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[Don't Quote Me]

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The education of Mary Jo

Advice for CNC's controversial new editor: bone up on your Machiavelli

by Dan Kennedy

Mary Jo Meisner, the recently named editor-in-chief of Fidelity's fractious Greater Boston newspaper empire, is doing her homework.

At the top of her reading list is Fidelity's World: The Secret Life and Public Power of the Mutual Fund Giant (Scribner, 1995), by New York Times financial reporter Diana B. Henriques. After all, you never know when a tidbit about Ned Johnson, Fidelity's intensely private chairman, might come in handy.

She's just about finished with Katharine Graham's Personal History (Knopf, 1997), the autobiography of a woman who transformed the mediocre Washington Post into one of the most powerful and respected news organizations in the world. It's a story Meisner would no doubt like to replicate here.

May we suggest one more book for her night table? Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince (1532) -- which called for a conniving, unscrupulous tyrant to unite Italy, then a collection of warring principalities -- could prove instructive as she embarks on the daunting mission of whipping Fidelity's Community Newspaper Company (CNC) into fighting shape.

"She should make sure she has a really rock-solid contract," says a former CNC executive. "She's coming into an organization where no one wants her."

Indeed, at CNC's 119 newspapers, most of them small weeklies (the biggest: the daily Middlesex News, in Framingham; the best-known: the Tab group), some people are already asking why the company even needs a top editor. After all, each paper already has its own editor, who in turn reports to one of six regional editors.

"It seems to me that the editors-in-chief of each of the groups are pretty much doing what she says she's going to be doing," sniffs a well-entrenched CNC veteran, referring to comments by Meisner that she plans to focus on recruitment, training, and development.

Yet the 45-year-old Meisner -- who arrives officially this week -- may prove to be more than a match for her detractors-in-waiting. Smart, tough, and ambitious, she comes to CNC's Needham headquarters following a stint in which she presided over the painful merger of the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel. The merger resulted in the elimination of more than 50 news-side jobs -- including, in the end, hers.

Earlier, as city editor of the Washington Post, Meisner, who's white, feuded with then-metro editor Milton Coleman, who's black, over what she felt was the paper's kid-gloves coverage of Washington mayor Marion Barry. He won. She left.

"I remember her as a very aggressive news person who didn't have a whole lot of tact," says a former Post colleague -- though he hastens to add that Meisner's tact level wasn't markedly lower than that of many other editors.

Six feet tall, given to wearing short skirts and tooling around in a Jaguar, Meisner has a reputation for flamboyance. It remains to be seen how that will play within Fidelity's conservative culture.

CNC chief executive William Elfers, a managing director of Fidelity Capital, professes to be unfazed by Meisner's at-times controversial past.

"I haven't found many editors that are any good that haven't made waves somewhere," Elfers says. "This is perhaps the most interesting and the most challenging editorial job in the country. I'm personally excited and enthusiastic about hiring her."

Meisner's mission, Elfers says, is to upgrade standards -- while maintaining local autonomy -- within a chain whose quality varies considerably from paper to paper. It's a broad mandate -- broad enough that it will be up to Meisner to define the job and to make her own imprint on papers that circulate to more than a million homes, but that lack a core identity.

Says Meisner: "A lot of what people want in a newspaper is really local news. I think CNC is on the cutting edge of where journalism is. Believe me, I would not come and do this job otherwise. I had to be convinced of the fact that good journalism can be done here on a consistent, long-term basis."

Meisner's first exposure to local news coverage came in 1975. Fresh from the University of Illinois, where the Chicago native earned bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism, she was hired by the Wilmington News Journal, in Delaware, as a copy editor. A year later she became the paper's labor and business reporter.

From 1979 to '85 Meisner worked for the Philadelphia Daily News, rising from labor reporter to metro editor. She did the same job for the San Jose Mercury News from 1985 to '87.

By the time the Washington Post hired Meisner as its city editor, in September 1987, she was considered something of a rising star. It was an awkward time for the Post, whose newsroom reflected the city's racial tensions. Marion Barry was widely known to have developed a nasty crack habit, though he hadn't yet been arrested. And some African-American reporters and editors believed that white editors such as Meisner were insensitive to Barry's importance to the community.

One of those reporters, Jill Nelson, quit the Post and wrote a book, Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience (Noble, 1993). In it, she describes Meisner as "playing politics, watching her back, and trying her best -- within the bounds of journalistic objectivity, of course -- to `get Barry.' "

Meisner's nemesis was her boss, Milton Coleman, an African American who, as a Post reporter, had outraged many in the black community for reporting Jesse Jackson's characterization of New York City as "Hymietown" during the 1984 presidential campaign. Coleman's critics say that by the late 1980s, his days of outraging the black community were behind him: they charge that he consistently toned down and even spiked negative stories about Barry and other prominent black leaders. Reportedly, after one particularly contentious meeting, Coleman and Meisner stopped talking to each other; and when Meisner's superiors offered her a job on the national desk, she decided instead to accept an offer to become managing editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

(Today neither Coleman, now the Post's deputy managing editor, nor Meisner will comment on their working relationship. Coleman says it would be improper for him to discuss "personnel matters"; Meisner says simply that "I admire Milton and respect him. We didn't always see eye to eye.")

Meisner stayed in Texas from 1991 to '93, and then left to become editor of the Milwaukee Journal, a once-proud afternoon paper that -- along with its morning cousin, the Milwaukee Sentinel -- had for years been losing both readers and relevance. In April 1995, the owners announced that the papers would be merged into a new morning paper -- the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel -- and that Meisner would be the editor.

It was an ugly transition, and those who were involved say it was uglier than it needed to be. "We could understand the business reasons," reporter Jack Norman told the American Journalism Review last year. "But we couldn't understand the ruthless way it was done. Tremendously wonderful people with 30 years here were never given so much as a thank-you as they were shoved out the door." And it didn't help when Meisner took a previously planned Caribbean vacation at the height of the chaos.

Meisner, though, adamantly defends her handling of the merger, saying she carried out a difficult task as fairly as she could. "That was probably one of the hardest things of all, to be the editor at that time," she says. "The whole company was anxious. The whole city was anxious." And she strenuously disagrees with critics who say she cared more about the bottom line than about editorial quality, arguing that she fought -- and won -- battles to preserve reporting and editing slots.

"I'm not going to be an apologist for what we did and how we did it," she says. "I'm proud of it."

In retrospect, it now appears that Meisner's demise was preordained. Three months after the merger, Keith Spore -- who'd been editor of the Sentinel, and whom she'd beaten out for the job of editing the combined paper -- was named publisher and president. Though it took him about a year and a half to do it, in January of this year he asked for Meisner's resignation.

"I'd say the bottom line on her tenure was that she was brought in to be the hatchet person," says Rich Kirchen, associate editor of the Milwaukee Business Journal.

Which raises a question: can Meisner expect more job security at CNC than she had in Milwaukee? The answer is probably yes, but the seven-year-old company has yet to turn a profit. That renders the tenure of every top executive precarious.

Indeed, the editor's position was actually abolished in 1994, when then-CNC president Jim Hopson decided that his philosophy of local autonomy was incompatible with editor John Wilpers's vision of a chainwide editorial mission. (Wilpers is now editor of America Online's Digital City Boston.) And though the position was restored in 1995, Elfers says the search for a candidate did not get under way in earnest until last fall, after Michael Veitch had come on board as president.

Certainly some within the ranks are hoping Meisner succeeds. "I think you need an editor-in-chief because you need someone to fight for content," says one staffer. "There's this endless battle for resources, and if there's nobody in your corner, you're just going to get chopped."

But there's no doubt that some unpleasant tasks await Meisner. Elfers says CNC will likely put the finishing touches on its plans to consolidate its competing weeklies in the western suburbs this summer or fall. Elfers is tightlipped about the details, but the result could be the demise of a half-dozen or so papers (though the surviving papers, he says, will be bigger and more comprehensive).

More difficult for Meisner will be persuading turf-conscious local editors and regional editors-in-chief to vibrate on her wavelength.

"I feel bad for anybody coming into that environment," says an ex-CNC official. "The problem that they've had in talking to some candidates is the very blurry area of authority. Does this person have the authority to get the job done? If not, it's going to be a hellish situation." His advice to Meisner: "She needs to come in tough as nails, and be willing to machine-gun people."

Machiavelli put it this way: "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."


The Don't Quote Me archive


Dan Kennedy's work can also be accessed from his Web site: http://www1.shore.net/~dkennedy/


Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com


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