Circulation, leadership and the Godbeat

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported on a major change at the paper recently:

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas Democrat-Gazette executive editor Griffin Smith announced Monday that he is leaving the post effective Tuesday.

Smith, speaking to the newsroom, said there was no single factor in his resignation, adding he knew it was the "right time." In his address to several dozen employees in the paper's downtown headquarters, Smith thanked the staff and publisher Walter Hussman.

"It's been a tremendous privilege to work here with him and with all of you at this newspaper," he said.

Hussman said the paper will not hire a new executive editor for the "foreseeable future." Managing editor David Bailey will lead the newsroom.

Bailey, who called Smith "intellectually brilliant" and a good friend, indicated he didn't plan major changes in the day-to-day operations of the newsroom.

"It's a really wonderful institution," Bailey said. "It's a wonderful institution because it takes great pains to report very accurately and very carefully and to do so with authority and credibility. I don't think that's something you tamper with."

So what does that have to do with the Godbeat? Well, Frank Lockwood, the religion editor at the paper -- aka Bible Belt Blogger, has some insight, having served under him for a while. He notes that Smith's grandfather and father were also journalists and attorneys and that the grandfather was a newspaper publisher before becoming chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Frank fills in some details here:

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's executive editor announced his resignation this week after nearly 20 years of service.

Before leading Arkansas' statewide paper, Griffin was one of the founding journalists at Texas Monthly, a writer at National Geographic (writing those great big stories that they run on Guatemala and China, for example).

He is an attorney and a former White House speech writer (for Jimmy Carter.)

Griffin is a big believer in the importance of religion coverage, a big fan of Terry Mattingly's column and a journalist who really got religion.

While other papers were eliminating the religion beat, he remained committed to offering weekly religion pages.

And he committed resources to the religion beat, dispatching a reporter to the last two Episcopal Church triennial conventions and continuing to send reporters to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.

By the end, reporters from secular publications had all but disappeared at SBC gatherings, but Griffin felt it was important to cover the SBC in the Bible Belt. So the Democrat-Gazette kept sending a reporter.

Griffin found a way for my predecessor to travel to the Vatican in 2005. And, when the Pope died, she was there to cover his death and the election of Pope Benedict.

He gave big coverage to the split in the Anglican communion, instantly sensing its importance. Likewise, he understood the news value when an Episcopal diocese in northern Michigan elected a "Buddhist bishop." Ultimately, the Democrat-Gazette was able to report that Kevin Thew Forrester had been defeated several days before the Episcopal Church made the announcement.

Griffin understands this state and its people and he has great news judgment.

Let me share some circulation figures from 1992, the year Griffin became editor here.

I hope I've typed all these correctly. (I used the 1994 World Almanac to get the older data.) You'll notice a trend or two:

Standard (non-branded) print circulation statistics (Sep. 30, 1992) and March 31, 2012

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette      176,741       175,276 Detroit Free Press                        580,372      132,635 San Francisco Chronicle             556,765      165,523 Miami Herald                                404,679     167,057 St. Louis Post Dispatch               339,545      169,608 Orange County Register             332,164      162,921 Boston Herald                              330,614      103,616 Atlanta Constitution                   302,616      163,607 Fort Worth Star-Telegram        256,199       136,624 Louisville Courier-Journal       236,103       136,766 Kansas City Star                          287,119       163,697 New Orleans Times-Picayune  269,639      133,577 Baltimore Sun                             227,706       136,708 Oklahoma City Oklahoman      210,004      116,350

There are a few things worth noting. Most religion reporters these days are battling against innumerable pressures. They're being asked to do more with much fewer resources than even a few years ago. Many editors are completely axing religion beats or failing to see the importance of having an educated reporter on that beat. When you have an editor who does see the value in the beat, it can make all the difference.

And those circulation numbers are fascinating, no?

Newspaper concept illustration via Shutterstock.

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