Roll Call Seeks to Rebuild Image

When a publication loses some 15 people, including a beloved editor, a deputy editor and the head of ad sales in a seven-month time span, it ceases to be right or accurate to say that it  is undergoing a transition. Or, to reason that this is the topsy turvy, fluctuating world of  journalism these days.

At the time of then-Editor Charlie Mitchell’s sudden departure last fall, Editorial Director Mike Mills said they had “concluded together” that this was the best way to proceed. Former Roll Call reporter Tory Newmyer, now at Fortune Magazine, voiced  online what so many Roll Call reporters felt then and now: “Terrible move, CQ overlords. Mitchell = 1st rate editor, world class human.”

But like many editors who must go back to ground level and find steady footing, it’s an “exciting” time. Roll Call‘s Editor Scott Montgomery is no exception: “People are still excited. I am excited. We still have some challenges to get through before we fill these jobs. But it’s kind of cool to think about remaking things and taking Roll Call forward.”

As management dusts itself off after an intense exodus of resignations and otherwise forced departures, top brass find themselves in an introspective process of rebuilding and figuring out just where to move from here. Long known as the stalwart figure amongst Washington’s Hill publications, Roll Call rests on that historical description and maybe a little too much. In a phone interview with Montgomery on Tuesday morning, FishbowlDC learned vaguely about where this relatively new editor wants to take the newspaper in the coming months. But specifics? He hesitated for fear of the competition getting too much information. Among the things we do know: Roll Call is one week out of its so-called one-month hiring freeze implemented company-wide by The Economist Group. Montgomery announced that they are looking to add at least three senior editors and five new reporters to its editorial team, which is roughly half of what they’ve lost.

As of late, management has made some unusual hiring moves, or rehiring as the case may be. For one thing, they brought back Shira Toeplitz, who spent a year at Politico before realizing that maybe the grass isn’t always greener type of thing. And today, they’re playing up yet another return: a former intern who has spent the past few years working on the desk of the NYT.

“What we need, it’s not magic,” Montgomery said in our talk. “Roll Call has a great reputation, a great history. It still is the newspaper of Capitol Hill and is still seen that way. We need to continue to do that. We know who our audience is. We know who we are. So my goal is fairly straightforward — to do what Roll Call is known for. We cover the Hill. We cover members. We cover leadership. We cover those staffs. The professional community of Capitol Hill. That’s who are readers are, that’s who we’re there for, and we like that.”

And yet, the chatter in media and staff circles is that HOH, the famed gossip column, isn’t what it was even weeks and months ago when Emily Heil still ran it and when Elizabeth Brotherton was still on board. And Around the Hill has gone a little, well, over the Hill and around the bend. What does Montgomery say to critics and doubters? “I can’t answer that directly because I’ve only been here a few months myself,” he said. “There’s no doubt the environment is very different from what it was. Roll Call can’t be what it was five or ten years ago and expect to prosper. It’s not about whether people think we’ve lost a step, but it’s about the steps we take forward. We need to be a must-read for people. We need to make sure that they are rewarded every time they do.”

On the subject of HOH, Montgomery concedes that there must be a shift toward Capitol Hill and away from the party scene. The parties won’t be abandoned, mind you, but he thinks the column needs some “reporting heft.” He explained,  “I want to bring on a smart person who is sourced on Capitol Hill and can bring a level of newsiness, a saucy newsiness.” Around the Hill is here to stay, he insisted, saying that it is something for which the publication is known. “It’s a big part of what distinguishes us from our competitors, and that needs to continue,” he said.

More on Montgomery’s intentions…

“First of all, [organizationally] we intend to make Roll Call a bit less legislative process-focused. Exactly how we do that is something we go through as we hire smart editors. I want our HOH to be sourced on the Hill as well as our leadership team. That’s why we’re glad to bring Shira back,” he says, referring to Toeplitz’s return.

If Montgomery sounds vague, it doesn’t mean that he is naive as he stays on message that “Roll Call is still Roll Call.” He does a pretty hard sell, saying, “It’s a great place to be. For the people who want to be a part of that, it’s great. We’re going through some bumps. In my ideal world, I wouldn’t want to be filling all these vacancies at once.”

A warning to editors of other publications: When asked if he was going after reporters at competing publications, his answer was an emphatic: “Yes! The thing about Roll Call is we really are healthy and we are growing.”

But even a casual observer can see that health is undoubtedly in question when The Economist Group’s CEO Andrew Rashbass had to step in and reorganize just last month when Laurie Battaglia left under negative circumstances she is not yet willing to discuss.  “He’s not involved in the running of Roll Call,” Montgomery said of Rashbass. “He’s got bigger fish to fry. They know how to run a media company so it makes money. Keep in mind, the bumps, the hiring moratorium worldwide had less to do with us than London approached the final months of preparing the budget.”

Montgomery insisted that even during the official hiring freeze the publication was talking to potential hires. He said new hires will consist of a mix aged group and will not focus on hiring 20-somethings at low pay.  “I don’t have a rule to follow, that we’re only hiring young or seasoned,” he said.

As for stepping into Mitchell’s shoes as editor, Montgomery sounds humbled if not relieved that it has gone as well as it has. Montgomery’s hire was unexpected. At the time of Mitchell’s sudden departure, Mills, the Editorial Director, insisted he was looking for someone from the outside, a “change agent” which turned out to be just fancy words, nothing more. “It’s been a challenge,” Montgomery conceded. “Charlie was respected and beloved, you heard the term a lot, but I’ve been grateful for the staff. I know the departure was emotional for them, but they have been terrific to me. “

Here comes that word again — transition. “It has been a great experience making the transition,” he said. “It could have been difficult. But it was remarkably not. In fact I saw Charlie the other night and we had a good chat.”

These days Mitchell is back at Inside Washington Publishers, the publication where he used to work. And so far, at least publicly, he has not badmouthed Roll Call or the way in which he left.

Settle in for change. More to come.