Newspaper person of the year: Jim Morgan

Jim Morgan, of Colorado Mountain News Media, poses for a photo with Bob Brown, president and COO of Swift Communications, at the 2015 Colorado Press Association Annual Convention. 

This issue, “10 Questions” checked in with Jim Morgan, general manager of Colorado Mountain News Media for Swift Communications.

An editor, publisher and newspaper executive for 37 years, he currently oversees companies that publish 12 newspapers and seven glossy magazines, serving an area stretching from Grand Junction through the Vail Valley and to the Continental Divide in Summit and Grand counties.

Among CMNM’s award-winning publications are the Vail Daily, The Aspen Times and the Sky-Hi News.

You started out while still in high school as a sports reporter and photographer in Woodstock, Virginia, graduated in 1977 from James Madison University, and attended grad school at the Centre for Journalism Studies at the University of Wales as a Rotary Foundation International Scholar. How did each of those experiences influence your career path?

Working at my hometown newspaper in Woodstock and at the affiliated daily newspaper in nearby Harrisonburg, Virginia, where James Madison is located, provided the first (and very necessary) lessons relative to the role a newspaper plays in serving its community as well as the reality that it is impossible to satisfy everyone all of the time.

I enjoyed sports writing, but I realized early on that managing a newsroom and eventually publishing a newspaper held far greater attraction.

I will always be in debt to Rotary, whose international scholar program allowed me the chance to not just further my education but to demonstrate that we are all part of a much larger, very interrelated world. I am still in contact with individuals I met in Wales in 1981.

Somewhat serendipitous given the free-distribution business model we employ at CMNM was my choice of study while in graduate school 34 years ago. My thesis was “The Rise of Free Newspapers and Their Effect on the Provincial Press in Great Britain.”

While demeaned at the time as “free sheets” by the traditional newspapers in England and Wales, entrepreneurs – most with advertising and sales backgrounds – had recognized local newspapers were vulnerable based on business models that had not changed in the past half century.

They pioneered different distribution methods, aggressive sales programs and a news focus less on institutions and more on people, and especially on where and how people spend their time. In some ways I was seeing the future back in 1980 but didn’t realize it.

You’re deeply rooted in community journalism, having spent 17 years with Boone Newspapers Inc. as editor, publisher, vice president and group manager, and a stint as managing partner of Main Street Newspapers and its seven non-daily newspapers in southwest Virginia. How does the group you’re currently with compare to east coast journalism?

Journalism is journalism regardless of geography and that holds true as well for the business of journalism and media.

Most of the challenges we face in Colorado mirror (other areas): better use of our resources (and in some instances that can be readily interpreted as doing more with less) to engage the audiences that will drive traffic to the businesses that utilize our products to advertise and engage with their customers. (It’s) the challenge of moving from a print-centric existence to one that uses multiple platforms to disseminate news.

I recently had the good fortune to spend time with Penny Abernathy, who this year published “Saving Community Journalism: The Path to Profitability,” … and I very much agree with her that we must shed legacy costs and find new revenue opportunities at the same time we take full advantage of the strength that continues to exist within our traditional newspapers.

At CMNM we have unique markets and a different business model than traditional newspapers but I’m bullish on the future of our business. I think smart people – and there are a lot of very smart people in our industry – will find answers that will ensure our viability for a long time to come. We’re fortunate to continue to see year-over-year top- and bottom-line growth across nearly every segment of our business but especially so in digital, which in part is driving our success in classifieds, in our niche products and magazines, but also in our legacy print daily and non-daily newspapers.

You’ve also won awards for writing: Associate Press Hal Boyle Award for Excellence in Column Writing, and the AP Frank Allen Award for Outstanding Performance in News Writing. How much writing do you do now, and do you wish you had the time to do more?

Love for the written word is what drew me to this profession and I miss it, so yes I wish I had more time for writing or at least writing as a creative endeavor. I miss column writing most as it allowed the widest latitude.

The preponderance of writing I do now is internal and focused on the business, although I’m often writing about content creation and content management. I suspect based on the volume of emails and memos I generate that many of our managers might wish I’d do less.

If nothing else, having been a working journalist ensures greater appreciation for good writers and reporters and we’re blessed at CMNM of having very talented individuals across our newsrooms.

It is writing and reporting –regardless of whether it’s distributed across a print or digital platform – that connects us to our audience and the communities we serve.

As we’ve seen the economy recover the last several years we are now placing a greater emphasis on our newsrooms, where we’re investing in training (for example, in October CMNM sent four individuals, two editors and two reporters to the Online Newspaper Association summit in Chicago) and increased resources for different ways of telling stories.

We just completed our 2015 business planning meetings and with each operation there was much discussion on multi-media storytelling as part of our content strategies for the year ahead.

What are the challenges and rewards of serving such a dynamic area of Colorado as the Vail Valley?

In the newsroom our challenge is that of every news organization – how to provide the best coverage possible in the most engaging way possible with the resources available.

One of our key executives is fond of saying “It will never be 2008 again,” meaning the somewhat easy days prior to the recession won’t be returning and of course he’s right, but that doesn’t mean we cannot continue to do our best work every day in every issue of our newspapers and across our websites.

Our Vail editor Ed Stoner has pioneered our On the Hill and On the Trail multimedia features, which have excellent viewership and terrific engagement and have won national awards. The tools used to create that feature didn’t exist a short time ago.

Lauren Glendenning, who recently took on the role of editor of The Aspen Times, spent much of the past year focusing on long-form journalism and put together series of stories as varied as the high rate of suicide in the mountain region, the marijuana economy, transportation and the I-70 corridor and water law in the west; and at the same time she worked with Summit publisher Matt Sandberg to put together beta testing for a native advertising initiative.

I’m bullish on media and newspapers as a core part. When we do our quarterly sessions for new hires, one of the points I focus upon is that this is the most exciting, albeit challenging, time to be in our industry.

Print is not dead, nor is it dying. The audiences in most of our markets are highly educated, highly engaged and harbor high expectations. In our resort markets there are three very distinct audiences – the local audience, the short-term or vacation visitor, and the second-homeowner; statistically each comprises about 33%.

We recognize that for many it is advertising content that is foremost: the content that tells them where to eat, what event to see, where to rent a mountain bike or skis, or how to spend their day comes less from traditional news stories and more from advertising.

You live in and cover a unique community. What areas of community service or events do you and your newspapers and staff get involved in, and what are the rewards?

I mentioned earlier the quarterly half-day program for employees who have joined us in the previous three months and one of the things we touch upon is our company’s focus on community service.

We talk about our purpose and our role: “With a commitment to integrity, we bring light to truth, excellence to endeavor and strength to community.”

Notwithstanding the independence every newspaper must maintain, we recognize that we’re very much part of the communities we serve and we want our employees to be active in the towns they call home.

Our employees are volunteers; they serve on boards and organizations; they take part in leadership programs and business forums. The newspapers partner with community organizations ranging from civic groups like Rotary to non-profits like Habitat for Humanity and events such as the upcoming 2015 World Ski Championships. In the past 10 years CMNM provided more than $6 million in cash and in-kind sponsorships and donations to local non-profits and community organizations and more than $100,000 in the past five years to educational and community capital drives.

Through the Bessie Minor Swift Foundation we were able to award grants – to organizations that promote literacy, reading and writing skills, as well as programs that focus on the arts, languages and science – of more than $25,000 last year. The reward comes from seeing those investments pay dividends in the community.

Can you rank for us your top three mentors and how they influenced you?

It’s challenging to pick three as there have been many.

Alan Neckowitz was a professor at James Madison, long-since retired, who instilled that a writer must be disciplined if he is to communicate effectively. He was the former city editor of a large metro daily in the Northeast and was very direct and unblemished in how he dealt with his students, which is a kind way of saying he did not mind taking you to task in front of God and everyone else. I once used the phrase “centered around” in a story so he had me come to the front of the class and challenged me to “draw centered around” on the blackboard. Of course you cannot, as something that is centered cannot at the same time be around anything. “Centered on is the correct usage, Mr. Morgan,” he said as I took my seat. I’ve never used that phrase since but I’ve seen and edited it from many a story.

Jim Boone comes to mind next, and I’ll cheat a little and add Dolph Tillotson. Jim is the CEO and chairman of Boone Newspapers and Dolph was the publisher of the Boone-owned newspaper in Natchez, Mississippi, when I was the editor. Both remain friends. Jim continues to head his company and Dolph is now president of Southern Newspapers based in Texas. The lessons Jim taught focused more on the business of newspapers as well as the community role. It was from Jim I learned that often the best way to take two giant steps forward is to first take a small step backward.

Dolph’s advice was more direct and practical, ranging from such gems as “you can say almost anything to anyone so long as you smile and nod your head,” to “when your boss is dead wrong your job is to tell him he’s wrong – but do so very politely” to “laugh often, especially at yourself.”

Bob Brown, Swift’s COO and former general manager of Colorado Mountain News Media, has been a mentor from the first day we met when he interviewed me. His understanding of operations and especially marketing within the realm of newspapers and media is astonishing. And I’d be remiss if I did not acknowledge family, especially my older brother Walt, who has long been both a source of inspiration and, as he’s an older brother, some good bit of frustration, too.

What do you look forward to when you wake up every morning?

The smile on my wife’s face. We’ve been together 39 years and in all that time she has always been the best part of me.

jim morgan

Neat desk, messy desk? What would we see there?

Neat desk … although some of the seemingly organized stacks hide a procrastinating nature when it comes to filing. You’d see photos of family. Photos and framed prints of fish, hunting dogs and upland birds flying.

A lot of books. A couple of quotes tacked to the bulletin board behind my desk, the favorite of which is from Upton Sinclair, which reads: “It is difficult to get someone to understand something when their salary depends upon their not understanding it.” My office actually is ridiculously large but provides plenty of room for impromptu meetings.

If you hadn’t taken the publishing route, what would you have done in life?

When I left for college it was with the intention of being an attorney. Working at the daily newspaper in Harrisonburg was a way to pay for college but ultimately I found the newspaper and the characters, and I truly mean characters, in the newsroom at the News-Record far more interesting and engaging than those with me studying the pre-law curriculum.

To be honest I can’t really imagine doing anything than what I do. Two of my brothers also worked in journalism (one a photographer and one an editor) but over time gravitated to other things – one’s a financial advisor and the other is in education services – and I’ve a brother who’s a family practice physician. Managing a large multi-faceted news organization in a time of fundamental change is exactly what I want to be doing.

Then again, if I won the Powerball I’d probably be convinced to give it up and fish all those rivers I’ve always wanted to but haven’t yet found the time to do so.

What’s the next big thing on your horizon?

I’ve no plans in the near term to change my role with CMNM or Swift. There are ample challenges to keep me busy and focused.

But as I’m in my sixth decade on this earth and recognizing that retirement is much closer than it once was, I spend more time thinking about our company’s future leadership and the transitions that will need to take place in the years ahead. Identifying and recruiting to CMNM and Swift talented individuals who can be our next generation of leaders, coupled with developing the key managers we already have in place, will more than keep me busy.