Q&A with Melanie Sill, former editor of N&O and Sacramento Bee

Melanie Sill is Executive in Residence at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California. Before her recent move into academia, Sill was editor of the Sacramento Bee and The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. In this interview, conducted by email, Sill discusses her new job and the future of the news media.

Q. Describe your position at USC-Annenberg. What are you and the school hoping to achieve?

A. I knew Geneva Overholser, director of USC Annenberg’s School of Journalism, through many professional connections including judging the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, which the school oversees.

I spoke at the journalism school earlier this year and, in talking with Geneva, found my interests and the school’s work wonderfully aligned. We both saw opportunity in working together on questions related to the changing role of journalism in the digital age.

The school (both the communication and the journalism sides) is rich in creative and innovative faculty and student work. I bring experience, knowledge and ideas that I hope will contribute in a variety of ways.

My first step is to catch up with some of the numerous experiments under way across the media landscape. I also expect to be writing online, doing some public speaking and working on a project (now in the early stages) focused on one or two ideas about how journalism can help people get interested and involved in public life.

Q. What has the transition from the newsroom been like? Any surprises? Regrets?

A. Leaving the role of newspaper editor hasn’t been an overnight transition for me but a process that began some time ago and continues to prompt reflection and discovery. Yet this was a logical step driven by interests and questions that had intensified for me in the last two years, so the shift itself has been surprisingly seamless.

I’m finding a lot going on, some of it under the radar, so I’m staying pretty busy. After 30 years in newsrooms, of course, it feels odd to get up in the morning and not see evidence of what I did yesterday. I value people more than processes, so I miss colleagues and reader interactions more than anything else.

Q. You recently began a personal blog about journalism. What is that like, and how is it different from blogging you’ve done as editor of The News & Observer and Sacramento Bee?

A. I wrote a weekly editor’s column in Sacramento and in Raleigh, wrote regular notes to the staff about journalism and our newsrooms, and corresponded with thousands of individual readers over the years via email, phone calls and snail mail. I was missing that outlet, so started the journalism blog both for expression and potential dialogue.

The blog is focused on my professional view, not personal life. Yet it’s different from The N&O blog and Bee columns, where I spoke for news organizations as well as myself.

Q. You were at the N&O when it was sold to McClatchy, and you’ve been part of that company’s ups and downs as a newsroom manager. What do you think newspaper companies can do to survive and thrive?

A. That’s a logical question that many people smarter than me are trying to answer every day. Like most, I know we’re in the midst of change, not at the end of anything, which means both the challenges and the opportunities persist.

People who worked with me in Raleigh and Sacramento can testify that I pressed a few consistent themes. One was the need to look outward — to focus on what was happening in people’s lives and what information they needed that we could provide. Find things out, and tell people – in smart, effective, imaginative ways. Another was the need to be genuinely valuable and excel in ways that gave readers tangible experience of that value.

In an age of exponential growth in competition, I believe those who provide real value will win. That’s not always pocketbook value – it can also be enjoyment, intellectual reward or convenience.

Print readership is still significant both in size of audience and impact of coverage, and that often gets lost in the discussion.

Digital information has become the driving force in our world. I think some of the current “digital first” discussion, as sensible as it is in many ways, overlooks the fact that each medium presents differently and is used differently by readers, with overlap but also real separation in audience habits. I think newsrooms that publish on different platforms need to excel in each medium, not just take Web stories and recycle them print – or the reverse, as we all did in the first decade of online publishing. You can’t just push the same stuff through different channels, whether it’s a TV news script or breaking news Tweet; each needs different editing and audience understanding.

The biggest advantage of the digital age is the ability for people to connect directly. That’s the frontier of journalism, I think, that point or plane of connection where we can provide value. To me, the opportunities for journalism both commercially and civically are found on that frontier.

At the Sac Bee, we developed a regional blog network called Sacramento Connect that now has 150 blog and Website partners, an amazingly rich collection of views and voices. The network has become not just a Web resource, but also a relationship-builder for sacbee.com and the local digital community.

The challenge for us at the beginning was creating a frame of reference both internally and externally. Sac Connect wasn’t a new version of any newspaper technique or product; it was a new thing. Recognizing that helped set goals and measures of both quality and quantity.

Organizations, especially those with long histories, are driven mostly by culture and some of the newspaper industry’s greatest challenges are cultural, not strategic. (This is also one of the most underestimated challenges). We’re part of a much bigger wave of technological and societal change that comes perhaps once every half-century. These forces require transformative change, and for me that means understanding embedded culture both for its assets and values and its potential limitations.

Q. Your position at USC is a temporary one. What do you hope to do next?

A. I’m not ready to say specifically, but I thrive on the front lines of journalism and as part of collective effort. For now, I’m giving full attention to my USC role and expect to gain from the experience.

I’ll be immersed in the work and, as the semester begins in August, in getting to know the talented faculty and students around the school and the extended network of labs and related programs. It’s an ideal place for me at this stage of my career.

For more, follow melaniesill on Twitter and read her blog.

UPDATE: In December 2011, USC-Annenberg released Sill’s report, “The Case for Open Journalism Now.” Read it here and take a look at her recommendations.