Waller to end career in which journalism always came first

Passionate commitment with minimal interference characterize his style

July 11, 2002|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Mike Waller wanted the headline to say "Carnage." He pleaded for it, twisting every arm worth twisting, but he didn't get it. The Sun left the presses on the morning of Sept. 12 with the one-word headline "Devastation" stripped across the top.

"That was the wrong headline. It was carnage," Waller recalled yesterday. "But they all rejected it, told me I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I tried everything I could think of."

Everything, that is, except telling the editors who work for him how to put out a newspaper. And that - to his colleagues, staff and friends - was typical of Waller's leadership style: cajole, nudge and prod, but don't dictate.

Waller announced his retirement yesterday as president, publisher and chief executive officer of The Sun - the top decision maker at Baltimore's largest and oldest newspaper. And in the newsroom he won praise for a deep and passionate commitment to good journalism, demonstrated even as he steered The Sun through one of the worst economic downturns of the past two decades.

"He fostered a climate here in which truly excellent journalism could be practiced - in which top-notch editors, reporters and photographers really could flourish," said William K. Marimow, editor of The Sun. "He remembers where he came from, what those long nights on the copy desk felt like. And equally important, he's also an astute business person."

Waller is a relative rarity in the modern media - a corporate executive with credentials mostly as a journalist, not a businessman.

His first newspaper job, in 1961, was as a sports clerk for the Decatur, Ill., Herald. He rose through various writing and editing positions at papers in Kansas City, Mo., and Louisville, Ky., before joining The Hartford Courant in 1986. He later became editor there and was named publisher there in 1994.

His arrival as publisher of The Sun in October of 1997 was well received, not just because of his resume but also his showman-like nature and willingness to mingle with the proletariat.

Reporter Frederick N. Rasmussen recalled Waller walking into the newsroom one afternoon and handing him tickets to an Orioles game the next day, with permission to skip work to attend.

"I was dumbfounded," said Rasmussen, an obituary writer for The Sun. "I'd been here for 24 years, and the publishers never even talked to us, much less gave us baseball tickets."

The same qualities have won him fans among Baltimore's charities and nonprofit groups. When he arrived at The Sun, the paper's executives served on about a dozen boards of such groups. Today, they serve on more than 40.

Waller serves on the boards of Baltimore Reads Inc., the Maryland Science Center, the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, among others. He routinely sweet-talks CEOs for the Greater Baltimore Alliance and shoots free throws - with renowned accuracy - to raise money for the United Way.

"He's been a very significant force for this city and this region," said Morton Rapoport, president and chief executive of the University of Maryland Medical System, where Waller also serves on the board. "I have just tremendous respect for him."

Waller was publisher of The Sun when, in 2000, the newspaper's parent corporation was bought by Tribune Co. Amid drastically declining revenue in late 2001, he presided over a broad cost-cutting campaign that ultimately led to the elimination of 140 jobs and a freeze of management salaries.

But he avoided involuntary layoffs and approved large newsgathering expenses related to the war on terrorism. Former associates said his appreciation for journalism came early in his career.

"His solution to everything was good stories," said David Zeeck, executive editor of The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash. Zeeck and Waller worked together at The Kansas City Star in 1981, during the paper's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Hyatt Skywalk collapse.

"If you had a morale problem in the newsroom, good stories were the answer," Zeeck said. "If circulation was down, good stories would fix it. And he got things done. He's one of those people who can tell you to go to hell and have you looking forward to the trip."

An avid golfer who arrived in Baltimore with a 31 handicap, Waller told a gathering of Sun officials yesterday morning that he reached his decision to leave a few days ago, after shooting a 78 on the East Course at the Baltimore Country Club.

"I decided immediately, I'm retiring," he said.

In a later interview, he said his retirement date was actually planned years earlier. In 1994 he suffered a heart attack - on a golf course - and vowed not to continue working much beyond age 60. He turns 61 in September.

When he leaves in January, he and his wife, Donna, will move to a home they own in Bluffton, S.C., where he plans "to generally screw around a lot."

Waller often wrote book reviews and handicapped horse races for The Sun, and he said he might still. But he is also prepared to leave behind the industry in which he has worked for the past 41 years.

"I think this newspaper is at least one of the 15 best in the country right now, and we've managed to do that during a time when we've had to make a lot of cuts," Waller said. "It's easy to get the financial results if you butcher the newspaper, but the key is getting the results and improving the newspaper.

"It'd be nice to have another 10 or 15 years here to keep at it. But I don't want it enough to stay."

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