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Non-traditional Iowa editor is optimistic about journalism’s future

By: Andrew Ward
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Lyle Muller
former editor of The Gazette
in Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Lyle Muller didn’t follow the traditional career path that many journalists take.

For one thing, he majored in communications not journalism at the University of Iowa.

That didn’t stop him from a journalism career that included a stint as editor of The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

In an interview, Muller said he chose not to major in journalism because he was already learning how to be a reporter by working at Iowa’s student paper, the Daily Iowan.

Learning how other people communicate was a better resource in his view.

“For me, taking courses about things such as apologies and the theory and practice of argument was more important,” Muller said.

Those communication classes helped him grow as a reporter. When a politician apologizes, for example, Muller said he knows exactly what to focus on. Reporters who took classes in the theory of argument understand certain aspects of people and behavior better.

Muller, who talked about his career at The Gazette in a recent interview, said it’s weird to offer advice about editing because he didn’t want to be one at first.

“I used to say if anyone told me to be an editor to please shoot me because I didn’t want to do that,” Muller said.

As an editor, one of the biggest challenges is a busy schedule.

His calendar is packed with scribbles, with each hour blocked out from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

His day, he said, starts with a normal to-do list with a few things on it. But by day’s end, that list has turned into many tasks.

“There’s not enough time, not enough resources to do all of things that we think ought to be done,” Muller said. “There are tons of stories and we just don’t have time to run them all.”

And when Muller messes something up in that condensed schedule, he faces the wrath of his employees and audience.

“It’s not just that I’m the face of the newspaper,” he said, “it’s the editor of every paper that gets called or blamed first.”

Doing everything, for Muller, includes monitoring the Gazette’s online content. Although it’s not as strong as some other organizations, but he has tried to model it after well-known online publications.

“At first I thought the online resources were great and new,” Muller said. “Now I go to a story and I click on it and there might be a story with a video, but they all look the same, except for the organizations doing a really good job.”

In his view, The New York Times, Washington Post and Huffington Post have well-respected online designs and content.

One thing those organizations have that Muller struggles to get is quality comments from readers. He said it has been a battle to find people to comment even when it comes to his blog called Mulling it Over.

“Blogging is not helping our content at all; it should, but it isn’t,” Muller said. “What we’re getting is the same people and they start picking on each other. It devolves into people not wanting to comment anymore because of the poor treatment.”

One thing Muller does to improve his paper’s online approach is talk over problems with other editors facing similar situations.  iMuller is a member of the Associated Press Managing Editors, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Investigative Editors and Reporters and the Iowa Newspaper Association.

Working with these organizations helps Muller figure out what he is doing wrong so he can fix it.  He’s always optimistic about journalism after meeting with other editors, Muller said.

“I keep hearing that it’s dying but it’s not dying.” he said, “Journalism is as big as it’s ever been because by how much it is consumed.”

Young journalists need to focus on that when they begin their careers. And there’s one more thing they need to remember:

“Be curious and critical,” Muller said. “Often, normal people see something and say, ‘hey that’s interesting,’ but reporters see something and say, ‘hey that’s a story.’”

Muller left The Gazette in April 2012 to become executive director of the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism.

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