A good man

A good man, Gil Thelen, the publisher of the Tampa Tribune, retired last week, and it’s worth pausing today to think about his work and our own work. In my travels, I have known few people like Thelen who have been able to so authentically combine a sense of integrity, grittiness, innovation, and commitment to his profession and public life. Some of you know that Thelen serves on The Harwood Institute board. I tell you that not because I feel compelled to heap praise on one of my board members; rather, you should know that he is a board member because of his life-time worth of experience and the virtues he spreads daily.

In a statement he sent around to colleagues and friends last week, Thelen used the word “joy” to describe his work. He said, “There must be joy in making the paper if customers are going to find joy in reading it.” He then called his colleagues “joy makers.”

Thelen is 67 years old. I don’t know very many people – of any age – who think of their work as making joy. Indeed, think about the words we usually ascribe to the topsy-turvy world of the news media; two that come immediately to mind are “sensationalism” and “hype.” These are the polite ones! But what if more news professionals were like Thelen? What if they thought of their profession in terms of their affection for the communities they serve? Make no mistake; Thelen is a tough-minded journalist who demands good work from those around him, and above all else from himself. He doesn’t believe in vacuous feel-good news or gratuitously turning up the volume to get people’s attention. Instead, his affection for his community – his desire to make joy – infuses him with a sense of responsibility and obligation for how he carries out his daily duties. His sense of higher calling in journalism makes his job more difficult and complicated, not easier. It demands wrestling with tough choices about the meaning and effects of his decisions; and yet, his higher sense of calling offers the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.

I spend much of my own life trying to engage people in thinking about various nexus points in their work and lives, such as how to solve problems and build community at the same time; how to make progress and leave enough room for ambiguity; how to be ruthlessly strategic and pay attention to what gives people hope. In Thelen, we find an individual who has sought to discover and make real the tenuous nexus of making a newspaper hit its bottom-line performance and be a community asset. Far too often, we shy away from such nexus points in our work because they are so damn hard to understand and achieve. Thelen shows us what is possible.

I still remember the first time I met Thelen, some 15 or so years ago. I was conducting a focus group for Knight Ridder newspapers during the 1992 presidential campaign in Columbia, South Carolina, where Thelen was the editor. My first impression was to be intimidated by his sheer presence. But soon I discovered, and have come to know well, a man who is a thinker, an innovator, a doer, a risk-taker – and above all else, an individual who is guided by an ever-present spiritual compass and an unyielding, intense sense of integrity.

In so many ways, Thelen represents the notion of public innovator that we at the Institute talk so often about. He helps remind us that we, too, can be public innovators – we can be guided by our own sense of idealism; our own pragmatic desire to see results; and our own willingness to take risks and to calibrate them carefully.

Come July 1, Gil Thelen will be off to new endeavors. I plan to follow him. I hope you’ll come, too.