It began in 1988 on a grim October afternoon and ended three decades later, in November 2016:
A once-stellar newspaper group breathed its last.
The first death warrant was delivered at 3:30 p.m. on October 18, 1988, when Richard Buzbee, the learned and articulate publisher of The Hutchinson News, told scores of employees that the Harris family, heirs to a multi-state media group started by the late John P. “Jack” Harris and his brother, Sidney, wanted nothing more to do with the business, Harris Enterprises. They wanted to sell it.
It would take 30 years to make it happen.
Last November 14, it was announced that GateHouse Media would acquire The Hutchinson News, Salina Journal and four sister newspapers (Hays, Garden City, Ottawa and Burlington, Ia.) – small pebbles to the mountainous corporation that is GateHouse, its management culture of control and command over 550 newspapers in 36 states.
Thus, the remnants of a great newspaper group become step-children to a Japanese bank.
(In February Fortress Investment Group, which owns GateHouse Media, had been sold to SoftBank Group Corp. a Japanese bank, for $3.3 billion.)
HISTORY: On that grim October afternoon in 1988, Buzbee told his shocked employees that the family was not “displeased” with their work. “They are disinterested,” he said. “Disinterest and diversification were the motivating factors in their decision to sell.”
The family remained disinterested for decades. (Its principals would eventually leave Salina and Hutchinson.) A tricky clause in the ancestral papers had prevented a sale back then, and the Harris family and its top executives moved, in fits and spasms, to find ways to dump the company. Jack Harris’s dictum, continued after his death in 1969, was that editors of the group’s newspapers and managers of its stations should run them as if they owned them.
But only the family could sell them. Harris Enterprises, a small, proud empire that once held 12 newspapers and 14 radio stations in seven states, was pushed into a painful, prolonged and sometimes embarrassing death spiral. Leadership withered, drained of initiative.
Over time, age and retirement would claim the group’s great editors and venerable executives, while impatience gripped the younger heirs. The radio stations were sold; the newspapers near Los Angeles were tossed. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, three Kansas newspapers – Olathe, Chanute and Parsons – were sold.
It had all begun in 1907 when Ralph Harris bought The Ottawa Herald. Ralph had two sons, John P. (“Jack”, as he was known) and Sidney, who took over The Herald when their father died in 1930. The brothers bought The Hutchinson News in 1933 and Jack became editor and publisher. The Harrises bought part interest in The Salina Journal in 1938 and took complete control in 1949. Radio stations and more papers were added after Sidney’s death in 1955 as the group expanded into other states – Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, California, Texas.
For decades newspapers in the Harris Group (the term “chain” was forbidden) reinforced the founders’ reputation for advocacy, for finding facts and delivering truths in the news columns, and opinion pages to illuminate as well as persuade. The News won a Pulitzer Prize in 1965 for meritorious public service – a long crusade, in news columns and in court, that reinforced the principal of one-man, one-vote and forced reapportionment of the Kansas Legislature in 1966.
The tradition continued under the leadership of lettered, omniscient executives including Peter Macdonald, the Group’s chairman, a president of the American Press Institute; his successor, Lloyd Ballhagen, and editors such as Stuart Awbrey at Hutchinson and Whitley Austin in Salina. Awbrey, Austin and John McCormally, editor of the Hawk-Eye in Burlington, Ia., were Pulitzer Prize jurors, and Austin also had served as chairman of the Kansas Board of Regents; all were charter founders of the International Press Institute. Harris editors were nationally, even globally known.
Once and long ago this was a grand newspaper group led by some of the country’s best newspaper editors. But a painful principle must be recounted in the long decline of this and other family-owned newspaper companies:
Evolution is indifferent to the legacies of great men; their particular, peculiar passions are not woven into chromosomes. We are always changing, moved by the force of curiosity, the temptation in challenge. The love of a business, the drive of special men that moves them to principles beyond making a living by making do, are rarely passed biologically from one generation to the next. Or, if they are, they are surely damaged or diluted in the process. This is what Dick Buzbee was telling employees on that grim day 30 years ago – that the family had become “disinterested” was not unusual; in nearly every family business in the country, the third or fourth generation simply are not interested in the dreams that drove grandfather.
In the end, disinterest bred indifference. For Harris Enterprises, it came slowly, one lapse at a time, over 30 years, once a $150 million multi-state media group, sold in the end for $20 million – the cost of indifference, not disinterest.
‒ JOHN MARSHALL