Kevin Convey brings innovation from the newsroom to the classroom

This fall, Studio 20 added veteran journalist Kevin Convey to its staff ranks. Having recently parted ways with the New York Daily News, where he oversaw the predominantly print newsroom transition to digital, Convey took over teaching our first-semester “Studio 1” innovation workshop.

Three weeks into the semester, we talk to him about innovation—in the newsroom and in class—and the path he took from well seasoned print journalist to strong digital proponent and, now, graduate professor.

You started out as a print journalist but became a strong advocate of the “digital first” school of thinking. Tell us a bit about your background. How did you get from point A to point B?

I actually started in journalism at the age of 9 when I printed up a neighborhood newsletter on a toy press my parents had given me for Christmas. I later worked on my high school and college papers, and I had a few internships at local Maine papers during college. I was an English classics major – I studied English and ancient history – but I sort of fell in love with working on the college paper and decided that’s what I wanted to do. So my senior year I sent our hundreds of applications and I got two interviews and one job at a little five-day daily in Brunswick, Main, circulation 17,000. I basically got taken to school by the city editor there. He provided the journalism school I didn’t have.

Then I went to Boston and started my first stint at The Boston Herald. The jobs I had ranged from assignment editor to investigative reporter. I covered crime, I was a business reporter, a state-house reporter, and then ultimately I became City Editor of the Boston Herald. After a three-year stint at Boston Magazine, I went back to the Herlad and became Sunday Editor, then Managing editor for Sunday and Features, and then finally Managing Editor. With other jobs in between, I eventually became Managing Editor and then Editor in Chief there, wrapping that up in 2010. That’s when I got a job as Editor in Chief of The New York Daily News.

It was as the Herald and then at the Daily News that I really started pushing the digital thing. The Herald was actually doing pretty well while I was there – there were people in charge of the digital side that were doing OK. But at the Daily News, it was a complete mess digitally. The print people, who tended to be older and more tradition-minded, did not speak to the digital people. They did not welcome the efforts of the digital people, and the digital people were sort of quarantined in their own little area. There was no mixing.

I came in and I just knew this was death for the institution. It had to go digital first, and I had to start making steps in that direction. We reorganized the staff, we got a new content-management system, which made certain that pieces went up on the web before they went into the newspaper. I would like to think that by the time I left the Daily News was well on its way to understanding that the news had to be broken on the web and few would be the instances in which to hold something – a really big story that you could splash with on the newspaper in a way that would impact sales, for instance, was the only thing would hold. I also put the “digital people” not just in charge of digital stuff, but newspaper stuff.

Did you know you would have to pull off such an overhaul at the Daily News? Did you know what you were getting yourself into?

One never does, in some ways. You kind of assume that people will accept what’s good for them, but that wasn’t always the case at the Daily News. The Daily News has a wonderful tradition, but tradition cuts two ways. On the one hand you have this great legacy brand, on the other, you could be imprisoned by that brand, and in some ways I think the Daily News was.

You left the Daily News last year. What attracted you to teaching in a graduate journalism program after that experience?

After about a year and a half, the owner of the Daily News and I clashed over the direction of the paper. He wanted more emphasis on the print edition and I wanted to pursue digital. So we came to a parting of the ways. That’s when I started thinking about going into grad school and teaching – something I had wanted to do many years before, when I first graduated from Colby. I always loved the scholarly life.

When your job ends, you start to think about what you want to be doing next – what you want to spend the remaining time that you have doing. And to me this seemed like a good opportunity to scratch my teaching itch. I had made contact with Jay Rosen when I was still Editor in Chief of the Daily News, so he knew I was interested in teaching. I also made contact with the City University of New York (CUNY) journalism school, where I then looked to go back to grad school myself. Those doors both opened to me and I’ll be eternally grateful for that. Here I am now teaching Studio 1, but I’m also going to grad school myself, so I can really feel for what my students are going through.

You’re in journalism grad school too, huh? What are you studying?

One thing I’m not doing is writing craft. I guess after 35 years in the business the school decided I didn’t need to be told that when you get to a fire scene the guy in the white helmet is the guy to talk to. But I did want to take multimedia. I understand digital strategy, but I don’t have any multimedia skills. So I’m just winding up a unit on broadcasting in which I’ve learned to use the wonderful Marantz 660, and I’m working on a photo unit and going into video soon too.

The experience is humbling. I have a tremendous amount of experience in print, but the students that I’m going to grad school with are digital natives, and Mac natives, so they really know their way around these programs – and I don’t. A lot of times I feel like the mentally impaired grandfather who can’t quite figure out how the remote on his television set works! It’s a challenge.

Interesting you put it that way. As someone who is not a “digital native,” what unique perspective can you impart to your own students, who have now spent most of their lives in a digital environment?

Fortunately for them I’m not teaching them how to operate a Marantz! What I’m doing is talking to them about innovation and disruption in the news industry.

The first question that we ask in class is “What is innovation?” The second is “What is the state of innovation in the news business, historically?” That’s an interesting question for two reasons. First off, big media has failed at innovation for the past 20 years – that’s why it’s floundering in the way that it is. But, the news business was an extremely innovative business in earlier days. It was a very disruptive business. When publishers like Joseph Pulitzer and James Gordon Bennett started their newspapers they made a huge difference and disrupted other newspapers right out of business by the innovative things they did. So I want my students to look at those historical examples.

We are also going to take a look at some legacy media that have been innovating successfully; we are going to take a look at new media and how they’re innovating; and we will talk a little bit about the discontent with new media and digital and the web. I want to delve a little bit into this debate of whether all this connectedness is good for your brain.

The class aims to be a well-rounded look at what’s been going on in the media historically, and over the last 10 years. I’ve experienced that environment and had to cope with it and tried to bring about change, so I feel fairly qualified in that respect. I’ve also been thinking about business and management and innovation for most of my career as manager, which is something students in graduate school might not spend a lot of time thinking about.

You’ve now wrapped up the first three weeks of class. How are the Studio 20 students treating you?

I guess I haven’t slipped on any banana peels quite yet. I think that everything is going well, but my students will ultimately be the ones to judge me. I never lose sight of the fact that I’m a novice. I feel that in every class my students are teaching me with the things that they see from their particular perspective as much as I’m teaching them. I have no doubt that in the end they will make me a better teacher just because of their intelligence and their observations.