Journalism innovator Steve Buttry dies at 62.


LSU Student Media Director Steve Buttry died yesterday. He was 62.

Characteristically, Steve wrote his own obituary. It appears as the final post on his popular blog, The Buttry Diary.

Dean Jerry Ceppos wrote this tribute to Steve for “Connecting,” a newsletter for Associated Press retirees and friends: 

I’ll call up The Buttry Diary this morning – but I won’t find it.

I know that I’ll call up The Buttry Diary this morning just as I automatically look for POLITICO’s Playbook and CJR’s The Media Today.

I’ll find two of my three daily must-reads. I won’t find The Buttry Diary. The last installment ran Monday. It was Steve Buttry’s obit – 

That’s a real shame because Buttry was one of the few journalists who had the credibility to shove reality down our throats. My lasting memory is of Steve explaining in some forum for the hundredth time why digital is the only way to save journalism – whether it was student journalism or The New York Times. Steve was unyielding-and almost always correct. I have to wonder what our industry would be like if Steve had been CEO of one of the big newspaper companies in the last 25 years. I know one thing: There wouldn’t have been arguments about whether print or digital journalism should get preference in terms of staff numbers, budgets or just the time that everyone spends thinking about how to run a newsroom.

In fact, it was that unassailable logic about digital that led me to hire Steve. I asked him to visit the Manship School at LSU to drive home the importance of change. My memory is that he stood at a white board and created headings for print, TV, perhaps radio, the Internet and maybe one or two others. Then he asked students, many of them editors of the print Daily Reveille, where they got their news. My memory is that most said they get their news from the Internet. No surprise there. But then Steve engaged them in a conversation about the kind of journalism that they enjoy doing. Hands down, the editors said that want to work in print journalism. Then they marched out to a print news meeting. I was sold. I hired Steve as our first Lamar Family Visiting Scholar – a spot for a professional or postdoc to think about mass communication-and then as director of Student Media.

Of course, Steve’s arguments went a lot deeper than the white-board scenario. He encouraged students and the rest of us to develop our ideas about more than simply “the Internet.” Steve was one of the early proponents of social media. He also recognized early that “the Internet” could help with more than just the delivery of journalism. He recognized how easy it is to gather and present information in the digital world, whether through data visualization or software that could sort through data in ways that some of us never could understand. 

Finally, Steve was one of the few proponents of digital journalism who realized that digital could change the very heart of journalism, the ethical demands that readers and practitioners put on our occupation. I chuckled just now when I looked at the Buttry Diary site. The second column after the obituary is from Jan. 25. Headlined “Links and slides on updating journalism ethics,” it is a carefully compiled list of the latest writing about digital journalism and ethics. (Note that the date is Jan. 25. Never before, I believe has Steve gone almost a month without writing a Buttry diary entry.)

So, Steve’s preaching about digital journalism is what many of us will take away from his remarkable career. 

But that may be burying the lede.

In the latest issue of Quill, Steve wrote about how he came to speak publicly about his illness. “I think I was a damn good journalist back in those objective days when ‘Stephen Buttry’ was a byline but not a person we showed the readers. And I won my share of state journalism awards… But beyond a nice paycheck and an occasional attaboy from an editor, I didn’t get much credit for my work,” Steve wrote. “In February, I’m scheduled to receive the Chairman’s Citation from the National Press Foundation, my third award in less than two years from a major journalism organization (three more than I received working in obscurity in that first half of my career.) I don’t think I finally reached some award-winning level of journalistic excellence. But my transparency has helped me contribute more to journalism and to get more credit for those contributions.

“I’ve improved journalism and my life by setting aside that objectivity mask and embracing transparency along with my traditional journalism skills and principles.

“You might consider trying it, too.”

I told Steve recently that his openness just wouldn’t work for me. (I did stand up in front of the San Jose Mercury News newsroom 20 years ago to tell the staff about a one-time medical problem. It was a far cry from telling thousands of blog readers about chemotherapy over a period of weeks – but still was excruciating for me – and for the staff.)

Steve just smiled and said that different techniques work for different people.

Steve’s family has asked that donations be made to the Stephen Buttry Scholarship – by clicking here – or by mail to the LSU Foundation, 3796 Nicholson Dr., Baton Rouge, LA 70802 (write “Stephen Buttry Scholarship Fund” on the memo line).


The Manship School faculty and staff will host a memorial in honor of Steve on Monday, April 3 at 4:30 p.m. in the Holliday Forum. Please join us.