By CONNIE SCHULTZ
The first time I had a conversation with editor Stuart Warner, I didn’t like him much.
This was in 2001, just weeks after my five-day series had run in The Plain Dealer. Without my knowledge, Stuart had provided a thorough critique of the series to our editor-in-chief. Each day of newsprint was full of Stuart’s slashes and arrows and handwritten comments up and down the margins. The worst part of it: Stuart was right.
Stuart had been at The Plain Dealer only a couple of years. He had come from the Akron Beacon Journal, where he was part of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams: In 1987, as the lead writer on deadline coverage of a European financier’s attempted takeover of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., and in 1994, as the managing supervisor of a 16-part series on race relations that won the Pulitzer Gold Medal.
When I found out about Stuart’s handiwork on my project, I was fuming. “Why did you help me when I needed it?” I demanded to know.
His three-word response: “You didn’t ask.”
Months later, I was ready to work on another series. This time it was about Michael Green, a black man who had served 13 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. Work by the Innocence Project culminated in his release, and when he walked out of prison he told reporters he was not bitter.
I wanted to write the story of Michael Green, and I wanted Stuart Warner to be my editor. This time, Stuart managed an eight-word response: “Only if you’re going to do it right.”
It was the beginning of a friendship spanning nearly two decades.
We forged a professional relationship that changed not just my career but also my life. His leadership forced me to reconsider what it meant to be a journalist. I had always hoped to change a small patch of the world; Stuart insisted that I try, every time.
When I became a columnist in the fall of 2002, he gave me advice that feels visionary now in its respect for readers we’re trying to keep. I was a woman with strong opinions, and a lot of people disagreed. Mix it up, Stuart told me. Tell personal stories that will make them see what they have in common with you.
I interspersed columns about abortion, voting rights and workers’ rights with stories about my working-class roots and years as a single mother, and how much I loved my pug and two cats. When I started dating at age 45, I wrote about love in the middle ages. Readers, regardless of their politics, cheered us on months before I married Sherrod Brown in 2004.
No matter how much a column might stir things up, Stuart always said the same thing: “Let me worry about management. If you believe it, write it.” I seldom heard about those in-house complaints because Stuart didn’t want me distracted or, worse, afraid to speak my mind. I seldom mention winning the Pulitzer in 2005 — I don’t want to be that jerk — but it’s relevant here: I would not have won without Stuart Warner as my editor.
There are many other Warner-dependent journalists, just like me.
Stuart pushed hard, but always with kindness and respect. Not once, not ever, did he make me sit next to him while he sat at the computer and made changes to my work. I was the one in the chair, and he was the coach at my side. I do the same thing now with my journalism students at my alma mater, Kent State University, quoting and channeling Stuart every week. I share his marked up critique of my series, too, when they think they don’t have one draft in them.
The good news is that this isn’t an obituary.
The bad news is that, after 50 years in journalism at various news organizations around the country, Stuart Warner is retiring from journalism. He’ll leave as editor of the Phoenix New Times in October.
It is impossible to overstate the influence of this gentle and talented man.
When Stuart left The Plain Dealer in 2008, those of us who couldn’t imagine the newsroom without him orchestrated a daylong series of email tributes sent newsroom-wide. What a day that was. Reading them today is a tutorial on how to lead, regardless of one’s profession.
A few excerpts:
“(A)t difficult times, he was the only one to defend me and my work, at great personal cost to himself, and his newsroom standing. He’d never acknowledged it to me directly, but I know. What’s that say about an editor?”
“He preserved my dignity by letting me feel I was still in control of the story. And he made me want to try harder to get it right the second time. I didn’t want to let him down.”
“Stuart is one of the rare editors… who could read a draft of a story and tell you it was all wrong in a way that was so focused on the story and its possibilities that you couldn’t wait to… make it better.”
As I wrote in my tribute that day, I had wait 20 years to find an editor as good as Stuart.
Nearly 20 years later, I can still tell you that Stuart was worth the wait.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.