Friday, September 2, 2011

The Grind of the News Business

The Statesman without Zipp

“Retirement Day 1: gym, guitar, write something that lasts. Life is good.”—Today’s post by former Austin American-Statesman editor Fred Zipp. Zipp retired at the age of 56.

There is a sense of freedom that comes with early retirement. I remember that feeling of, yes, euphoria increasing with each step toward my truck as I was about to drive away from KXAN TV for the last time having resigned as managing editor at 58.

I hope the same for Zipp.

That Facebook post is the only public comment Zipp has made since his seemingly sudden retirement yesterday (Thursday, September 1, 2011). All three of the things he listed for the day are all healthy and fulfilling. The gym is good for the body. The guitar is good for the soul. “Writing something that lasts” is the only comment that could be construed as a postscript to his days with the Austin American-Statesman.

The news business is transient and unrelenting. You must feed the beast constantly. The beast is always wanting more—more online, more in print, more on the air. The beast is never satisfied. You put out a paper one day. You wrap fish in it the next. That’s why they call it “news”. If it happened yesterday, it’s not news unless people didn’t know about it, and they care to know about it.

There is nothing permanent about it. Not only do the words on the page fade, the people do too.

“We said goodbye to a dozen newsroom colleagues Friday in the second round of voluntary retirements to hit the Austin American-Statesman in a little more than two years. Another 21 employees are leaving from other parts of the paper,” Zipp wrote Sunday, June 26 this year, in a poignant column printed on the Editorial page.

“Some of the names are familiar to our readers, and some less so. Regardless, we lost a heartbreaking amount of passion, intelligence and experience.”

Decades of collective history, goodwill, contacts, at talent walked out of the room. It hurts when you are in a management position. Zipp knew that he could no longer turn to Denise Gamino for another award-winning story or investigative series. He knew that Michael Corcoran was taking with him all of his contacts in this the “Live Music Capital of the World”.

Corcoran, himself, said that is why he came to the American-Statesman. “I came to the Statesman from the Dallas Morning News, a bigger paper, because I wanted to cover music in a town where it was more than just an excuse to meet like-minded souls.”

Corcoran was writing his last pop music column for the American-Statesman. He was listing his favorite stories. “Several of these are stories another paper wouldn't have let its music critic devote the hours and hours it took to research and write. Some of them are sports stories. A couple take first person to the brink. But my editors trusted me, and their editors backed them.” He talked about how he was going to miss the newspaper after 16 years.

Zipp was with Cox newspapers for 26 years. His new publisher, Jane Williams, heaped praise on him in a memo to the American-Statesman staff.

“As Editor of the Statesman for the past three years and previously as Managing Editor, Fred led the newsroom to more rigorous reporting standards, better response to breaking news and in-depth investigative reporting. He was also instrumental in the newspaper's leading edge embrace of digital journalism,” Williams said. Zipp’s leadership also resulted in numerous awards. “Fred had a tremendous drive to make sure the Statesman remained relevant in the years to come.”

Interim Editor will be Debbie Hoitt, the former managing editor. Hoitt is also a top flight journalist.

As Corcoran’s editors backed him, I hope Williams will back Hoitt in her decisions. Newspaper purists will watch, wondering if Zipp’s departure signals any significant changes in content and coverage.

© Jim McNabb, 2011

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