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Media Mogul Decherd Places Principles Above Profits

Robert W. Decherd 1973

By Joshua L. Kwan, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

It's perfectly ordinary and nearly expected for a family man to carry on the family business. But in the family of Robert W. Decherd '73, the ordinary is neither ordinary nor expected.

Decherd's great-grandfather, George B. Dealey, began his journalism career toiling away in the mailroom of the Galveston Daily News in 1885. His hard work won him steady promotions and the attention of the paper's owner, Alfred H. Belo. When Belo wanted to start a telegraph edition in North Texas, he sent his trusted lieutenant G.B. Dealey to scout the area.

Dealey found just the spot, a prairie town of 15,000 called Dallas, and helped Belo establish the Dallas Morning News in 1888. In 1926, Dealey bought the Dallas paper from the Belo family and kept the corporate name out of respect and admiration for the family.

"Our family history is our strength," says Decherd, 47, whose son William just finished his first year at Harvard.

Three generations later, Decherd now presides over a growing empire of 21 television stations, six daily newspapers and three cable news channels. Its television stations reach 14 percent of the nation's viewers and broadcast in seven of the 30 largest markets.

As chair, president and CEO of A.H. Belo Corporation, Decherd has led the company's emergence from the forest of medium-sized, family-owned newspapers into a national media company that reaches from a television station in Seattle-Tacoma to the Providence Journal-Bulletin newspaper.

Decherd did it by selectively adding television stations in high growth areas and by holding steadfast to civic values in journalism.

"Robert made some very, very big moves in television that weren't popular," says Gordon Medenica '73, vice president of The New York Times Co. Magazine Group.

"People criticized him for paying too much for TV and setting a new market value. But since then, the market has exploded and Robert's been shown to be quite prescient," adds Medenica, a close friend.

Even as Decherd was busy adding more pieces to his empire, he made sure Belo remained heavily focused on the local area.

Forbes magazine attributed Decherd's success to this. In a profile of the rising media mogul earlier this year, they found that Belo's revenues rise when local viewer loyalty rises. This is because networks take a 75 percent cut on advertisement revenues for national programming while ad money from local news goes directly to Belo.

But money isn't everything. As a vocal proponent of family values, Decherd has taken a moral stand. He refuses to air the controversial, ribald--and popular--Jerry Springer Show on any of Belo's stations because he disagrees with the nature of the show.

Taking the higher moral ground is unusual in the media business, says Jeremy L. Halbreich '74, president and general manager of The Dallas Morning News. But that path is the expected one at Belo.

"You do not sacrifice principles or programming for increased ratings or circulation," Halbreich says.

A quality product and a dedication to community service are the hallmarks of the Belo Corporation, he says.

"A sense of community service permeates through the entire organization," Halbreich adds.

The Dallas Morning News sponsors, supports or under-writes more than 150 community programs each year.

When Decherd speaks about public responsibility and civic duty, people listen because he's a calm voice of reason.

Decherd was president of the 100th guard at The Crimson. While tension among executives ran feverishly high in previous executive boards of The Crimson, Decherd was known as a straight-shooting, nice guy responsible for a peaceful board.

"[Decherd] had a kind of air of remarkable calm," says Arthur H. Lubow '73, the managing editor.

"Our year was not [riven with hostilities]. He probably could take more credit than anyone else for that," adds Lubow, a freelance contributor to The New York Times Magazine.

Decherd speaks with a gentle Southern drawl, but his journalistic ideals are as sharp and pointed as any clip-toned New Yorker.

"Our family heritage is well grounded in the community," Decherd says. "It is central to the nature of the business, namely journalism. How we allocate resources ultimately determines our success in achieving journalistic goals."

Earlier this year, the Dallas Morning News published erroneous information about the Monica S. Lewinsky case. The executive editor was left writing an embarrassing apology in the newspaper, and Decherd says the paper learned an important lesson about accuracy and accountability.

"We cannot flourish without the confidence and respect of our viewers and readers," he says. "We need to be very concerned with anything that puts our relationship with viewers and readers at risk."

Decherd experienced a similar mistake during his years at The Crimson. Lubow, he and The Crimson were sued for libel concerning a story Lubow wrote about a tenure appointment. The case was settled out of court in 1973.

Aside from family, Decherd speaks most passionately about the importance of the press and its relationship to the community.

"For over 20 years, we've spent a disproportionate amount of time talking about what are our responsibilities as journalists to the community. Our senior corporation managers spend as much time [on journalism] as financial matters," Decherd says.

"We need to care less about getting there first than getting it right," he says.

During the tumultuous years between the takeover of University Hall in 1969 and the May Day march on Washington in 1971, The Crimson faced tremendous challenges in covering news at and about Harvard.

"It was very difficult for readers of The Crimson to get balanced news reports on a consistent basis," Decherd says. "We were losing credibility among the many constituencies we served."

While president, Decherd placed a greater emphasis on sports and student life while he strengthened a seriously eroded relationship with the University administration.

"The Crimson was at risk of having undone permanently the relationship had we not been able to re-engage," Decherd says.

While juggling the task of organizing the 100th anniversary celebration of The Crimson, Decherd also managed to raise enough money to purchase an off-set printer for the newspaper.

In the past, editors would take a copy of each page of the next morning's paper and rush it to a contractor, who would shoot a negative and then print the page. Now, all The Crimson's work is done on-site at 14 Plympton St.

Despite all he has accomplished in the field of journalism, Decherd is adamant that he wants to be known first and foremost as a family man.

"My family means everything to me," he says. "There's nothing about professional life that would even substitute."

For a man who runs a family-built empire focused on family values, it seems only fitting the Decherd should be the quintessential family man as well.

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