Tell us briefly about your background, education, work in the newspaper publishing industry, and ascent to the position of president/publisher of the Journal Star.
I’m a local boy, born and raised in Peoria. I went to Peoria High School and then went to college at the University of Arizona. The Vietnam War was going on when I got my B.A. degree in 1967. I got my 1-A notice, was drafted, and served in Uncle Sam’s army for a couple of years. When I came back, I went to law school for a short period of time. I returned to Peoria and went to work for a subsidiary of Fleming Potter called Fast Printing. I then met my future wife who happens to be our chairman’s daughter; so I married the boss’ daughter. My father-in-law and I had discussions about the newspaper business. I decided on the newspaper business and went to work at the Quad Cities Times in Davenport, Iowa. I worked there for a couple of years, training in every department. Then I came to the Journal Star and had several years of further training, including the ad department and the newsroom, after which I was made systems manager. At that time, Frank Green was vice president/general manager and I was appointed assistant general manager, since he was getting close to retirement. He began turning a department at a time over to me until he finally turned them all over to me and retired. From vice president/general manager I became vice president/publisher and, a few years ago, president/publisher.
What are some of the unique business problems encountered in running a newspaper?
Probably the one that is most unique to newspapers is the constant tug-of-war between readers/subscribers and advertisers. We are limited and have budgets like everybody else. As a consequence of the budgets, we have space constraints; the paper can only be so big. We can’t run 100 pages everyday because we couldn’t afford to do that; the paper would cost $5 a day. The newsroom always wants more space and there isn’t enough money to justify more. Balancing the needs of advertisers and readers is unique to newspaper, as well as some other media like radio. Thankfully, we can expand the paper proportionate to the amount of ads that come in, so the more ads that come in, the more news we can put in. We are also constrained by time; we have deadlines every day. The part of it is that we put out a brand new product every day, and that’s exciting.
Most of our problems these days are marketing-related, but they are opportunities, too. Our advertisers are becoming more and more niche and target-oriented, and we are a mass circulation vehicle. We have had to take a lot of steps, some of them very expensive, to satisfy our advertisers, in order to protect our market. For example, in 1968 we wouldn’t even accept pre-printed inserts, and now they account for about 15-20 percent of our total revenue. The whole mailroom and materials handling operation has ballooned from zero in 1968 to a major portion of our operation. In conjunction with that, some advertisers only want certain zip codes or certain zones that we offer, and we have had to react to that.
The issue of how much national news versus local news to give our readers is always a concern. We made a considered judgment a few years ago that our emphasis was going to be local, and I think that’s proper; I think it’s good business.
The evolving technology out there is also a challenge. We have a certain market position here which has the potential of being eroded by virtue of advancing technology. There are some people who believe that the newspaper is going to be obsolete in ten years. I don’t believe that, and we have been hearing that for a long time. Ted Turner stood up at the publisher’s meeting several years ago and said, “You guys are going the way of the buggy whip manufacturers.” That hasn’t happened, and isn’t going to happen near-term, but we have to keep on top of the technology. Some of the larger newspaper operations have experimented with video text. We may be in a position somewhere down the road where you can have a television and printer in your home, hooked up by modem to our computer; we will give you a menu and you can select those portions of the paper that you want. You can call them up and print them out at home. What I have told our people is to keep on top of the technology so that we aren’t left in the lurch, but also to do everything we can to protect our franchise here as an information provider. We obviously are the dominant information provider in this market, and have an information-gathering function that nobody else can do. Regardless of what happens to technology down the road, even if the method by which news is delivered changes, if we protect that information-gathering ability, we will still be in business.
How would you describe the historic positions concerning business and economics taken by the Journal Star?
I wouldn’t say that we have a philosophy of business and economics in our news columns. In the news columns we try to present the news—good, bad or indifferent. We try to be balanced, accurate and fair. Nevertheless, people write the news. I would hope that none of our news people would ever let their personal opinions creep into the news columns, but I suspect that happens in varying degrees at times; there is no perfect objectivity. Corporately, we support economic development in Peoria; I was on the Economic Development Council board. We pay our dues to the Chamber and the EDC; we are good corporate citizens and give a lot of money to charity each year. To the degree that we can support business and industry in Peoria, we do so. We are citizens here and our ultimate success is inextricably entwined with the success of this market. We do what we can to encourage growth and economic viability, but on the other hand, in the new columns, we have to run negative stories because that’s the news. On the editorial page, we tend to take the issues one at a time. I don’t know what you could say that we are pro-business or anti-business on the editorial page. Let’s take the Illinois State Lottery for instance; I suppose some people would try to make the argument that the lottery is good for education because the proceeds are ostensibly going to education. We were opposed to the lottery. So if you are in favor of the lottery, you might say that we are anti-business, but that’s not necessarily the case.
What is the process by which the Journal Star takes an editorial position on an issue which might be controversial?
We do have a history of taking certain positions on certain issues. You want to be somewhat consistent. You don’t want to tell your readers one thing one day and something opposite the next. In handling a new issue, what I do as a publisher is generally stay out of it. I delegate that to the editorial page department, except when I am extremely involved in an issue. Then I may go to Barb (Editorial Page Editor Barbara Mantz Drake), discuss it with her, and tell her that I think we ought to write a certain position. She will either agree or disagree with me or suggest that we modify it in some way. We discuss it and then she writes it. Most of the time she and her people address these issues when I’m leaving them alone. They get all their facts so that they know almost as much about the issue as the people directly involved. Depending on the issue, they decide what to do. Sometimes there will be an issue that the editors will be divided about, and they will ask what I think. It’s amazing how many editorials are easy to write because the facts scream out for a certain position. But many of them are so difficult that we will write editorials that say, “Well, you could feel this way or you could feel that way.” It’s like Edgar’s new state budget and all of the cuts he wants to make; we agree with some of the cuts and we disagree with some of them.
In your opinion, what are the most pressing concerns in the local business sector and the local economy? Is the Peoria area well-poised to enter the year 2000 as a viable place for growth and progress?
Obviously right now the most glaring need is to get the Caterpillar-UAW dispute settled, one way or the other. I don’t know whether Caterpillar is going to win or the UAW is going to win or whether they are going to get back together and reach some kind of agreement. This thing has decimated the local economy. It has hurt our national and international image. For Martin Mini to go across the country and try to recruit businesses right now would be virtually impossible. Who wants to come into a labor climate like this? That’s our most pressing problem. I’m concerned about the labor climate in Illinois and I’m concerned about the political climate in Illinois. When you talk to companies about locating in Peoria, they ask, “What about your labor climate?” I can speak from experience because I went on the governor’s trade mission to Japan a few years ago, and we talked with people about our labor climate. It’s no secret why Hiram Walker packed up and moved down to Arkansas. The “right to work” states are growing. The unionized, industrial states are not (or they are growing much more slowly). There’s a very simple explanation for that; it’s a matter of economics. I don’t think that there is any way, given the political climate in Illinois and the strength of the unions, that Illinois will ever become a “right to work” state. I’m not saying that it should, but I do think that we need more union-management cooperation to make this a more attractive place for businesses to locate. Politically, we have as many or more taxing bodies than any state in the union. That’s not good. That doesn’t make for a good business climate.
We have this business of “Chicago versus downstate” in Illinois. Everybody knows the horror stories of Chicago politics, and that’s a stigma that makes it difficult to attract businesses here. As a consequence, lots of things don’t get done. For example, our infrastructure is not so good. Businesses look at that. They look at taxes when they are going to locate somewhere. Illinois is just a tough climate in which to do business—not just Peoria, but Illinois.
Criticisms of the Journal Star, probably common to most newspapers and other media, include: concentrating on negative news stories, taking statements out of context, or giving a one-sided story. How do you deal with such criticisms?
Criticism concerning “negative news” generally comes from the business sector. It was particularly acute in 1982-1984 when Cat was losing almost a billion dollars and was reducing its workforce by half. My response was, “Bring us some good news and we’ll print it.” There wasn’t any good news, and we print the news! We are not a cheerleader for the Chamber of Commerce; we print the news as it happens. I might add that people tend to remember the negative news and react to it more than they do the positive news. I’ve had a hundred phone calls or comments from people in last several years about why we print negative news. I don’t know that I’ve had one phone call from anyone to say, “Gee whiz, thank you for printing all those pages and pictures of the Sterling Merit Award winners!” The fact is that we do print a lot of positive new but people don’t tend to react to it as strongly as they do to negative news. We don’t control what happens out there. If Caterpillar is going to lay off ten thousand people, we’re not going to bury that somewhere inside the paper; that’s front-page news and we’re going to print it.
I don’t think that we take statements out of context very often. We do edit our stories, and we try not to take things out of context, but we are limited by space and time. You ought to see our newsroom at deadline time; it’s harried! Sure it happens, but we try to be very, very careful not to let it happen. When you process as much copy as we do in a year’s time, you are going to have some statements that are taken out of context.
We try to avoid one-sided stories, and we’re not always successful. One of the problems we have is when we are up against a deadline. We may have a story with two sides, and we try to reach the other side but can’t; yet the story is compelling enough that we need to go ahead and run it because it is news. We will say that we tried to reach other side but couldn’t. There is recourse in such cases; individuals can call us and we can update the story, or they can write a letter to the editor, which is one of our major ways of dealing with criticism. People can write to the Forum; we print criticism all of the time, and don’t mind doing it. We are accessible. We can be called. For the last year or so, we have been running my name, the chairman’s name and the editors’ names at the top of the editorial page. That’s intentional, by the way. For years, I think that there has been a perception in the community that we sit up here in our ivory tower and pontificate over the community. I don’t believe that’s true, but we are taking steps to get rid of that perception. We’re trying to get more involved in the community. Many more of the people who work for me are now serving on boards and becoming involved in the community. We’re part of this town and we want to be accessible.
What conflicts arise between editorial policy and advertising, and how does the paper deal with such conflicts?
We deal with this problem all of the time. It’s at least a weekly, and often a daily occurrence. We deal with each conflict individually. There is no overriding policy that says we will treat our advertisers nicer than we will treat our readers. It depends on the conflict, and we are generally able to work them out. Some of them we can’t work out. One of the things you have to understand, when you do what we do for a living, is that every day you make some people mad—it’s inevitable. Hopefully, months later you will make them happy with some other article, and it will all come out in the wash.
Some of the conflicts are tough. Let me give you an example. We ran a “Super-saver” column a number of months ago with an 800 number that you could call if you wanted to buy some discount wallpaper out of town. Now, that is a reader service. If you’re a family about to wallpaper three or four rooms in your house and you want cheap wallpaper and don’t mind giving up the convenience and selection of local service, you might want to call an 800 number. That’s a service that we provided to our readers. Well, you can understand how the people who market the products locally and have to compete with those 800 numbers would be upset, and they advertise with us and spend a lot of money with us. That’s a classic kind of conflict that we run into. The way I handled it was not to tell our newsroom not to run any more 800 numbers, to protect our local advertisers, but to just be sensitive to it and take it one issue at a time: “If it comes up again, let’s discuss it; let’s sensitize ourselves to the issue.” You have to try to be reasonable and somewhat objective on each issue.
Can you relate a time when you felt that the newspaper did an exceptional job on a story or made a significant positive difference on an issue through an editorial stance?
I think there are three things that we have done that I’ve been most proud of. Years ago we were instrumental in an ongoing campaign with Patrick Quinn to get the state legislature reduced by a third. The Journal Star probably had more to do with the success of that than anyone else in the state. Chuck Dancey was our editor at that time, and when the campaign was all over, he developed a map showing the voting patterns, and it was like Peoria was the epicenter, with the highest number of votes in favor of reducing the legislature. The further away you got from Peoria, the less the pluralities were. The job got done. Now, I’m not sure that it’s had any real positive effect; we thought it would at the time. We thought that the number of bills being introduced might be related to the number of people there to introduce the bills, but I think there are probably just as many bills being introduced now as there was then. Whether it’s been a real benefit or not is difficult to measure—maybe impossible. It sure did anger a lot of politicians.
A series we did in the mid-eighties when Cat was going through so many problems called “Caterpillar in Crossfire” was one of the finest things we have ever done. People in town were getting laid off permanently; Caterpillar was losing money; it was a terrible situation. Many, many people didn’t understand why all of this was happening. So we sent a reporter all over the world to examine this situation and ended up producing a tabloid, which was as fine a piece of work as we’ve ever done to inform our readers of a very critical situation. At that time, not many people understood how the dollar-yen relationship affected Caterpillar’s business; we explained that. It was an excellent piece of work.
More recently, we did a section, with a lot of color pictures, on the Peoria Housing Authority. It was also excellent. What I’m most proud of is our ongoing commitment to produce fair, objective, balanced, comprehensive news product for this market. I tend to get the most criticism from natives, people I grew up with, who have lived here all their lives. One of the reasons is that they don’t have any basis for comparison. I tend to get the most compliments from people who have moved away from Peoria to other places and have come back here. They tell me, “We didn’t realize how good we had it in Peoria.” I take those kinds of compliments to heart because they do have some basis for comparison.
What does the future of newspaper look like from your vantage point? What trends do you anticipate?
We have to continue to adapt to the changing needs of our advertisers. Our advertisers want to target their audiences and we have to adapt to that. Advertisers continue to demand more bang for their advertising buck. We will continue to make changes to adapt to their changing needs. We need to continue to make changes to adapt to our readers’ needs. Fifteen years ago, when someone called and canceled the paper, it would generally be because of price or poor delivery service. Now, most of the people who call us to cancel say they don’t have time to read the paper. So what we’ve done is taken measures to adapt our product to make it easier to read. If you held up today’s product against our 1972 product, it would be like day and night. Now we have color, digests, summaries and that sort of thing. All of these things are designed so that if you only have fifteen minutes in the morning to read the paper, you can thumb through it very rapidly and at least get the highlights. People have so many demands on their time these days. Surveys show that people used to spend 40-45 minutes a day with the paper; that’s now down to between 20-30 minutes. We have to continue to adapt.
Is there any other significant message concerning the Peoria Journal Star of which you want people to be aware?
We are 82-percent employee-owned. Our ESOP program was designed for the employees to ultimately own 100 percent of the enterprise. I would hope that people in this market will understand how beneficial it is for them to have their paper locally owned and managed. The shareholders here could have called Gannett or Knight-Ridder or one of the large newspaper chains and sold out lock, stock and barrel, pocketed the money and been done with it. Because of their feeling for the community and the employees, they chose to implement the ESOP program. The effect of that is a better product for Peorians. It really is. I’ve seen what has happened to papers where chains have come in and bought the paper. The first place they cut is in the newsroom, and they cut the news space. Gannett, for instance, will cut in the newsroom, cut news space and then start plugging in wire copy from Gannett news service, rather than having a staff of 90-plus people like we have covering local happenings. You end up just getting wire service. Having said that, there are some papers that Gannett has purchased that they have improved. But it is of benefit to our readers that this paper is locally owned and will remain locally owned. We all care; we have a stake in Peoria. IBI