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Corporate America, take heed: Publishers should be local



The corporate suits whisked through the newsroom and into the publisher's office.

A visit wasn't scheduled, so what were they doing in Oklahoma? Something was up. Nothing good ever came from a surprise corporate visit.

A few minutes later, the phone rang in my office. The publisher wanted to see me. I panicked, and my palms broke into a sweat. "What do they want with me?"

"Have a seat," my boss said as I shuffled through her door. I scrunched down in one of her plush chairs.

"You know blah, blah, blah, the regional president," the publisher said.

"Yes, hello," I mumbled.

The guy scared me. He made me think of a Mafia don. I squirmed and summoned the courage to make eye contact with him.

"Jack," he said, "I want you to meet your new publisher."

My mouth dropped open as he introduced the man who had just taken my boss's job. That morning, she was the publisher. That afternoon, she wasn't. The regional president said my boss had decided to take early retirement and had resigned.

Two weeks ago, the publisher of The Norman Transcript, David Stringer, left the job. His abrupt exit demonstrated just how quickly and unexpectedly the status quo could turn upside down. One morning, he was publisher. That afternoon, he wasn't.

I don't know why Stringer left. According to the suits at Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., The Transcript's parent company, he resigned. It's really not my business, except that as a reader of that newspaper I care about the direction its management takes.

Four of the five publishers during my 20-year newspaper tenure in Muskogee were from out of state, hand-picked for Eastern Oklahoma readers by media moguls from the East Coast. The Norman situation reminded me of how important it is for people who know the local culture to run the local newspaper.

Stringer knew Oklahoma. The University of Oklahoma graduate served as publisher in Norman for 13 years.

Corporate America " at least in the news business " doesn't live in Oklahoma. But it does own a hefty percentage of our daily newspapers, including those in Edmond, Stillwater, Pauls Valley, Ada, Shawnee, Ardmore, Duncan, Durant, Enid, Muskogee and Miami, Okla. Aside from The Oklahoman and Tulsa World, The Lawton Constitution is the only daily of any size that isn't owned by an out-of-state corporation.

Unfortunately for community newspapers, Corporate America's sights aren't focused on the public good.

CNHI, which owns 14 of our dailies, has a responsibility in Norman to provide local perspective and local leadership with its management choice.

I value a newspaper's leadership role in the community. Too many corporate-anointed publishers, plucked out of the chain somewhere for another step up the corporate ladder, give that responsibility short shrift. They're not invested. They don't have the institutional memory and knowledge necessary to provide insightful direction in achieving the public good. They're more interested in the corporate good.

Who CNHI appoints as publisher is important to Norman and to state journalism in general.
Nobody asked me, but The Transcript's executive editor, Andy Rieger, would seem to be a logical choice as Stringer's replacement. Rieger grew up in Norman, graduated with a journalism degree from OU, published a newspaper in Noble and last month was inducted into the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame.

Someone was thinking of the local community and its readers when Stringer was named publisher in May 1997, succeeding the venerable Jim Miller. Here's hoping CNHI thinks "local first" when it selects Stringer's successor.

Willis, a former Muskogee Phoenix managing editor, teaches public affairs reporting at Oklahoma State University.

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