Initial, feeble efforts
to figure out the new boss
By BRAD WARTHEN
EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR
OK, I’M GOING to withdraw from the multidirectional gossip matrix for as long as it takes to write a column — or until one of my calls to Wichita gets returned.
As you probably know by now, I’m about to lose a good boss, and get a new one who I think is a good guy, but only time will tell. (Wait. You don’t think he’ll read this, do you?)
Ann Caulkins, president and publisher of The State, is leaving at the end of the year to run The Charlotte Observer. Hence the call I received a while ago from an editorial type in Charlotte asking what they should expect.
Meanwhile, Lou Heldman, publisher of The Wichita Eagle, is to take her place. Hence my calls to Wichita, where I worked from 1985 until I came home to South Carolina in 1987.
Anyway, I told my caller from Charlotte that they couldn’t do better, from the perspective of editorial. While she is from a business-side background, she’s taken a healthy interest in what we do on these pages — while respecting the consensus process by which we make decisions.
As a publisher overall, she has led the paper surely and ably, and kept the business as a business on a sound, profitable course. (At least I think she has. I’m not good at reading spreadsheets.)
She has been more involved in the community than any publisher I’ve ever known. I know she will be missed by folks outside our walls as much as by those of us here at the paper.
Besides, she gave me a promotion. You can’t beat that.
Now, on to the new guy.
I first met Lou Heldman in 1989. He spent that summer at The State directing what was called the “25-43 Project,” or less formally, the “Boomer project.” It was a Knight Ridder effort to find ways to attract younger readers to newspapers. Yes, baby boomers were then considered young.
I didn’t get all that involved in the project myself, but I did sit in on one or two of the brain-storming sessions, and found Lou to have a nimble and creative mind, and to be fun to work with. (I mean, on further reflection, you’ve got to assume that he is going to read this, right?)
I had a chance to get somewhat reacquainted with him Monday night at a dinner with some other members of the paper’s senior staff and Knight Ridder Vice President (and former editor at The State) Paula Ellis.
The dinner reinforced my previous impressions. An illustration:
He said that when he first went to Wichita, he kept seeing the paper’s mission statement posted around the building. His mind apparently wandering during meetings (more on that later), he found himself thinking about what he saw as missing from the statement.
He said this is what he would have added:
- “Have fun every day.”
- “Be proud of what we do,” which means he expects the kind of good work of which one has a right to be proud.
- “Make a lot of money for the shareholders.” (Hey, his background might be in news, but he’s a publisher now, so cut him some slack. Besides, in my own tiny way, I am a stockholder.)
He shared these thoughts with others, and someone suggested he had left out one important consideration. He agreed, and added it to his list:
- “Be grateful for it all.”
That’s the way he strikes me so far — as an approachable guy who likes to have fun while definitely getting the job done, and never forgetting to be grateful for life’s blessings.
He also said that he needs somebody pragmatic, focused and straightforward working with him to keep him grounded and on task. First chance I got, I asked Paula if she’d put in a good word for me as one who could help him keep his feet on the ground. She laughed (a little bitterly, I thought). She did, after all, work with me for years down in the newsroom.
But hey, I’m a professional journalist, so I’m not just going to go with my own inadequately informed impressions. To get the real skinny, I called my old friend Richard Crowson, Wichita’s editorial cartoonist. Richard and I go back to about 1974. One of the first cartoons he ever did illustrated an opinion column I wrote for our college paper at Memphis State University. We then worked together for years at The Jackson Sun in Tennessee. After I moved to Kansas, I got him to fly out, plied him with liquor, and he’s been there ever since.
On Tuesday, I abused his trust once again and got him talking freely about what it’s like to work with Lou. I had about half a page of good quotes before I said, “You know this is on the record, right?” This was a total shock, as he had thought we were gossiping. (Not that he’d said anything bad, Lou.)
Once he knew he was going to be quoted, he started saying stuff like, “Lou is extremely personable…. I’ll miss Lou, because I really thought he was great.”
When I read those quotes back to him, he added, “And he’s really kind to animals.”
He did say one or two substantive things. He said that while Lou told the Eagle’s editorial folks when he first arrived that he was politically conservative, that was probably because he had just come from a college town. Richard suggested that he was more of a centrist by “red-state Kansas” standards.
Anyway, I’m running out of room here at the same time I’m running out of stuff I know, or think I know, on this subject. One more thing: Lou’s family is going to stay in Kansas until his kids finish the school year. In the meantime, he’ll need a place to stay. So if you know of “an old-fashioned rooming house with a wi-fi connection,” let me know, and I’ll let him know. That should put me in good with him.