First Mover: Cyndi Stivers

After a career spent creating print and online media, the editor becomes its watchdog

Why’d you decide to take the job?

Because it has respect, and I think people take it seriously, but it can be much more essential to the conversation. They don’t have a lot of Web DNA around the place, and that’s what I’m bringing.

What will it be like directing coverage of companies and people you’ve worked with?

I’m sure there’s going to be some managing of blow back. Whenever you engage in criticism, no matter how constructive, people will occasionally disagree. I got very accustomed to handling reactions to our writers’ opinions while at Time Out New York, and I’m sure CJR will be no different. It should not be outsider-y; it should elbow its way back into the middle of the conversation.

What issues are you keen to take on?

There are lots. All the ways the craft is evolving. It’s a gold mine, and that includes this new relationship with the reader, and how the reader wants to be involved and help tell the story. There’s so much going on right now. There’s all this disruption—how we do our jobs, the tools we use, how do we manage and foster the community. The New York Times changing its comments policy. Copyright issues. That sounds very dry, but it doesn’t have to be.I was at this conference, News Foo. It’s an un-conference. Everybody shows up and takes Post-its and says, “I’m obsessed with, I want to lead a conversation on X.” It’s created on the fly by all the attendees. It’s not, “Let’s have people talk at us.” People are getting more ingenious. Any way you look at it, there is more need for what we do than ever before. People need more help sifting through everything.Which brings me to what we’re doing—the Swing States Project. We’re going to be doing a two-year project covering campaign coverage. This allows us to have people on the ground. It’s basically a stringer network reporting on the accuracy of the campaigns, the money influencing the coverage, the fear-mongering. Take a Swift Boat to the truth!

You spent a lot of your career focused on digital media. Who’s doing well online right now?

The Atlantic is doing well; Slate is doing well. The Beast and The New Yorker are doing great things digitally, too. I’m so jealous of The New York Times and its experimentation. I lust for the infographics, I really do. My old pals at Time Inc., they’re doing some really good stuff. A lot of people are just taking print stories and shoveling them on the Web. That can’t be all you do. The biggest problem is, people are stuck with huge, lumbering content management systems and dwindling IT staffs. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. They can’t trash the old systems unless they have huge new ones ready to go. That’s a big, big challenge.

So many media companies are struggling to figure it out. Do you see a journalism model for the future emerging?

[Bloomberg] is one of the places I’m fascinated to watch. The whole John Paton thing—I really hope that works. I think there’s going to be lots of things that cough and sputter. Everybody talks about the new normal for media. You just have to be willing to work in a perpetually evolving landscape.

You also teach at Columbia. How do you assess today’s crop of J-school students?

There’s an amazing amount of optimism and enthusiasm. They believe there’s a real sense of possibilities. They can write a blog, the first clip—remember how big a deal that was? That’s not true anymore.