"Zen Master" of Times newsroom retires
For most of his long career overseeing The Seattle Times newsroom, Michael Reilly Fancher worked behind the scenes, known — enigmatically...
Seattle Times staff reporter
For most of his long career overseeing The Seattle Times newsroom, Michael Reilly Fancher worked behind the scenes, known — enigmatically — as "The Zen Master."
Why was he called that? Many still can't say. What they know is that "Fanch," in two decades as executive editor, presided over a newsroom whose national reputation grew strong even as he remained virtually invisible in the bustling workplace.
"Managing this newsroom was an experiment in creative dynamics," Fancher said last week as he retired after 30 years at The Times. "I had a sense, early on, of what it takes to get the best out of really talented, creative people. And it's not about control. It can't be about control."
Top-down tyranny would yield a newspaper only as good — or bad — as the one wielding the control, reasoned Fancher, 61, a reporter who became the newsroom's top editor in 1986, eight years after arriving at The Times. "I wasn't the greatest writer in the world or even the greatest reporter," Fancher said. "I have always known this newspaper would be better than I could possibly personally make it."
In much of Fancher's era, newspapers ruled the world of news. It was a time of big spending and big ambitions as The Times moved from being a decent-but-stodgy daily to a regional and even national force.
"Under Mike, the paper was fearless about tackling subjects it thought were important to the community," said Bob Watt, a longtime business and civic leader who served as Seattle's deputy mayor, Chamber of Commerce CEO, Boeing vice president and director of nonprofits. "There were a lot of people in the community who didn't like that. But, at the same time, the paper was gutsy, and fearless in admitting when it made a mistake."
Four Pulitzer Prizes and 13 finalists for journalism's most coveted honor during his tenure became part of the proof that "inspiring, not directing," as Fancher put it, was the right move. He credits Publisher Frank Blethen for backing an approach that emphasized respect for journalists' solid work and, if the work created advertising-department dyspepsia, standing behind it.
"Mike taught me one of the most important lessons of my career: that the best way to get good journalism was to set high expectations and then trust our journalists," said Blethen, who became publisher in 1985.
While to many of those inside the newspaper, Fancher often seemed elusive, to readers he was the face of the newspaper.
His Sunday "Inside the Times" columns — more than 600 over nearly 16 years — explored topics ranging from reader outrage over a photo of scantily clad baristas to the need for an independent press, and the media's role in issues of government secrecy.
"If there's one thing I feel very strongly about, in terms of the future of journalism, it is that journalists need to be better connected to the public they serve," Fancher says.
Inside the paper, he had plenty to do. His job description, as he saw it, was to shape a vision for independent, public-service journalism and help find ways to pay for it. Those who watched as he created that vision say he saw patterns and possibilities where others saw few — or no — choices.
"I remember, early on, standing beside Fancher in the newsroom, looking across that sea of people and desks and paper and telephones and realizing: Fancher sees things I do not see," said Ross Anderson, a former Times reporter. "I see people and desks and paper and telephones. Fancher sees organizational charts, flows of energy and invisible lines of influence, interactions between people or the absence of interactions.
"I don't know what he saw, but whatever it was made him an executive editor while I remained a city-hall reporter. And we were all better off for it — Fancher and I, the organization, and, I believe, the city."
Photo Editor Fred Nelson agrees. Arriving from The Denver Post in 1984, Nelson said he found the atmosphere "remarkably different from my experience in other newspapers, because it was not top-down," he said.
"It was shocking and refreshing" — and creatively liberating, Nelson said. The message was, "Do what you do best, and run with it. That's why we were able to be successful, ultimately — the paper blossomed."
Alex MacLeod, managing editor for most of Fancher's tenure, describes his former boss as "a thorough and careful and fair editor, and a genuinely good person. Working for Fanch was the great blessing of my work life."
Fancher was no pushover, though. "As a competitor, no one was tougher than Fancher. He's incredibly creative on both the strategic, visionary level and at the tactical street fights that are part of winning and losing readers," said Dave Zeeck, executive editor and senior vice president for news at The News Tribune in Tacoma.
"The Seattle Times under Fancher was ahead of most newspapers in figuring out how to thrive in an increasingly complex media environment," Zeeck said. "The cornerstones were a comprehensive local news report, an emphasis on public-service investigative reporting, and assembling a stable of columnists and critics with singular, strong voices."
In an effort to be able to represent the newsroom to the business side of the paper, Fancher, who was city editor at The Kansas City Star in Missouri before coming to The Seattle Times, obtained a master's of business administration degree in 1986 from the University of Washington. For that, he was roundly critiqued by former staffer and UW professor Doug Underwood in his book, "When MBAs Rule the Newsroom."
Reporters chafed at times at what seemed like a new emphasis on marketing, and asked for more face time with Fancher, by then a company vice president who was often busy saving the newsroom's bacon on the business side.
Frequently, Fancher turned to MacLeod, his personality alter ego, for day-to-day decisions. "Sometimes I could drive people crazy by being too vague — inscrutable — and Alex could drive people crazy by being too decisive. Working together was a pretty good combination," Fancher said.
In mid-2006, Fancher's role changed dramatically. He pinned a big map on his office wall, readied a box of push pins, and donned a new hat: "Seattle Times editor at large."
He began meeting with community members, from 10 Cub Scouts to 600 real-estate property managers. Later, he leapt into the blogosphere with "Press Here," exploring the "nexus between the press, the public and technology."
"The Internet, despite its economic impact on newspapers, is a huge opportunity to improve journalism," Fancher says. "Whatever dynamic is troubling to you, turn it around and see it from another perspective. Once you do that, your thought process is freed up to see possibilities instead of threats."
Still, he acknowledges, it's a new era now.
"The future for people who want to be public-service journalists is as exciting as it could possibly be," Fancher said. "But the question of how it gets funded, how it gets supported economically, is a huge question, and nobody has the answer to that."
Recently, The Times reduced its staff by nearly 200 and is making other cuts aimed at saving $15 million. The budget crunch, he says, helped push him toward retirement.
"It's been truly a wonderful ride," Fancher said last week before a tearful goodbye and a standing ovation from the staff.
Now, Fancher says he's looking forward to spending more time with his family, including twin 17-year-old daughters.
He's also hoping to do work in "media literacy," helping citizens become more skilled at assessing the accuracy, legitimacy and bias of news, and finding ways for journalists to help people tell their own stories.
David Boardman, who was named managing editor under Fancher in 2003 and succeeded him as executive editor in 2006, wrote a note to staff members last week.
Describing him as a "humble, caring human being who has been a terrific boss, friend, mentor and colleague," Boardman invited those who haven't spent time with Fancher to do so. "Believe me, you don't want to miss the opportunity, for he is truly a gentleman, a scholar, a philosopher, a baseball fan, a movie buff, a father, a husband, a teacher, a wine expert — and most of all, a journalist's journalist. He is The Zen Master."
Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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