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Editor with a love of jargon interviews at Tennessean

Editor with a love of jargon interviews at Tennessean

He's a Gannett chain climber, and he uses Dilbertish phrases like "sophisticated layering" and "beat advisory panels" when he talks about journalism. He says that when newspapers need to convey important information, they should do so in bullet form and "whenever possible, in big type." He approaches editing a newspaper in much the same way as McDonald's markets Happy Meals, caring more about reaching than informing readers.

In other words, he may be just what the Gannettoids may want to run the newsroom at 1100 Broadway.

E.J. Mitchell, the managing editor of The Detroit News, arguably the best paper in the Gannett chain, interviewed on Tuesday to become the next editor of The Tennessean, sources tell Desperately. He joins Idaho Statesman editor Carolyn Washburn as a leading candidate to move into Frank Sutherland's office.

There's a lot of promise in his candidacy: Mitchell, who's in his early 40s, is one of the highest-ranking African American journalists in the country. Because the editor of The Detroit News also doubles as publisher, Mitchell has more responsibility than most managing editors. Unlike Washburn, who reeks of lazy, small-town journalism, Mitchell has been the managing editor of a paper that has tackled complex issues like urban school reform, gun violence and the effects of tax policy on the working poor. Mitchell also has a lot of experience, having already served as the executive editor of the Statesman Journal in Oregon.

But like a child raised by wolves, Mitchell seems to have a limited perspective about how his world operates. Like Washburn, Mitchell has spent almost his entire career in the Gannett system and the last 13 or so on the Gannett editor track. This weakness is apparent in a soul-numbing lecture Mitchell gave earlier this year about Gannett's "Real Life, Real News" program, which is basically a companywide campaign to make newspapers more "accessible" to people who have given up on them. That's a fair enough premise, but Mitchell seems to think that means pandering to readers at every step and creating a messy bureaucracy that hinders relevant, aggressive reporting.

Presented to a group of Gannett staffers at a minority journalism conference, Mitchell's speech neatly encapsulates everything that's wrong with daily journalism. He defines a process-heavy approach clearly conceived by uninspired journalists living within a cubicle culture.

Mitchell advocates, for example, holding quarterly meetings with "beat advisory panels," and commissioning surveys to find out what its stakeholders and readers want. He speaks glowingly of his paper's "ascertainment efforts," which is a phrase no self-respecting journalist should use. "At the Detroit News," he said, "we invest a lot of time in determining what's going on in the lives of our readers. And we do that in many ways and on many levels."

Actually, a newspaper should lead, not follow. At good newspapers, editors and reporters know their city and what needs to be covered. They don't have to rely on "beat advisory panels" to tell them what's going on. If former Tennessean editor John Seigenthaler had relied on such advise when covering the civil rights movement, David Halberstam would have been stuck covering the transportation beat.

If Mitchell had made only a passing reference to one silly, unproductive practice, we'd give him the benefit of the doubt. But without betraying any sense of irony, he peppered his speech with an endless litany of head-scratching testimonials to bland journalism. He doesn't preach about uncovering police abuse or breaking important news stories or providing a smart, different take on a complex issue like residential segregation—even though his own newspaper has taken on those kind of issues. Instead, he boasts about making the news fit the lifestyle of the reader. Some excerpts:

Talking about something called a "Moments of Life" calendar, he notes: "We also have a lengthy and comprehensive list of collective experiences broken down by convenient categories—such as parenting, life passages and first-time events." He says that at the beginning of many planning meetings, staffers talk about what's going on in their lives. "At one meeting, for instance, an editor talked about buying her son's first bicycle. It resonated throughout the room. Everyone had a memory to share. It became a great story in the newspaper and on our Web site, filled with Real Life, Real News detail and rich, practical information."

He also likes something called "sophisticated layering." To wit:

"Readers want positive news and take-away lessons from us. It's a key to retention. They increasingly want information they can use in their lives. We need to tell them the hows and whys in a format they can save. This is the layering I am referencing."

"Subheads, summaries and bullets are critically important to driving readers into stories. We need to tell readers in display type what's in it for them before they'll invest the time of reading small type. Again this is the sophisticated layering I am talking about."

This is the stuff that worries us about Mitchell. If he takes over at The Tennessean, let's hope he rips up his speeches, gets to know the city and figures out the important stories for himself.

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