Lee Wins Prized Pulitzer, Now What?

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Talking with analysts the morning after sealing the Jan. 30 deal to buy Pulitzer Inc. for $1.46 billion, Lee Enterprises Chairman and CEO Mary Junck repeatedly compared the purchase to the 2002 acquisition of Howard Publications. “This purchase is remarkably similar to the purchase of the 15 Howard Publications newspapers both in order of magnitude and opportunities for revenue-growth opportunities,” she said at one point.

Right now, even though the sale is not expected to close until sometime early in the second quarter of the year, there’s something else going on that’s remarkably similar to the Howard purchase: The methods Lee is using to absorb Pulitzer’s 14 dailies and 100-plus community papers, shoppers, and other niche publications.

Rather than cleaning house as it takes over Pulitzer, Lee says it intends to keep as many publishers and key executives as possible. “With Pulitzer, we’re going to be bringing on a bunch of good people who have been successful running good enterprises in some pretty good markets,” says Greg Veon, a vice president of publishing responsible for 19 of Lee’s 44 dailies.

So just as it did with the Howard newspapers, Lee is pairing Pulitzer publishers with a counterpart from the chain. It’s gathering them in Iowa for orientation meetings and asking every executive to contribute a business idea. And of course, notes Veon, Lee is handing each Pulitzer executive the chain’s famous “prayer card.” That’s the business card-sized listing of the chain’s five priories, “the single most important of which is our focus on driving revenue,” he says.

“With the Howard purchase, we paired everybody up in a buddy system,” Veon says. “We started at publisher level, actually before the deal closed. And after the deal went through we moved on to advertising directors, circulation managers, and controllers so everybody had a peer they could talk to, and so everybody could say to his buddy, ‘Hey, what’s it really mean when they say this or that?'”

Lee sees no need to change an indoctrination system that worked so well with Howard. A year after the purchase, only three publishers from the old Howard papers had departed Lee. Not much has changed since then, Veon says: “We pretty much have got the same crew intact that was there [then].”

In many ways, Lee and Pulitzer have compatible corporate cultures. “What I hear is that these folks are accustomed to taking responsibility for their own local enterprises,” Veon says. “That’s what we tell our people, that they need to make as many decisions as they possibly can, especially on the news side.”

Pulitzer publishers will soon be expected to boost operating margins up to levels considerably higher than they’ve achieved recently. They can also expect to get more corporate help at driving revenue than was available at Pulitzer, Lee executives say. In particular, the publishers can expect periodic ad “blitzes,” in which top salespeople are temporarily assigned to a paper to target a particular ad category or to blunt a particular media competitor such as radio or Yellow Pages books.

CEO Junck says she hopes this is another example of the Pulitzer papers following the example of Howard. “Our new newspapers outperformed revenue projections right after the first full year, and we retained a high percentage of original publishers and other executives,” she told analysts. “Our plan is to integrate Pulitzer just as effectively.”

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