Earlier this week, I lost a good friend and journalism lost one hell of an editor in Ron Liebau. I worked with Ron at The Cincinnati Enquirer and whether he knew it or not, he shaped a lot of how I thought journalism should work. He’s an inspiration to all trying to move our industry to the future instead of worrying on the past.
In this wonderfully-written obituary, Tom Callinan, the former editor-in-chief of the Enquirer, noted how Ron wholeheartedly embraced the web.
“So many people had such a difficult time adapting, and he just jumped right in and took the leadership. He took that whole new world and put it in words that people could understand.”
It might sound like a tired cliche nobody believes, but it is true. Ron ran to the future with arms open, and he pulled many others in the newsroom with him by both his reputation as an old school news man and sheer force of will.
As a former print reporter and editor, Ron was old school about a lot of things: Sourcing, fact-checking, winning the day, good copyediting, solid ledes and prompt budgets. He was an encyclopedia of knowledge about the local area, public figures and notable dates. Ron was the archive, the stylebook and the voice of reason to me in the years we worked closely together.
One thing he wasn’t old school about was news delivery. He didn’t just embrace the web, he throttled it. As the online news editor, Ron constantly pushed reporters and editors to confront the web for what it was: An opportunity. He saw the web not only to reach our readers in new ways, but a means to beat the competition now instead of risking a second place finish later. He established a workflow and a mantra that probably drove many a reporter crazy, “Write for the web, update for print.”
Ron lived that workflow to a T. He was up and online early, writing web updates from the early news, sending tweets, taking down quotes over the phone (and later, Twitter) from our reporters in the field to get a quick paragraph and headline on the website. He’d get frustrated if print lineups took priority over what was popping on the web in the morning news meetings. If a reporter said, “I’ll file that story for tomorrow”, Ron would reply with, “It’s news now.”
Ron would be the first to say he didn’t always get the latest lingo, but he knew what he wanted to get done and he’d learn what he had to in order to get there. This is exactly the sort of journalist we should want to be, the sort of editor newspapers today need to have on staff. So when I got word that Ron was laid off from the Enquirer last year, I was flabbergasted. The industry needs more like him, not less.
So I say to you, fellow journalists: Be more like Ron and take these lessons to heart:
1. There’s no such thing as a journalist who has nothing left to give and nothing left to learn.
You are never too old, too “analog” or too “set in your ways” to learn new skills. Whether it’s a new workflow, a new tool or a whole new way of thinking about your industry – you CAN learn it if you try. It might take a long time and you’ll make mistakes, but you’ll get there and get comfortable.
2. Lead by example.
When you are a journalist other staff members look up to, the future of your newsroom is in your hands. When the reporters of the Enquirer joined Twitter, I believe it was due to more to the example shown by this well-respected former print editor rather than the cajoling of the twentysomething social media editor.
3. Try not to assign work you wouldn’t or couldn’t do yourself.
This is a vastly underrated trait of the best newsroom leaders and it goes back a bit to #2. If you don’t know how to find a story in your CMS, make a simple edit on a page or send a tweet, it can be tough for frazzled staff members to believe you really understand what they do and why it is important. I’m not saying all editors should be able to do any job in their newsroom, but knowing the basics goes a long way in the internal PR department.
4. Develop good relationships across your newsroom and across generations.
It didn’t matter if you were a page designer, an overnight web producer or a newbie cops reporter – Ron had an amazing array of useful advice, anecdotes and war stories to impart. Coming from different backgrounds, skill sets and age groups gives us a lot to learn from one another – and can be the basis for some wonderful friendships.
5. Mentor others – or reach out to someone to mentor you.
Many young journalists and former young journalists have shared their stories in recent days of how Ron touched their lives in lasting ways. If you spot a coworker who could use some guidance, constructive feedback or just a sympathetic ear – reach out. If you’re the one in need, don’t be afraid to approach those you respect and admire and ask for their support.
6. It’s the journalism that matters, not the medium.
The medium doesn’t determine the quality of your journalism – you do. It doesn’t matter if it is in a tweet, blog post or 1-A story, if you’re telling a story that entertains, enlightens or explains something to readers – you’ve done your job well. I can only hope I’ll still have Ron’s voice in my head someday when the web is old and busted and there’s some new transition to be made. “It’s the story that matters”, he’d say. And he’ll still be right.
What a fabulous legacy!