By: George Garneau
Incoming SNPA president, Gene McDavid , began his lifetime
in newspapers by sweeping the stereotype room floor
in his family’s Mississippi weekly at age five sp.
GENE MCDAVID COMES from a newspaper family, but even though he got his first paper from his dad, he’s no scion born into a fortune built by his forbears.
McDavid’s background is a lot more blue collar than blue blood ? despite being president of the Houston Chronicle, the nation’s 15th largest daily.
His is an old fashioned American story of upward mobility based on sweat and commitment ? from sweeping the stereotype room floor in his family’s Mississippi weekly at age five, to buying his dad’s weekly “for $500 down and forever to pay” at age 19, to working his way through college at a Houston Chronicle Linotype machine setting hot lead into type.
Not exactly the background you’d expect of a president of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, a group whose traditions tend toward country club society.
“There’s a real pleasure I’m getting out of this,” he said of his ascension to the SNPA presidency after being active in the group nearly 30 years.
“It’s such an intimate business,” he said. “Being part of a newspaper family, or a group like SNPA, I can’t think of a better way to serve the industry and have more fun doing it.”
For George E. McDavid, who has always been called Gene, taking the gavel at SNPA’s 91st annual convention Oct 9-12 at the Greenbriar in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., will be like manifest destiny. This, after all, is a man who attended his first newspaper convention, the Mississippi Press Association, at age three.
To give an idea how deep his roots go, McDavid recounted sitting at an SNPA leadership meeting last year and looking around the table at nine people whose fathers he knew, six whose grandfathers he knew.
“I’ve been around the business a long time,” McDavid, 64, said with characteristic Southern understatement.
Among SNPA’s 420 daily newspaper members, and nearly 100 associate members, mainly newspaper suppliers, many of the bonds are long and personal.
While increasingly focusing on business issues in recent years, the annual convention still retains an atmosphere conducive to building relationships, McDavid said.
He promised not to start any revolution at SNPA’s smoothly running Atlanta headquarters.
“The last thing SNPA needs is for a kid from Mississippi and Texas to tell these people how to change,” he said.
McDavid’s life is steeped in newspaper culture and tradition ? though not as deeply as O.C. McDavid, the 83-year-old former Mississippi weekly editor and publisher and retired editor emeritus of the Jackson Daily News.
“I always said my dad was the best working newspaper man Mississippi ever produced, and I still believe that,” Gene McDavid said with evident pride and affection.
When he sold the weekly Wilk Amite Record in Gloster, Miss., in 1958 after owning it nine years, and moved to Houston to attend college during the day and run a Linotype at the Chronicle at night, he had no idea his experience on weeklies would apply, he said. But it did and still does. The knowledge of how the pieces of a newspaper fit together, and how a newspaper fits into a community, alongside banks and schools, applies even at the Chronicle.
“It was bred in me through my father that newspapers are a public institution,” McDavid said. “I know sometimes there’s a line people draw, but news executives would be well served to keep in mind their role as community leaders.”
His activities in public life are so extensive that one wonders when he has time for the newspaper. They include the board of the National American Red Cross and the Houston chapter, the University of Houston, local business groups, Boy Scouts, United Way and numerous other groups.
His public participation follows a pattern set by his bosses, Chronicle chairman/publisher Richard J.V. Johnson, and Frank Bennack, chairman and CEO of Hearst Corp., the Chronicle’s parent company.
When it comes to the newspaper business, McDavid speaks with the fervor of a Baptist preacher, though at his local Baptist church he is a special deacon.
Except for rising newsprint prices, he said, “my outlook on the business is 1,000% positive. Even with all the new and perceived competitors, newspapers today by and large are better managed than ever, and the newspaper business is still one of the very best businesses to be in.”
Newspapers remain “the best way for merchants to move merchandise, and as long as they do that newspapers will be healthy,” McDavid said.
Meanwhile, newspapers are the fastest and most efficient way to communicate information yet devised, and they fulfill the watchdog role envisioned in the Constitution and maintain higher ethical standards than any other medium, he said.
As McDavid sees it, the biggest near-term challenge ? more immediate and more real than the threat of computers supplanting newspapers as carriers of consumer information ? is newsprint price increases.
After three years of oversupply cost newsprint manufacturers billions of dollars in losses, prices are on the upswing. Because no new production capacity is coming on line, tighter supplies are likely to translate into higher prices and lower profits for newspapers.
“We’ve got to fix that,” McDavid declared, “and that involves partnerships with suppliers.” On solution he suggested is tapping into fiber sources around the world.
Longer term, direct mail advertising has grown to become the newspaper industry’s “number one competitor,” McDavid said.
One example is the Chronicle, which has lost many advertisers over the years to direct mail. Today, the city’s dailies, the Chronicle and Houston Post, account for less than one-third of a $1.6 billion local ad pie.
“We believe by and large our customers have not been 100% served by the change, and we can get that business back,” he said. “We believe SNPA can be an instrument for getting us back on the front page and competing for this business we should have.”
To help rally a newspaper counterattack, SNPA is planning several seminars this year to teach newspapers how to market and sell against direct mail.
Also under his tenure, SNPA will continue to tailor workshops and seminars to the needs of small papers “to make sure they are getting some bang for their buck,” McDavid said.
But not for a timely opportunity at the Chronicle McDavid might be in the oil business, as he planned after taking his business degree at the University of Houston. Then a night Linotype operator ? who took seven years to finish college while supporting a family ? applied for a supervisory position, and got it.
He became assistant production director in 1964 and moved up the ladder in production until becoming vice president and general manager in 1984 and president in 1990.
McDavid and his wife of 45 years, Betty, have two grown daughters.
“The openings seemed to come up at exactly the right time,” he said.
?( George E. “Gene” McDavid) [Photo]