AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2012

Looking for a Leader   

Mary Junckís first challenge as APís board chairman: finding a successor to longtime CEO Tom Curley. Tues., February 7, 2012

By Caitlin Johnston
Editorial assistant Caitlin Johnston (@cljohnst, cljohnst@gmail.com) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.      

Mary Junck, newly appointed chairman of the Associated Press board of directors, assumes her new position with a major challenge: finding a successor for CEO and President Tom Curley, who recently announced his retirement after nearly nine years at the helm.

Junck, CEO of newspaper publisher Lee Enterprises, replaces William Dean Singleton of MediaNews Group, who was chairman since 2007. Junck joined the board in 2004 and will be the first woman to head it.

First and foremost, Junck says, the committee is seeking a good leader and manager to succeed Curley, who oversaw the wire service's transition to the digital era. But just as important, she adds, is a deep understanding of the dramatic transformation that has rattled the communications business.

"Over the last ten years, during Tom's time at the AP, he and his staff have done so much to position the AP in a really good way for this digital area," Junck says. "The foundation is really incredibly strong."

Curley defined his time at the AP with his hard-charging approach and his strong interest in mobile devices and international expansion. After about three weeks into his time as president, Curley initiated the transition from a satellite-oriented news organization to a multimedia database. Then came the emphasis on mobile and the transition to smart phones. And as recently as last month, he was leading negotiations to open AP bureaus in Saudi Arabia and North Korea.

"I felt it was pretty easy to see some of these things coming," Curley says. "But we were all taken back by the extent of the slide in traditional media."

That slide, Curley says, was exacerbated by the global financial crisis, which placed added pressure on traditional news outlets.

While the shift has resulted in steep financial challenges and smaller staffs, both Curley and Junck say it's exciting to be part of the digital revolution.

"Every bit of research and anecdotal evidence I see shows there is a huge appetite for news amongst consumers," Junck says. "I think it's a great time to be in our business."

The AP, founded in 1846, is a not-for-profit cooperative owned by newspapers and broadcasters that delivers content to media clients worldwide. Overall revenues increased during Curley's time as president, but the corporation did cut rates for newspaper clients while restructuring its offerings in 2007 and 2008. Though the AP is now working with a smaller staff, Curley says it has been forced to make fewer adjustments over the years than other media companies. The AP continues to try to diversify in areas of software, photo and video.

"I'm very keen on the Associated Press organization," Junck says. "I think it's a wonderful, important newsgathering organization―probably the premier news organization in the world. To get to be involved with any level at the AP is really a thrill for me."

Junck's appointment follows the unofficial trend of the chairman of the board rotating every five years. Her appointment was unanimous, which isn't always the case, Singleton says.

"The support she had of the board was total," Singleton says. "There was never a question mark for who would be the next chairman. There has probably never been an AP chairman more prepared to be chairman than Mary."

Junck's strength comes from her abilities to merge strong leadership with a perfect bedside manner, Singleton says. She is also a believer in consensus and a tireless worker. Junck, the current vice president of the board, has also served five years as the chair of the revenue committee.

"The revenue committee has been one of, if not the, most active committees on the board," Singleton says. "She has done a remarkable job of pushing through new revenue initiations as chairman."

Curley will continue to serve as AP's chief executive until his successor is chosen. He says Junck's experience as chair of the AP revenue committee will be especially important during her tenure. An understanding of revenue and the digital world are essential for the AP to maintain its mission in this period of transition, says Curley, a former publisher of USA Today.

"We had to change platforms, speed up how we produce the news and change the internal management," Curley says. "But the mission hasn't changed in 166 years, and that really says it all."