DMN editor Mike Wilson sent a note to staff this morning letting everyone know that Keven Ann Willey, who has run the paper’s editorial board for 15 years, will retire at the end of this year. I’ve pasted the full text below. You can skip down and read just that. But, as you might imagine, I have some thoughts and stories to share and some matches to light bridges. I’ll get into all that first.
One thing, above all: Willey immensely improved the editorial writing at the paper when she came to Dallas from the Arizona Republic. Before she got here, it felt like everything that the board churned out went something like: “On the one hand, we really despise this thing. But on the other hand, this thing could be seen as the second coming.” Willey changed that. The writing got sharper and smarter. Well, mostly. I’ll get to that in a second.
In his memo, Wilson mentions the dinner parties that Willey hosted with her husband, Georges Badoux. My wife and I had the privilege and good fortune to attend one, along with another couple. This would have been 2003, maybe 2004. Badoux isn’t just a great cook, he’s an actual chef. I don’t recall what we ate, but I do remember loving it. The third couple was Rod Dreher and his wife, Julie. Dreher was on the editorial board then. He told ghost stories from his Louisiana upbringing. All of which I mention because it makes me seem important, but also because I want to establish that I did not over-serve myself and break anything at Willey’s house. She and I had a cordial relationship.
Then the Tod Robberson thing happened. As I said, under Willey’s direction, the writing from the editorial board — for the most part — improved. Robberson’s work was the stand-out exception. In 2012, he wrote something so dunderheaded that I said its publication probably made the Pulitzer committee want a mulligan on the prize he’d earlier been awarded. You can read my post. Was it sophomoric and over the top? Of course it was. Should I have written such an ad hominem attack? No. But I still stand by it. Robberson’s assertion — that the golf course in the Trinity Forest would spur development because, unlike a football stadium, a golf course fosters the sort of contemplative mindset that leads to development deals — was one of the looniest things I’ve ever read in the Dallas Morning News.
Wilson says in his memo, “[Willey is] able to maintain good professional relationships even when people disagree with our editorials …” I will wear it as a badge of honor, then, that my words about Robberson were so powerful and so offensive that they ended whatever relationship Willey and I had. Not long after I’d written that post, I ran into Willey at a holiday party. I approached her and said hello. She quickly let me know how disappointed she was with my writing, and she told me I should apologize to Robberson. I said it was Robberson who should apologize for writing something so absurd. Our conversation ended abruptly. I’ve run into Willey a handful of times since, and each encounter has been chilly. (For the record, here’s what Willey wrote about the whole affair.)
Finally, after saying in his memo that he’s launching a national search for Willey’s replacement (does anyone ever announce that they are launching a regional search?), Wilson writes, “I look forward to hearing your ideas and expressions of interest.” Since he asked: our city columnist, Eric Celeste, has previously expressed interest in working on the DMN editorial board. As he joked on Twitter earlier today, Willey has turned him down for a job three times — proof of her capabilities and good judgment that Wilson somehow managed to overlook in his memo. Anyway, I express interest in seeing Eric apply for the job.
Sometimes there’s just no way to ease into a lede: After 15 years as vice president and editorial page editor of The Dallas Morning News, Keven Ann Willey is retiring at the end of the year. Her immediate plan is to explore America with her husband.
It’s difficult to find the right tone about an announcement that is so joyful for her but so sad for us. So forgive me if I start by indulging my self-pity and reminding you of what we have in Keven and what we’ll be losing.
I’ll just say it: She’s the best editorial page editor in America. Keven’s job is to study the issues our readers care about and give our institutional opinion on them, and she and her staff do so with exceptional skill and care. She understands Dallas’ challenges as well or better than anyone in town. Name an issue and she can give you chapter and verse, from the future of Fair Park to public education to the 30 years’ war known as the Trinity River Toll Road project.
The 10-year editorial series “Bridging the North-South Gap,” about persistent inequities in our city, has been one of the most notable examples of her vision. In 2010, three Dallas Morning News editorial writers were honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing for their work on the series.
Keven is not a native Texan (she grew up in Tucson), but it didn’t take her long to forge deep ties here. She knows the city’s bigwigs, having met with them at The News, interviewed them at public forums and seen them at hundreds of events over the years. She has also hosted many of them in what may be the best restaurant in town — her home on Canton Street, which she and chef/husband Georges Badoux have turned into a haven of culinary and intellectual delights. By reaching out in all of these ways, she’s able to maintain good professional relationships even when people disagree with our editorials — which is often.
Keven’s qualities as a leader are easy to see, but one gets special insight from her Editorial Monthly Report, which she writes for me, Jim and others. Organized around what she calls “Our Five Principles of Good Commentary Pages,” the report is our editorial page editor in a nutshell: conscientious, thoughtful, thorough, fair.
It lists every editorial written on the year’s Areas of Emphases (this year, they’re Bridging the North-South Gap, early childhood education and the working poor), names each person the editorial board met with, documents board members’ public appearances and gives metrics on audience engagement and growth.
The report even catalogs the number of op-ed columns written by liberals, conservatives, women and minorities, Keven’s way of ensuring we give readers a range of views.
Keven is a leader in our industry, having served on numerous organizations supporting journalism and the First Amendment. Earlier this year, she completed her nine-year term on the Pulitzer Prize board, culminating in a year as co-chair, which involved reading a lot of journalism and books and sitting at a dinner table with Lin-Manuel Miranda.
We’ll miss what she does, but mostly we’ll miss who she is. Keven is a kind, funny, generous colleague and a friend and mentor to many at The News.
When she is done here, she and Georges plan to hit the road and tour the outer edges of the country, from the Rio Grande to the California coast to the Canadian border. She has expressed interest in filing dispatches and I hope she follows through. In the meantime, I’m embarking on a national search for a successor. I look forward to hearing your ideas and expressions of interest.
We’ll have a proper celebration for Keven when the time comes. For now, please join me in wishing her well.