Looking past tomorrow's paper
Tony Elkins moved to the corporate level during NEX GEN year
As director of innovation for GateHouse Media, Tony Elkins is thinking ahead, not only about the future of newspapers, but about how information is delivered.
His new job is considerably larger in scale than the position of deputy managing editor at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in Florida, where he was when he was accepted into the 2016-17 NEX GEN class. His pairing with mentor Steve Gray, vice president of strategy and innovation for Morris Communications, turned out to be particularly appropriate.
Elkins said his NEX GEN year focused more on ideas than on personal development. He and Gray often talked in the abstract and then focused on how to apply ideas and avoid repeating the mistakes of others.
"There were a lot of lessons learned on my end about how to try to enact some of these issues, because Steve has seen resistance to innovative ideas. He kind of lives in that innovation space," Elkins said.
Elkins, 42, is a Native American member of the Comanche tribe. He grew up in Medicine Park in the Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma. Elkins traded biology for journalism after his college adviser at a small state school in Oklahoma told him he wouldn't make a good doctor. Elkins came from a family of storytellers, he said, and he focuses today on the best way to tell a story, whether in news, advertising or corporate project.
In Sarasota, Elkins was responsible for long-form projects rather than day-to-day operations and was involved in the paper's Pulitzer Prize-winning work. He worked with designers and photographers in "putting the pieces together."
Elkins had made it clear that he hoped to move up the ladder even before GateHouse bought the Herald-Tribune a couple of years ago. He relocated to Austin, Texas, in March.
Elkins leads a three-person innovation lab in Austin. About one-third of his job is similar to what he did in Florida but on the corporate scale. Another third is offering similar support for corporate projects, advertising and new product development.
"The last part of the job is really looking at journalism a couple of years from now. We don't have answers, but we're starting to look at the questions."
Elkins said the industry continues to fail to look ahead to the applications of new technologies such as artificial intelligence. The disconnect remains between how readers consume stories and how newsrooms produce them. Both news and advertising departments worry about getting the next edition out and overlook the future.
"We're still doing a lot of things the same way from when I started 20-plus years ago," Elkins said. "We're really talking about the delivery of information. Newspaper sites look exactly alike, as they did when we first went online. If anything, they're more cluttered; they're more junky; there are more roadblocks in our readers' way. If anything, we've taken a step backwards as far as the delivery of content to the reader."
Elkins said that as he bounced ideas off Gray, Gray would refer him to others who could help him flesh out his ideas. Gray also advised Elkins on how to be effective at the corporate level.
"I think that's the biggest thing: looking at organizations and how they operate and how to navigate the structure, who to talk to, where to focus on so you can actually make some progress," Elkins said.
He also learned the importance of establishing relationships and networking.
Elkins said he enjoyed the NEX GEN program so much that he accepted an invitation to be a mentor to a participant in this year's class.
SNPA will invite applications this summer for the NEX GEN Class of 2018-19.
Watch for additional interviews with members of the 2016-17 NEX GEN Class in upcoming issues of the eBulletin.
Jane Nicholes is a veteran journalist based in coastal Alabama and is a regular contributor to SNPA. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Suggestions for future stories and comments on this piece are welcomed.