The Tao of Steve Buttry

That feeling when you can’t do anything to help a friend who has done so much to help you.

Steve Buttry

Steve Buttry, my former colleague at Digital First Media, who became my friend in the trenches of that work and in the time since we both have moved on, told me he had cancer almost exactly two years ago. Over dinner at a conference in St. Petersburg with his wife, Mimi, he was upbeat and optimistic. He had a more positive attitude about a coming fight with cancer than I did about – well, pick a stupid, minor life annoyance that pales in comparison.

But that’s Steve. At DFM and in jobs before and since, he was always the guy who, in the face of ridiculous legacy media bureaucracy or entrenched culture, believed there was a big picture way forward. And the guy who got right down to work on the specifics and logistics of moving forward.

Two years ago, I had just quit a job that I loved out of frustration and dismay with the direction our company and the industry were taking, and was preparing to strike out into the unknown. And Steve surprised me, repeatedly. First with an out-of-the-blue blog post complimenting me – an invaluable selling point for someone who was about to look for work in a market with a lot of competition for a shrinking number of top newsroom leadership jobs.

It was the nicest gesture of many nice gestures in the days after I left my job, but Steve didn’t go away. Next he wrote me a recommendation letter for a fellowship that was the most thoughtful, kind, and exaggerated words anyone has used to describe my professional abilities. Then he wrote another. Then he provided half a dozen (or more? because I lost count long ago) references for jobs as I frustratingly made it to the finalist stage – but not beyond – for positions.

In between, Steve would send me listings for jobs that he’d heard about or been approached for himself – the kind of opportunities that aren’t advertised. I kept thinking, how do you have the time – and mental presence – to be thinking about other people like this?

And I also thought, what did I ever do for you? Why are you going out of your way to be so nice to me? Still? And the answer was I hadn’t done anything to deserve it. I was just lucky enough to know a guy who got up every morning and thought about helping other people. And I know that there are dozens – no, probably hundreds – of other people who could tell similar anecdotes about him.

Since that dinner, Steve and Mimi have spent an inhumane percentage of the past two years in hospital rooms. And always-optimistic Steve, in the public blog posts he writes with the philosophy that others who are struggling might benefit from transparency about his experience, is now confronting resignation about a diagnosis that no longer offers much hope.

It sucks. And 2016 sucks. And the many, many people who know Steve and Mimi feel helpless. But we are holding them in the light, and sending love with every thought of them.

Published by mattderienzo

Matt DeRienzo has worked in journalism for more than 25 years as a reporter, editor, publisher, director of news and journalism nonprofit executive director. As vice president of news at Hearst Connecticut, he led a newsroom of more than 175 people, instilling a culture of investigative reporting, and growing audience while launching a paid digital subscription model at six daily newspapers. While there, he oversaw a national investigation into sex abuse at Boys & Girls Clubs that was recently recognized with an Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) national award, as well as the New England First Amendment Coalition’s Michael Donoghue Freedom of Information Award. As the first full-time executive director of LION, a nonprofit supporting local independent online news organizations across the country, he started with an annual budget of $30,000 and helped bring in more than $2 million over three years from funders including the Knight Foundation, Ford Foundation, Democracy Fund, Inasmuch Foundation (Ethics & Excellence in Journalism), and Facebook, while tripling the organization’s membership. As a publisher, he was an early leader in reader and community engagement, launching North America’s first “newsroom café,” which opened a Connecticut daily newspaper’s doors to the public, and which was recognized with the Associated Press Managing Editors’ Innovator of the Year Award. As editor of the New Haven Register, he led a team of more than 100 journalists borrowed from around the country and on his own staff in covering the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School and its aftermath. During his tenure in New Haven, the Register also received the Robert C. McGruder Award for Leadership in Newsroom Diversity from the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Most recently, he has done consulting work for Local Media Association on fundraising from foundations and individual giving in support of local news organizations. He co-managed the Facebook Journalism Project’s recent COVID-19 Relief grant program, which received more than 2,000 applications and is part of $25 million in funding Facebook has earmarked to help local news organizations through this crisis. He was a Sulzberger fellow at Columbia University in 2018, and has taught reporting, editing and multimedia journalism as an adjunct professor at the University of New Haven and Quinnipiac University. His column about the journalism industry has appeared in Editor & Publisher magazine since January 2016. He is a full-time single dad of two who has been active in Northwest Connecticut as a board member of the Susan B. Anthony Project, a domestic and sexual violence support and advocacy, and previously as a longtime United Way board member and two-time annual fund chairman.

8 thoughts on “The Tao of Steve Buttry

  1. Recipe for making the world a better place: We all need a Steve Buttry in our lives and we also need to be a Steve Buttry for others.


  2. Matt, what a wonderful post about Steve – your words are so true and poignant. I wish I had half his strength and courage.


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