Our 2016 Publisher of the Year Julie Bechtel has nearly 600 employees working under her, but as we read over the nominations that recognized her passion, dedication and drive, it felt like each person was being individually noticed and appreciated by the 54-year-old publisher. It’s no surprise coming from Bechtel, who rose to her position today because she had a supportive team standing behind her.
Currently, Bechtel serves as president and publisher of the Pantagraph in Bloomington, Ill. (where she is based) and the Herald & Review in Decatur, Ill. She is also group publisher of all Lee Enterprises properties in Nebraska and Illinois. But if you look back at her career, becoming a newspaper publisher wasn’t even in the cards for Bechtel.
She grew up in Marengo, Iowa and attended the University of Iowa, where she studied political science. Her aspiration was to go into pre-law, but instead, she found herself working at AT&T. She spent four years there, first as a senior customer service representative and then as a circulation sales manager, before she joined the Des Moines Register in 1987 making $7.50 an hour working in customer service. Bechtel said she was there three months before AT&T called, asking her to return. She accepted, and during the exit interview with the Register, she revealed her goal was to get into management. From there, her exit interview turned into a promotion; she was offered a sales manager position if she stayed with the newspaper. Bechtel said yes because what she loved about working at the Register was that it was “never boring.”
“It was fast-paced, and it was an exciting opportunity to be able to train people,” she said.
And that was how her career in newspapers started and it hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. In 1998, she joined Lee as circulation manager at the Lincoln Journal Star in Nebraska. She was promoted to operations manager in 2000. Bechtel seemed content where she was, but her parent company had other plans for her—a future as a publisher.
When asked what made her stand out, Kevin Mowbray, Lee Enterprises president and chief executive officer, said, “Like all of our publishers, Julie is energetic and highly competitive. She understands the importance of our print and digital publications to local communities and the value of our relationships with local businesses.”
Bechtel’s first job as publisher came in 2002 when she joined the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota. Suddenly, it felt like she was “having triplets,” she joked, commenting on the lack of sleep that first year. One of her biggest projects was the installation of a new Uniset 75 press. With that change came a 7 percent loss in paper size, so a new sales model had to be put into place. The building also had to be remodeled in order to fit the new machine. In all, the entire process took two years.
The project became one of Bechtel’s biggest lessons as a publisher. “I learned that a major building remodel and press installation will take far more time and money than what was originally quoted. I wasn’t prepared for the number of ‘surprises’ we had. Starting with the assumption the press would fit in the existing building to finding a massive boulder buried where we were planning to dig for the new foundation. Nothing works as planned. Allow extra time and plenty of contingency funding for projects of this size.”
Current Bismarck Tribune publisher David Braton was general sales manager at the time. When she arrived in Bismarck, he said, “Julie took the community by storm becoming totally engaged in the community while performing at the highest level in driving advertising revenue, circulation, local news coverage and quality.”
He recalled the “tremendous amount of change” during her years as publisher, but he noted how she met each challenge head-on. “She’s very good at adapting and facing whatever kind of change is put in front of her. She’s a change agent…and she’s good at getting people to get on board with her.”
More change came in 2005 when Bechtel was named publisher of the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa (it’s also where Lee headquarters is located). She also became group leader of Lee newspapers in Muscatine, Iowa; Maysville, Ky.; and Orangeburg, S.C. She was promoted to publisher and regional executive in Lincoln in 2011. In 2014, she was promoted again to her current position as group publisher. She also joined Lee’s executive team, where she is tasked to “help drive innovation,” said Mowbray.
“We take great pride in our ability to capture the best and brightest initiatives from our enterprises and disseminate them throughout the company,” he said. “Central Illinois has introduced several initiatives that have helped drive company-wide results.”
Gary Sawyer, editor and general manager of the Herald & Review, said, under her leadership the Central Illinois newspapers have arranged new partnerships with third party vendors for archiving newspaper content, resulting in the company’s highest honor being awarded; developed an email marketing and retention program for print and digital subscribers that has slowed the decline in subscription (resulting in 800 new subscriptions, according to Bechtel); developed regional news stories that have impacted readers in positive ways; and developed new revenue initiatives that have helped overcome the erosion of traditional retail revenue.
“She’s able to look at all the solutions and angles, not just one,” Braton said. “She has the ability to look at a revenue report, analyze the numbers and get us to meet our goals (because) a good publisher drives revenue and carefully manages expenses. A great publisher goes beyond and is deeply involved in community and cares for employees. It has been a while since Julie was publisher in Bismarck but a day doesn’t go by that her name isn’t mentioned…Julie is not just a good publisher, she is a great publisher.”
When asked about other successful revenue initiatives Bechtel brought up several projects. Amplify Direct is direct mail program that has resulted in $75,000 in new revenue. In Decatur, a new health magazine was launched (the idea came to them from a former newspaper carrier). An idea they are testing is Local Box, which helps local retailers and businesses put together seasonal themed gift boxes and sell them online.
Staci Molony-Klimek, regional director and audience development, said under Bechtel’s guidance, they have expanded their relationship with an outside delivery vendor saving thousands of dollars annually in delivery costs across three of the Central Illinois properties.
“When I first came to Bloomington, the delivery operations had been in place for several years and it ran with a ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality. Julie’s circulation background gave her the knowledge and confidence in me that allowed me to change the status quo,” she explained. “Trucking the newspapers to our state carriers was a huge cost, with some drivers making close to thousands of dollars. And we had to deal with eight drivers, who had varying levels of consistency and no benchmarks for acceptable performance.
“We put the routes up for bid and began exploring an expanded relationship with ACI. ACI was delivering newspapers for us in the fringes areas of our market, and I asked them for a RFP for delivering newspapers to our state carriers. They came in with a price that was at well under what we were currently paying, with contracted expectations. It has not only been a good move from an expense standpoint, but it has also been beneficial from a customer service standpoint. Carriers now get their papers in a timelier manner and district managers have one point of contact.”
Family is very important to Bechtel. She and her husband, Rick, have two adult sons, Matt and Nate. When she’s not reading or gardening in her free time, she’s taking care of her twin grandsons. But she also remembers the grandchild that she lost through a charity close to her heart called Kennedi’s Kisses. Named after her granddaughter who passed away from SUDS (Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome) in 2009 when she was four-and-a-half months old, the nonprofit organization provides financial support to families in Iowa and Illinois after the death of a child. Since its creation seven years ago, it has helped nearly 50 families.
Bechtel is also active in organizations such as the chamber of commerce, economic development, Girl Scouts/Boy Scouts and United Way.
In Bloomington, Bechtel was on the inaugural Power of the Purse organizational committee, which auctioned off donated handbags. The event was attended by 500 people and raised $40,000 for Habitat for Humanity. The money was used for Women Build, where a work crew made up of women built a new home for a single mother. Next year she will serve as campaign chair of Bloomington’s United Way.
Bechtel is also known for giving back to her employees. As a woman in a leadership position, Molony-Klimek said Bechtel is famous for mentoring and guiding young female employees, where her Central Illinois leadership team has a 50/50 male to female balance.
“I’ve watched (Julie) mentor some of the younger leaders in our company, up-and-comers who just needed someone to believe in them,” Molony-Klimek said. “She is also fearless when it comes to cutting ties with employees who aren’t the right fit. When she is the one that made the hire, she is never too prideful to say ‘I made a mistake.’”
“Julie is a high-performance leader and has extremely high expectations of her staff, especially her management team. But with her high demands also comes support. She is an incredible teacher and always takes the time to share her vast knowledge. We’ve learned to not only rise the occasion, but actually thrive on the challenges. She makes you better by making you dig deep, pulling you out of your comfort zone and never accepting the status quo. Once you work for (her), you will be far and above your peers. It’s not because she is easy to work for—it’s anything but easy. But she makes you better and smarter. She gives you courage and confidence. You learn to think around corners, be fast on your feet and expect more of yourself.”
Regionial digital director Bridget Sibthorp-Moecker said as a millennial working in the newsroom, Bechtel gave her the opportunity to join the senior leadership team. “She puts her resources where she needs them and the right people in the right places.”
“By cultivating promising employees, pushing innovation and active listening to employees and the public on a personal level, Julie has achieved infinitely more success than her predecessors by transforming struggling newspapers into dynamic media companies,” Sibthorp-Moecker said.
Bechtel said she motivates her staff through what is best described as “intense coaching.”
“I want a team that doesn’t accept defeat and is willing to fight until the very end to achieve their goals. My motto is ‘Whether you think you can or can’t, you are right,’” she said. “I love turning a team around and give them a taste of success. Watching their newfound confidence and swagger is a joy.”
Doing Her Job
When I asked Bechtel to name a proud moment in her career, she said the first thing that came to her mind was going into work on Sept.11, 2001. She was working at the Lincoln Journal Star at the time and she recalls dropping her son at daycare at the time of the terrorist attacks, and although she was concerned as a mother, she knew she still had a job to do.
“The news still had to get out,” she said. “We worked hard to put out that extra issue before noon…it made me remember this is what we do.”
She stands behind the power of local journalism and said her philosophy is summed up in this Thomas Jefferson quote: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Mowbray said, “One of the strengths of Lee is the autonomy of our publishers in the local markets. It’s not only essential to independent journalism and strong community relationships, but it allows local publishers the flexibility to address both internal challenges and issues that arise in the community in their own unique style. Julie addresses these things head-on with thoughtful consideration of both the company and the community.”
Looking ahead, Bechtel plans to continue to work hard to make sure the journalism her newspapers create go on for many more years. Despite the harsh reality of declining advertising numbers and fewer resources, Bechtel isn’t discouraged. “We get more bad press than we deserve. (Newspapers) are irreplaceable. Whether it’s a birth announcement or an obit or a story about if the mayor is spending funds correctly, we’re the glue of every community.”