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Publisher's retirement marks end of long, successful career

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Most people outside of the newspaper industry don't understand what a publisher is or what he does. Heck, I'll bet there's a big part of those who do work in newspapers that can't fully appreciate the crucial role a publisher plays.

A publisher is the CEO of a newspaper, the buck-stops-here person who steers both the news and revenue sides of the business. He's the person that leads the overall team, that helps each part of the newspaper meet the challenges of putting out a newspaper on deadline, every day or every week. 

Successful publishers are one part workhorse and one part maestro. They know how to work hard and efficiently and hold their business on course, especially a fiscal course that makes the business profitable. They set the tone for the goals of the newspaper, but rely heavily on hiring the right managers and leaders to achieve those goals, orchestrating the daily dance of newspapering. 

It's not just about defining a clear mission, either. That's an important part of a publisher's role. But, in the end, it's about executing that mission and staying on course, even when the going gets tough.

And there aren't many people I've known who are much better than Tom Kurdy at doing all of that, with unbridled enthusiasm that can be downright infectious. 

Tom is the publisher of the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, where he's put in 21 of 40 total years of hard work for Hagadone Corporation. Last week he announced 40 is enough. This spring he'll shift into retirement after a long and distinguished newspaper career. 

It's sad news for residents of the Flathead Valley, who may not fully appreciate what a talented, dedicated and productive leader they are losing. 

Tom played a significant part in my own newspaper career, an important developmental role for which I am grateful. After Hagadone bought the Lake County Leader, along with the rest of the weeklies in the Flathead Valley, from Lee Enterprises in 2001, Tom assumed the role of publisher for all of those papers. He decided to retool some of the leadership positions and, as it happened, I was asked if I was interested in returning as the editor. 

At the time I was serving as an editor of two newspapers in Wyoming, a great place with wonderful people to work with but the call to return to the Mission Valley was tugging at me to return home. Tom and I didn't know each other, but we quickly developed a good working relationship built on mutual respect and trust. 

That trust paid off with a good newspaper that the community embraced. We had a wonderful group of people who worked hard to put out a quality newspaper every week, one that was constantly improving. 

Tom let me do my job and encouraged me to improve. We haggled over resources at times, but he was always as committed to a quality product for our community as I was. And that attitude goes a long way in a small-town newspaper that's part of a larger corporation with a much bigger bottom line.

To me, Tom represented the best of Hagadone. His experience, enthusiasm, professionalism and work ethic, coupled with a sincere and unwavering commitment to the community he lived in, were exactly the sort of qualities you'd wish to have in a publisher. He didn't roll over to local political pressure, he could weed through the chaff with the best of them, and he didn't tolerate mediocrity.

Tom recognized that the newspaper wasn't much if it didn't have good journalists, good sales representatives, and a committed print plant that could produce a level of quality that was ahead of the competition.

Tom always demanded the best out of his people, which could rub some the wrong way at times. Occasionally, I served as a soundboard for some of those folks who had disagreements with Tom. Ultimately, those problems usually came down to the publisher putting fiscal constraints on talented journalists who wanted to improve in leaps and bounds, often regardless of the cost or impracticality of the issue. 

That doesn't make the publisher the bogey man, but it doesn't help his popularity, either. Those of us in business understand that there are times where you have to hold the line, even when it isn't particularly popular. That's what it takes to succeed in business.

I understood that Tom would sometimes make decisions I didn't agree with and it didn't particularly bother me. Oh, we had our differences of opinion, but we always respected each other's position and were willing to sound them out. 

I would have managed the business differently if I were the publisher of the Leader back then. But that sure didn't mean I would have been better at it. Tom has a proven track record that eclipses all of the best intentions of idealistic editors. He always had the same passion for newspapers, but he always balanced that passion with a pragmaticism that also balanced the books.

That's what publishers do. 

Perhaps even more, Tom is an honest man who represents the antithesis to the "Slick Willy" type that has given some newspapers notoriously bad names. 

Tom is also a shrewd leader who understands that he can't do it all by himself. Wherever he's worked, he has recruited talented men and women to come aboard, take charge and drive the newspaper toward excellence. I've always admired his ability to attract so many good people into the right job and then help them get the job done.

Tom's advice was always sage. His ears were always tuned to hear out his staff. And his heart was always committed to producing a quality newspaper that made a profit. 

And although Hagadone is losing one hell of a publisher, it's nice to see a winner go out on top.


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