It’s (Still) a Family Affair for the Schurz Clan

Todd Schurz didn’t plan on getting into the newspaper business. Even with the South Bend Tribune in his family for five generations, Schurz considered other lines of work. But after earning his MBA in marketing and management from the Wharton School in 1989, he realized he’d be heading back to South Bend, Ind., to join the family business. “The decision for me boiled down to whether I liked the family business,” he says. “And I do.”

At 36, Schurz is the Tribune’s sixth publisher in its 125-year history, a job held previously by his uncle, his grandfather, his grandfather’s uncle, and, going back to the start in 1872, his grandfather’s uncle’s father. As a family operation, the Tribune has held strong over the years, fending off two rival papers-The South Bend News Times and the St. Joseph Register-in the early years. Today the paper serves as the flagship of Schurz Communications, a media company that owns four TV stations, five radio stations, two cable systems and seven daily newspapers spread over 12 regional markets across the country.

While family-owned newspapers might seem an antiquated notion, many such operations have managed to survive, even thrive. Most familiar are big, well-known news organizations such as Knight-Ridder, still run by the Ridder kin, The New York Times, in the Sulzberger family for 100 years, and the Graham family’s Washington Post Co. On a smaller scale there’s the Blethens, the Ogdens, the Cowles.

Regardless of size, family-owned newspapers share many common traits-and challenges. Says Schurz: “With a family-owned paper, you can make a difference in the community. Our commitment is to the people we know and work with. A chain doesn’t offer that.”

John Soloski, professor of journalism at the University of Iowa, agrees. “When you’re from the community,” he says, “you know where the power lies. You know the complexities of the town. And you can do better journalism because of that.

“A chained-owned newspaper,” he adds, “doesn’t have those ties, and they may not give a damn about the product. They’re looking for a return on their investment.”

Nonetheless, Soloski cautions against “over-romanticizing” family ownership. “The economies of scale that chains have-they can save on the basics like ink and paper-makes it difficult for family-run papers,” he says. The big chains also have a habit of snatching up family-owned papers to bolster their empires. The lure? Big bucks. But Schurz warns the Gannetts of the world not to waste their time: “We’re not for sale.”

After stints on the business side at the Times Journal in Springfield, Va., and the New York Daily News, Schurz graduated from Wharton in 1989 and was ready to learn the family business. His grooming began at WDBJ-TV, the family’s television station in Roanoke, Va. But soon, it was back to South Bend to join the Tribune.

The learning curve, Schurz acknowledges, has been steep. “The best analogy would be getting married,” he says. “You know what you’re getting into, but only as the years go by do you realize the extent of the commitment you’ve made. It’s more rewarding and more challenging than I’d ever imagined.”

The challenges facing the Schurz clan are no different than those plaguing other newspaper publishers. “When the Tribune started, there was no TV, no radio, no cable, no Internet. Newspapers were the sole source of information,” he says. “Now you’ve got to give your community a reason to sit down and read.”

Keeping newspapers a part of that mix in South Bend has required changes big and small. The Tribune now offers a popular Web site. Recently, the paper has undergone a redesign. And, in the biggest change yet, last month the paper switched from afternoon to morning delivery. In large part, the changes have worked. Circulation has remained stable at 78,000 weekday and 113,000 on Sundays. Ad revenue, says Schurz, has been firm or growing in recent years. With that base intact, Schurz is confident about his-and the paper’s-future.

“There’s been a lot said about how, as a new medium arrives, it marks the death of another,” says Schurz. “It was supposed to happen with newspapers when radio came along, and radio when TV came along.

“Now, they’re saying it about newspapers again, with the Internet. But newspapers are a great medium that can’t be replaced. Given all the challenges, this is a dynamic industry that has a great future ahead of it.”

Posted by on July 21, 1997