The Spokesman-Review published an article in its Friday edition announcing that editor Gary Graham is retiring in September and that a national search for his replacement will be conducted this summer. However, according to several S-R employees, publisher Stacey Cowles already has eyes for a particular prospect: Rob Curley, a controversial editor fired in March from the Orange County Register after a rocky two years at the helm.
Cowles and Curley did not return emails today seeking comment. But Cowles’ alleged interest in Curley has sent a wave of panic through the rank and file of the paper, some of whom say they’re worried about getting another buzzword-dropping boss who will leave them high and dry after a series of failed initiatives.
“I think we might have Steve Smith 2.0 on our hands,” one employee tells the Inlander. Smith led the paper from 2002 to 2008, winning kudos for his commitment to transparency and “civic journalism,” as well as scorn for big investments in things like radio, which proved unprofitable. Ultimately, Smith oversaw a series of layoffs and cutbacks.
“Look [Curley] up. Absolute train wreck,” another employee adds. “Word is that internal candidates have been told point blank that Stacey wants Curley. Looks like it's down to salary. Lovely.”
In recent days, S-R staffers have been taking a closer look at Curley’s career. He first generated serious buzz in journalism circles in 2005 for his work on hyperlocal websites in Lawrence, Kansas, nabbing himself glowing coverage in the New York Times.
Curley soon jumped to the Washington Post but left town as his hyperlocal efforts there were deemed a “flop” in the Wall Street Journal. Next came the Las Vegas Sun, where Curley took charge of digital operations and created an ambitious video program called 702.tv. It cost the paper millions — yet only lasted four months.
By then, people at the Sun had “took to calling Curley ‘Harold Hill,’ after the main character from the Music Man, a con man who poses as the leader of a marching band and steals money from unsuspecting townsfolk,” according to a Las Vegas CityLife story.
Then off to Orange County, where local coverage of Curley was not any more flattering.
• An article published days after Curley took the head job sported the headline: “Why is New OC Register Editor Rob Curley Already So Loathed in the Newsroom?” The story ended with this tongue-in-cheek note to Curley’s underlings: “Be happy, Reg newsroom: you have a genius in your midst… until he decides to bounce after burning millions.”
• Curley also caught flack for bowing to pressure from a politician to revise a story written, coincidentally, by former Spokesman-Review reporter Meghann Cuniff. Journalism ethicists condemned the interference to the Voice of OC: “This is clearly an unethical overreach by the editors.”
To be sure, over the years Curley has been lavished with awards and praise from media insiders. Critic Dan Kennedy has called him a “digital news pioneer.” The Columbia Journalism Review says he’s “one of the more prominent digital journalists of the last decade.” The Washington City Paper once described him as “the high priest of ‘hyperlocal’ Web journalism.”
It’s a reputation that has won Curley speaking engagements and consulting work. Indeed, say SR staffers, before Curley was booted from the OC Register, he apparently spoke at a retreat for Spokesman-Review managers, and it was there, they believe, that Curley caught the attention of Cowles.