Retiring Editor Rob Dean reflects on years at ‘The New Mexican’

Retiring New Mexican Editor Rob Dean’s smiles Friday after being presented a special tribute newspaper during his farewell celebration at The New Mexican’s Marcy Street offices. Luis Sánchez/New Mexican

During a reception for retiring New Mexican Editor Rob Dean, the lights went out at the newspaper. Actually, it was a power outage that affected a large portion of Santa Fe. But to many at the reception, the lights going out seemed like a metaphor. For the past 21 years, his employees past and present have considered Dean as the major light of the newspaper.

Today, Wednesday, July 3, is Dean’s last day at The New Mexican. In May, he announced he would be stepping down after more than 21 years on the job.

As he said when he announced his retirement, Dean plans to stay in Santa Fe, where he lives with his wife, Toni. But, he said, he’s not exactly sure what’s next for him. He mentioned several writing projects, including a collaboration with his youngest of his two sons on a historical piece on New Mexico during World War I.

Praise for Dean’s tenure started pouring in almost immediately. Author and Tesuque resident James McGrath Morris wrote a letter to the editor scolding The New Mexican for announcing Dean’s departure in the form of a brief at the bottom of the Local News page. “Anyone who pays attention to the state of the newspaper industry knows that Dean has managed to retain The New Mexican’s deserved reputation as one of the best independent newspapers in the nation. This was not an easy task considering the seismic changes taking place in the news industry. For his leadership, we ought to say thank you.”

Former New Mexican reporter and columnist David Roybal said last week, “I came to know Rob as an outstanding manager of people and personalities. Above all, I respect him for accepting the challenge to put to rest the myth that diversifying the editorial staff would erode quality. He also debunked the stereotype that editors have to be mean and cranky. At The New Mexican, no one did better at leading the newsroom during the past 45 years that I have been a close observer.”

Former New Mexican Publisher Billie Blair last week recalled hiring Dean in 1992 when he was an editor at The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash.

“Working with Rob in the 1990s were heady days,” she said. “He never takes credit for the improvements we were able to make because the newspaper was home-owned by people who cared. … ” Dean, she said, “believes newspapers have a mandate to understand and explain our community to ourselves and others, and he did this with an even hand, high standards and, most importantly, joy in the profession.”

Dean, a native of Harlowton, Mont., said his father had been a county official and thus, he always was interested in government, public service and politics. But, he said, he decided that he was better equipped to be an observer than a participant. He majored in journalism and wrote for the school paper at the University of Montana.

He had never lived in New Mexico. But he said he was somewhat familiar with the history of The New Mexican. As a college student, he wrote a paper about Territorial period newspapers in Arizona.

Dean came to The New Mexican at a time of low staff morale. The newsroom at the time still was reeling from then-owner Robert McKinney publicly disavowing, several months before, an investigative project on on the disposal of radioactive and chemical wastes at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Editors and reporters involved in the project were fired or left the paper in anticipation of termination. The firings over the investigation made national news.

At his first staff meeting in January 1992, Dean faced tough, skeptical and even some near-hostile questions from reporters. In an interview last week, Dean said he was aware when he accepted the job of the “anxiety and bad feelings” among the reporters. He said he’d had “three long phone conversations” with McKinney about the situation and was convinced no more such interference was in the cards.



“I wasn’t going to spend a lot of time on internal debate and navel-gazing,” Dean said. His main message to reporters was “We’re going to do our job. That’s going to be our strength. … I took at face value that I was with a bunch of professionals … I just wanted to get over some of the drama, take down some of the volume, and go out and do our jobs.”

And in a relatively short period, under Dean, morale at the paper improved. The upheavals of the previous year became yesterday’s news as far as most of the staff was concerned.

Hollis Walker, a former New Mexican reporter and editor wrote that working for Dean was “like working for a favorite cousin.” In the tribute paper she said, “Rob had a very particular skill that few managers have. Each time I would go into his office with an idea, I would come out feeling brilliant, talented, wise, appreciated, as if I were his favorite employee. I felt that way even when he said no to my ideas, which he often did.”

T.J. Sullivan, a New Mexican reporter in the early 1990s, wrote in his tribute that with Dean, “It was always about the readers. It was always about being fair. As long as we did that, we were happy.”

Sullivan wrote about the angry phone calls Dean received from a wide range of candidates over his coverage of the 1994 city elections. “I expect Rob would have rather done without the hassle of all the angry phone calls for my head … but I also expect Rob would have been disappointed if he hadn’t gotten calls like that from time to time.”

Dean himself said last week that he loved talking to people who called to complain. “Even if in the end I disagree, often they made me look at [a story or an issue] from a different angle.”

Most of Dean’s tenure was a flush time for The New Mexican. The paper expanded, creating new regional editions and sections in the paper. Under Dean, staffers were sent to New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; to Iraq and the former Yugoslavia; to Oklahoma and California to follow crime stories involving New Mexico; to New Hampshire, Iowa and even Venezuela to cover former Gov. Bill Richardson; and to several national political conventions.

But by the end of the last decade, travel budgets and other expenses had dried up. The paper itself grew thinner. And so did the staff.

Even before the stock market crash of September 2008, hard times had begun for the nation’s newspaper industry — The New Mexican included. The summer of 2008 saw the first of a several rounds of layoffs at the paper. The task of informing newspaper employees they’d lost their jobs fell to Dean. He said the most important thing he tried to get across during these grim conversations was “This was not the fault of the person I was talking to.”

Despite the cutbacks in the news industry, Dean said he isn’t worried that journalism itself is dying. “There’s still an appetite for information,” he said. “Government, public officials, politicians need a watchdog. … The profession of journalism is not in danger at all.”

Contact Steve Terrell at sterrell@sfnewmexican.com. Read his political blog at roundhouseroundup.com.

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