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The end of Somervillization as we know it

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In the last column Rich Somerville penned as managing editor of the Times-Standard, he spoke about the Hawaiian term “huhu”, which he said meant a state of agitated anger. The column was about reader reaction to the paper’s editorial endorsing Clif Clendenen for the Board of Supervisors and the possibility it raised that Johanna Rodoni’s supporters would try to write her in for the November run-off. He said one blogger wanted to know how the Substandard could be so stupid. Somerville predicted that there would be more huhu after the paper ran a story confirming from County Clerk Carolyn Crnich that Rodoni could run as a write-in candidate.

Somerville relished the huhu and, as he called it, the ha ha that came after, when the paper was able to show that it had done its journalistic job in questioning conventional wisdom.

You might say that that is what Somerville himself did, when he first took over the reins of the Times-Standard less than two years ago: He questioned the conventional wisdom that said that the paper would never be anything but substandard.

His arrival caused some huhu. People expected him to shake up the T-S, especially after the North Coast Journal told how his arrival at a small paper in Grass Valley in 2002 caused an exodus of reporters there. When the shakeup didn’t happen here, some were relieved while others were disappointed. When I asked some reporters in the newsroom last year what effect Somerville was having, they tended to shrug and shake their heads as if Somerville was irrelevant. He was anything but. He was in many ways the epitome of a good editor.

You have to understand that being an editor is a job for either a control freak or a masochist. Control freaks make terrible editors. The best reporters and writers work best when unleashed to do their jobs. When you find the rare good editor, you find the masochist — they’re the ones protecting the reporters from both the angry mob and the irate publisher. But their names won’t show up on any Pulitzers. The great editor is the one who can size up his staff, and rather than try to force people to do things they aren’t very good at doing, recognize what it is each person does well and then step back and let them do it.

This is what he told the Journal back in October of 2006: “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.”

Consider just some of the changes that occurred under Somerville’s leadership. James Faulk moved off the news pages, where his Bully Pulpit was out of place and overblown, and was put in charge of the Web pages where he helped transform them. Chris Durant went from being a lousy court reporter to being a terrific entertainment writer. And after two years of being wasted covering restaurants and old people, Thadeus Greenson was finally given some real news to cover. Better yet, young Thadeus was paired with veteran John Driscoll on some of the most controversial stories. Together, the two produce impressive pieces.

The paper’s transformation has been so dramatic you couldn’t help but notice. But until Somerville’s death, I hadn’t credited any of it to him, mostly because he never trumpeted his own efforts or his own successes. In every conversation I had with him, he credited everything good that was happening at the paper to someone else at the paper. He was content to let others take the credit.

But his death forced me to look back and realize that you can clock the rebirth of the Times-Standard to his arrival there. And no major changes happen in a newsroom without the consent of the top editor.

Go back to that October 2006 Journal story. Somerville laid out his whole plan right there in a brilliantly concise format.

“We want to give people something to talk about — you know, this is reading the news as a social glue.... 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... 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.”

Somerville was all about informing andengaging readers. It wasn’t enough for a newspaper to inform if people didn’t read the paper, didn’t think about what they read and didn’t discuss what they thought with each other.

See, Somerville, who spent years in Boise and who studied the connection between newspapers and readers, understood the deep problem affecting America’s newspapers. He understood that the problem was only partly the Internet and the multitasking nature of our electronic world. What newspapers are in the most trouble? The big ones in the big cities. And those are the places where everyone minds their own business. Growing up in New York, I knew the code — you never looked strangers in the eye. Small towns are all about everyone minding everyone’s business. It has to be that way because any day the road could close or the power plant could turn off or a bear could be in your yard and you have to be able to knock on your neighbor’s door for help or be prepared to help if he knocks on yours. It is essential in small communities that everyone knows what’s going on around them and everyone is willing to discuss it with each other.

That’s why Somerville relished the huhu. It was the evidence that the paper was engaging its readers. Look at the Website, it now inspires all kinds of readers to blog their thoughts and expertise. And you can still get the Bully Pulpit to boot.

If Somerville relished the ha ha that he got for proving to a skeptical public that he did his job half as much as he did the huhu, well he’s up there in heaven right now with a big satisfied grin on his face.

Here’s hoping that Dean Singleton chooses a successor who doesn’t botch it all up.

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