Wearing a conservative jacket and wire-rimmed glasses, Chuck Strum spoke softly yet confidently to the crowd of twenty or so students in a forgotten room at Millersville University. His energy level did not betray the fact that he had been doing this all day-talking to no-name coeds, most of whom had never heard of him and were attending his talks only for the credit.
A graduate of Dickinson College and a 35-year veteran of The New York Times, Strum really had no reason to speak in front of this group of tired students, or any students, for that matter. As a deputy national editor for a paper as prestigious as The New York Times, surely Mr. Strum had better things to do. The wisdom he brought to that classroom was more than worth his time.
As a group of hopeful journalists and writers, the thing that most of the students wanted to hear was talk of job security and hope for post-graduation life. But that is not what Strum exuded.
Recognizing that print writing is pretty much dead and that the scene of online journalism is a quagmire of quicksand, Strum had only encouragement, nothing definite, for the students. Focus on writing well, he said. There will always be room for people who write well, whether as online journalists or public relations associates.
But even the advent of internet-based news sources and blogs is not that stable. Strum spoke about recent cuts that The New York Times made to its blogs, cutting down from some 70 in number. There was just too much noise, and there still is, he said, commenting that Twitter creates an annoying echo chamber in the wake of a major headline.
One of the blogs that was cut, along with its department within The New York Times, was the “Green Blog”, a hub for environmental and energy-related news. A student expressed worry over whether or not this move would hobble any social gains the green movement had made in past years, this being because The New York Times has a considerable following, and therefore, a considerable voice for pioneering future green movement activities.
Strum calmly dissuaded any fears, citing typical office or “pod” shuffling that media sources like The New York Times go through from time to time. “You eat a lot of guff,” he said about being a member of a staff as large as The New York Times. This newspaper has let go of over 100 journalists in the past years, but many, said Strum, due to the pursuit of personal interests. Writing for The New York Times is not for every writer nor every journalist.
When fielding a question about a common complaint that The New York Times has a liberal bias, Strum explained that this idea is formulated by unknown authors on the “blogosphere”, where their opinions and labels get thrown around and repeated as fact. Mr. Strum humbly admitted that he is probably a moderate Democrat who does not know which side of the fence he is on. He also said that most of the fuss is about the op-ed pieces that appear on The New York Times website and are clearly labeled as opinion columns.
Mr. Strum told some colorful stories about his first experiences as a journalist in the unprofessional office of the Hudson Dispatch and as a senior editor exchanging opinions over Page One arrangements at The New York Times.
The need for flexibility was a major theme that underlined most of Strum’s talk. As an editor, he has considerable sway over the assignments and stories that the common journalist writes. Strum told the story of this piece on the Hells Angels that took journalist Serge F. Kovaleski two years of investigating and over 16,000 words of copy and that almost ended up being cut before getting totally reworked and published as a 3,500 word piece.
But often there is just no time or money to invest in such in-depth profiles such as the Hells Angels piece. “The web is a goat,” said Strum. “It eats and eats and eats; it devours” but print, on the other hand, has deadlines. Online news sources are going at all hours, with the web often getting a preview of the next day’s headlines before the ink hits the page.
It takes flexibility to weather all the storms that have blown through news outlet in the past few decades, and that is what has gotten Strum through it all. His 35 years of experience behind many different desks at The New York Times has taught him at least that much. Strum graduated from Dickinson with a dual major in history and political science, which raises the question of how he ended up in journalism and editing. He explained that his main motivation that drives him from day to day is the desire to explain what is happening to other people, to synthesize information and present it in an understandable fashion. And that is just the reason why a deputy national editor for The New York Times stopped by Millersville University one day late in the fall semester.