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MEDIA Meet Mild-Mannered Phil Meek

How a publisher of a great metropolitan newspaper leaps empires in a single bound
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You say you’ve never heard of Phillip J. Meek? Well, you wouldn’t have, really. Until the relatively small media company that employs him, Capital Cities Communications, swallowed up the mammoth ABC Television Network in January, Meek was just another cog in a community machine, publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. But now, with the acquisition accomplished, Meek is a major shooter. He heads a publishing empire that includes seven daily newspapers, twenty-eight weeklies, four score magazines, shopping guides, and newsletters. Some say Meek now is the most powerful media figure in Texas.

Perhaps that was the reason for my skewed expectations when I drove to Fort Worth to chat with him. In my experience, powerful media people also are powerful personalities. Take Otis Chandler, head of Times Mirror Company, which publishes the Dallas Times Herald. He is a big man, tough, full of energy. Then there’s Al Neuharth of Gannett, which produces USA Today and some ninety-two other newspapers. He blows into a room like a hurricane, bowling over lesser mortals with gusts of high-velocity, blunt, often insulting chatter. And there’s Alvah Chapman Jr., of Knight-Ridder Inc., owners of the Miami Herald, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and dozens of other properties. He is a small, somewhat scholarly man, but his piercing intelligence is cowing.

They are the prototypes of media might. Hard chargers, movers and shakers-the cliches of corporate power apply as much in publishing and broadcasting as in banking or auto making. To reach the top, says the popular wisdom, you have to be a shark.

But the head of Capital Cities/ABC Publishing Division is no shark: he’s more a friendly dolphin. Phil Meek is relaxed, playful, and low-key to the point of seeming drowsy. Associates say he is neither a workaholic nor a bean-counter. He is known, rather, as a practical joker and a family man. He is, in short, an anomaly in the powerhouses of publishing. People in Fort Worth are famous for their kicked-back style. Meek has lived in Texas only eight years, but today he seems as Fort Worth as they come.

In his rather Spartan office-a spittoon, several family pictures, and a United Way plaque are the major personal furnishings- Meek slouched on a homely gold sofa and explained his philosophy of management. It is something like Thomas Jefferson’s theory of government: that company manages best which manages least.

“We don’t have a lot of corporate BS, a lot of meetings, a lot of staff talking to staff,” he said. “We have no long-range planning, no strategic planning, no management by objective. The main thing I do is hire key people. I try to get good ones and then leave them alone to do as they think best. I don’t know how most of the companies that report to me operate.” In fact, Meek could not even recite the long and confusing list of publications for which he is responsible. The Cap Cities roster includes daily newspapers scattered from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to Ashland, Oregon. Weekly papers and shopping guides dot eight states, from Connecticut to California.

The Cap Cities magazines also are spread out geographically, but it is their diversity of subject matter that is most amazing. They range from fairly well-known titles like Women’s Wear Daily, Modem Photography, High Fidelity, Schwann Record And Tape Guide, and Los Angeles Magazine to such arcane periodicals as Ob. Gyn. News, food Engineering International, Jewelers’ Circular-Keystone, and Review of Optometry. In all, Meek’s publishing division has operating centers in fourteen states and revenues approaching $1 billion.

“I am gradually getting around to see all of our operations and meet the people,” said Meek. “But I can’t possibly be an expert in all of these areas, so I don’t plan to meddle with them much.” In fact, Meek said, he does not even read many of the magazines under his supervision. “I go through the ones that interest me, but I don’t look at McCall’s Needlework & Crafts, Supermarket News, or a lot of the others.”

It is tempting to explain Meek’s nonchalant management style by noting that he is new to the role of media mogul. Only after the acquisition of ABC was completed last January 3 did Meek step up from Star-Telegram publisher to president of the combined print conglomerate. He has had a lot of material to master in a short time. As he said, “I’ve been so busy in this new job, I haven’t had time to go to the bathroom.”

According to Executive Editor Jack Tinsley and other Star-Telegram staffers, however, Meek is a hands-off boss even at the newspaper he calls his baby. Unlike many other publishers, Tinsley says, the Star-Telegram’s top man does not fire back copies of each day’s editions with criticisms scrawled in angry red pencil. Nor does he demand coverage based on “hot tips” he collects from the boys at the club. “We try to operate under the no-surprise rule,” said Tinsley. “That is, we try to keep him informed of what we are doing. But he does not mingle or interfere.”

To illustrate the point, Tinsley recalled his paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of Bell Helicopter Textron, Fort Worth’s second largest employer. The stories revealed that correctable design flaws in military helicopters had caused dozens of fatal crashes. Though the stories were extremely sensitive, Tinsley says, Meek did not insist on reading them before they saw print.

“He relied on me and other editors to handle the investigation carefully,” said Tinsley. ’’He didn’t get involved until after the major stories, when he received an irate letter from the president of Bell Helicopter. It was about as strong an attack as a publisher in a hometown situation could face. Phil met with me to review what we had done and then backed us. He didn’t waver.”

Because Bell Helicopter had called for a community boycott of the Star-Telegram after the stories appeared, I asked Meek how much circulation the newspaper lost at the peak of the controversy. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect a publisher to know off the top of his head, but Meek had never wondered about it. To answer my question, though, he phoned up his circulation department for the figure.

“Is that right?” he exclaimed when the answer came back. “God, I’m glad you never told me.”

As it turned out, roughly 2,000 subscriptions were canceled. Though it is less than 1 percent of total circulation (currently about 248,000 daily), that much flux over a single investigation would give most publishers apoplexy. Not Phil Meek, though. This is a man who doesn’t sweat the small stuff.

“That’s the way Phil is.” said James J. Hale, former Star-Telegram publisher and now publisher of Cap Cities/ABC’s Kansas City Star/Times. “He doesn’t waste a lot of energy worrying about things, especially things that he can’t do anything about. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. I’m not sure he really takes anything as seriously as most of us do.”

As an example, Hale recalled a corporate budget meeting in New York about a year ago. Capital Cities brass were assembled on what Hale calls “a very somber occasion.” Somehow, Meek learned that Hale, fifty-eight, had been taking dancing lessons. He arranged a joke. During the heat of budget discussions a secretary interrupted to call Hale away. “It’s time for your dancing lesson,” she announced.

Other stories about Meek illustrate the same point. There was, for example, the formal dinner during a meeting of a group called Southern Newspaper Publishers Association. Meek snatched up his whipped cream dessert, sniffed it, and declared that it had a funny smell. When the woman next to him, a publisher from Mississippi, checked hers, he shoved it in her face.

“Phil is not a typical newspaper executive,” said Hale. “He does a lot of things you wouldn’t expect. It’s particularly unusual because his background is in business, where the stuffed shirts usually come from, not in journalism.”

Indeed, Meek’s irreverent sense of humor and his low-key style both seem unlikely, given his training. He was educated at Harvard Business School, where kowtowing is a required course and management by objective is gospel. He spent his early career with the central finance staff of Ford Motor Company, a corporation hardly famous for its fun-loving, relaxed approach to business.

Meek was on special assignment for Ford when he met Capital Cities President Daniel Burke, now president and chief operating officer of Capital Cities/ABC Inc. Capital Cities had purchased a newspaper in Pontiac, Michigan, and Burke asked Meek to run it.

“The day I walked into the Pontiac Press |now the Oakland Press] as president and publisher, I had never been inside a daily newspaper before,” said Meek. “I had to learn about newspapers from scratch as I ran one. It was a matter of taking on a big job and growing into it. The paper had a lot of problems when I went there. I managed to make most of them worse.”

Among the problems Meek confronted when he took over the Pontiac Press in 1970 were hostile unions. By the time Meek left to publish the Star-Telegram in 1977, relations had deteriorated and the paper was on the verge of a long and nasty strike. The walk-out began December 29, 1977, and lasted some four years. Capital Cities continued to produce the newspaper, however, and the strike ended when the Newspaper Guild and other unions gave up.

After the tension he faced in Pontiac, Meek said, moving to Fort Worth was “like dying and going to heaven. It was so different-the Texas can-do attitude, the involvement of the business community, the absence of unions. It was wonderful. I’ve never had to be the kind of tough manager here that the environment in Michigan demanded.”

With the slower pace of Fort Worth, Meek enjoyed more reading and golf. He was able to spend more hours with his wife, Nancy, and their three children than he ever had.

He stood back, watched the Star-Telegram grow with the Texas boom, and still accomplished the goals he set for himself. The paper now boasts a Pulitzer Prize. A state-of-the-art printing plant is nearing completion ahead of schedule and under budget. An experiment with electronic publishing is succeeding even as similar systems costing many times as much fold across the country.

But now, Meek again finds himself in a job that may be too big for him, one he’ll have to grow into. And there is some speculation in company ranks that the new position may take him away from the relaxed atmosphere of Fort Worth. Rumor has it that top management wants him in New York, closer to the center of the action. Meek himself doesn’t seem sure that his easy-going style equips him to cope with the new corporation formed by the marriage of Capital Cities and ABC. As head of the publishing half of the corporation, Meek is a powerful media figure. But power counts only when you use it and Meek is out of practice.

“I was in this skyscraper in New York where ABC has its headquarters,” he said. “1 asked a woman on the elevator, ’How many floors in this building are ABC?’ She gave me this horrified look and said, ’Well, all of them, of course.’ I could hardly imagine it. Capital Cities has had a headquarters staff of about thirty-five. ABC has a headquarters staff of thousands. We bought them, but they could still swallow us whole.”

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