Friday, September 26, 2008

Why now? USAT digital czar's mysterious departure

USA Today's Web-savvy executive editor, Kinsey Wilson (left), is responsible for all news gathering at the nation's No. 1 circulation paper -- Gannett's marquee operation -- at a crucial time in history, both inside and outside his own newsroom.

A presidential election is just 39 days away. The nation is suddenly engulfed in a financial crisis, as it battles a war in the Middle East. Yet, Wilson's understaffed newsroom of around 450 people remains mired in infighting over a nearly three-year-old print-online merger -- one he helped engineer. Close competitors -- The Wall Street Journal, New York Times -- sprint further ahead on their own digital initiatives. Meanwhile, the threat of more job cuts looms as Gannett's third quarter limps to conclusion.

Against that backdrop, we now know, Wilson is abruptly decamping for the top digital job at National Public Radio. But his exit, announced Wednesday by Editor Ken Paulson in a spare, one-paragraph memo, raises a host of questions about Wilson's timing, and the broader implications for Gannett's flagship.

Like: Why now? NPR has gotten along without a digital chief six months -- since Maria Thomas left the non-profit network in early April. What's more, Wilson appears to be signing on to the much smaller NPR without even knowing who he'll report to; the network has yet to replace CEO Ken Stern, who resigned in late February.

Certainly, reflecting the ongoing war between online and print, the newsroom was divided over Wilson's exit, based on reader comments here. "I'm thrilled! The door can't hit him in the ass too soon," was quickly followed by: "Kinsey is damn smart. USAT will miss him big time." (The comments got so ugly, I did something unusual: closed down the discussion.)

Did Paulson try to keep him?
Wilson was among the paper's few top editors with real in-the-trenches digital experience -- first at Congressional Quarterly, where he long ago helped in its own web-print combo. He came to USA Today in 2000, as chief news executive over -- then got promoted to a newly created second executive editor's post in December 2005, when the web-print merger first started.

But he always seemed a bit like a fish out of water. At a paper that especially prides itself on covering American Idol, Nascar racing and other pop subjects, the more cerebral-seeming Wilson once said he was a fan of high-brow PBS television and, of course, NPR.

For all the importance Paulson (left) places on digital, you gotta wonder how hard he fought to keep Wilson -- permanently, or at least through the Nov. 4 elections.

NPR has survived without a digital chief all this time; surely it would have understood Wilson's desire to stay at USAT just a month longer -- assuming that was an option. Indeed, Paulson's memo leaves big questions unanswered:
  • Will Wilson be replaced -- or is Publisher Craig Moon going to insist on banking Wilson's six-figure salary, and telling the newsroom to suck it up?
  • Paulson says Wilson is "moving to an important and challenging new role with NPR.'' Granted, but what about USA Today isn't just as important and challenging?
  • What happens to the still-balkanized newsroom, now that a chief architect of its web-print merger is suddenly leaving? Have the old "silos'' that led to Paulson's 2004 hiring simply been replaced with new ones, pitting digital against analog?
  • Why is it OK for Gannett's most high-profile, best-resourced newsroom to still be arguing over print-web seating assignments -- nearly three years after the merger's start?
It's futile to parse Paulson's memo for clues. He doesn't give Wilson's last day, referencing only a planned send-off in "early October.'' Plus, Paulson said just enough nice stuff about the guy to suggest Wilson's departure is at least a tad amicable. Yet, unless Paulson's already got a candidate to replace Wilson -- or a new management structure to do without the position altogether -- it looks like Gannett's increasingly rudderless flagship is heading into an even more uncertain future.

Earlier: In my USA Today buyout, secrecy and hurt feelings

Please post your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, write gannettblog[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the green sidebar, upper right.

[Images: Wilson, New York University; Paulson, Iowa University; today's USAT front page, Newseum]


  1. Kinsey was more sound than action. CQ's fabulous Web operations took off only after he left there, and they are today the most successful and incredibly profitable part of the company. He failed at doing that at USAT and so should shoulder the consequences. Personally, Kinsey was a cold fish who had difficulties dealing with inter-personal relationships, and someone who was clearly way over his head dealing with USAT's myriad personalities. He made no impact on the office or the operation. He was a nothing, he was not a success, so he won't be missed.

  2. I wasn't much of a Wilson fan. But at least he understood the difference between a blog and a traditional website, among the many finer distinctions in digital journalism.

  3. This sniping is really getting old. Kinsey has done a lot of good there. He built a strong dotcom staff, has implemented positive change for the site with social networking features and the new design, and has gotten many print staffers into and excited about Web possibilities.

    He wasn't infallible, but he was an aggressive change agent. Some people just don't like that.

    As for the timing, I'm sure Kinsey is approached all the time. Going to NPR makes sense. It's on sounder financial footing, he doesn't have to move cities, he has a higher role and gets to get in at the start of a new leadership team.

    For Paulson to be patient about naming possible successors also makes sense. There's nobody there who is obvious to assume his role. It seems sensible that Paulson would want to be deliberate about this.

    A benefit of Kinsey leaving is that more people will have an opportunity to influence the digital direction of USA TODAY. There are both risks and benefits to that. How it plays out remains to be seen.

    But, really, people need to calm down. Kinsey's a good guy and made a personal decision. USA TODAY and the Web site will continue to move forward.

  4. Blow the whistle! That's a 15-yard penalty for revisionist history!

    It's hard to imagine anyone at USAT who had a bigger impact on the product than Wilson over the last four years.

  5. ..biggest impact...Really? Jack Kelley?

  6. He had an impact, but it was pedestrian. He didn't innovate but only followed what others led in innovation. We get few plaudits for our Web site, and today it looks archaic compared to some of the whiz sites I see. He hired, so his legacy lives on, but I do not give him high marks on creativity.

  7. Those people who downplay Kinsey's impact have no idea how much of an impact he actually made. In a newsroom full of print people who can't figure out how to send a document in Word to the nearest printer, he was a constant agent for change and growth. Any limitations in the Web site or the merger are the result not of his leadership but because of budgetary limits. The reason some other news organizations have Web sites that are better than USAT's is simply because they are WAY outspending USAT in hiring digital people to build them.

    USAT's digital revolution will continue without Kinsey. Some of the print people might think that his leaving is a "victory for print," but that thinking unfortunately is reflective of the deep divide in the newsroom and the very thing killing us.

  8. There is no one at USA Today who thinks Kinsey leaving is a "victory for print."

    It might be a defeat for digital momentum, but that will be temporary.

  9. Someone said Kinsey had "difficulties dealing with inter-personal relationships." Well, I find that true of him and most of USAT's upper management. They either come across as cold fish or used car salesmen. USAT has some of the least inspirational managers I've ever seen anywhere... People who not only lack relationship skills, but also are horrible organizers who make decisions that routinely seem to lack logic and cause even more anxieties and hardships for the staff.

    I also find the anti-print comments here on this blog to be more stinging (if not juvenile) than the anti-digital comments. Perhaps some print people do have trouble printing a simple document, but some digital people have trouble closing their notebook computers and even saying a kind hello to any print person they pass by in the hall.

    It's simply an awful atmosphere, partly fueled by a lack of resources, and probably played somewhat of a role in Kinsey leaving. On the other hand, Kinsey could have probably done more to bridge the two sides and not leave us with this ongoing divide. Yeah, we can sit together, but that doesn't mean we're merged and happy. The big bosses thoughtlessly threw us together, hoped for the best, and look what they've got now...

  10. Like most USATers, Kinsey had his strong points and his weak points. USAT rarely seems to attract the "total package" in its top hires. Plenty of people with hands-on skills, but they can't relate to folks outside their team. Also plenty of good schmoozers who happen to have limited abilities.

    Things will limp along in this dysfunctional way. I don't see any grand changes about to occur as a result of Kinsey leaving.

  11. With the current climate at USAT, and no relief in sight, I think any of us who were lucky enough to get a halfway decent offer would leave. The merger is a joke. The buyouts last year really hurt. It's reasonable to conclude that things are going to get far worse before they ever get better.

    Kinsey was high up there (No. 2, I guess), but look at all the other top managers who have jumped ship when opportunity has arisen in the last year or two. I can count as least 15 high-level editors, managers and people who drove content, who have walked in the last 18 months alone, and I am probably leaving out a few. We all know why they left -- the general and common reasons. They might not have told anyone in an official exit interview, but those who knew them well understood their frustrations. Kinsey is probably just another one who saw an out and took it, although I fully admit to not knowing the man very well.

    The conversation seems to need to turn to why is USAT losing so many mid and upper managers. Figure that out, Mr. Moon and Paulson, and a few other things might fall into place.

  12. I am so tired of the digital v. print spat. I write for a newspaper, I do digital. That's just the way it is. I don't take as much pride in having my product appear on a Web site as I do seeing it in print. What I take pride in is seeing people pay real money they took out of their wallets to buy a paper in which my byline appears. Call me a dinosaur, but I really and honestly feel that way, and I suspect I am not alone.

  13. 12:56 You think he left because he wanted to? maybe. But it seems the general consensus is he was very talented but terrible at building bridges. I read alot of complaining on this website of people wanting better managers. Maybe this is a HUGE opportunity to hire a GREAT digital leader....not just someone who is talented but someone who can manage people up and down within the organization.

  14. Seems like only yesterday: USA Today's Third-Generation initiative, and the daily why now?/so what? critiques of the paper. Ick.

  15. It may be time to require that one of the top three editor's have a degree in engineering. (Seriously.)

  16. I think 12:56 has hit the nail on the head. The question is why those decently competent upper-level managers seem to flee the organization? This leaves the career Gannetteers who may be, shall we say, lacking in areas of important skills.
    Healthy and innovative organizations generate leadership and ideas from within. Upper-level performers leaving is almost always symptomatic of a problem with executive leadership.
    I did not work with Kinsey enough to say whether he was or was not effective. However, I strongly suspect he, like many others, simply grew tired of having to fight the culture of mistrust just to accomplish anything.

  17. Instead of layoffs at USAT, they are doing what I have long hoped for, and dealing with the management bloat. It is coming one by one, but it is coming. I expect many more heads to fall, and execs leave for better opportunities elsewhere, etc. This is long overdue and really good news when you think of the alternative.

  18. The USA Today culture has always been second rate. You don't see any star columnists. You don't see any Pulitzer prizes. You don't even see many design awards anymore. So it doesn't surprise me that many of the managers are a notch below the norm or lacking in certain areas. The few good ones do eventually give up and leave.

    The circulation went to No. 1 because of the marketing machine, not the great journalism. Essentially, the paper was forced upon people. It's an easy read, so people eventually accepted it the way they accept American Idol. Some even like it. But how many actually respect it, internally or externally? You just don't hear folks talk about USA Today the way they do the Times or Post, or NPR for that matter.

    When I worked for USAT, the lack of respect among some people in the newsroom was absolutely incredible. And this was a before merger mania. I honestly believed that some people there had personality disorders and needed mental health help. Some department heads openly and subtly encouraged their employees disrespect other departments.There was always a battle to fight. Sometimes a war.

    I believe some of the worst managers are gone, but the residue in the newsroom remains. It doesn't surprise me at all that this already divided newsroom is struggling with merger. It doesn't surprise me to see another manager running from there. And for a mid-manager/editor, it might be the worst place in the industry to work, but that would take a lot more words to explain why.

  19. Those who liked Kinsey will defend him. Those who didn't will be happy to see him go. All the people in between couldn't care less, I am guessing. And regardless of what anyone thought of him, or why he left, nothing in that Hell hole is going to change. There is some really bad karma in that building. I suspect some will follow Kinsey if they can, just to get away from the constant tension, dwindling staff and doomday predictions for print. Boy, if the economy ever turns around, there is going to be a mass exodus from that place!

  20. USA Today has all the amenities. Nice building. A gym. Tennis courts. And NO SOUL. I highly suggest that wannabe or even veteran journalists - print or online - avoid the place. Careers die there. Some are lucky to get out, like Kinsey, but many can't for a number of reasons, that is, until they are forced out. I've been told more than once that working at USA Today is often seen as a black mark on one's resume by more serious publications that don't flaunt American Idol coverage and dumb columns and graphics. Dont stay there too long! Working for a top-notch alternative weekly or a slick urban magazine that tackles issues and creatively displays stories are far more stimulating than the templated and disjointed Gannett flagship with the horrid morale.

    Merger? Did anyone really expect this managerial cast of clowns to pull that off with any grace or logic? The most basic of things at USA Today take 10 people, and then it gets screwed up anyway. If Kinsey was intelligent, he must have been very frustrated by this group. There was no way he was going to successfully bring two staffs together in that environment.

  21. What got me about USAT was the back-biting. I've never seen a place where back-biting was openly encouraged. Managers took particular glee when they got an attack in writing because they could use it for one of their secret inquisitions some managers really enjoyed. There was some perverse idea of creative destruction and building up an organization by tearing down people. I do not understand the culture and I still shudder thinking about it.

  22. You are so right, 4:36. I knew I was in the wrong place when they paraded Tom Squitieri through the newsroom after he resigned for a silly error lifting a quote. What got me is how much management seemed to enjoy having that pelt on their belt.

  23. hmm. I like digital, i like print, for the record. Sounds like he didn't LIKE USA Today. It's not for everybody.

  24. Read the Wilson interview from a few years ago. Sounds like an extremely talented guy---a real visionary, and a much better fit for NPR than anything Gannett-related. I'm saying that based on my personal experience working at a Gannett site, my observations of USAT's online product these past six months and comments on this blog.

  25. 12:42 and 4:33 hit the nail on the head. No soul. No inspiration. When Corporate had the chance to go outside Gannett and hire a dynamic new editor for USAT, it instead hires a lightweight who hadn't been in a newsroom for 8 years. More of the same, more of the same. I wouldn't know Wilson if I ran into him in the elevator, and I certainly don't plan to attend his farewell. USAT is a depressing place to work, due to upper management that aspires to mediocrity, not greatness.

  26. I have to say that Mr. Moon and Mr. Paulson are screwed. I like Kinsey and so does a majority the people in the USAT newsroom.

    Moon and Paulson are loosing stature in this company. If anything, we thought Paulson would have been expended. It seems like Mr. Moon's days are numbered at USAToday.

    Whether you like Kinsey or not, the facts are clear. We are losing revenue, we have lost some senior executives, we have lost our sense of purpose.

    Wilson was the future and Paulson/Moon are the past.

  27. The loss of Kinsey Wilson is just the latest evidence of how uninspiring a place USAT has become. When other editors, who spent most of their careers at USAT, just packed up and left in the last year or two, I suspected things were spiraling downward behind the scenes. Now, with this resignation, can there be any doubt that USAT is in trouble in the newsroom? Some very dedicated people have seen the writing on the wall and left, even though for many of them it was a difficult and emotional decision.

    USAT simply does not function anymore. The paper gets out, and the web site continues, but there aren't that many truly motivated people left. Some are fueled by their own sense of pride. But most are now just in it for a paycheck, just want to do their work and go home.

    There are some content folks, and a few newer employees haven't been there long enough to know better, but the overall mood is dismal. People are doing their best to hide their true feelings, but it's getting harder with each bad decision that is made.

    Change has been needed at USAT for a long time, but this isn't the change we expected or desired. USAT is blowing a great opportunity to improve things and making dumb decision after dumb decision. I see it in my little corner, and I see it paper-wide. Good people are being wasted or put into the wrong positions. Some are being asked to do the impossible as they watch up to 75% of their resources stripped.

    Bad choices abound on everything from workflow to hiring. One mistake compounds another. And all reason has gone out the window. Anyone who speaks up for logic is seen as being stuck in the past.

    USAT upper managers need to start paying attention to details and have smarter planning. Mid managers need to be listened to and not told of plans after the fact. Top managers need to think things through and not just come up with lofty plans based on wishful thinking. Stop alienating the people who built the brand! Listen to the troops. I mean really listen.

    A lot of damage has been done in the last year or two. If things unravel much more, I am not sure USAT will ever recover. I can see the brand becoming second rate.

  28. Is John Hillkirk still the other executive editor? If Kinsey handled news, what are John's responsibilities?


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