Star-Telegram has slashed hundreds of employees in recent years, including many reporters and editors. The newspaper is struggling to produce effective news stories with fewer reporters and decreasing morale. So imagine how those people felt when Gustus told KERA this: “I’m no stranger to cuts. I think I started in the business when they were the most severe [in 2006-2009] in some really tough markets. And I’m still here.”
Great. She starts in the business just as layoffs – particularly of higher-paid and tenured newsroom positions – are becoming rampant, writes and reports for a relatively short period of time, moves into executive positions at a young age, and then brags that she has survived cuts. Meanwhile, she is leading a newsroom that has seen some of its most experienced and adept writers get shown the door without fanfare.
Should be interesting to watch. Or stream.