Saturday, December 6, 2008

Moon offers best hope for turning Gannett around

When he was publisher of The Tennessean, Craig Moon created a new kind of newspaper journalism that did an incredibly simple thing -- it gave readers what they wanted to read.

Its news pages were free of bias and full of reflecting the community. Reporters and editors were expected to get out of the office and go to the people to listen and learn. Photos of ordinary people doing extraordinary things made it more frequently into print. Families became more important than celebrities.

And Williamson A.M. became a prime example of journalism done right, all from the mind of a man who technically was a businessman.

It is the kind of perspective and that exact person who now offers the best hope of turning Gannett Co., Inc., around after this week's disastrous layoffs.

Moon is now publisher of USA Today, which has lost little in circulation. But I worked with him for four years at The Tennnessean, which made me unique. Moon was made persona non grata in the newsroom by the top editor. But I made a point of inviting him in, and he and my immediate editor would sit down and talk good journalism with him at our desks. And that was career suicide for both of us.

As a businessman, Craig Moon was a better journalist than anyone in that damn newsroom. He allowed me to become a political columnist after the top editor told my boss I would have to wait until Larry Daughtrey retired. I sure miss Daughtrey no longer running in The Tennessean, no matter if he was made an obstacle to my advancement.

The more I got to know Moon and work with him in trying to bring some political balance to the newspaper, the more I got to see the direct slights aimed at him. In one instance, a meeting had been called about working out details of what was called the Equal Time page. It was to be in Moon's office with me and the top editor and design chief.

Well, the top editor comes out of his office and tells me the meeting has been moved to his domain. So we're sitting there for 10 minutes talking about the project the top editor did not want when Moon finally shows. And then things get done right.

I later learned from Moon's secretary that the meeting was moved WITHOUT the publisher being told. She told me it happened all the time in dealings with the newsroom.

How could the top editor get away with it? At corporate, there has been two powerful camps -- one of newsroom people and the other of business people. The top editor had enough clout at corporate with his buddies to keep Moon at bay. But Moon had at least been able to keep WAM out from under the newsroom, which ensured its success.

Thankfully, the top editor's advocate at corporate was gently ushered into retirement earlier this fall. Phil Currie also has been a big backer of current top Tennessean editor Mark Silverman. But perhaps things will now change to put readers finally first.

Besides heading USA Today, Moon now sits on the operating committee over all Gannett newspapers. Hopefully, he will move more editors like Silverman aside and bring in managers who really like their readers and give them the kind of coverage they deserve.

And our industry, plagued by poor newsroom leaders, will be resurrected by supposed businessmen and women who really are just good newspaper people.

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