Q&A with Josh Awtry, editor of Gannett Carolina region

Josh Awtry is the incoming editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times in North Carolina and The Greenville News in South Carolina. Both newspapers are owned by Gannett. He comes to this job from Fort Collins, Colo., where he was executive editor at The Coloradoan. Awtry started his journalism career as a copy editor at The Independent in Grand Isle, Neb., and he has worked in various roles at newspapers in Utah, Idaho and Myrtle Beach, S.C. In this interview, conducted by email, Awtry talks about his return to the Carolinas and what’s in store at the Citizen-Times and the News.

Q. You’ve spent much of the past 10 years in newspapers in the West. Why the move to the South to lead the Asheville and Greenville newspapers?

A. Great question! I love the West — a lot of who I am was forged in that unique culture of independence and larger-than-life landscape that permeates every aspect of that part of the country.

But, ultimately, I’m a sucker for a fresh challenge. While it’d be presumptuous to string a “mission accomplished” banner up in Fort Collins, we did so many of the things we set out to do a little more than 2 years ago: Readership trends are going phenomenally, revenue is the highest it’s been in years, digital subscriptions are way up, and the community is a true media partner with the Coloradoan. We’ve had civic forums, great engagement and turned the relationship between a community and its news team around. It’s time for someone with fresh ideas to come in and figure out the exciting things that come next.

At the same time, I look at Asheville and Greenville — two communities who are incredibly different, but they share an equally engaged populace — and I can’t help but be excited about the possibilities. I think that there’s a great chance to blend some of what we pioneered in community journalism in Fort Collins with an all-new playbook we’ll invent as we go along.

When my wife and I lived in Myrtle Beach, S.C., we would often vacation up in the Blue Ridge and Smoky mountains (my doughy pastiness lends itself much more to the mountains than the beach). Western North Carolina and the upstate are beautiful, lush parts of the country, and I can’t wait to get my hiking boots muddy this spring.

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 9.41.46 AMQ. Asheville and Greenville are about 60 miles apart. How does that affect your day-to-day work activity?

A. I’m a horrible workaholic and have a hard time disconnecting from the endless stream of social feeds and notifications that can detract from deep thinking. That drive between the two communities has given me something I hadn’t expected: a quiet space to formulate strategies and plot courses around obstacles.

Leading two newsrooms across state lines, though, is a unique challenge that’s new to me. Even though the communities are close, the state line bifurcates everything from press associations and politics to sports allegiance.

While there’ll be a chance for the two newsrooms to partner up on regional coverage that doesn’t follow boundaries, I see more opportunities in strategic development. In some ways, the two newsrooms can be the real-world equivalent of A/B testing. Come up with similar ideas, but deploy them in different ways. If one starts succeeding more than the other, roll both news teams over to that approach.

Q. What changes can readers expect in their newspapers?

A. How much space do we have?

If we’re just talking newspapers, I think the changes will be significant, but readers will still recognize their familiar brands. The biggest shift print readers will see is in the caliber of stories we tackle.

Too many papers are reactionary, and they still cover incremental stories without setting up context and depth. They’ve become “a mile wide and an inch deep.” They rarely dig into an underlying issue, and never really explain the community’s big narrative arcs.

Print readers will see a definite shift to daily, dot-connecting enterprise on the front page. Those stories will need to be based around a local issue and involve the synthesis of multiple data points and community voices. They’re “why” stories, and a top priority is having them every day of the week.

Shooting for that every day is admittedly a big check to write. We’ll help give journalists the time to do this by getting off the hamster wheel. We still have a paper to fill, but the focus is going to be on big cover stories coupled with shorter items. Some of the routine “dailies” will be truncated or avoided to give folks the time for the important stuff.

Bigger and more exciting changes will happen outside of the paper, though.

The biggest revolves around service. Engagement is a buzzword, but, somewhere along the line, papers abandoned the notion that they truly serve at the behest of a community. Journalists need to be shoe-leather experts, connecting readers with answers. Our goal will be to answer every question that comes our way. That’s how you turn readers into loyal fans, and that, in turn, helps engender digital subscriptions, which lets us hire more journalists.

That will manifest on social media, of course, but readers will be able to expect “real world” events, too. Community forums that bring noted experts in for Q&A sessions on big community issues should happen frequently. Gatherings of members to speak to the journalists they support could easily follow.

Why be water cooler conversation when you can be the water cooler?

Ultimately — thinking far out, here — my goal is to make people feel a personal connection to the news team they support. Anyone can circumvent a paywall should they desire; my goal is to make sure they don’t pay a monthly fee because they have to, but because they want to. That’s the difference between a subscriber and member, or reader and fan.

It’s exciting stuff, and once you start thinking down that road, you start seeing a clear path out of the malaise in which we’ve put ourselves.

It’s a work in progress, though. That level of civic engagement is the fun part, but we can’t get there until our core journalism skills are strong. Getting journalists to return to an embrace of deeper, investigative stories often requires us to build muscle in many of the classic skills of open records requests, data crunching and narrative technique.

Q. We’re seeing tremendous change in journalism. How do you recommend students prepare themselves for a field in transition?

A. It’s likely nothing students haven’t heard, but I can’t say it enough: Be a journalist equally proficient in all tools.

TV journalists have to be better narrative writers than ever before, print journalists have to be able to think visually. Master all the tools. Increasingly, we don’t send a reporter and photographer out to a breaking news scene — we send a journalist. Be as quick and comfortable with a notepad as you are with pinning a microphone on a source.

But, above any learned skill, be sure you’re curious about the world around you. That’s something you’ll not learn in any classroom setting. The best journalists are those whose inquisitive nature drives them to seek answers without being prompted.

And remember that journalists serve via the patronage of their community. Modern journalism isn’t just about telling the story that you want to tell — it’s about going to bat for your readership, answering their questions and being a resource.

It’s a cliche, but I do really believe it: This is a great time to get into journalism. 40 years ago, there was no reason for disruption; 40 years from now, smart folks will have this all figured out. But right here — right now — we get to make a difference in charting the future of information. And that’s heady stuff.

UPDATE: In June 2016, Awtry was named senior director for news strategy at USA Today.