On the day Indy Week dismissed Lisa Sorg as editor, it turns out that management already had her replacement.
Jeff Billman was named interim editor that day, Aug. 12. He had the interim tag taken off a week later, and last week’s print edition was the first under his watch as permanent editor-in-chief. Publisher Susan Harper said Monday that she didn’t interview anybody else for the job.
“It’s been kind of a crazy couple of weeks,” Billman said Thursday. “On the one hand, I’m excited, but my excitement is kind of tempered. [Sorg is] a very tenacious journalist and a really good person. I have nothing but the greatest respect for Lisa. I’ve been at alt weeklies most of my life and things kind of happen, but it’s not going to make it any easier.”
Since leaving Indy Week, Sorg has written a several stories about Durham for Bull City Rising.
Billman announced the promotion with a column in last week’s issue.
“We’re excited,” Harper said. “The focus of the paper never is going to change. I don’t see the mission of the paper changing.”
Unlike the previous two editors, Billman has previous experience as the editor of another alternative newspaper. In March, Billman left his position as editor of Folio Weekly (which had a circulation of 26,801 as of December), an alternative newspaper in Jacksonville, Fla., to become Raleigh news editor for Indy Week (which had a circulation of 32,000 as of April.)
He recognizes the challenges that come with leading Indy Week’s coverage of the Triangle as an area resident for only five months.
“I think we’ll have a good staff around us. There’s no shortcut for me to develop the kind of institutional memory that jobs like this tend to need,” said Billman, who pointed to Grayson Haver Currin, who has written for the publication since 2003 and has been full time since March 2005, and Brian Howe, the arts & culture editor, as people who will help in that area.
Currin is the longtime music editor and is now managing editor and music editor. He was briefly interim managing editor.
“Some of our writers have grown up around here,” Billman said. “So it’s not like I’m working in a vacuum. We are going to try to learn as much as we can as fast as we can. The reality is, half of this job is having a good team around you.”
The last two Indy Week covers haven’t been as provocative as the last cover under Sorg’s watch. It featured a picture from the Confederate flag protests in Hillsborough with the headline, “YOU LOST. GET OVER IT.” But Billman says that you shouldn’t read anything into that.
“As a rule, it’s not like we’re going to back down on provocative coverage,” he said. “It’s not like we’re never going to run a cover just to piss people off. I’ve done it a lot in my life. It’s one of the things we do is to challenge readers and to challenge communities. I’m sure there will be more of that. It’s not like a thing like we need to back off of this. That’s not a conversation that anybody’s had.”
Indy Week has is going to hire two more editorial positions. John Tucker — whose last story ran Aug. 19 — created one opening earlier this month when he quit after being on staff for more than two years to move to New York.
The first position will be a staff writer covering Durham, the main area that Sorg covered. The person filling the second position will be covering Raleigh. Whether that person will be the Raleigh news editor or simply a staff writer hasn’t been determined, Harper said.
Billman, who went from mostly working out of Indy Week’s Raleigh office previously to working mostly at its Durham office since the production and infrastructure is there, has Florida roots. He grew up in West Palm Beach and went to college at the University of Central Florida, where he studied journalism and earned a master’s degree in political science and government.
He started as an intern in 1999 at the Orlando Weekly, an alternative newspaper, and was eventually news editor and senior writer before leaving in 2009 to be news editor at the Philadelphia City Paper. He also spent a year as the senior editor at Philadelphia Magazine. He joined Folio Weekly late in 2013.
Billman never has worked for a non-alternative newspaper and says that he “frankly wouldn’t want to.
“The thing about alt weeklies is the pay sucks and it’s harder,” Billman said. “You’re not the paper of record, so you’re not the first call that people make, you’re the second or the third after the TV station. So that part is hard. [But you have] the freedom to do stories that matter and to not try to remove all your personality out of a story.”
The previous two editors had newspaper experience outside of alternative publications. Richard Hart, the editor from May 2002-July 2007, came to the then-Independent Weekly from The News & Observer, where he had been Durham editor for four years, and he also had worked for two Florida newspapers. Sorg, Hart’s successor, worked at The Herald-Times of Bloomington, Ind., and The Indianapolis Star before joining the Independent.
The N&O and The Herald-Sun are expected to be objective and impartial and only have political agendas on the editorial pages. Critics, of course, always will question that execution, particularly the view of The N&O from some UNC fans weary of athletic scandal coverage or from conservatives and the view of The Herald-Sun’s coverage of the Duke lacrosse story.
Newspapers such as Indy Week obviously are different, and its long liberal history isn’t going to change.
“We consider ourselves a progressive media outlet, and as I’ve told writers — not just here but everywhere — I believe in fairness,” said Billman, who encourages reporters to be counterintuitive and unpredictable. “I think objectivity is bullshit and people who try to adopt that sort of nebulous view from nowhere are deceiving either themselves or the readers. We all come to do our jobs with implicit perspectives and maybe biases.”
“I believe in fairness. I think objectivity is bullshit and people who try to adopt that sort of nebulous view from nowhere are deceiving either themselves or the readers. We all come to do our jobs with implicit perspectives and maybe biases.”
The concept of objectivity in journalism is discussed at length in the book The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect, and in this piece on “The lost meaning of ‘objectivity’ ” by the American Press Institute.
“I think what I want out of our publication when it comes to things like viewpoints is that we’re intellectually honest,” he said. “We don’t hide where we’re coming from under some sort of veil of objectivity. We own it. We are a progressive media outlet. If you’re a conservative person, you probably won’t agree with us a lot. But hopefully you read us and find us interesting and write mad letters to the editor and participate in the conversation.”
Billman says that he doesn’t expect big changes in Indy Week’s vision, but plans changes to the structure of the office and the editorial team.
“If you’re a conservative person, you probably won’t agree with us a lot. But hopefully you read us and find us interesting and write mad letters to the editor and participate in the conversation.”
“The goal is to make the process more efficient, more streamlined and make people’s lives easier so we can free up some time to focus on some of the bigger stories that we want to tell,” Billman said.
In the story guidelines he issued to his staff, he said that stories must be more interesting than a daily news story. Just because it happened, they don’t need to write about it. There has to be a reason for Indy Week to care.
He distinguishes between topics (such as racism) and stories (such as going undercover with white supremacists) and prefers the latter. If reporters want to write about a sensational topic, he wants them to have a larger reason for telling the story.