February 3, 2008

Back and forth

an interview with…

deputy managing editor/online

First, he was a reporter at The Palm Beach Post and Sun-Sentinel. Then he covered four Olympics for NBCOlympics.com as a producer. Then he became city editor for the Sun-Sentinel's Palm Beach County edition. Last month, he was promoted to deputy managing editor in charge of the Sun-Sentinel's online division.

Joe Schwerdt isn't the first journalist to work both print and web, but few people do it more than once. If there's one thing he's learned, it's that journalism still matters.

"I was given this job because of my online experience," he says. "But I've quickly remembered that experience in online only allows you to adapt faster – things change so rapidly. I've also learned that we've got a long way to go to blend the Web and newspaper cultures."

What's the future of newspapers, in your opinion?

I think paper will be here for a while. In some public-transit markets, paper will be here even longer. But as technology advances and traditional paper-readers die off, there’s no question circulation numbers will dwindle and the business model will go supernova.

I think the bigger question is: Can newspaper companies survive in a digital world? Again, I don't know. But there always will be an appetite for local news and information, and right now, newspaper companies have the best infrastructure to provide that. And we've finally awaken to the idea that if we don't get off our asses and adapt to changing technologies, habits, trends, markets, and customer needs, we’ll be shoved aside.

You've worked at South Florida newspapers for decades now. How has journalism down here changed over the years?

Obviously, there’s the dramatic emergence of new media and changing technologies that has changed how news is delivered, printed, presented, and designed. But in many ways, it hasn't changed much at all. TV is pretty much the same. Print is pretty much the same. The basics are very much the same.

What does a city editor do, anyway?

The city editor is responsible for all the content produced by his or her staff. So, if something ain't right, it's my fault. If there’s an error, if we get beat on a story, if there aren't photos or graphics assigned, it's my fault.

That means a city editor should make sure stories are being covered appropriately, people are assigned where they need to be, and the staff has the tools it needs to do the job. Obviously, you can't monitor the progress of every story, nor should you micro-manage.

So the city editor needs to make sure there’s a staff in place that can do the job. And the city editor must create a positive environment in which everyone can do their best work. A huge part of the job is staff development and morale. You care about them as human beings. You listen to them. And you make sure that people are growing.

Most frustrating part of your old job? Your new job?

Nothing frustrates me more than reporters who don't get it. They don't see the big stories in front of them. Or they don't have the energy or desire to grab it and run with it. In my new job, it’s the bureaucracy. Emails. Meetings. Politics. And always, it's a lack of resources to do things you want to do. But that's the reality of any business. And a good manager learns to put that frustration aside, set realistic priorities, and do the best job with what you have to work with.

Funnest part of your old job? New job?

It's going to sound corny, but it's the same for both: picking up the paper the next morning or looking at the website at some point during the day and seeing really good work.

Another funnest part is having good times together, whether its a funny conversation in the office, a good party or cookout, or meeting for drinks after work. I've had a lot of good times with the people I've worked with along the way.

One piece of advice you wish you could surgically implant into college students and young professionals?

If you are going to do it, then do it. If you don’t want to be bothered, go do something else.

If you had to do it all over again, anything you'd do differently?

I’d try to do everything I did better. But I would’ve found more time to spend with the people who cared the most about me. Journalism is a time-consuming – sometimes all-consuming. Looking back, I let it eat up too much of my life. Let it consume you when necessary, but let it go whenever you can. It’s all about balance.