Friday, May 11, 2007

Beaumont Enterprise (Hearst) replaces publisher

Two months ago the owners of the Beaumont Enterprise pushed the man who had been its president and publisher for nearly twenty years -- a man I worked directly for in my first corporate career -- into involuntary retirement.

(This post is going to be more than a little "inside baseball", so if you're looking for one of my usual amusing or curmudgeonly pieces, this won't be it.)

Let me set up the history: Upon graduating from Lamar University with a degree in management, I went to work for the Enterprise in 1981 as a retail advertising account executive. I called on a cross-section of Beaumont's retail establishments -- tire stores, restaurants, liquor stores, dress shops and so on -- for the purpose of their ad placement in the newspaper. I thought it was the best job in the world. I got to use both sides of my brain all day long: salesman, artist, business consultant, budget writer, creative writer, and so on. The newspaper was owned by the publications subsidiary of the Jefferson-Pilot insurance company, and the publisher at the time was a rather non-descript man named Gene Cornwell (there is a chronology of Enterprise publishers from the newspaper's inception here -- reg. req.) He was soon replaced by Harold Martin, the head of Jeff-Pilot Publications, which sold the Enterprise to Hearst in 1984. Upon the ownership change, George Irish -- who is now the senior executive for Hearst Newspapers in New York -- became the publisher of the Enterprise as well as the group publisher of Hearst papers in Laredo, Midland, and Plainview. It was Irish who came to me in 1986 and asked me to go to Plainview and become the advertising director, in line to succeed the Daily Herald's publisher, a 64-year-old who had just had five bypasses.

So I did, but not before I married my beautiful wife of now 20+ years. Irish and Aubrey Webb, the general manager of the Enterprise -- he had been the advertising director before Hearst's purchase and was my immediate superior through the mid-Eighties -- both came to our wedding.

When Irish went to San Antonio and became the publisher of the Light, Webb succeeded him as publisher of the Enterprise, in 1988. Both men were in their early forties.

These two pretty much set the stage for both my rise as a Hearst newspaper executive as well as the fall. I left Plainview for Midland and a job as the national advertising manager of the Reporter-Telegram in 1988 after telling Irish I couldn't take it in Plainview any longer, both the town and the man I worked for. He plucked the ad director out of Midland to be Plainview's top dog, but passed me over for the seat that was vacated. I finally left the newspaper game for good in 1992; Irish's Hearst career continued to flourish.

Irish's history as corporate hatchetman has been well-documented: when Hearst announced it would buy its larger cross-town rival San Antonio Express-News, late in 1992, they also declared that they would kill the Light if no buyer was found. Three months later, as its now-suddenly-final edition was rolling off the presses, George Irish jumped up on a desk in the newsroom and told the Light employees: "You are released."

Irish left for New York and most of the Light's employees headed for the unemployment line. He -- perhaps I should rightly say Frank Bennack, now-former president of Hearst and himself a former San Antonio Light publisher -- continued this method of eliminating jobs in San Francisco in 1999 (Hearst sold the Examiner and bought the Chronicle) and tried it again most recently in Seattle but the Blethen family, owners of the Seattle Times, the paper in joint operating agreement with Hearst's Post-Intelligencer, thwarted them.

The federal judge in California who got involved as the San Francisco newspaper negotiations commenced, and then devolved, put both Bennack and Irish under oath and later declared that he found their testimony "simply not credible". A good reason why is that Irish's sworn testimony contradicted his own hand-written notes, which were displayed on an overhead projector in court.

After this embarrassment, Irish was promoted to senior vice president of the Hearst Corporation.

Back in Beaumont, Webb promptly went to sleep at the switch for the next couple of decades. The Enterprise, which in 1981 had a Sunday circulation of nearly 115,000, started a slow downward spiral similar to all US newspapers but particularly those classified in the industry as "community" papers (under 100,000 circulation). Hurricane Rita nearly finished off the newspaper in 2005, sending its staff fleeing for several weeks. The paper couldn't put out a print copy for ten days and didn't have enough circulators to deliver the paper for weeks and weeks after that. Prior to Rita the newspaper was at 70,000 copies on Sunday; currently it stands at just under 59,000. Part of this decline has been exacerbated by the flourishing of two weeklies in the market, both owned by wealthy attorneys and engaged in a pitched battle for readers and advertisers themselves.

The numbers -- ad revenue must be suffering mightily as a result of the circulation decline and the two lower-priced competitors -- finally forced Irish to cashier his old buddy Webb. "Publisher emeritus" is what the company does when they don't have the courage to just fire someone.

The new publisher of the Beaumont paper has his own rather checkered history of legal issues regarding circulation. Here's an explanation of what was going on that got the Mississippi state attorney general's attention.

I'll probably keep up with what the old guys I used to work with in the paper business are up to, but I'll try not to bore you any more with it.

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