October 5, 2006
by HEIDI WALTERS and HANK SIMS
RICH SOMERVILLE WAS BARELY INSTALLED IN HIS NEW OFFICE IN THE TIMES-STANDARD'S NEWSROOM BY LAST THURSDAY. The pumpkin-colored walls he inherited from his predecessor, former Times-Standard editor Charles Winkler, were still devoid of personal touches -- just a few framed editions of the 152-year-old Eureka daily he now commanded adorned the walls.
It was Somerville's first full week on the job, and he had already been all around town, meeting and greeting the county's movers and shakers. He seemed to be enjoying himself. He is a big, outsized man, 59 years old, with sharp glasses, neat eyebrows and a half-Manchu mustache. He has been married twice, but is single now -- it's hard to maintain a relationship in the newspaper business, he said. In the last decade or so of his career, he's shuffled back and forth between academia, private consulting work and newspapering -- his first love.
This is the man that MediaNews Corp., the Times-Standard's parent company, has tapped to lead the paper in one of the more curious moments in its history, a moment when it has been threatened by new competition from a well-financed startup: local boy Rob Arkley's 2-year-old Eureka Reporter. At least on the news front, the war seems to have escalated of late, with reporters and editors at each of the papers taking shots at one another within their pages. Things seem to be tensing up. And that Thursday morning, Somerville said that Dean Singleton, MediaNews CEO, was ready to fight.
"Dean Singleton, when he was here, reinforced this very strongly: This paper is here to stay, and they're going to back it 100 percent," he said. "So I'm hoping that actually we'll be able to make a good strong argument for even more resources as we move forward."
The first resources he wanted to tap, though, were architectural. In fact, in his brief period of time on the job, he had already cleared some of his calendar to consult with professionals that might help him remodel the space he and his staff share.
"We were talking to this guy -- I met him the other day, John Ash," he said. "He's an architect. He said, well, you know, you've got these giant stone walls. We can't really knock `em out and put windows in there. But we can put skylights in there and maybe shed some light on things. So that would be great. At least we would get some sunlight in."
Skylights? The anecdote seems telling, but it's hard to say what it tells. There are several potential Somervilles it indicates, each of them with some precedent in the man's career.
There's Somerville the Iowa newsman, lifelong denizen of poorly lit offices. Perhaps he's got a latent touch of the old-school Midwestern muckracker in him, the kind of person who would abhor a workplace with no access to fresh air or sunshine. Perhaps he's an accomplished enough bureaucrat to know that the new guy gets a certain grace period, during which he can make expensive requests of management. Maybe he figures he can use some of that capital to soothe his reporters, to get them on his side before he starts taking a hard look at how they do things.
But then, on the other hand, there's Somerville the shaman, a holder of an advanced degree in "Alternative Futures." This Somerville is a futurist and author of numerous academic papers. He's the founder of Media Foresight Associates, a newspaper consulting firm. For his proto-blog at the Media Foresight website, he went under the guise of "Newstradamus" -- a self-described "explorer of the future of journalism" who "sift[ed] the shifting sands of the Internet seeking emerging trends" about "the practices and roles of news media in the decades to come." Maybe this Somerville -- the spiritual side of the man -- thinks that improved newsroom feng shui will help lead his paper to victory against its crosstown rival.
Apart from the skylights, Somerville isn't yet ready to detail what types of changes he has in mind. But if you look at the man's past, it's clear that: a) he's a man with big ideas, and b) he isn't shy about putting them into practice.
In the early 1990s, Rich Somerville found himself suddenly, serenely, living in a friend's vacant cottage "high on the slopes of Haleakala," the sleeping volcanic mountain that comprises the bulk of the island of Maui. Haleakala -- which means "house of the sun" -- is an arid, beautifully stark, red-tinged rocky environment, nude of distractions except perhaps the tourists on pilgrimage to the peak to watch the rising sun. It was as complete a departure as domestically possible from the previous 30 years of his life immersed in the noisy, pressing, exhilaratingly frenzied world of newspapers.
"There was something spiritual about it," he recalled last Thursday. "I'm not a religious person, per se, but there was something about living on that mountain that helped me think about what am I doing, who am I. And it reinforced the fact that I loved journalism, I still did, and I didn't want to get out of it, but I wanted to approach it from a different way."
In the three years before that, Somerville had been the editor of the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He had, in a sense, arrived: It had long been his goal to be editor of a daily paper. And, up to that point, he was the quintessential newshound with even an old-fashioned newshound's beginning: first a high school newspaper editor in Des Moines, Iowa, and then a copy boy at age 16 at the Pulitzer Prize-winning Des Moines Register: "Sharpen pencils, get coffee, cut the wire. At that time you had teletype -- you didn't have digital stories -- you had teletype paper, and you had to cut the stories off the teletypes and run 'em around the room. Hell, you had to go pick up the editor's cleaning around the corner, you had to go down the street and get the USDA pork belly reports. You know, it's just everything you had to do. But just the sense of action!"
He rode the newspaper rollercoaster for the next few decades, the initial 20-plus years at the morning Des Moines Register and its sister/competitor, the afternoon Des Moines Tribune (he was news editor when the Tribune fell victim to "the afternoon-newspaper purge of 1982" and was absorbed into the Register). "I was everything from city editor, news editor, metro editor, foreign editor, restaurant critic on the side." In 1988, struck by wanderlust, he took a job at Gannett's Honolulu Star-Bulletin as the assistant managing editor for news. And by 1990, he was the editor of the Argus Leader.
But instead of a beginning, it seemed like an end, or at best a fast, narrow road with a blind curve up ahead. "It was starting to become obvious that the news business in general was undergoing some dramatic change," he said. "I had been a newsroom rat all my life. You know, you come in in the morning, you've got blinders on, you see the deadline at the end of the tunnel, you know, and you just go for the light. And that's all you know. And yet -- there are bigger issues going on here. And I was trying to lead the paper through change, and I didn't have the tools to be able to do it in the way I wanted to. I didn't know what knowledge I needed." He decided to take a break.
After eight months on Haleakala, Somerville's vision had clarified: He wanted to go back to school, and he wanted to return, along a new path, to journalism. And -- "it's really funny how life works," he said -- the connections just started happening. When the Honolulu Advertiser asked him to lead a special project exploring the Hawaiian environment -- its past, present and future -- he took it and moved to Honolulu. There he met Jim Dator, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu. "He was one of the earlier futurists," Somerville said. "And I wanted him to do a piece about Hawaii's environmental future. And we segued into talking about the future of news. I said, `I have this desire to understand the forces of change that are going on in journalism, but I don't know how to get at it.'" Dator suggested he enter the Alternative Futures program at the University of Hawaii.
"And what it is, it's a disciplined way to think about change and the consequences of what's happening today," said Somerville. "You extrapolate, do scenarios of the future: If this happens, what are consequences. It sounds kind of artsy-fartsy, but it's actually a great discipline -- especially for journalists. You know, if journalism is morphing from chronicling what happened yesterday -- now we've got all kinds of people doing that, with cable, and blogs -- maybe the professional journalist, the investigative type journalist, is the one that says what it means. Kind of like consequential journalism."
He eventually got a fellowship -- more chance connections -- at the University of Missouri, working from 1996 to 1999 in a program called "New Directions for News," teaching basic journalism, starting a graduate course on the future of journalism and helping lead roundtables around the country, to which they invited "visionary people from outside journalism" to participate.
Somerville had done everything but complete his dissertation when his fellowship ran out. He "dropped an e-mail to a guy" he knew at Northwestern University, who said they were just launching the Readership Institute and they needed somebody like Somerville to study newspaper cultures, newspaper management practices and the psychology of change in newsrooms.
And so from 1999 to 2002, Somerville was an associate at the Readership Institute, working on the big study. "It's the biggest readership project ever undertaken in the newspaper business," he said. Newspaper organizations put up $15 million for five years to figure out "a way to turn around readership decline. Readership has been going down steadily, slowly but steadily, for the last 30 years." The institute studied 100 newspapers, between 10,000 circulation and 700,000 circulation, and surveyed more than 30,000 readers. It devised a method of measuring readership -- which is different from paid circulation numbers, and is based partly on "pass-along" figures (as in, one paper may get read by two or three people) -- and came up with methods for increasing it.
"We ended up getting a measurement called a Reader Behavior Score ... that measured how often somebody picked up the paper. You know, how many days of the week did you actually pick up the paper, when you picked it up, how much time did you spend with it -- did you spend five minutes reading it, 10 minutes, half an hour? And ... how thoroughly did you read it? What percentage of the paper would you say you read? And the idea was to create a baseline for you to understand if you're growing readership. If you can grow any of those numbers, you know you're doing something right.
"All this research they did came down to trying to understand the experience somebody has when they read a newspaper. If it's a motivating experience, if it satisfies some personal needs they have, then they'll come back. If it's an inhibiting experience, they'll drop you, and they'll go find the information they need somewhere else."
Somerville spread the gospel arising from the findings in speaking engagements and workshops across the country.
"But eventually, I had this feeling, everybody's listening and nodding their heads, but few people are actually taking it and doing anything with it," Somerville said. "One of things we found in our research was, newspapers are very defensive, and very resistant to change. I said, `Somebody needs to get out there and do something.' And I was getting the itch to go back in the newsroom again. I was looking for a paper that was looking for an editor that wanted to do some of this stuff. And I preferred a smaller paper. A community paper."
At that time, The Union, a 140-year-old paper in Nevada County, Calif., was undergoing tremen-dous change. It was February 2002, and Jeff Ackerman had just been named The Union's new publisher. Some time prior to Ackerman's arrival, the newspaper had celebrated its largest paid circulation ever, of 17,000. But by the time Ackerman came on, the circulation had dropped to 15,800, Ackerman said from his Grass Valley office last Friday. Several months after Ackerman's arrival, editor John Seelmeyer, who'd been there 12 years, left to run the Northern Nevada Business Weekly.
Ackerman had been following the Readership Institute's big study, and he was impressed with the Readership Behavior Score method. "I was looking for an editor, and Rich responded," he said.
Somerville jumped right in. Not only was he eager to test the theories, but his pay, he said, was to be part salary and part bonus based on how well he increased circulation, profits and readership.
To hear some tell it, the ensuing two years were a time of dynamic, invigorating change.
"Over time, I think the readers felt they could communicate better with the newspaper," said publisher Ackerman.
Anna Haynes, a blogger in Nevada County (ncfocus.blogspot.com) said by e-mail last week that she has Somerville to thank for turning her into "a journalism junkie." It was September 2002, and the paper had just gone through a summer with a new publisher and no editor, a period in which, she said, the paper was "a "referee-free" zone ... "with the publisher egging people on ... and so I think there was a collective sigh of relief when [Somerville] came on board. I saw him as a voice for civility in the community, I found his columns on journalism interesting," she said.
Sure, she had her criticisms. But, she said, Somerville "had to work with a fractious publisher and a fractious community," in which a "major power struggle" was going on surrounding development issues. And perhaps, she surmised, the problems she saw were just the nature of small-town newspapers.
Dixie Redfearn, whom Somerville pulled from the advertising side of the paper to fill the new Readership Editor position, said last Friday by phone that Somerville "raised the bar in the newspaper."
"He started assigning stories," she said. "He brought over an artist from the advertising side to be a design editor, which we had never had. This is a rural county, but it's become a little wealthier, a little more sophisticated, and he brought the paper up to a higher standard. And we had a lot of turnover. But it all seemed to be for a better purpose. For each person who left, the person who came on was a better writer, a better reporter."
But to hear others tell it -- some of the ones who left, some of whom have landed in respectable newspaper positions around the country -- the Somerville era was a confusing descent into hell.
The former Union reporters who were at the paper when Somerville came on are still a tight-knit bunch. By the time the Journal contacted them last week, they were already abuzz with the news of Somerville's new editorship in Eureka. "The news spread like wildfire," one said. "E-mails flew between me and my coworkers." One even called the Times-Standard to "warn" the reporters there about Somerville. (The former Union reporters we talked to did not want to be named in this story, for fear of retribution. As one put it, "I'm still in the business and this is a small world.")
Their comments ranged from "he was the worst boss I ever had" to "there was a mass exodus of people" to "he came in and wrecked our paper" to "our circulation dropped." One reporter said that 18 of 21 reporters had left (Somerville, interviewed the next day, said it was more like 50 percent of the newsroom that left). Several of them said they confronted Somerville not long after he arrived and asked him if they were "guinea pigs" for his Ph.D dissertation. They had, perhaps, stumbled across his 2001 paper from the University of Missouri, "Thriving on Chaos: A case study of newspaper cultural change."
Perhaps the change that unsettled them most was a refashioning, and reassigning, of beats. They said Somerville asked everyone to list their top three beat choices, but then he ignored some of their requests and gave them different beats.
As for the readership thing, said one reporter, "it was a sea of mumbo jumbo and a drop of common sense."
Ackerman, however, says that because of Somerville, readership had increased by his second year there. He denies that circulation dropped. Circulation, in 2003, was reported to be at about 18,800. (Circulation now is around 16,800.) But paid circulation, he said, is trickier as a measure of success, because the 17,000 figure celebrated before he came on "might have been inflated" -- a practice some of the big metros were being chastised for at the time. And, it doesn't take into account the non-print readers reading the paper on-line, and the "pass-along" readership -- the idea that more than one person usually reads one copy of the paper.
One thing is certain, for better or worse, Somerville certainly shook things up. And the unsettled feelings seem to have persisted to this day.
Somerville, in his new Times-Standard digs, seemed to slip from his easy, jovial seminar mode into a more troubled repose when asked about the former employees' accusations. No, he said he told them, they were not part of his dissertation -- all the research was done already, and he just had to "write the darn thing."
The upheaval "didn't start with my arrival," he said." When a paper is losing 2- to 3-percent circulation, and the county is growing 2 to 3 percent, you've got a problem. Before I came in, they had pretty much swept the management ... new publisher, all new department heads. They did a redesign before I arrived. So, they were already in a change mode. Things were already kind of traumatized."
But yeah, he made changes. "I wanted to shake things up. I don't think that's a bad idea, shaking things up now and then." He wanted better planning and a focus on more enterprise reporting. He told reporters to be at the office at 9 a.m. every work day, and he moved up deadlines. He created the Readership Editor position to deal with what he said were customer/reader service problems, and to field freelance and reader contributions as well as edit stories.
"And we made sure all views were reflected in the paper," he said. "There were areas we weren't covering -- like politics, even though it's a contentious area. They were shying away from the tough stuff."
He said the original beats "weren't really organized according to what was happening in the county. We did an assessment, talked to the community." As a result, for example, the cops and courts beat became the "public safety beat" and focused not just on immediate events but on broad trends, as well.
Somerville said many of the people left "not in an acrimonious way." Even so, he said, he was "surprised that so many people left for either poor jobs or for no jobs at all. And I could only think that there was a group dynamic going on there that was in operation. I think there were people that left who encouraged other people to leave, that might not have left. The thing about it is, they were very tight-knit group. And, they were a cadre of people that felt that they were kind of running the newsroom, and that the editor wasn't going to run the newsroom, and I had to disabuse them of that."
Somerville said he is a collaborative person. "I am not a dictator. I am not a chair thrower. ... I prefer to manage by collaboration, and inexorable coaching. I'll just be all over ya, with a smile on my face, asking you to do it, and if you don't do it I'll be back tomorrow and ask you to do it again, until you're finally sick and you want to get rid of me and you finally do it."
Somerville left the Union in 2002 to run Media Foresight Associates, which he's been doing ever since: speaking, training, trying to help people increase readership. Then, a few weeks ago, he said, MediaNews contacted him to say the Times-Standard's editor, Charles Winkler, was leaving for another position. Did he want the job?
He was a little torn -- the consulting was going OK, and yet he had that familiar itch to get back into the newsroom. "Then, all of sudden, presto! They said, `Well, you in? You out?' And I said, `Sounds fun!'"
Well, so what exactly is the notion behind all this readership talk? What can Times-Standard readers expect in their newspaper's future?
"There's four particular things that I did in Grass Valley, and that I did in consulting and we're going to do here," Somerville said. "We want to give people something to talk about -- you know, this is reading the news as a social glue. And it's not just reading newspapers, it's the web, it's television, it's radio. If you can give people something to talk about that gives them a social status, a social glue, a way to relate to people. People want to look smart and be able to talk about things. And so, then, making them smarter is another thing. Tell `em something that's really gonna help them make money, help them have a better marriage, help their kids get into the right school, help them figure out what they want to do on the weekend.
"[Third], show them that the paper's looking out for their interest -- that's the typical watchdog function of the newspaper. You know, keep an eye on the government, keep an eye on what's going on in your community. And the other one, the fourth one, is just as important but it's more nebulous, I think, in that the paper provides something surprising, or fun, or somehow taps into emotions, either joy or sadness. You know, too often newspapers ... they squeeze the fun out. You know, they've made it kind of generic, kind of passionless. I think we need to bring passion back into the newspaper.
"So I'm a believer in giving writers a voice, giving designers some freedom to have some fun in the design of the paper, being creative in photography -- all those things. And -- and try something strange. I'm willing to listen to any idea. It may sound goofy but you never know, it might be kind of fun. We're kind of hide-bound in the mainstream media. But we don't have to be, especially in a community like this, which is kind of freewheeling. Why couldn't we be?"
As for the newsroom itself, Somerville said he couldn't equate the situation he inherited at the Times-Standard to that at The Union.
"I give Charles [Winkler] full credit," he said. "From everybody I've talked to, I feel he made the paper better. ... He's leaving me a good situation. The paper certainly is not troubled in any way. I think there might be an impression out in the community -- and I asked about this too -- that the paper might be struggling. But in point of fact, circulation is healthy and maybe even grown a little bit. Single copy, off the rack, is down a little because you've got a free paper being offered right next to it. But home delivery is up and advertising is healthy, and so that's not an issue. The issue is, we want to be as good a paper as we can be." (Winkler has since taken a position at the Contra Costa Times, the large East Bay paper that MediaNews acquired, along with three others nationwide, from the sale of the Knight Ridder chain earlier in the year.)
Somerville said he feels good about the Times-Standard news staff. "I think we've got a crew here at the paper. I've been impressed in the last week or so with getting to know `em. There's a real sense of teamwork here. Too many newsrooms ... you know, everybody's kind of working in the middle of silos there, they're kind of like, you know, out for No. 1. And they're not like that here. There's a lot of good dialog, which I think is healthy in a newsroom. There's a lot of discussion about stories, and a lot of helping each other out, and if a big story hits the fan it's like somebody ringing the fire bell, you know, everybody runs to action. And I love that, it's a good camaraderie feel."
Sure, there'll be changes, he said. Perhaps better planning, in order to do better stories. Fresh design. "And I'm finding people are open to that," he said. "I think we can do a lot more with the people we have ... if we are organized really well, and if we communicate really well. Sure ... I'd love to have more people. But I've got to prove we can operate on a higher level with the personnel we have."
For their part, the Times-Standard's reporters seem excited about the prospects of putting Somerville's unique experience to work for them.
"I'm as skeptical as any human can be, but right now I'm totally encouraged," said John Driscoll, the paper's veteran natural resources reporter last week. "The problem with this place is there's so much friggin' news. It's hard to get to the special whizz-bang stuff, to the innovative stories. I expect Rich probably has some experience in getting that to happen, whether by conveying we need more people, or whether by [improving] efficiency."
But despite MediaNews CEO Dean Singleton's pledge to put resources into the paper's battle with the Eureka Reporter, the Times-Standard is still a remote outpost in the MediaNews empire, especially now that the chain has acquired four new, and rather large, properties in California and Minnesota. In any case, MediaNews' reputation in the industry is that of a company that is very reluctant to reinvest its profits into its papers. Salaries at the paper have improved somewhat in recent years, but they're still very far from what a reporter could expect to earn outside of Humboldt County. And its newsroom is still smaller than the Reporter's.
"The Times-Standard has a very talented newsroom staff," said former T-S reporter Andrew Bird last week. "But they are overworked and underpaid. Somerville's biggest challenge is going to be keeping staff morale high."
Back in Grass Valley, publisher Ackerman reflected more on the Somerville years. If he "could rewind the clock," he said, he would have paced himself, and Somerville, more slowly. "I didn't recognize at the time how difficult change management was," Ackerman said. "Had I been more thoughtful and patient, those people might still be here." He said he'd hire Somerville again, however, and that he's happy with the results. Still, he said, the Times-Standard folks should be prepared for change.
"Based on Somerville's background, I would guess that they didn't bring him in to keep the status quo," Ackerman said. "But I think they got a good editor. I think he's a good guy, and if they're patient, it'll work. I still believe in some of [his imperatives] -- get out in the street, break down the walls."
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