Ex-publisher of Sun scores triumph in newspapering

February 08, 2005|By BILL ATKINSON

SHE CAME, she left, and now she's conquering.

Mary E. Junck, the former Sunpapers publisher who killed H.L. Mencken's paper, The Evening Sun, pulled a surprise triumph last week when the publishing company she now heads, Lee Enterprises Inc., agreed to buy Pulitzer Inc. for $1.46 billion.

The move outmuscled bigger rival Gannett Co. and will make Lee the fourth-largest newspaper company in the country as measured by the number of daily papers. It will have 58 dailies in 23 states, featuring two of Pulitzer's gems, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.

"We are a company that is very enthusiastic about newspapers," Junck said in a telephone interview from Lee's headquarters in Davenport, Iowa. "This is a great fit for us."

Junck, 57, has flourished at Lee, which operates papers in small markets like Casper, Wyo.; Baraboo, Wis.; Mattoon, Ill.; and Elko, Nev.

But she knows how tough the newspaper business can be. When she ran The Baltimore Sun Co. from 1993 to 1997, she made some unpopular decisions that had lasting effect.

Junck shut down The Evening Sun, an institution in Baltimore that operated for 85 years. It was the right decision because circulation was falling and the company could invest more resources into The Sun, the morning paper, she said.

"From a sort of sentimental emotional point of view ... it was a tough decision," Junck said. "I think we did it right, we pumped a lot into the morning Sun and tried to make the Baltimore morning Sun and Sunday Sun even better."

She's also remembered for a controversial call that caused a newsroom uproar. Most publishers at large newspapers don't get involved in news stories, but Junck objected to a piece that detailed potential conflicts of interest between MBNA, the giant Delaware credit-card company, which planned to expand in Baltimore County, and C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, who then was Baltimore County executive.

The Sun reporter on the story threatened to quit and other reporters signed a petition with about 40 signatures urging her to change her mind. The petition was tacked to her door at home. John S. Carroll, then the paper's editor, cut short a vacation in Cancun, Mexico, to resolve the crisis and persuade Junck to run the story. In the end, a compromise was struck and a lengthy article appeared that Junck and the editors could live with.

"It was a crisis, but it was resolved in a way that resulted in a good solid news story," said William K. Marimow, then The Sun's managing editor.

Junck vaguely remembers the episode.

"What I learned is that even editors and publishers who get along great don't always agree," she said. "No. 2, I think the publisher has the final word."

Junck "loved" her time in Baltimore, she says, but then she was promoted in 1997 to president of Times Mirror Eastern Newspapers. "I found the corporate life at Times Mirror wasn't as much fun as a publisher's life," Junck said. "I decided not to do it anymore."

She joined Lee in 1999 as chief operating officer. (A year later, Times Mirror - and The Sun - were sold to Tribune Co.)

Since Junck took over as CEO in January 2001, Lee's stock has climbed from $32 to the $45 range, besting many larger competitors in a tough industry. Junck last year made $1.8 million in salary and bonus, according to the company's proxy statement, up nearly 11 percent from 2003.

She isn't worried about blending Pulitzer's operations with Lee's even though Pulitzer faces many of the problems of big-city dailies - a bitter fight for readers and advertising dollars.

"They have a long history of being committed to news," Junck said. "So do we."------------------

For some executives, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the law that holds chief executives accountable for their company's financials, is a scourge. It's costly, time consuming and an overall pain. But it may have an unintended beneficiary: women.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, the Maryland Democrat who co-authored the reform, told a group of securities traders that some women's organizations believe the law could help more females gain seats on boards. The law calls for corporations to add more independent directors.

Women held only 13.6 percent of all board seats on Fortune 500 companies in 2003, according to Catalyst, a New York firm dedicated to advancing females in the workplace.

Deborah Soon, a Catalyst executive, said companies are calling the firm seeking names of qualified women for board seats.

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