Here’s a surprise: The three men most responsible for one of the best newspaper web sites in the country let go

It’s no understatement to say I owe my career to Ron James. In 1995, I interviewed Ron — whom I’d known from my days as co-publisher of a little weekly in Ocean Beach — for an article I was writing for the San Diego Business Journal about local online publications. At the time, Ron was editor of the San Diego Magazine web site.

After the interview, Ron asked me, “How would you like to be our East County correspondent” — see Ron had a vision for the Web’s expansive possibilities, turning into a portal for San Diego before the web-meaning of the word was invented.

In response to his question, I said I had a better idea — what if I got together with a friend of mine who owned a group of six weeklies in East County and put those online. Ron didn’t hesitate. “Great,” he said. And East County Online, the first group of US weekly papers on the Web, was launched just two weeks later.

When we started, I didn’t even know HTML, but my online career was launched.

During my interviews for SDBJ, I also spoke with Jim Drummond, who was single-handedly launching what is now Back then, the San Diego Union-Tribune had no faith in this web thing and the original site was strictly real estate advertising. Drummond toiled with little support and staff for years, until the U-T hired Chris Jennewein.

If you don’t know Chris, you should. He’s a legend in the industry. He’s been doing longer than just about anybody I know and launched the original MercCenter for the San Jose Mercury News back in the 1990s.

Through Ron, I got to know Chris and have long considered him a friend and a mentor.

I’ve learned a lot about online audience growth from watching Ron and Chris’s work in San Diego. They’ve led the industry and set the example for creating web sites that do a great job at attracting readers. They have few peers in the industry. SignOnSanDiego has also been an industry leader in revenue growth.

So how is it possible that the San Diego Union-Tribune has let these three talented, hard-working, right-on-target men go? It’s shocking. (link via Romenesko).

It’s all too common for internal politics to overrun good business sense at family-owned newspapers. That’s the only explanation in this case that makes any sense.

UPDATE: There’s no way the U-T can come out of this looking good, but bless their hearts, they’re trying. E&P reports that Gene Bell has confirmed Jennewein’s departure.

“Among the changes, is the consolidation of strategy, product development and Internet sites under the leadership of Mark Davis, currently vice president of strategy,” the statement continued. “This change results in having to say goodbye to Chris Jennewein, vice president of Internet sites.”

Gene Bell, president & CEO, added: “We thank Chris for all he has done and his contributions over the years. His work has built a strong foundation for our Internet business and our evolution into a multimedia company – an evolution that will continue, as we adapt to our readers’ changing media habits and preferences.”

Great formula for ongoing growth — get rid of the people have provided your newspaper’s only true online leadership to begin with. Retreating is always a great go-forward strategy.

UPDATE II:  A post on Voice of San Diego contains this interesting tidbit:

A reporter who attended a 2007 newsroom strategy meeting in which Winner laid out ideas for the company’s future said the editor closed the session with this request: Don’t tell the workers at about what was discussed. …

Also, Steve Yelvington: San Diego Union turns against its future.

4 thoughts on “Here’s a surprise: The three men most responsible for one of the best newspaper web sites in the country let go

  1. Can’t believe these guys let Jennewein go. It makes no sense at all.
    I had the pleasure of meeting Jennewein a couple years ago. I didn’t know who he was until I read an article in which he was quoted, then I knew why everything he had said in our short meeting made so much sense. He was on top of the online movement. He really knows where this industry is heading and helped steer Copley in the right direction, ahead of many others. Great opportunity for someone else out there to acquire a great guy with serious skills.

  2. If Jennewein couldn’t get along with Karin Winner, that speaks well of him.

  3. Howard, thanks for giving these three great guys their due.

    I have had the pleasure of working with Chris over the last several years. He is truly one of the great trailblazers in our business. I learned a lot from Chris. He is a good friend and a consummate professional. All three of these guys have been a big help to me and

    Best of luck to Chris, Ron and Jim.

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