On Dec. 4, I was one of many people who attended the North Coast Journal’s Christmas Party at its new offices in Old Town. Everyone had a great time. Judy Hodgson, the publisher, had crab piled high in one office. In other offices you could find pizza pies and sushi plates and much beer and wine. All the staff attended, and all the regular and irregular contributors were there too. Judy gave a speech, something to the effect that we were one big happy family. To commemorate the occasion, we took group photos.
The sushi reminded me of a lunch date I had with Judy four months earlier. She was planning to revise the Journal’s mission statement, which hadn’t been revised in a long time, to see what role it should be playing in the community. She wanted me to be involved in the process. I didn’t see her again until the Christmas party.
So it was with shock that I read an email Jan. 26 that the Journal hired Tom Abate to be editor-in-chief and that Hank Sims would now be web editor. My God, I thought. Judy is sending Hank to Hercules. This reeked of a classic remotion. When you are demoted, you lose some pay and your title. But in a remotion you keep the pay and your title changes. It happens when your boss wants to tell you how happy it would make him if you quit. In newspapers, you get transferred from the metro desk to the most remote bureau on the map. In L.A. it is off to Palmdale. In the Bay Area, you find yourself covering Hercules. Newspapers tend to remote people because reporters and editors have close ties to their community and firing them can be a public mess.
Once the initial shock wore off, I realized this wasn’t much of a surprise. There was some difference in thinking on the Journal. Hank liked to shake things up and wake up our sleepy community. Judy liked more of the plainly informative and feel-good stories. After six years working together, Hank and Judy’s relationship resembled an uncomfortable marriage of two people who share a large New York apartment. There were things about the marriage each liked, but they weren’t happy.
Had I learned of Tom Abate’s addition and Hank’s remotion back at the August lunch, both moves would have made sense. I knew Tom Abate. I worked as a business and financial reporter at various publications in San Francisco for 10 of the years he worked the business desk at the Chronicle, and that’s a small community. He’d spoken to my newspaper class at HSU. More important, he founded the Journal, so his arrival was a homecoming. So here’s the story of a guy who left his small town for the Big City but came back years later. Who doesn’t love that story? Hank meanwhile had been underused at the Journal. He is a programming genius and these days that is the one skill in journalism that news organizations can’t get enough of.
But Judy kept the cards to herself, holding them from Hank and the staff. That’s not good. News publications are all about disclosure and transparency. They scream those words at politicians and corporations. To not be transparent is hypocrisy. How badly Judy managed the transition became clear during the now viral KSLG interview between John Matthews and Tom Abate on Jan. 27. The lead up to that was a period of silence – Tom had to wind down his job at the Chronicle. Now finally free to talk, talk he did, mostly about his personal life. To make matters worse, he and John came from opposite perspectives. John, the good reporter, needed to get at the nut of the story, which was: What the hell happened to Hank? Tom wanted to talk about the exciting future. They clashed. I once interviewed a CEO of a major European corporation over the phone and realized five minutes in that he came from a different perspective. When I pushed my questions on the topic I wanted to talk about he blew up at me in French. It would have made great radio, but it wasn’t over the air. It’s too bad Tom didn’t curse in French, but he did sing.
Now how do you get out of this mess? I always tell my students they have to turn their weaknesses into strengths. People think college students are idiots, so with a little effort they can always exceed people’s low expectations. Those who know Tom Abate only from his messy beginning think he’s a pig-headed nut case. But unpredictability can be a good thing for a newspaper. People will be more likely to pick up a paper if they think they might find something crazy in there. Personally, I like crazy. Things can get so sleepy in a rural town. Someone needs to shake us awake now and then.
I think the Journal will survive. As editor, Hank pissed off just enough people that those so upset by his departure that they boycott the paper will be made up for by those who wanted a change and start picking it up for the first time in ages.
What I don’t want is a tepid Journal, which is the likely aftermath of a public remotion and stormy departure. Employees who want to keep their jobs play it cool, which in print translates to mush. Those who don’t, look for other jobs.
If I were Tom Abate here is what I’d do: Trust my staff writers and give them lots of rope. Recruit new writers from the community. This is what I wouldn’t do: Think that anything learned in an area of a million people packed onto a small peninsula is transferable in a community of 130,000 spread from Orick to Garberville. Or that the Humboldt County of today resembles in any measure the Humboldt of 1990. The timber is gone. The marijuana is still here but it packs a stronger punch.
Hank will survive. He’s over at Lost Coast Communications' KHUM-SLUG, expanding radio news, which I’m all for. In a grand journalistic tradition, Hank threw himself a send-off in Old Town. We did a group photo at that party, too.
Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. She was never remoted to Palmdale, but she did end up covering Palm Desert for two years.