It was long after the fact when Bill McNamee, our former publisher who died last week, told me I was the only person who'd ever turned down one of his job offers.
We were half a world away on an ag tour in Iran, killing time in the airport in the ancient capital Isfahan, waiting for a plane to arrive who-knows-when. Recalling my turndown, Bill said with a wry smile, “I would have fired you if I could have.” You had to know him to appreciate the remark.
I'd answered a blind ad in the Memphis newspaper for an associate editor position with a “rapidly-growing Mississippi publication,” which turned out to be Delta Farm Press, and on an October evening, with a golden full moon glimmering and the smell of cotton harvest heavy in the air, I arrived at the company's spanking new Clarksdale headquarters building for my interview with Bill.
Most newspaper offices I'd been in over the years were, at best, minimally-organized warrens of clutter. The Farm Press offices were as though they'd sprung intact from an upscale interior design magazine, paintings adorning the walls, carpet so lush and thick I could've used it for a bed. Bill, immaculately dressed in suit and tie, was ensconced in a gorgeously paneled office at least half the size of my entire house, behind a designer desk that I figured cost more than I earned in a month.
Whoa, I thought: this ain't like any newspaper operation I've seen before.
After having me take his required timed intelligence test (“Nobody's ever made a perfect score,” he said, though he never told us what our scores were) and going through his interview inquisition, Bill advised, “I've had more than 50 applications for this job from all over the country. I'll let you know when I make a decision.” If he was the least bit impressed with me or my qualifications, it wasn't apparent. I handed him a sheaf of my writing samples, we said our goodbyes, and I fully expected to never hear from him again.
Time went by. A month or more later, he phoned out of the blue, offered me the job. In the meantime, I'd done some checking around and found the landscape littered with editors and sales people who'd clashed with Bill and were given the boot or left. Cantankerous, ornery, demanding, perfectionist, opinionated — those were but a few of the descriptions they applied to him. No way, I'd decided, that I wanted to work for him.
I crawfished, told him I was sorry, things had changed, I couldn't accept. Didn't want to uproot my young family. The frost in his voice nearly froze my ear to the phone. I expected never to hear from him again.
Two years later, out of the blue, Bill phoned. Business was booming, he was launching two new publications, Southeast Farm Press and Southwest Farm Press, and offered me a job, with more money than the nice salary he'd dangled two years earlier. “Let's give it a try,” I told my wife. “We'll stay a year, and if it doesn't work out, we'll go elsewhere.”
This November will be 30 years since I said “yes” to Bill the second time around: A lot of miles over much of the globe and a lot of words in hundreds and hundreds of issues. And sure enough, it was like no other newspaper operation I'd encountered before.
Bill turned out to be everything I'd been forewarned: cantankerous, ornery, demanding, perfectionist, opinionated, Vesuvian in his anger — not to mention prickly, irritating, infuriating, iconoclastic, obstreperous, quirky (I could never confirm the story that made the rounds of Clarksdale that he'd posted a notice in his new building that everyone had to walk on different sides of the hallways on alternate days in order to equalize wear on the carpet). And in the least expected moments, like rays of sunshine breaking through storm clouds, I found these descriptions could also apply: charming, witty, generous, insightful.
But most importantly, first and foremost, Bill was a staunch defender of journalistic principle. He believed unflinchingly that the reputation and integrity of his publications took precedence over anything else, and that if he had the trust of his readers, business would follow.
He adhered unconditionally, uncompromisingly, to the position that journalism and advertising should be totally separate entities and that the former should not in any way, form, or fashion be influenced by the latter. He forbade the sales staff to as much as suggest an advertiser-related story to one of his editors.
Nor did he believe in quid pro quo with advertisers. Woe betide any ad agency person who dared ask for editorial mention in exchange for advertising. The stories are numerous of those he told where they could stick their advertising. Nor did he shrink from publishing something because an advertiser might take offense. He saw it as a badge of honor, for example, that a series of articles we published during the '70s Arab oil embargo (“The Energy Crisis: Real or Rip-off”) cost him a quarter-million dollars in lost advertising from oil-related companies.
“A company should advertise with us because they know our publication has integrity, that it has the trust of its readers,” Bill said. “If our editorial content is of unimpeachable integrity, if our readers know we can't be influenced by advertisers, then the value of our product to advertisers is that much greater.”
He was not publisher in title only. Almost everything his editors wrote came under his scrutiny, particularly those articles dealing with policy or politics. He'd go over them word for word, slowly, maddeningly, analyzing whether this word or that sentence might hold hidden meaning or be misinterpreted. Rewriting was an accepted part of our routines.
I and most of the Farm Press editors did not come from agricultural backgrounds, but rather from daily/weekly newspapers or national wire services. “As long as someone can write well, I don't care if he doesn't know a soybean from a shoebox,” Bill said. “A good writer can learn agriculture.” And so we did. In the '70s, he began accumulating the editorial staff that would, three decades later, be perhaps the most stable and most experienced in the industry. Collectively, our editors now have nearly 250 years of experience with Farm Press, with a median tenure of nearly 20 years.
A born-and-bred, dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, having seen as a young man the devastating impact of the Great Depression, Bill fervently believed his party was more attuned to the welfare of the everyday citizen and that its farm programs were more protective of the interests of his farmer readers. He thought nothing of picking up the phone to call a member of Congress or a White House official to lobby for farm programs. Or hopping on a plane to Washington to corner them on their own stomping grounds (or sending one of us, often at a moment's notice). He once spent thousands of dollars to charter a yacht for a cruise on the Potomac, with a gaggle of key Capitol Hill decision makers aboard, so he and Delta leaders could bend their ears on farm policy.
His editorials expounding his views of what the government's role should be in supporting a strong American agriculture ruffled a lot of feathers. He didn't care. He believed he was speaking up for what was best for his readers, and he gave nary an inch.
Call it vision, call it luck, or a combination of the two, Bill was in the right place at the right time with the right product during the boom years of agriculture in the late '60s and early '70s. Business was great; Farm Press prospered and expanded, eventually covering 22 Sunbelt states. And in 1984, again through vision or luck or both, he sold out at the right time, pocketing a lot of millions. Not bad for a boy from Tutwiler, Miss., who held just one job during his lifetime.
Many of the farmers and politicians and business leaders with whom he shared the agricultural stage for three and a half decades have themselves died or otherwise left the scene. For many of today's players, the boom years of the late '60s and '70s are only a history book chapter, and government policies and world markets more and more seem at odds with a strong national agriculture. The once-hundreds of agribusiness companies have morphed into only handsful as they merge or go out of business. Publishing, too, has taken a hit from an economy on the ropes.
It would have been interesting to see how Bill would have coped with the vicissitudes of agriculture, the economy, and publishing in the last decade.
Bill was a complex, difficult, often puzzling person. But underlying the single-mindedness that could drive his staff up the wall, was his unyielding determination to stand up for the farmers he served and to steadfastly protect the honesty and integrity of his publications.
One has only to pore over the thousands of issues published during his 35-year career to understand how well he succeeded.
Goodbye, Bill. -30-