Charlotte Observer reporter Marion Ellis once said about Gil Thelen that he “sees around corners.” He meant that Gil had a strategic instinct about where readers and newspapers were headed and a practical vision for getting there fast and effectively.
Gil is credited as the first editor to bring teambuilding practices and disciplines to an American newsroom in Charlotte in the 1980s. He chaired ASNE’s Change Committee, which pinpointed the reasons newsrooms were losing touch with readers. He next chaired ASNE’s Interactive Media committee, which issued the urgent call for newsrooms to embrace the internet. All that occurred in the mid-1990s. He became known as the “change guy.”
As executive editor of The Tampa Tribune, Gil spearheaded the internationally recognized and pioneering integration of print, television and online newsrooms. Known then as convergence, it has become the norm now under various names in most newsrooms. Gil urged his colleagues to build a newsroom “where journalists can’t wait to come to work to produce a newspaper readers can’t wait to read.” The newspaper, he said, should always be the community’s “candid friend” and a “committed observer” of the community’s priority issues. That marked him as a leading and controversial leader in the public or civic journalism movement, whose practices are now commonplace and accepted as just plain, good journalism.
It’s hard to find someone with a more interesting and colorful career than Gil’s. A graduate of Duke University, he worked in AP’s Washington bureau as a consumer affairs reporter – a good one. So good in fact that the magazine Consumer Reports recruited him. It was a relatively new field, and he was a pioneer in it.
Gil worked for the Chicago Daily News and The Charlotte Observer before working in Myrtle Beach S.C. as the Vice President for news and operations with the Sun News. He then became vice president and executive editor at The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina. Gil next joined The Tampa Tribune where he served as executive editor from 1998 to 2003 and Publisher from 2003 to 2006.
Gil joined the USF faculty in 2007 as the Clendinen Professor of Critical Writing. Among his courses were opinion writing and public affairs reporting. He also served for a time as interim director of the School of Mass Communications at USF. Gil is an inductee to USF’s Journalism Hall of Fame at the School of Mass Communications.
Since 2006, Thelen has also served as executive director of the Florida Society of News Editors. He is credited with bringing high-quality multimedia training to Florida newsrooms.
Gil is one of Florida’s great journalists, having won numerous personal, professional recognitions including two Pulitzer Prize nominations. Also, he was part of the team at the Charlotte Observer that won two Pulitzer Prizes for Public Service. Reid Ashe has this to say about Gil: “I hired Gil as editor while I was the publisher at The Tampa Tribune. He had a vision of a great local newspaper and a deliberate program to create it. He hired outstanding people, coached his staff effectively and inspired them to excellence. “Gil was a great teacher, not only for his staff, but also for me. He taught me that a newsroom, just like any other organization, can set goals and measure progress. Gil had a checklist of about half a dozen things he wanted to accomplish in every edition, and he’d spend five minutes at the start of every planning meeting reviewing how we’d done in the previous edition. “He posted the scores, with illustrative tearsheets, for every staffer to see. As a result, everybody knew what was important and saw how they did or didn’t contribute. “Gil’s newsroom had a unity of purpose that you rarely see. I am very grateful for my years working with Gil. He made it one of the finest experiences in my newspaper career.”
Florida’s candid friend and committed observer – Gil Thelen.