Congratulations are in order to Mark Zieman, who has been promoted from KC Star publisher to vice president of operations for parent company McClatchy Co.
Today, I want to talk about his leadership and also about the competition that is about to take place to replace him.
Zieman, 50, has had a very successful, upward-bound, 25-year career at The Star. The paper apparently has continued to do well financially during Zieman’s three-year watch as publisher, despite the bottom falling out of the newspaper industry.
I haven’t liked everything Zieman has done at The Star, but, in my opinion, he has earned this opportunity to prove or disprove himself at a higher level. He inherited a successful enterprise from previous publishers, including the late James H. Hale, and he has managed to hold it together, at least financially.
He has held it together almost entirely through cost-cutting, however. There’s less of the paper, literally, than there used to be, and there are far fewer employees, including quite a few valuable editorial employees.
I said that I haven’t liked everything Zieman has done. What bothered me most was that when the layoffs began three years ago, Zieman donned rose-colored glasses with each round of layoffs and issued statement after statement about how better times were just around the corner. That went on until earlier this year, when he struck a note more of resignation and hope, instead of certainty, about light at the end of the tunnel.
When I wrote about his cheery, public position, I said that I was losing confidence in him as publisher. That was probably an overstatement, although I’m sure that most, if not all, of the employees who have been laid off would express a similar sentiment. Also, as a retired reporter and assignment editor at The Star, I was looking at it through the eyes of someone who could have experienced the same fate, had I not gotten out two years before the axe started falling. (It was just plain luck that got me out the door, I have to admit, not prescience.)
Now, Zieman is going to be under more pressure than ever. He will oversee 14 daily papers, including The Star, in several states. McClatchy paid way too much — $4.6 billion — for the Knight Ridder papers in 2006, and they may never be able to pay off the debt they took on to swing the deal.
Last year, a Morningstar analyst wrote, “Our fair value estimate on McClatchy’s shares is $0.” (For the record, it’s about $2.75 per share now.)
The analyst said he believed that the balance eventually would tip from stockholders’ interests to creditors’ interests and that stockholders would be left empty-handed.
So, that’s the spare meal that Zieman will sit down to at McClatchy headquarters in Sacramento.
CEO Gary Pruitt and other top executives undoubtedly will look to Zieman for fresh ideas on digging out of deep holes. He will face expectations, probably, to devise plans to cut costs and somehow generate new revenue, perhaps through imaginative uses of the web.
So, I wish him luck. He’s definitely going to need it, and I think we can look for that graying hair to lose what is left of its dark luster within a few years — if McClatchy lasts that long.
Now, back at the ranch…several Star vice presidents, certainly would like to be considered for the publisher’s job. Among them could be Mike Fannin, editor; Chris Christian, v.p for circulation; Chris Piwowarek, v.p. for human resources; and Miriam Pepper, v.p. of the editorial page.
I think McClatchy will look closely at the prospect of naming a woman as publisher, which would guarantee Piwowarek (pronounced pee-va-vorek) and Pepper a close look. However, I think all of the people mentioned above are long shots for the following reasons.
Christian and Piwowarek because their kingdoms are relatively narrow. Pepper because her background is on the editorial side. Fannin because most of his background is in sports and also because it has come to light since he was named editor in 2008 that he has two d.u.i convictions and a 1994 misdemeanor assault conviction in Texas, where he formerly worked.
Another long shot, from the newsroom, would be managing editor Steve Shirk, who has provided steady and confident leadership in every post he has held in his approximate 35-year career at the paper. Working against him, however, is the fact that, like Pepper, all his experience is on the editorial side.
Without completely ruling out an inside promotion, I tend to think that McClatchy will bring in someone from outside. I think they will promote a current publisher at a smaller paper in the chain.
That’s what they recently did in Lexington, Ky., at the Lexington Herald-Leader. There, Rufus M. Friday, president and publisher of the Tri-City Herald in eastern Washington, will replace long-time Herald-Leader publisher Tim Kelly, who is retiring at the end of this month.
I think McClatchy will want to continue planting seeds of hope with its current publishers, on the outside chance that the company will find its way out of the long tunnel.