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Schueler-isms

Put out by the Sacramento News & Review, the weekly alternative newspaper of California's capital city, suckbee.com is a parody of the area's daily paper, the Sacramento Bee. When the Web site's localized humor isn't downright sophomoric (Bee reporters ridiculed for what they wear, columnists scolded for their arrogance), it's way too inside (Bee managers mocked for using corporate catchphrases, editors accused of selling out). In short, it's a low-budget one-off meant for media junkies surfing in the Sunshine State. Lately, however, the site has been hit by a wave of visitors from the Twin Cities curious about the Sacramento-based media conglomerate, McClatchy Co.--which owns the Bee and this March purchased the Star Tribune.

In the current issue of suckbee, McClatchy President and CEO Gary Pruitt gets stung on the "McTacky Corporate and Acquisitions Page" (for "top-management eyes only"). "Virtual newspaper environments need virtual managers to lead the way," reads the faux news item. "To this end, McTacky has created an undisclosed number of 'Virtual Gary's'--charismatic, profit-seeking men--all programmed to oversee developments at all current and future McTacky locations. Folks, this is where the hype and the hope come together! But be advised. Don't assume the one you're talking to is less apt to cut a deal than the real one."

According to staffers in the Strib's newsroom, Pruitt, who was introduced to the rank and file last November, is a smooth smooth-talker. He's a handsome, 38-year-old master of corporate-speak--a hotshot with fire in his eyes. (Some female employees at the Strib were so taken by their new boss last winter, they asked out loud whether he was married. He is.) Strategically, at least, John Schueler, whom Pruitt hired last week to succeed Joel Kramer as the Strib's new publisher in mid-May, seems to be cut from the same cloth: a Virtual Gary who believes that newspapers can integrate their advertising and editorial departments without casting doubt on their autonomy or damaging their credibility.

"With the Star Tribune, advertisers have the benefit of an incredible marketplace of readers and users," Schueler says by phone from his office in Orange County, California. "The whole idea from a business perspective is to have a newspaper figure out ways to gather a large, well-rounded audience for its advertisers. In order to gather and maintain that audience, I also believe you have to maintain editorial integrity."

At the relatively young age of 48, Schueler is already considered a veteran publishing executive. Currently wrapping up his duties as president and CEO of the Orange County Register, where he has been since 1991, Schueler has built a reputation in marketing, promotion, and Internet strategies by making his indelible mark at papers in Detroit, Atlanta, Miami, and New England. At the Register, for instance, he oversaw the development of electronic commerce on the paper's popular Web site (restaurant listings, classified ads, etc.) and coordinated special sections such as the Register's weekly Golf Extra, which is driven by advertising interests but written by sports-page reporters.

Besides being known as an aggressive visionary by business colleagues and editorial personnel in Orange County, Schueler's also known as one hell of a nice guy. In 1993, the Orange County Business Journal reported that his former colleagues in the Miami Herald's circulation department had dubbed the words fairness, equity, excellence, and integrity "Schueler-isms." Mike Lednovich, director of corporate communications at the OC Register's parent company, Freedom Communications Inc., says tears were shed when people in his office learned their colleague was leaving for Minneapolis. Opines Cathy Taylor, director of editorial pages at the Register, "Folks at the Star Tribune should feel lucky: There's no dark side to John. He's just a really nice guy."

Strib sources, who've been in wait-and-see mode for a year, don't doubt Schueler is, indeed, a nice guy. In fact, they're counting on it. Joe Rigert, chairman of the paper's unit of the Newspaper Guild, says union members were encouraged by what they heard when the new publisher addressed the troops on April 25. "We are pleased to be told that he has a record of dealing positively with union employees, that he will not allow advertisers to influence news judgment and that he will not change the editorial policy of our newspaper," reads a Guild statement written by Rigert.

Despite the good vibrations buzzing back and forth between Minnesota and California, everyone from Rigert to outgoing publisher Kramer to staffers such as investigative reporter Chris Ison acknowledge there's concern in the newsroom about Schueler's lack of editorial experience.

"When a guy doesn't have ink on his hands, you worry," one reporter says.

"There is always going to be a concern," Ison agrees. "But I don't personally know of anything coming from McClatchy that makes me more concerned than I would be anyway. We kind of always have our antennae up. And we certainly do while we start this relationship with the McClatchy chain."  

Adds Rigert: "Yes, the Guild is naturally concerned the new publisher hasn't ever worked as a journalist. But as long as he maintains the positions mentioned in our statement, we'll be perfectly happy."

In response to such concerns, Schueler points to his close working relationship with reporters and editors at the Register. Like Kramer, he will encourage collaborations between departments at the Strib to increase ad revenue. Put simply, advertising and editorial must both be conscious of the bottom line. But, Schueler says, his kind of strategy is nothing new, pointing out that under his leadership salespeople and reporters at the Register consistently worked in concert without compromising their ethics.

"I think this discussion [about advertising eclipsing editorial integrity] is getting ludicrous," he says. "One huge newspaper called the L.A. Times has made such a big deal out of what many, many newspapers do already. There's nothing wrong with collaborating for the betterment of the overall paper. No, it's not easy dealing with advertisers who are trying to influence you. But dagonnit, it really bothers me that one newspaper is making such a big deal out of this."

Veterans in the Strib newsroom will not be encouraged by Schueler's mention of the Los Angeles Times. Under Kramer, according to both Ison and Rigert, there have already been cracks in the wall between advertising and editorial. The L.A. Times, which just underwent a controversial reorganization that resulted in closer links between editorial and business operations, represents a danger zone Rigert's Guild has been working hard to avoid during the better part of Kramer's tenure. Besides naming general managers to coordinate all business-side operations for each editorial section, Times publisher Mark Willes has given section editors responsibility for planning ways to reach goals in readership, revenue, and profits--bean counting that used to be left to the suits in management, not newsies in the trenches. What's more, those editors now have financial incentives to reach those goals.

Still, Kramer, who worked as a hands-on editor at the Strib for nine years before being named publisher in 1992, believes Schueler will not only make a quick study of the newsroom, but will respect the church-state wall over which the Guild keeps watch. "I don't have any concerns about that, because I think the key to being a successful publisher is balancing all the sides of the business," Kramer says, pointing out that he educated himself in the ways of newspaper promotion and advertising. "One thing I think is exciting is that the strategies he pursued at the Orange County Register are very similar to what we've done here. The culture is very similar. The Register is at the core of a wide-ranging information business which has a strong focus on customer service and employee empowerment. I think John has shown he's a good listener and is putting a lot of focus on the stewardship side of the equation, to uphold our principles and learn."

In truth, Schueler is less Virtual Gary than Virtual Joel. In person, Strib staffers said they found their new publisher less of a schmooze than Pruitt, more modest about his accomplishments and aspirations (in other words, no women swooned when he spoke his piece). Schueler does, however, tend to speak in feel-good corporatese when asked what he intends to do after taking the helm. Much like Kramer, whose restructuring strategies and new-age language have been the butt of jokes nationwide, Schueler avoids particulars whenever possible.

"Being a publisher is about strategy, process, and people," he says, echoing the "strategy and philosophy" take Kramer tends to use when describing his role at the paper. "Strategy has a lot to do with articulating what it is the organization is all about. That's a purpose statement. The process is transferring nice words into an action plan--something I call 'getting more miles per hour out of the RPMs.' The third thing is people--having good people in the right places and letting them get the job done."

Over the past decade at the Orange County Register, the "strategy" has been to make the paper's "process" more attuned to "people" in the community. During Schueler's tenure the paper's reputation for divisiveness and rigid libertarianism softened. Jean Pasco, a correspondent at the Los Angeles Times who was a political reporter at the traditionally conservative Register from 1983 to 1997, says she's not sure whether Schueler or Register publisher David Threshie deserves more credit for making the paper reflective of its moderate-to-liberal readership. But she's sure Schueler's working style--getting out and about, tuning in to what readers and advertisers want--had an impact. "John had a lot of contact with the community--nonprofit boards and so forth. So I'm sure he was getting an earful from people in the community who were tired of that wacky, weird libertarian stuff," she says. "While I was there, the paper became renowned for focus groups and reader studies, because management believed the paper is a product. You have to sell it."  

Freedom Inc.'s Lednovich agrees, crediting Schueler with making the Register's editorial page more user-friendly, suggesting alternatives instead of making rigid arguments: "In the past, the editorial page would always be against something. The way that's now changed is that the paper says there are different and better ways to do this. It's no longer attacking things. It's, 'Hey, let's examine this issue, look at the alternative.' If we don't like a tax, we say, 'How 'bout this? How 'bout that?' And it will cite examples."

To the moderate readers of the Register, this has been a welcome change. To others, including Will Swaim, editor of the OC Weekly, Orange County's alternative and a sister paper to City Pages, Schueler has merely muted a once vital mouthpiece. "It's become more of an echo of the community it served than a voice," he says. "In fact, I'd argue the paper has completely lost its nerve; as bland as you can possibly be. In that regard, I guess, he'll be a perfect fit for a paper like the Star Tribune."


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