When I finish my last full day at America on Sept. 28, it will be 10 years to the day that I arrived here. My assignment came late the previous spring while I was serving as interim director of the Woodstock Theological Center and had just been selected director. I caused consternation for my superiors as I bargained for time to leave the center in good order before departing for New York. I didn’t quite understand their urgency for me to move on quickly.
When Tom Reese, S.J., suddenly resigned as editor in chief in 2005, it took the Jesuit provincials just 36 hours to ask me to serve as editor in chief. Only afterward was I told that my earlier appointment had been part of a succession plan.
Rick Ryscavage, S.J., of Fairfield University taught me an expression for leadership in hard times: “white-water management.” I am proud of my time at America and what our team has achieved, especially during the seven-plus years I have been editor in chief. But beyond what readers see in the magazine or encounter on the Web site, America Press has gone through a period of transformation these last seven years that has often seemed like a succession of rapids.
My first task was to promote organizational healing after Tom’s painful departure and to regain the confidence of our readers. Then I had to lawyer-up for a trademark dispute over our America brand. Soon major change came with reworking our state charter and by-laws to become a modern-day nonprofit with a largely lay board and to find a publisher to take on fundraising and board-building responsibilities.
All this came about in the midst of a major decline in print publishing and the shift first to the Web and then to multiple platforms to carry on our “media ministry.” With the help of Tim Reidy, whom we brought on to be our online editor, that’s a transition we managed with success. The site has been named the number one Catholic magazine Web site by the Catholic Press Association five years running. In a few months America will be available on tablet devices as well as online and on e-readers.
Tim is one of a group of lay editors who are the future of America. First among them is Karen Sue Smith, our editorial director. Much of the credit for America’s quality these last years goes to Karen, who has been responsible for soliciting articles, coaching authors and negotiating with them. Along with Tim and Karen, we welcomed Kevin Clarke and Kerry Weber.
I want to offer a special word of thanks to Lisa Pope, our chief financial officer, who has helped us pilot through the financial crisis and recession and has managed to sustain our subscriptions and regain advertising in the face of adverse trends. A word, too, for Father Jim Martin, whose publishing and speaking contribute to our financial solvency and whose work with the wider media is an asset to the whole church.
After a few weeks to wind down, I will begin a sabbatical at Boston College to prepare for my new position in 2014 as distinguished professor of ethics and human development at Georgetown University. At last I can imagine myself paddling through flat water.
In the years ahead I hope to be able to continue to contribute to America with blogs and occasional articles. I will also continue to be a reader and viewer; I hope you will too.
Sept. 28 will also be the last workday for Karen Sue Smith, our editorial director. Besides being a great editor, she has been our number one wonk: poring over polls, interpreting data and legislative arcana. We will miss her. We wish her much happiness in the next phase of her life.