The Columns

Returning Home: John X. Miller ’77 Alumni at Work, The Winston-Salem Journal, Winston-Salem, N.C.

— by on September 5th, 2016

John X. Miller '77

“In the current environment, information overload gives people a false sense of knowledge. Journalists have to understand their role has remained the same, while the delivery system is changing.”

In a city known for firsts for African-Americans, John X. Miller ’77 added his name to the list by becoming the first African-American managing editor of the Winston-Salem Journal.

Winston-Salem, N.C., had the state’s first black professional theater company, the first black city alderman in the South since Reconstruction and was the first city where an African-American owned a bus company, said Miller, who took over the top newsroom job in August 2013. “It’s a place where black folk had opportunities to change the game.”

The city is also his hometown. “I recognized the significance of coming home.”

Miller grew up the son of a football, track and basketball coach at Winston-Salem State College. His father was part of the coaching staff that led the college’s basketball team to the 1967 NCAA championship for the college division.

From that background, he entered Washington and Lee University thinking he’d major in political science or math. An opportunity to program and host a late-night radio show featuring alternative music — “then considered rock, jazz and R&B” — got him interested in broadcasting.

“It was fun. All the black students on campus started digging it, and it caught on,” said Miller, who later earned a Class 3 FCC license.

Enjoying his work in radio, he decided to try a journalism course, and under the guidance of Hampden Smith, professor emeritus of journalism, and the late Ron MacDonald, former professor of journalism, he flourished as a journalism major. He found that through journalism, “I could tell stories and be in places where others couldn’t be, and I could include people in those stories who often had been left out.”

He interned at the Lexington Gazette and at Winston-Salem’s former afternoon paper, the Twin City Sentinel, housed in the same building where he now leads the morning newspaper staff.

After graduation, Miller began a series of increasingly responsible newspaper positions with The Roanoke Times & World News, The Charlotte Observer, USA Today and The Reporter in Lansdale, Pa. In 1996, he became managing editor of The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and then in 1999, he moved to the Detroit Free Press as public editor.

It was there that he took on responsibility for what has become his proudest accomplishment. He joined the Free Press staff shortly after two highly publicized plagiarism and story fabrication incidents at The New York Times and USA Today had undermined trust in the media.

The Free Press also was coming off an acrimonious labor strike, and the editors wanted to reestablish a positive and trustworthy relationship with readers. “Accuracy became very important,” said Miller.

He wrote a bi-weekly column explaining to readers why they covered what they did and established a protocol for corrections. An accuracy group he formed met regularly, and he issued a monthly report about corrections. Under Miller’s direction, reporters were required to fill out a form explaining why they had made a mistake requiring a correction. He developed an “accuracy checklist.”

His efforts led to significant change as reporters and editors realized they would be held accountable and that accuracy of their work would be used in annual evaluations.

Miller’s commitment to accuracy in reporting and writing followed him from W&L, where Smith taught him the necessity of accuracy and fastidiousness in his work. “One mistake in a story equaled an F,” in Smith’s classroom. That mistake could be a misplaced comma, a misspelled word or a bad fact. “I had to be at the top of my game every day,” he said.

He also brought that commitment with him to the Journal, where he personally approves every correction the paper runs.

He credits MacDonald’s broadcast journalism courses with teaching him to be able to recite the facts and be clear in verbal communication. Lou Hodges, emeritus Knight Foundation Professor in Media Ethics, taught the first journalism ethics course in the nation. From him, “I learned I had to think about ethics as a way of life instead of towing the line based on dogma,” he said.

From the Free Press, Miller took some time away from journalism to work as chief executive of a nonprofit organization that helped low income people pay their utility bills. Three years later, he became editor of the Daily Record in Hickory, N.C. When the managing editor position opened at the Winston-Salem Journal, he was known to management because both papers are owned by Berkshire Hathaway. He got the job.

His daily routine at the Journal includes 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. news meetings, along with a 4 p.m. conference call with the editing center, an off-site center where copy is edited and pages designed.

After the 10 a.m. meeting, Miller goes to his office to “read the paper to see what we did in print.” The paper’s daily print circulation of 54,000 and Sunday circulation of 65,000 is only part of the story, however.

“We have to use social media to the utmost,” he said. Reporters are responsible for social media content based on their reporting, and a digital team makes sure that breaking news is posted to the paper’s website. The paper has 32,000 followers on Facebook, and the staff curates content and shoots hundreds of videos on iPhones yearly. All are pushed to audiences through the newspaper’s website, JournalNow.com.

“We also get tons of traffic to our photo galleries,” which are positioned prominently on the website’s homepage.

Miller’s day also includes responding to hundreds of emails and helping the newsroom prioritize what goes in the paper. Stories are always moving around as the day goes on and new information and stories emerge, he said. The paper wants to offer something “unique to Winston-Salem and unique to the Journal.”

Miller believes in the importance of journalism to a functioning democracy. “They are linked through our constitution. If journalism goes away, democracy goes away,” he said.

In order to govern, people need accurate information. “We have to report over a broad spectrum of time; bloggers can’t do that; ordinary citizens can’t do that.” He said it takes trained investigative reporters to follow up initial reports and understand FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request and the law.

“In the current environment, information overload gives people a false sense of knowledge,” he said. “Journalists have to understand their role has remained the same, while the delivery system is changing.”

Miller wants the Journal to continue to evolve, especially with content on the Internet. He believes there will be “ink on paper” as long as advertising can sustain it. Eventually newspapers might go away, but he thinks the web will establish a revenue model to sustain journalism.

A minister licensed to preach in the Baptist church, Miller sees his career as a calling. “I consider what I do, who I am,” he said. His climb to the top of the newsroom is a big part of that calling. It allows him to mentor and manage younger journalists who will carry on some day.

A divorced father of two, Miller has a son who graduated from Ithaca (N.Y.) College and works as an actor and barista in New York City and a daughter who graduated from Howard University and lives in Washington, D.C.

Back at home in Winston-Salem, he is happy to tell the stories of his city. His “intuitive understanding of the city, the people, the institutions and sources” allows him to “get to the gist of a story more quickly.”

– by Linda Evans