March 12, 2010

Retiring publisher leaves legacy of leadership by example

— It's difficult contemplating a column that you know your boss doesn't want you to write.

You know he'll pick up the Sunday newspaper and wince. ''Why did she have to do that?'' he'll probably say to his wife, Sandy. He may even make that frowny face that means he's annoyed. He would have preferred less of a spotlight, more of a quiet exit into retirement.

But then you remember an important lesson this same boss taught you several years ago. How you must, with every major decision you make, project yourself into the future and imagine how that decision feels -- one week from today, one month from today, one year from today.

I did that. And the decision not to write about Chuck Cochrane, our publisher and the chief executive officer of Blethen Maine Newspapers, would have left me wishing for the ability to travel back in time. His last day of work here was Wednesday.

I would want to reclaim that special day when I had the opportunity to write about Chuck, to share observations about this man with our readers.

After all, one of Chuck's major mantras was that readers all too often see us as a faceless institution, a monolith that rarely explains why it does the things it does. ''We need to put more of a face on the newspaper,'' he would say.

For a decade, he has been a very important face of this newspaper company.

With his encouragement, I have tried in this column and in public appearances to explain our news decisions, coverage plans and story judgments.

Another classic Chuck mantra: Don't tell people what they want to hear; tell them what the situation is. Explain the reality; don't make excuses or set unrealistic expectations.

''It is what it is,'' he often says, and not always happily.

So when readers asked for more sports in the paper, I explained why we cannot do that. When other readers asked us to eliminate the sports section from the newspaper, I explained why that wasn't possible. And when readers weighed in with criticisms about our recent section changes, reductions in news pages and modifications to our Sunday TV book, I explained why we made the alterations.

This mantra was a bit harder to follow, at least for me. I think most of us want those magical win-win situations, where problems are resolved, presto, and everyone goes away happy.

But that's not life.

And that's why Chuck encouraged me and every manager he mentored to fully explain the business situations we face, with the hope that readers would gain a greater understanding about the environment in which our decisions were made. Those readers still may disagree with the decisions, but at least they could see how we got there.

As I look back on Chuck's last year at the newspaper, I realize there's a significant life lesson to be learned. Throughout 2008, he often told folks this wasn't the way he envisioned his retirement: Leading the effort to sell the newspaper he devoted so much of his time, energy and effort toward improving.

It wasn't supposed to end this way. After years of working with all of us, the plan was to have a strong management team in place, to fortify established ties to the community, to have an aggressive and award-winning newsroom at the ready and to continue The Seattle Times Company's exemplary record of journalistic stewardship and trusted public service.

But then the media transformation hit -- with full force. Nationwide, newspaper revenues declined as advertisers turned more and more to the Web; print readership began to taper off. The major metro newspapers, like The Seattle Times, were hit hard. So were we. The debt load that the Blethen family carried in 1998, when it purchased these Maine newspapers, was easily met then, but not now.

That all led to the family's decision to sell this newspaper and the other Blethen Maine properties.

And it fell to Chuck, the architect who brought so many improvements to the newspapers, who encouraged the news staff to dream big, to make the sale transaction a reality.

It is what it is.

The decision to sell was announced in March and it's been a tough nine months here at the newspaper. People in the public often ask me questions about the sale; its implications are hard to escape.

And yet, all of us have had an amazing role model to observe through this experience. All of us have witnessed Chuck handle this difficult period, a period we all know he would wish away if he could. We have watched him lead under enormous pressure and great uncertainty.

We have studied how he navigates the very public nature of the sale -- all the media coverage, all the speculation, all the gossip, all the rumors. We have seen him keep his confidence, cool and focus -- which has enabled us to keep our emotions in check and stay on task.

It's ironic, but in this final year of leadership Chuck gave us the most important management lesson of all. He taught us, by showing us, how to rise above disappointing life circumstances and maintain poise and enthusiasm for the day at hand.

He taught us to keep faith and hope, even in the darkest of times.

Was this the way he imagined his retirement, thirty-some years ago?

No.

Was this the way he illustrated his tremendous leadership abilities, ''walking the talk'' for all of us to emulate, despite the most formidable of obstacles?

Yes.

And that brings us to the major life lesson embedded in this turmoil. The newspaper sale is but one example of life's infamous curve balls.

We all know what it's like to run head-first into a setback. Despite our best efforts and truest works, things go awry. Plans implode. Regrets follow. The life path we thought we were on takes a sudden turn -- or perhaps disappears all together.

What are we to do? What happens next? Chuck's other mantra here, though never expressed in words, was: Keep a steady hand on the tiller.

Don't panic. Don't overreact. Be patient. Be calm. Become the leader you imagined, the one who faces the crisis, who meets the challenge, who perseveres.

''Hope for the best and plan for the worst,'' he often said.

We have done that. We are ready. We are hopeful.

In terms of the sale, the outcome remains uncertain. Individually, we're trying to keep a steady course, working hard every day to publish the best newspaper and Web site we can for our Maine readers.

Another of Chuck's mantras: ''Your columns are too long.'' So I guess I better end this one sooner rather than later.

Thank you, Chuck, for these past 10 years. And Godspeed to you and your family in this next chapter of life's journey.

Jeannine Guttman is editor and vice president of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. Send e-mail to jguttman@pressherald.com or write to 390 Congress St., Portland, ME 04101.

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