Why I stayed in newspapers when I was warned to flee.
What I wrote for the staff at the start of my last stint in a dozen years as a publisher.
When I flew to Phoenix the week I became publisher, the first thing people wanted to ask me about was the future. What were my plans? Where were we headed?
To do that, I want to tell you something from the past.
It’s a moment from a decade ago, the moment when I chose to really do this thing — to be a publisher — to do what my mother still thinks is too crazy and stressful, even if she’s really proud.
Because in my first days as a publisher, there was a moment when I was challenged to quit, to walk away. Instead, I decided not to.
I was at a meeting for all the company’s editors and publishers. As the newly minted publisher in Boise, I was full of enthusiasm and idealism. It was months before the recession hit, when we still thought we just had secular challenges to combat, not the seismic cyclical ones that would bring us to our knees — sometimes in prayer.
I was standing with a colleague, also new in her role. With us was another publisher — a legend who had worked his way from being a paperboy for his hometown newspaper to being its publisher. It was a moment to seek wisdom. So I asked him, what advice did he have for the two of us starting out?
He looked me in the eye, drink in his hand, and said, “Get out of this industry while you can. You have a long career ahead of you. Do something else with your talent and your energy.”
This was someone who had spent his whole career as a journalist, a community leader, a businessman helping his hometown navigate decades of change and growth. It was sort of like learning Santa Claus wanted to retire to Vegas and send the elves to job counselors.
And right there, in my new job, I wondered: Should I walk away? Maybe he’s right. Get out before I even start.
Instead, like any journalist would, I asked him a follow-up question: Why? Why would he say this now? Why tell the company’s newest leaders to flee?
I’ll never forget what he told me next.
He made a case that it was going to be challenging, it was going to be different, that it was going to be harder in the next five years than in the previous five decades of his career. He said that whoever stayed would need stamina, grace, humility, bravery, patience and resilience in the face of heartbreak at changes that would have to be made. He said that there would be changes he simply didn’t have the heart to make to a business he’d loved all his life.
Then he took my hand, looked me in the eye, and said, “Think really hard about why you want this. Why you’re here. Don’t do it for the money or the access or the title. You’re young and you’re bright. You have time to do something else.”
Now, if this sounds overly dramatic, believe me that it felt overly dramatic at the time. This man at the end of his career holding my hand in the middle of a cocktail party, with my bug-eyed colleague standing next to me, her drink untouched.
But it made me think. Why was I a publisher now? Why had I left a newsroom, which had been my calling since I was a teen? And why do something I didn’t really know how to do when I was confident doing what I’d known for so long?
Though we hadn’t yet realized how difficult the business would get, I knew this retiring publisher wasn’t wrong. It was going to be hard, and different from the way it had been before, sometimes crazy and sometimes heartbreaking.
And that’s when I realized he had answered my question. Why was I a publisher now? For the same reason I’d gotten into the business in the first place: It was going to be all those things. And it was going to be really important.
I understood that he was saying it wasn’t for the faint of heart, and that he cared so much about the business that he wanted those in it to understand what they were up against. That I would need to surround myself with people who wanted the same thing.
So, I looked him in the eye, kissed him on the cheek, and chose to stay.
The bug-eyed colleague who had stood silently by during our whole exchange? She found a job outside the industry less than six months later.
In the years that followed, I have thought of that moment again and again.
I thought of that moment when I told my production colleagues I had decided to partner with a smaller competitor to outsource printing, a move that was unheard of then. I knew that it was the right thing to help stabilize our business and that of another local newspaper. And that it would begin to transform us in unprecedented and necessary ways. And that it was hard.
I thought of that moment when I stood in the Boise newsroom and learned that our scrappy little team was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist with the New York Times and The Washington Post for shining a light on a powerful U.S. senator who had lied and threatened the newspaper and tried to use his position to keep secret his arrest for soliciting sex in a men’s room.
I’ve thought of that moment as the hundreds of the people I’ve had the privilege to be on this journey with have had times of trial and triumph, written tough stories, built big partnerships, created amazing innovations, saved longtime customers, conceived creative solutions, flat-out figured stuff out, and made a difference every single day.
I’ve thought about it and said thank you over and over to that long-retired publisher. He made me pause, and think hard about his advice.
So when people ask me about the future — what are my plans? Where are we headed? I think about that moment. Because that’s what I want for us.
To be transparent about our challenges, to be honest about our hard times, to understand our strengths, and to celebrate our successes.
To recognize that this thing we do is hard, and different from the way it was before, and sometimes crazy and sometimes heartbreaking. And that we do it for all those reasons, and because it’s important.
We’ll do it together, because it is too wonderful to do alone. That we will surround ourselves with others who want to do it with heart, bravery, humility, urgency and even patience.
We do it because we love it — and together we will innovate, create, transform and rise.
Mi-Ai Parrish is the Sue Clark-Johnson Professor in Media Innovation and Leadership at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She’s the CEO and President of MAP Strategies Group, a change engineering enterprise that helps industries in disruption navigate positive transformation.