The education of Mary Jo
Advice for CNC's controversial new editor: bone up on your Machiavelli
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
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
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.
"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
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
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
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
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."