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 USAToday.com -- 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?
Earlier: In my USA Today buyout, secrecy and hurt feelings
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[Images: Wilson, New York University; Paulson, Iowa University; today's USAT front page, Newseum]