Mentors 3: Bosses with memorable lessons

James Breiner
5 min readNov 8, 2023

Keep expectations high, build credibility and trust

You’re reading the My News Biz blog. My goal is to help digital media entrepreneurs find viable business models. This is the third of a series about mentors -whether friends, family, coaches, guides, or teachers — and how we can be good mentors to others. With rapid change in the digital world, we need to be lifelong learners and teachers.

Ray Shaw was the boss at American City Business Journals where I worked for 18 years. I still hear his voice in my head, asking pointed questions and insisting that I give evidence to justify opinions.

Ray Shaw came to Columbus in 1993, where I was editor of the business weekly, to give me an award for editorial excellence. He later promoted me to a publisher position.

High expectations. Ray expected his publishers — there were 40 of us — to know everything that was going on at our papers. I was publisher at the Baltimore Business Journal. At month end, you might get a call from Ray as he went over your summary of significant events, employee moves, and the paper’s financial results. He asked pointed questions.

  • “I’m looking at your bad-debt ratio in the finance report: Do you know what it is?”
  • “Do you know what your salespeople are doing?”
  • “How many sales calls have you gone on in the past week?”
  • “Why is your subscription renewal rate falling?”
  • Or the always scary comment, “I don’t like what I’m hearing.”

A demanding teacher. He was chairman of our company until his death at 75 in 2009. Before he took over our chain of newspapers, he was a reporter and editor at the Wall Street Journal, and later president and COO of its parent, Dow Jones & Co.

He might not have described himself as a mentor. That might have sounded too squishy for him. But he was a great mentor when you got behind his gruff exterior. He was like a demanding teacher or coach. He paid you the compliment of always expecting your best. You accomplished more than you might have thought possible.

The best advice he gave me when he promoted me to publisher was, “Ask a lot of questions.” In other words, use your journalistic instincts to identify opportunities and problem areas, and take action.

Develop your people

I struggled at first because I overanalyzed things and put off making hard decisions about personnel. “Why are you tolerating that behavior?” he asked me once when it was clear I needed to replace someone.

Despite his hard exterior, he believed the collective talent and experience of our people was our most valuable asset. He invested heavily in identifying and developing talent.

During economic downturns, he urged publishers to avoid layoffs and make cuts elsewhere. He felt by keeping staff intact, we would be better positioned than our competitors to capitalize when the economy turned around. He was right about that.

A network of peers

For those unfamiliar with the organizational charts of newspapers, the titles of “editor” and “publisher” can seem hazy. Basically the person who is the editor or editor-in-chief runs the news-gathering operation. The publisher is responsible for the business side — financial results, ad sales, subscription sales, marketing, production, distribution, and administration.

For someone like me, who had never taken a business course, suddenly having responsibility for advertising sales results was a bit scary. My colleague at the Washington newspaper, Alex Orfinger, gave me a valuable piece of advice: “Don’t try to be a salesperson, Jim. You’re not comfortable doing it. You’re not good at it.”

Ask ‘how’s business’. Alex recommended that I call on the CEOs of local businesses and use my journalistic persona to be the business expert: ask them how their business was going, answer their questions about business trends, and show that our newspaper offered lots of resources to help them grow their business.

Inevitably, these CEOs would ask me how they could market themselves better. “Well, let me put you in touch with our marketing director. And if you have news about your company, our editor is the person to contact.” No promises, no sales spiel. It got results.

Rob Fisher was another of my mentors at American City Business Journals. He was senior vice president and supervised a large group of publishers. He had been an editor and then a publisher in the chain. He knew the business inside out.

Rob supervised the process of budgeting for revenues and expenses. At one point, when my results were so bad that they captured the attention of Ray Shaw, Rob sat me down and helped me map out a road to recovery.

It took more than a year. He showed me how to dig deep into the operations of each department to understand what drove the key results. He helped me work through some key personnel moves. He showed me how to run a businesss, not just a newsroom. This served me well years later in challenging overseas consulting assignments. When faced with a crisis, I would often ask myself, What would Rob say?

Ethics and trust

Actually, my first mentor at American City Business Journals was Carole Williams, who was publisher of Business First of Columbus. She hired me to be the editor.

I came from the daily paper, where an issue had been some mistrust between the publisher and the newsroom. I decided that Carole should get no surprises; I would keep her informed of big stories we were working on while still protecting our sources.

Our business journalism was aggressive. We did an investigative piece on how a major bank was working with state officials to move hundreds of state employees to a vacant office building some 50 miles away. It so happened that this would have rescued the bank from a bad loan. The chairman of the chamber of commerce, who should have opposed the move, was on the bank’s board and thus had a conflict of interest.

I had let Carole know the story was coming. She knew it would be controversial. All she wanted from me was assurance that our sources were solid and trustworthy. The published story caused an uproar at the bank, which was our biggest advertiser. They pulled all their ads. And of course this upset our own sales staff.

Carole’s approach to all this was to say that in the short term, we would suffer some, but we had many other advertisers. If we had pulled our punches on the story, word would have gotten around. It would have hurt our most important asset, our credibility.

Final thoughts. For media managers and their employees, there are several takeaways:

  • An organization prospers when it focuses on developing its people. A teaching-training organization develops a loyal, productive team that helps the organization grow.
  • Astute managers will focus on the strengths of their people and position them to make the most of their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.
  • Trust and credibility have economic as well as ethical value. They breed long-term customer loyalty.
  • Keep it simple. Focus on the basics.

I know, I know. All this stuff is in all the self-help books. I hope these stories have helped make those principles come alive.

Previously: Mentors 1: Guides who pointed the way

Mentors 2: On teachers and being a great one

Coming soon. Mentors 4. Giving people opportunities

Originally published at https://jamesbreiner.substack.com.

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James Breiner

Helping digital media entrepreneurs produce trustworthy journalism. English-Spanish. ICFJ, Poynter, DW Akademie, SembraMedia https://jamesbreiner.substack.com/