HOTSEAT- Hot type: McConnell upbeat on newspaper biz

Lawrence McConnell

Literal minds could compare Lawrence McConnell's job as publisher of the Daily Progress to that of a general manager of any business. He's responsible for all aspects of the manufacture, advertising and marketing of the product, in this case, reporting of the news. But for McConnell, it's not just a business; it's a sacred calling and one that's protected in the Bill of Rights, no less.

McConnell talks to the Hook on a day in which Apple will announce its iPad, a device that will enable the reading of newspapers, he says. The next day, Media General posts its first quarterly gain in who knows how long.

At a time when the future of the newspaper biz looks bleak, when he's had to lay off staff and adjust to reduced advertising revenue, McConnell skips the gloom and doom. "The future of reading seems to be fairly bright," he says.

"The printed word still has power," he insists, even for people who get their news from TV or online. "When Obama was elected president," he points out, "people ran out to newsstands and purchased newspapers for keepsakes."

Atlanta-raised McConnell has worked on newspapers since he was in high school. "When I went to Washington and Lee, the first thing I did before I signed up for classes was to go to the newspaper," he recalls. By senior year, he was elected editor of the Ring-tum Phi.

From college, he launched a southeastern tour of newspapers: The Charleston Evening Post, the Greensboro Record, the Roanoke Times, the Montgomery Advertiser, and the Tampa Tribune before coming to the Progress as publisher in 1995.

As editor of the weekly Georgetown Times in South Carolina at age 25, he learned the business from unloading newsprint to running a one-man advertising sales team.

He remembers affectionately time spent in the capital of Alabama as the managing editor of the afternoon paper. Remember those? "Alabama is a state where there's a Pulitzer prize under every rock," he says, citing the real headline, "Governor's brother sues to collect bribe money."

Working in journalism since the 1960s, McConnell has seen the biggest revolution since the invention of the printing press: the digitization of everything.

"There's less romance to newspapers than there was in the late ‘60s and ‘70s," he says, describing the hot metal of the Linotype machine, the ceremonial lighting of the dryer with a Zippo to dry the ink on one side of the page so it could be fed back in to be printed on the other. "Very Gutenberg," says McConnell, noting the "clank of iron and steel and molten lead."

McConnell is unabashed about the bashing the Progress frequently takes and the critics who dub it the Regress. "We try to put out the best paper we can every day," he says. The main thing is to listen to complaints and to not get defensive, he says. "They may be right— we may have mishandled something," he acknowledges.

But he's also aware that Charlottesville is not unique. "You go to any town in the United States," he says, "and they're going to tell you why they don't like their paper."

Along with other newspaper folk, McConnell is trying to survive in uncharted territory, and he's exploring options that probably wouldn't have been considered before in more profitable newspaper days. For example, last year the Daily Progress joined forces with nonprofit Charlottesville Tomorrow to broaden its coverage of public meetings, a step that could be a blueprint for other struggling news organizations.

So with the 21st century's multiple platforms for getting the news, does McConnell still read a newspaper?

"When I wake up, I get the coffee going, go turn on the computer, get that fired up, get the newspaper, check my email, fix breakfast and read the newspaper," recounts McConnell. "It's a multimedia experience."

Even in the brave new world of journalism and with the predicted death knell of newspapers, McDonnell is confident about their staying power: "A hundred years from now, someone can go into a digital archive and pull up this paper or," he adds generously, "the Hook." 

Age: 60. The "new 30."

Why here? Publisher of the Daily Progress

What's worst about living here? No beach and, ergo, no surf fishing.

Favorite hangout? Tennis courts

Most overrated virtue? Don't know what that could be. Tried to Google my virtues ratings. No luck.

People would be surprised to know: [Hook editor] Hawes Spencer and I are buds.

What would you change about yourself? Can I have some of my hair back?

Proudest accomplishment? Spending 8 days on a raft in the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.

People find most annoying about you: Relentlessness, maybe.

Whom do you admire? Theodore Roosevelt.

Favorite book? Lots. Favorite genre: biographies.

Subject that causes you to rant? Bigger and bigger government.

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Multimedia.

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Social media overload.

What do you drive? 2009 Jetta, 2003 Boxster S.

In your car CD player right now: Chili Peppers mix.

Next journey? Emerald Isle, NC

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? The threat of a libel suit over a story in the Tampa Tribune about a teen suicide. The story carried a photo illustration of a teenager's dresser that had a picture on it of someone who was very much alive, as her parents confirmed the morning the paper came out.

Regret: See last answer.

Favorite comfort food: Barbecue.

Always in your refrigerator: Celestial Seasonings Lemon Zinger herbal iced tea.

Must-see TV: 24

Describe a perfect day. Most any day at a newspaper.

Walter Mitty fantasy: Be a driver in a Formula One race.

Who'd play you in the movie? Jack Nicholson. Or Robert Culp.

Most embarrassing moment? Getting on/off a horse at a Wyoming dude ranch.

Best advice you ever got? Don't waste time.

Favorite bumper sticker? "Stepford Wives for McDonnell" is my latest. Another: "I Child-Proofed My House...But My Kids Still Get Inside." 


1 comment

Bad day to choose Robert Culp!