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Feb. 3, 2016, 9:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gene Roberts speaks at a panel discussion at the Clinton Presidential Library about the 1957 Central High crisis, in Little Rock, Ark., Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2007. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Need to find, keep, and maximize talent today? Look to an old-school example, Gene Roberts

“Virtually every hire should be part of a long-range master plan of journalistic excellence.”

Editor’s note: Every news company, whether decades old or born digital, relies on the identification, recruitment, and cultivation of talent to succeed. And in a world where every journalist’s work is only a click away, it’s easier than ever for top people to be snapped up by a competitor.

Dartmouth business professor Sydney Finkelstein studies leadership, and his new book Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent looks at how a small number of business leaders, through their skill developing others, end up having an outsized impact on their fields. One of the “superbosses” he profiles is Gene Roberts, the legendary editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer (and a Nieman Fellow, Class of 1962). Here, Finkelstein outlines how Roberts attracted the talent needed to turn a disreputable newspaper into one of America’s best.

“If you were a reporter and you didn’t love working for Gene Roberts, there was something wrong with you.” —Don Barlett

When Gene Roberts joined The Philadelphia Inquirer, the paper didn’t have a whole lot going for it. In fact, according to Don Barlett, Knight Newspapers (a predecessor of Knight Ridder) had in 1970 bought an operation that was “totally corrupt, top to bottom.” Former owner Walter Annenberg had an unusual way of doing business: He didn’t allow certain local figures to appear in the paper at all. The list of enemies included the president of the University of Pennsylvania. Every photo in which certain local leaders appeared had to be cropped to eliminate Annenberg’s offenders. The paper’s chief investigative reporter, Harry Karafin, was unmasked by Philadelphia magazine as blackmailing subjects of his reporting. He was convicted of extortion and sent to prison.

superbossesWhen Knight supplanted the Annenberg ownership, editor John McMullan came on board to clean house. He fired a bunch of staffers, and relocated others to various desk jobs. The staff wasn’t thrilled. Time magazine referred to McMullan’s tenure as “a reign of terror” that resulted in “staff resentment.” Throughout these two eras, the Inquirer was clearly the number two paper behind the Philadelphia Bulletin — meaning it had less staff, less budget and less clout. Most significantly, the paper wasn’t making any money.

Roberts had chosen to leave the best paper in the country, The New York Times, where he’d been regularly promoted and was well-liked by his colleagues, to run a disreputable paper whose staff was more or less in crisis. “I thought he was nuts,” commented Jim Naughton, who in 1977 would join the staff himself. The reason behind Roberts’ decision was simple: Roberts was more interested in fixing something that was broken (like the Inquirer) than maintaining something that was already doing well (like The New York Times). He wanted to make a paper truly his own — and make it one of the top papers in the country.

For John Carroll, one of Roberts’ most illustrious protégés, there was something exciting about Roberts taking over at the Inquirer. He remembered:

The people at The New York Times told me [Roberts] was the best editor there, and here he was coming to this newspaper that was a terrible newspaper, and he was going to build it from the ground up. I figured what better chance would there be to [learn about the business] than to do it for this guy who has such a good reputation and [to] come in on the ground floor of a rebuilding job.

While the turnaround of the Inquirer had many central planks in it, none was more important than talent.

Talent finder

Roberts preferred not to fire any of the staffers hired under Annenberg, opting instead to “swing them lefthanded if they can’t bat righthanded.” Carroll elaborated:

He had a keen eye for matching a particular person with a particular task. He would take somebody from one department of the paper and move them to something utterly different, something that would have never occurred to me. And very often if would be a brilliant stroke that would make that person’s career much better and make the paper much better.

The Inquirer building was full of long hallways with little offices shooting off in different directions. Roberts would stand at the hallway, sighing to himself as he considered how to shift staff around. “You can’t emphasize too much,” Barlett said to me, “[Roberts’] ability to see talent where other employers couldn’t see it.” One of the people Roberts revitalized was Edgar “Ted” Williams, a talented writer McMullan had assigned to a desk job processing the comic strips. Roberts directed him to a job writing features, and Williams became one of the premier feature writers on the staff.

Roberts also set about hiring leaders of his own. “Virtually every hire,” Roberts would say years later, “should be part of a long-range master plan of journalistic excellence.” One of his first hires at the paper was Steve Lovelady, who was editing stories heading for the front page of The Wall Street Journal before Roberts wooed him away. Gene Foreman recalled what Lovelady told him about how he was hired:

[Roberts] called Lovelady over at the Journal and said, “Steve, I’m going to Philadelphia,” and Steve said, “Yeah, I read that in the paper today.” Then he [Roberts] said, “Want to come along?” Lovelady said, “Are you crazy? The paper is failing down there in Philadelphia. The Wall Street Journal is The Wall Street Journal. I’ve got a good job here.” Gene said, “Well, that’s true, but you need to talk to me about this.” So he talked to him, and pretty soon Lovelady was one of his first hires at the Inquirer.

Similarly, Foreman himself — who became Roberts’ number two at the paper and experienced the sight of Phillies shortstop Larry Bowa jumping out of his birthday cake in the newsroom — had never planned to move to Philadelphia. “I had spent my early thirties looking for my ‘destination paper’ — the paper where I’d really spend my career,” he said. “I found that paper at Newsday.” Newsday is the dominant daily on Long Island. Foreman had arrived there in the fall of 1971, basically doing the job of assistant managing editor by a different title (executive news editor).

When he was told by a mutual friend that Roberts wanted to talk to him about a job, Foreman planned to decline. But out of respect for Roberts and his friend, he drove to Philadelphia to meet Roberts for lunch. Roberts was an hour late, and he didn’t make any reference to his tardiness when he finally arrived. They ate and talked in generalities, and as they rode a cab to the Inquirer building, Roberts asked Foreman to dinner (never mind that they’d just eaten). When Roberts got out of the cab, he handed the driver $20, telling him to just drive his friend around the city. That night, after a long dinner conversation, Foreman was still mystified about what Roberts had in mind. Finally he asked, “What kind of job are we talking about?” Roberts replied, “I was kind of thinking managing editor.” “Well, that’s interesting,” Foreman said, shocked because he had assumed Roberts would offer a job on the same level he occupied in Newsday editor hierarchy. It’s significant to note that Roberts made his choice the first day he met Foreman in person — it was a gut-instinct decision that paid off for both editors. A few weeks later, Foreman started work at the Inquirer, where he would manage newsroom operations for a quarter of a century.

When asked how he managed to entice talented people with jobs at better papers to move to a new city and work for a struggling paper, Roberts paused. “We couldn’t attract them with money,” he said. “Instead we offered them a vision that we could be a really excellent newspaper and a congenial workplace.” This plan, simple as it may seem, worked.

Talent magnet

Roberts’ uncanny ability to, as Don Barlett put it, “seize on talent anywhere in the country” as well revitalize the existing staff enabled him to breathe life into the failing paper. As the quality of the paper increased, the Inquirer became inundated with applications. “Instead of having to woo people, they started wooing us,” Roberts remembered. “Ultimately we had a lot of people to look at and pick the best.”

Occasionally Roberts would happen upon someone whom he liked, but he didn’t have a job for at the moment. “Why don’t you try Greensboro, son?” Roberts would advise the applicant. He had arrangements with southern papers to serve as training camps of sorts for people he wanted to hire later. When the time was right, he brought them to Pennsylvania.

Occasionally, though, the Inquirer would still go talent-hunting, and Roberts put Jim Naughton in charge of finding fresh voices. Naughton’s style for wooing candidates may have indicated how far the paper had come since Roberts began as editor. At one point, Naughton bought a baby blue Mustang as a recruiting tool. He was pursuing an opinion columnist from the south and knew, having read her columns for weeks, that it was her dream car. Roberts thought Naughton was nuts, but agreed to reimburse him the $1,200 for the car if the columnist came on board. Naughton drove the Mustang down to columnist’s hometown in Mississippi and left it with a note that read, “Bring this back to Philadelphia if you want to take the job.”

The columnist declined. She couldn’t imagine leaving the south. Years later, after she’d established herself as a staffer at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, she sent Naughton a check for the $1,200.

It is significant to note how aggressive and creative the recruiting techniques became over the time Roberts was on board. And often the techniques worked. The Inquirer successfully scooped talent from The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and other leading papers — people who were attracted by the creative atmosphere in Philadelphia. Steve Lopez, now one of the lead columnists at the LA Times and author of the book The Soloist (later a 2009 hit movie starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr.), sent dozens of business cards to Naughton in an effort to get his attention. Lopez handwrote his home number on the card. A lot of talented people wanted to work with Gene Roberts. And, if numbers are any indicator, Roberts hated to turn them down.

When Roberts came on board, Foreman estimates that there were 250 employees. By the mid-1980s, the size of the staff had doubled. “As we went into the black, the parent corporation was willing to give a little more money,” Roberts said. The paper had their own foreign correspondents, and journalists were able to work in teams to cover big stories. Some stories had over a hundred people working on them. “It was an unbelievable playpen for a lot of great writers,” remembered Art Howe, a Pulitzer Prize winner under Roberts who went on to found a number of Pennsylvania weekly papers. These writers wanted to be at the Inquirer not only to do great journalism and work with “the Frog,” as Roberts was nicknamed, but also to have a terrific time.

Roberts would reflect later: “Many of America’s finest journalists were beating a path to the Inquirer. Let me assure you, it wasn’t the money that was attracting them. It was the chance to practice great journalism and have fun while doing it.”

Epilogue

Roberts left The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1990. Knight Ridder was squeezing the newspaper’s budget, and it was evident that cuts would continue. In this environment, Roberts faced the prospect of presiding over a systemic diminishing of the newspaper he had built.

Nearly 20 years later, his staff would gather again to celebrate the good times and groan over the changes in the journalism industry. Organized by one of Roberts’ former reporters, Carol Horner, the reunion was promoted with posters depicting a frog leaning against the Inquirer building. “The frog leapt here,” read the caption, underscoring Roberts’ centrality to the event. Over 300 people came. Rich Heidorn, a former reporter, described the event:

The talent in the picnic pavilion where we gathered was jaw-dropping: At least 16 Pulitzer winners attended, along with alums who have gone on to author best-selling or award-winning books, including Buzz Bissinger (Friday Night Lights); Sharon Wohlmuth (Sisters, Mothers and Daughters, and Best Friends); Mark Bowden (Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War); Tim Weiner (winner of the National Book Award for Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA), and Hank Klibanoff (who, with Roberts, authored The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer for history).

Steve Seplow, former metro editor, basked in the nostalgic vibe of the reunion as he commented on the Roberts era: “I think for at least 10 to 12 of those years we were putting out the most interesting paper in America. [It] may not have been the most complete — but it was the most interesting, the most imaginative, and did some of the greatest journalism. And it’s amazing how much warmth is still here, how much commitment there was to doing it. And you can feel it here.”

Sydney Finkelstein is the Steven Roth Professor of Management and Director of the Leadership Center at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. His latest book is Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent (Portfolio/Penguin, 2016).

Photo of Gene Roberts, speaking at the Clinton Presidential Library in 2007, by AP/Danny Johnston.

POSTED     Feb. 3, 2016, 9:30 a.m.
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