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Home > Publications > Quill > Steve Buttry: Objectively, A Journalism Life Well Lived



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Monday, February 20, 2017
Steve Buttry: Objectively, A Journalism Life Well Lived

Reflecting on a career — and life — spent in and out of straight reporting

By Steve Buttry

Editor’s Note: This is among the last major articles Steve Buttry wrote. Though for those who knew him, or knew of his work in the journalism field and through his training and teaching blog, The Buttry Diary, it would come as no surprise that the last thing he wrote was most likely his obituary. Steve Buttry died February 19, age 62, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. (Read his full obituary here.) This article ran in the January/February issue of Quill, and was slated to go online this week. Its themes fit exactly how news of his passing (which was expected sometime this year given the prognosis about which he was open) spread: his family posting the news on his blog. His Twitter account, @stevebuttry, shared the news far and wide.

Steve was an SPJ member prominent in the digital transformation of news. He wrote for Quill in the past on issues of ethics, career transitions and leadership. He also led webinars for SPJ on similar topics, and taught for several years at the Excellence in Journalism conference, co-produced by SPJ. In the final years of his life, Steve became Director of Student Media at Louisiana State University’s Manship School.

Upon hearing the news, I, like many others, took to Twitter, the medium so connected to Steve’s identity of the past 10 years, to express sadness and reflect on his life. I echo here what I said there of Steve: Sometimes antagonist. Often insightful journalist. Always nicest guy and friend.

-Scott A. Leadingham, Quill editor


For the first half of my journalism career, I toiled mostly in obscurity and often in anonymity.

I took seriously the admonitions of my first journalism professor and many subsequent editors: Avoid using the first person. No one cares about your opinions or your feelings. No one cares how hard you had to work to get the story.

Steve Buttry at work in The Gazette newsroom. Courtesy Cedar Rapids Gazette

Steve Buttry interviewing Mikhail Gorbachev in 2002.

Steve Buttry and wife Mimi Johnson at their son Tom’s wedding in 2015.

Steve Buttry’s Twitter avatar, a drawing of Steve by artist Brian Duffy, based on Steve’s own wearing of a Walter White-style hat from “Breaking Bad” when going in for chemotherapy treatment.

My tools and circumstances changed considerably through the first couple of decades of my career. Typewriters gave way to computers. I was present for the deaths of two newspapers and led another newsroom’s conversion from afternoon to morning publication. But this much seldom changed: If I felt or thought anything about the stories I wrote and edited, you couldn’t tell because my face hid behind the mask of an “objective” journalist. And readers never saw the face of a reporter or editor anyway, and not even the names of editors.

That approach to journalism served me well. I succeeded in various editing and reporting jobs for six different Midwestern newspapers over the first two decades of my career. I think I was a pretty good journalist, but few people, even fellow journalists, knew who I was, unless we had worked together. But a couple of decades ago, I started lowering the mask. I learned, and eventually practiced, a newer journalistic principle: transparency.

Honoring Steve Buttry’s Life in Journalism

A scholarship fund at Louisiana State University’s Manship School will honor Steve Buttry’s commitment to training the next generation of journalists.

See here for information on donating to the fund.

I learned a key lesson about transparency from my wife, who wrote as a freelance columnist for the Minot Daily News, where I was the editor for a year in the early 1990s. I also wrote a weekly column but seldom used the first person, hiding mostly behind the mask.

I generally used my column to explain why our staff wrote about certain topics or why we covered a story in a particular way. I wrote about issues in the community and even weighty world affairs. Seldom did I write about that guy whose photo ran with the column.

Mimi was not so restrained. Her column often featured people and events in the community, but if something funny or touching happened in her personal or family life, she’d write about that, too (often with my sons and me as amusing characters). I carefully suggested that she’d probably be better off to write sparingly about her own life, and have readers wishing they knew her better, than to write frequently about personal matters and have readers rolling their eyes, thinking, “There she goes again.”

As she often has during 42-plus years of marriage, Mimi ignored my advice. She wasn’t a reporter or editor, and she didn’t need to hide behind journalistic conventions that developed for reporters and editors. Her name and photo ran with the column, and if she felt like writing a personal story, she did.

The company that owned the newspaper wanted to sell the paper and decided to unload some big salaries, including mine. The publisher fired me abruptly, and dropped Mimi’s column, too, saying it would be awkward to publish her column after firing me. Guess which move outraged the community?

The editor who wrote about lofty matters received a few nice letters of encouragement and support. But firing the columnist who had made a personal connection with readers stirred an outpouring of angry reaction. Her work was so popular that four editors in neighboring towns in North Dakota and Saskatchewan eagerly picked up the column. And the unemployed editor noticed.

My next job was reporting for the Omaha World-Herald, working for editors who shared my views about keeping the reporter out of the story. I settled back initially into a career of pretty traditional journalism, wearing my mask and cranking out good stories.

But then the internet came along. And I started learning the value of transparency. I don’t think I’m a notably better journalist than I was when I hid behind the objectivity mask. But I get more credit for my work.

Journalists started using the internet about the time I decided to put my reporting and editing experience to work training journalists. My initial motivation for publishing newsroom training materials online was promotional. I had started seeking business as a writing coach, leading workshops for newsrooms, press associations and journalism organizations. Because few people knew of my reporting and editing experience, I published my workshop handouts online, first on a personal website and later on the Des Moines Register’s website, after I became religion reporter and writing coach there in 1998.

My big break was the 2000 launch of the No Train, No Gain website, a collaboration of newsroom trainers around the world. I was the founding content coordinator and leading contributor. Every time I developed a new workshop, I posted the handout and/or exercise at No Train, No Gain. In 2004, I started my first blog, Training Tracks, addressing training issues for No Train, No Gain.

I didn’t reflect a lot of personality in my handouts, but the blog occasionally shared stories from my own career. And the fact that I was publishing all this training material online puzzled other journalists, too.

Frequently, as my training materials attracted attention, people would ask me how I could afford to “give away” my journalism tips online. My answer was that I couldn’t afford not to give them away. Sure, some people used my handouts without paying me anything, but others read them, found them useful and decided to hire me to present workshops on those topics for their newsrooms or organizations.

"I’ve improved my journalism and my life by setting aside that objectivity mask and embracing transparency along with my traditional journalism skills and principles. You might consider trying it, too."

I developed a nice five-figure second income as a newsroom trainer, and most, if not all, of my work came from colleagues in producing No Train, No Gain and/or from strangers who read my handouts online. I could not imagine making similar money selling a book or newsletter offering the same tips.

Those handouts I was “giving away” brought me enough prominence in journalism training that I was able to get a full-time job (and a considerable pay raise) at the American Press Institute. That got me involved with the Newspaper Next project and working with some leading thinkers in innovation. I broadened the scope of my blogging, writing more frequently about issues of digital innovation than about newsroom training.

Soon the digital world was moving toward social media, and I recognized the need to be truly social in these new platforms. On Twitter and Facebook, I didn’t write just about innovation and training, but about flight delays, my favorite sports teams and new grandchildren, the stuff of social conversation. Because my career path was not completely an upward arc, my sense of transparency applied both to sharing the stories of my success (the editor and reporter I was for most of my career would have called that “boasting”) and to being open about setbacks and the lessons I learned from them.

And I shared intensely personal stories.

In 2009, my teenage nephew, Patrick Devlin, underwent treatment for leukemia, and I learned more about transparency and social media as his father, John, shared the family’s story in frequent posts on CaringBridge. The journal allowed John to update family and friends around the world who were praying for Patrick and watching his progress.

I blogged about lessons for media in CaringBridge’s ability to share big news in small circles. Blog readers and my social media connections responded with support and sympathy as I shared a few updates about Patrick and eventually published his eulogy on my blog.

Another nephew, Brandon Buttry, died in early November 2012 while serving in the Army in Afghanistan. I helped my brother, Don, by speaking for the family to the news media and blogged about the experience of meeting the plane bringing his body back to the United States and later about the funeral. Again, my transparency brought a warm response from the journalists following the blog and my social media accounts.

Brandon had been scheduled to come home Thanksgiving weekend. He had told his parents he wanted a cheeseburger for his first meal back on American soil. When his sister and I spread the word on social media, dozens of people, probably more than 100, many of whom didn’t know Brandon, joined in the "cheeseburger salute," posting photos on social media of them eating burgers in Brandon’s honor.

When Digital First Media cut my job and others in 2014, I didn’t sugarcoat or go into hiding. I tweeted that I was a "free agent" and asked my Twitter connections to suggest where I might look next; my first job offer came that day.

Later that year, after moving to Louisiana State University, I faced a more severe personal challenge than flight delays or loss of a job. I was diagnosed with Stage IV mantle-cell lymphoma. A part of you wants to deal with cancer privately, and I know people who have chosen to disclose little more than a diagnosis, or who have even successfully worked through cancer treatment without disclosing their illnesses to co-workers and most friends.

By then, though, transparency came naturally to me, even about something as uncomfortable as cancer. Besides, my treatment involved scheduled hospitalizations of five days at a time and some unscheduled hospital stays for brain surgery, meningitis and a severe infection, concluding with a 26-day hospital stay for a stem-cell transplant. Some level of disclosure was unavoidable. So I just continued my transparent ways.

I blogged about my diagnosis. I lightheartedly lamented the anticipated loss of my hair in a post that showed my varied styles of beard and hair through the years. I kept friends informed of my treatment in a CaringBridge journal.

The people who argued and agreed with me about innovation issues, or who shared my writing and ethics tips, responded with hundreds upon hundreds of emails, visits, text messages, phone calls and social-media messages of support. They celebrated with me when I left the hospital on Dec. 26, 2015, with healthy new bone marrow and cancer-free lymph nodes.

But my pancreas didn’t look right in a routine follow-up scan in April. I got more scans and tests and finally went in July to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where another scan and biopsy showed that I have pancreatic cancer. Again, despite some reservations, I blogged about the diagnosis.

This time chemotherapy was unsuccessful. The cancer has spread to my liver, and we’ve stopped treatment. And, of course, I blogged about that again, and again received an outpouring of support and encouragement.

I think I was a damn good journalist back in those objective days when “Stephen Buttry” was a byline, but not a person we showed the readers. And I won my share of state journalism awards and a couple of less-prominent national awards. But beyond a nice paycheck and an occasional attaboy from an editor, I didn’t get much credit for my work.

In February, I’m scheduled to receive the Chairman’s Citation from the National Press Foundation, my third award in less than two years from a major journalism organization (three more than I received working in obscurity in that first half of my career). I don’t think I finally reached some award-winning level of journalistic excellence. But my transparency has helped me contribute more to journalism and to get more credit for those contributions.

I’ve improved my journalism and my life by setting aside that objectivity mask and embracing transparency along with my traditional journalism skills and principles.

You might consider trying it, too.

Before his death on February 19, 2017, Steve Buttry was director of student media at Louisiana State University. He has contributed to Quill in the past on topics of ethics and led sessions at the Excellence in Journalism conference on ethics, leadership and career development. On Twitter: @stevebuttry

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