Sun names Matthews publisher

September 13, 2006|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,Sun reporter

Rondra J. "Ronnie" Matthews, publisher of the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., has been named president, publisher and chief executive officer of The Sun, effective Oct. 1.

She will replace Denise E. Palmer, who left in July after nearly four years of running the newspaper to become publisher of The Tampa Tribune in Florida.

Matthews, 51, has risen through the ranks of the Tribune Co., which owns The Sun and the Daily Press. She started her media career at the Orlando Sentinel, where she spent 20 years in human resources, advertising, operations, business development and planning. Her last position there was vice president and general manager of Orlando Sentinel Communications from 1999 to 2000. She has been publisher at the Daily Press , which has 500 employees, for six years.

"I'm delighted to become a part of a newspaper with such a long tradition and history of success," Matthews said yesterday from her new office at The Sun's headquarters on North Calvert Street.

About 20 candidates -- about half from within Tribune Co. -- were considered for the position, said Bob Gremillion, Tribune Publishing group vice president and acting publisher of The Sun.

Gremillion said he was looking for someone who could position the newspaper for growth as it and the rest of the industry face increased media competition, a weak advertising climate and continuing declines in circulation of print editions.

He said under Matthews' leadership the Daily Press has created several initiatives to increase readership. In news, it conducted frequent reader surveys that led to more education coverage and involved readers in special projects. For instance, reader Q&A's were included in coverage of poverty and gay issues.

"You don't have to read much to know how important it is for newspapers to know how to grow. Especially if you're a newspaper owned by Wall Street," Gremillion said. "If we can grow the newspaper, we will not have to focus so much on cost reductions."

Gremillion and others who know Matthews described her as focused and driven, but also pleasant and personable.

John Haile, who worked with Matthews when he was the editor of the Orlando Sentinel, said the newsroom would have typical disagreements with the business side of the Sentinel's operations during his time there. But he said the news side was able to thrive, getting resources to build strong local and national coverage as well as multimedia operations.

"People will feel she is a likable person to be around," Haile said. "But Ronnie is also tough. She knows what her job is and will do what she needs to get it done."

A native of Inglewood, Calif., Matthews has a master's degree in business administration from Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., and a bachelor's degree in behavioral science from High Point University in North Carolina. She spent her middle and high school years in Bowie, in Prince George's County, so she said moving to Baltimore is a bit of a homecoming.

In an alumni profile on the Rollins Web site, Matthews describes her management style as "empowering leadership." She said her boss would describe her as "results-oriented and customer-focused." Her friends would say she is "high-energy."

Matthews takes the reins as the newspaper industry tries to adjust to the aging of its core audience. Changing lifestyles have cut into readership, and a proliferation of choices has fractured the audience for traditional media.

Average daily circulation at the nation's newspapers fell 2.6 percent for the six-month period ending March 31. Average daily Sunday circulation fell 3.1 percent compared to a year ago. The Sun had a 3 percent daily circulation decrease to 236,317 and a 6.6 percent decline in Sunday circulation to 401,918 -- though readership of Sun content is up because the newspaper's Web site, Baltimoresun.com, has about 100,000 readers who don't read the printed paper.

The Sun has had voluntary job buyouts in each of the last two years and eliminated some features and sections to reduce costs. The Sun has also faced several other challenges, including the loss of its biggest advertiser, Hecht's, when it merged with Macy's, and added competition from The Examiner, a daily paper that began operating in Baltimore this year.

Also, The Sun faces contract negotiations next year with the union that represents most of the paper's employees.

The Daily Press, like other Tribune newspapers, also has experienced cutbacks during Matthews' tenure there. In 2001, the newspaper froze salaries for a year. In 2002, it shut down the Hampton Roads Gardening magazine and sold four weekly community newspapers. Last year, the paper laid off eight people and cut 18 other positions.

Gremillion said that he wanted a publisher who would focus more on growth than cutting. But he also said the next publisher needs to do what it takes to run a successful business.

Matthews said she wants to take some time to get to know The Sun and its employees before making changes. She plans to keep the current executive team. She said much of her focus will be on generating new advertising revenue by creating new products that might appeal to smaller advertisers.

"I think we need to focus on growing top-line revenue," she said. "We need to look at ways to grow revenue and create products and environments that are helpful to the advertiser and build new audiences."

Matthews did not rule out cuts.

"We have to balance the changing economics in the business," she said. "We can't be over-invested on the expense side if we're not making the revenue. That's not a happy thing to do. But it's rampant in the business. It's a reality of a changing business."

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

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