Saturday Column: Family honored to share 125 years in Lawrence

It isn’t easy to part with a newspaper that has been in the family for 125 years. In fact, it was a highly emotional exercise debated over a 10-year period.

In 2010, company owners made the decision to sell Sunflower Cablevision, which they started in 1969. At that time, family members decided to focus the company’s attention on how best to meet the challenges presented by new technology that was changing the entire information business.

It’s been the family’s philosophy that this country’s system of government depends on an informed citizenry making reasonable decisions about what is in the best interests of their community, state and nation.

The cable business had been good, and the Sunflower system had won most every industry award. However, the owners believed newspapers were the best way to keep Lawrence residents informed about what was going on — in City Hall, the school system, police department, Kansas University and any and all other facets of the city.

Those in the newspaper business should not take themselves too seriously but they should take their responsibilities and opportunities extremely seriously.

W.C. Simons, son of a Union Civil War soldier, arrived in Lawrence in 1891, after a two-day horse and buggy ride from St. Joseph, Mo. He had grown up in a sod house in Hodgeman County near Dodge City, was home schooled and had only three years of formal education. He came to Lawrence to start a newspaper although there were seven other papers already being printed in Lawrence at the time. Over the years, there have been 104 newspapers in Lawrence.

He was a courageous, hard worker, aided by his wife, Gertrude, who played the piano for silent movies at the Bowersock Opera House, stage productions and traveling musical shows to help pay family bills.

His son, Dolph Simons, eventually took over leadership of the paper and did a superb job of building an excellent operation through his writing, editing and business skills. He was deeply active in civic and community affairs, as well as with KU and the KU Endowment Association.

I had the rare opportunity of knowing and observing my grandfather’s work habits and ethics both at the newspaper and in his private life and then working for my father, who was a great leader, boss, adviser and visionary. Now, I have the pleasure of working with my two sons, Dolph and Dan, making newspaper, business and civic decisions.

They, along with my father, played a major role in building two cable television systems (Sunflower here in Lawrence and Columbine in Fort Collins, Colo.), a group of small newspapers in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona and other business ventures.

It has been a great, very special and enjoyable relationship over four generations, and it has been an honor and privilege to be engaged and involved in the growth and development of Lawrence and KU.

All that should make it clear why it has been so difficult to decide to sell the Journal-World.

However, in today’s business environment, it is becoming increasingly difficult for a stand-alone, family-owned newspaper to produce a product that meets the owners’ desires and expectations.

Those in the newspaper business, like those in many other businesses, are finding that consolidation, group ownership and sharing essential services makes them stronger and more able to confront today’s growing challenges.

A primary concern about selling was what would be in the best interests of our employees, Lawrence and our readers and what would improve the chances that the Journal-World would remain a strong, honest newspaper interested in the community.

Over the years, the Journal-World has been blessed to have had thousands of talented, smart, hard-working, properly motivated and loyal employees.

Without these associates, the paper would not have received the many state and national awards and recognitions for excellence in reporting the news. The number of print newspapers has declined in recent years, but more people are reading the Journal-World today than ever before through the website, produced by our employees, which receives 90,000 or more unique daily visits.

Some of the individuals who, over the years, have played a major role in the growth and excellence of the company include Leo Eller, Bill Mayer, Ernie Pontius, Dorothy Fritzel, Raybert Thornton and, more recently, Ralph Gage, Dallas Dolan, Chuck Woodling, Rick Clarkson, Bill Snead, Ann Gardner, Tom Keegan, Kathy Underwood, Donna Wiley and Tom Hornbaker.

There are bound to be changes with new ownership, and this is why so much time was devoted to trying to figure out which potential owner would be best for Lawrence. We wanted to make sure the new owner would take a deep personal interest in the city and university. We had learned through the sale of Sunflower Cable that pledges made in the negotiation process can vanish once the deal is sealed. This is why Simons family members are pleased the Nutting family will be taking control some time in the next several months.

Ogden Newspapers, Inc., of Wheeling, W. Va., is a 126-year-old family business with 40 daily newspapers in 14 states, along with a number of weekly publications and other businesses. It has earned an excellent reputation and record in operating its papers. Ogden Nutting led the company for more than 60 years, and his two sons, Robert “Bob” and William “Bill,” now are running the business. Bob is president and chief operating officer, and Bill is vice president.

They are sure to be supportive of KU, but this may be tested when the Jayhawks compete against the West Virginia Mountaineers! The Nutting family has many deep ties with schools and universities, museums and programs relative to the environment, such as the Nature Conservancy.

Robert Nutting also is chairman and principal owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team.

Again, it’s been a great 125 years, a rare opportunity for a family. Lawrence is a great community and it has been a privilege for the Simons family and the Journal-World to have had the opportunity to play a role in its growth and development.