Twelve years after Joseph Pulitzer had begun building his newspaper empire, another enterprising man began his. With help from local investors, A.W. (Alfred Wilson) Lee in 1890 started out small--very small--buying the 575-circulation Ottumwa Courier in Iowa.
The paper was one of three dailies in Ottumwa back then, according to Lee Enterprises' company history, and its circulation increased by a whopping 545 percent to 3,709 in the next 10 years. Over the decades, the company continued to exhibit a penchant for hometown, Midwestern publications.
The Lee family name disappeared from the company's personnel relatively early. Though Lee's daughter held controlling stock in the handful of papers he and associates owned, Lee, before his death, bequeathed operating control to two business colleagues, E.P. (Emanuel Philip) Adler and James F. Powell.
In 1970, the company--which then included a collection of Montana papers as well as dailies in Wisconsin, Oregon, Illinois and Nebraska--went public. Three years later, Lloyd Schermer, husband of Betty Adler, granddaughter of E.P. Adler, became president and CEO and held those positions until 1991, staying on as chairman of the board of directors until January 2000. A Harvard business school graduate, Schermer had made the Missoulian in Montana into something of an environmental activist paper when he was publisher there from 1959 to 1970, running stories and editorials criticizing industrial practices that polluted the state's rivers.
As president, Schermer says one of his goals was to keep the company independent. The fact that the Schermer family and some key friends own a large portion of the stock, he says, has enabled the company to avoid a takeover.
Dick Gottlieb, a great-great nephew to E.P. Adler, served as CEO from 1991 to 2001. Gottlieb was the first to look outside the company and, notably, to the opposite sex, to find his successor in Mary Junck. She was in the process of leaving an executive vice president position at Times Mirror, where she oversaw the company's eastern newspapers in 1999. ("I left Times Mirror because I didn't think it was much fun," she says.) Gottlieb hired her as an executive vice president and chief operating officer that year. Junck became president the following year and started collecting titles, until she was also CEO and chairman by January 2002.
Junck, 57, is universally admired for her enthusiasm and her down-to-earth personality. As Post-Dispatch senior writer Harry Levins says of the visit to St. Louis by Junck and other Lee executives, "they didn't come across as corporate slickies."
Not in the least. Vice President of Interactive Media Gregory P. Schermer, the only corporate officer with a connection to the original family ownership, sums up what it's like to have Junck as a boss: "Working with Mary is fun," he says. "And I think one of the things that makes it fun to work with Mary and sets Mary apart as a leader is her genuine interest in soliciting and listening to the opinions of her team."
Although Junck has a master's in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she got her start on the business side, as a marketing research manager at the Charlotte Observer in 1972. Her bio includes stints as publisher of the Baltimore Sun and St. Paul Pioneer Press. She just so happens to be an Iowa native, from the town of Ogden.
Lee sold off some television properties under Gottlieb, let its Ottumwa paper go in 1999 and has grown rapidly in recent years. Junck has become Ms. Acquisitions since she took over, more than doubling the company's revenue in three years. The chain has focused on gobbling up newspapers of 30,000 circulation or more, a benchmark for papers that would have strong local markets, she says.
Junck says she still seeks advice from Dick Gottlieb and Lloyd Schermer, though neither plays an official role in the company. Now retired and splitting his time between Colorado and Arizona, Schermer, 78, says the "mainstream press" may grab all those big-name prizes, but he cares about the difference Lee's "main street press" can make in a community. Building a reputation among the major players isn't a big deal to Schermer. "What's important is getting something done," he says. "In terms of putting out good local newspapers that have an impact on the local community, I think we're damn good at it. And we'll be even better under Mary."
For more on Lee, See "Lee Who?," June/July 2005 by Lori Robertson.