Journalism: Q&A with Frank Batten Sr. biographer Connie Sage

NORFOLK, Va. — Connie Sage, a former writer and editor for The Virginian-Pilot, has penned a biography of the late Frank Batten Sr., founder of The Weather Channel and known in these parts as the man who led The Pilot through some of its greatest journalism triumphs.

Batten became The Pilot‘s publisher in 1954 and chairman of Landmark Communications in 1967, serving until he turned the reins over to his son, Frank Batter Jr., in 1998. Frank Batten Sr. died in 2009.

Sage will discuss and sign copies of Frank Batten: The Untold Story of the Founder of the Weather Channel on Thursday, Aug. 18, at Prince Books downtown. In addition to her time in The Pilot newsroom, the Edenton, N.C., author also worked for the staff of Landmark Communications.

The following conversation took place Monday. It has been edited for clarity and length. For those readers who don’t know, I’m a former Pilot reporter. Full disclosure.

Again, the talk and signing is at 7 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 18, at Prince Books, 109 E. Main St., Norfolk, Va. Admission is free. There is metered street parking, nearby garage parking and a surface lot behind building with limited parking.

You should go, but please don’t park in in Pete Decker’s space unless you are Pete Decker.

Q: I hoped you could talk about your career as a reporter moving up to editor, and how you joined the corporate side of things.

That’s going back a ways. I started out as a reporter in December of ’77 in the Portsmouth office and then worked for several years in Portsmouth, Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Then when The Pilot and (the now-defunct evening paper) The Ledger merged, I went out Chesapeake when we started The Clipper (a community tabloid published within The Pilot) office out there, and I was the assistant city editor working with Ron Speer, to whom the book is partially dedicated.

From there I came back into Norfolk. I was the commentary editor and then the metro editor, and then was the staff development and training director under (former Pilot editor) Cole Campbell. I kind of figured since I had one foot out of the newsroom, when they had set up their first communications director position, the first corporate communications position they had in many, many years … that I would take the elevator up one flight.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about your job there?

I was director of corporate communications. We had Landmarks Magazine, which was the first magazine the company ever had, that went throughout the whole company, and I did a news of the week and press releases and whatnot. … After that, I was still doing that, but then I shifted over to a staff development and training role where I was recruiting both journalists and sales people. I retired in 2004.

Q: When I was a reporter starting out, I had a much different view of the folks running the show than maybe I did later at The Pilot. I wonder what were the impressions of Mr. Batten when you were first starting out? If you had any interaction with him?

Not much interaction. No more than most of us had. He was always a friendly person. You’d see him in the elevator in the Norfolk office. You rarely saw him if you worked in one of the bureaus. But he was always very easy to talk with.

When I went I went up to corporate it really was eye opening because I think many of us, or at least speaking for myself, as reporters, unless you’re covering business, I didn’t think much about the business side of business, and the business side of the media business, and, in particular, ours.

Q: I take it you got to know him a little bit more up there.

Yes. He had a wonderful sense of humor, very self-effacing, incredibly humble. His door was always open. You really could just walk in. I don’t think that’s the situation these days, but, then again, I haven’t been around in several years. Of course, he had some protective secretaries, but you could always just walk right in and if he wasn’t on the phone or something he’d be more than happy to talk with you.

I think he was an unusual person in that he believed leadership was the most important quality for business, and that you had to have the ability and the instincts and the desire to lead. You had to have a desire to win and you had to do the right think by setting a standard for ethical business practices. I wrote down a list of things that he had talked about, and unfortunately a lot of that got cut from the book. I’m going mention that in my talks.

He said a leader needs to have integrity, clarity of vision, a purpose you could understand and communicate, strong values, a strong team – and that means picking the right people and creating an environment where they can succeed, developing them, and letting them make mistakes. He was really one who could not abide by backbiting. … He was really big into trust, which he got from (his uncle and local newspaper magnate) Col. (Samuel) Slover. He was a sincere person. He was authentic. He had high integrity.

Q: He really built a paper that really reflected and led the community.

Absolutely.

Q: At what point did you realize that was the culture of The Pilot? What were his thoughts on why that was?

I think all papers strive to be. I just think it’s something that, the Landmark culture – and you and I don’t know what it’s like today. When I started writing this book, one of the things we started talking about – not with Frank, but within the media community – was that Landmark never had had any layoffs. And now all that’s changed, of course, with the economy, but it was a culture that I think was inculcated in us the minute we walked in the door.

Those who didn’t fit into that culture left on their own. Well, some may have lost their jobs or gotten fired, but most of them, if they didn’t fit in, left. And that might be maybe not being as competitive as some big city newspapers, but there was a sense of collegiality. …

It was kind of in the air. I don’t know if you felt it.

Q: I did.

And I think from talking to people, particularly when I was recruiting journalists really and the salespeople, it wasn’t that way other places. … It just seemed there was a higher calling. …

If there was one fault it was it was too paternalistic. It was too family oriented. By that I mean, dead wood was kept on when it shouldn’t have been, because it was Frank’s belief that trickled down through all the managers, I believe, that you took care of your people and you made it work. And he regretted that to a certain extent. He knew that was a mistake he had made by keeping some people on longer than he should have. Of course, that was at the top ranks. But he moved people around, senior managers, senior newspaper executives, and gave them different jobs. Which was helpful for them. No one was ever pigeon-holed into a spot.  Again, because Landmark never grew hugely like the major newspapers. It was a medium-sized, privately-held company, and I think that’s another distinction. …

There weren’t a lot of places for reporters, editors or senior managers to move up to. You might go from a community newspaper to a Roanoke (The Roanoke Times, Va.) or a Greensboro (The News & Record, N.C.), or from a Greensboro or a Roanoke to The Virginian-Pilot. That was it.

Q: The Weather Channel changed things a bit as far as the size of Landmark. I haven’t read the book, but the sense is he went into that venture with a kind of faith in what it might be. That success … did that change the culture at Landmark at all? I imagine it took some of the focus away from the flagship newspaper.

I don’t think it did. … That same culture permeated throughout The Weather Channel. I for one was always excited to say I worked for the company that owns The Weather Channel. Unless you were talking to somebody in the newspaper business that knew of paper like The Pilot … not that many people knew what Landmark was.

Frank Batten’s belief in bringing on the best people continued to The Weather Channel with Decker Anstrom, who he hired to run The Weather Channel and then brought him to be CEO of Landmark – that was under Frank Jr. …

I worked for the Syracuse newspaper, I worked for a trade newspaper in New York City, I worked on the Hill as a press secretary for a year – and it’s a lot different at other places.

Q: One of the things I have wondered is what The Pilot might look like now were Mr. Batten still in charge. Do you think we would have seen all of the layoffs and the reductions? Or is that too hard to tell?

It’s difficult to say. Possibly, just because no one has seen a combination of factors like we’re seeing now. It’s not just the downturn of the economy. It’s the whole ‘how do we make money when we’ve lost so much classified advertising’ and with the advent of the Internet.

Q: What do you think the big difference between his leadership and Frank Batten Jr.’s has been?

Frank Sr. was much more hands on. Frank Jr. is a delegator. Frank Sr. was passionate about the business. I don’t think Frank Jr. is, which doesn’t mean he isn’t a good businessman. I think what I saw was that, their personalities are opposite, but Frank Sr. was very outgoing and Frank Jr. is not. He’s more of an introvert.

But what Frank Jr. brought to the table that Senior did not, as you recall, was the whole adaptation of the Internet culture. Remember when he bought the Red Hat (stock), the famous quote about he tried to get his dad to buy some stock either for himself or for Landmark, I think it was for Landmark, and he did not. Frank Sr. said, ‘He got the Red Hat, I’ve got the red face.’

Frank Jr. was much more adaptable to the changing times. Now, would Frank Sr. eventually have been? It’s hard to tell. … They are very different, and the paper’s different for a lot of reasons.

Q: Where do you see The Pilot in five years?

Personally, I think there will always be a niche for community newspapers because people are still going to want … to see their kid’s Little League picture in the community newspaper. So I would think there will always be room for those. Now for dailies? Hard to tell. It may be what you and I both read that somebody will just want business pages sent to them. And will that be electronic? Who knows? The biggest problem for everybody is how do you make money now.

Q: One of the frustrations I have is I often talk to people who say, “Well, I get all of my news online.” I say to them, “How is TMZ covering the Norfolk City Council? I mean, how is TMZ investigating whether subdivisions in Chesapeake are built near fly ash?” And they don’t really think of that. The issue that I see coming from technology is it’s not that we need a local newspaper to write movie reviews. We need a local newspaper to go to the meetings and to do the stories about our community. Do you see something like that emerging from this?

It could be. I’m just going by what I read, the annual reports from news centers and whatnot. I mean, I read Poynter Online every day. I use myself as kind of an example. I’ve been, even though I’m pretty much at my house in North Carolina in Edenton, I’ve been living on a boat off and on for the last year, and we’re going to do it for another year. Backtracking, they stopped circulating The Virginian-Pilot where I live, and so the only way I can see The Pilot is online. And since I’m not here to get a physical paper – I was getting The Wall Street Journal – everything I read now, all the news, is online. We don’t have much access to a television, so all my news is coming from online. Do I prefer a newspaper? Absolutely.

Q: I think the legacy of Frank Batten Sr. in Hampton Roads is the newspaper. Nationally and internationally, of course, it’s the Weather Channel, and to people who are interested in business. … But The Pilot is the Slover family and the Batten family’s legacy here. I wonder what becomes of that legacy if we don’t have an outlet that can cover local news?

I would disagree with you about the legacy.

His legacy – it’s in the book – will be something called the Slover Trust, which was started with his aunt’s death. This is something started with his Aunt Fay Slover’s death. … We’re looking at 50 to 60 years from now, that money will begin to be distributed by the Hampton Roads Community Foundation. Depending on what happens with the economy and the world and the stock market, it could be worth billions and it could very well be the biggest in the country. Frank Batten Sr., because he was so self-effacing, he always said that was something the Slovers did, but that’s not really true. (I)t was Franks money that grew it.

That will be the legacy. It won’t be The Pilot. Just like all the other newspapers, television stations in town, they change. The names change. The Pilot’s been around a long time through the mergers and whatnot, but that will be the real legacy. That will be huge.

Q: I think about the future of local newsgathering organizations like The Pilot because TV stations don’t compare to what The Pilot does.

No. They sure don’t.

Q: I mean, is there a way to endow that? Or to kind of protect that core news gathering capability?

Boy, I don’t know. I agree with you about television stations, particularly in our area, though I don’t see them anymore. Landmark has two TV stations, as you are aware, one in Vegas and one in Nashville, and they are kick ass stations. Incredible award winning investigations that they do. And the future of The Pilot, look at Hamilton, 9½ years. (Former commonwealth Del. Phil Hamilton recently was sentenced on and extortion and bribery conviction, as discussed oh-so poetically here.) And all that’s because of (veteran investigative reporter)  Bill Sizemore’s stories. Even though the staff is probably half of what it used to be when we were there, or whatever the proportion is, and the resources have shrunk, and the paper’s smaller, we still have at The Pilot and, I guess, throughout the rest of Landmark, that sense of duty to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I’m really proud of what The Pilot‘s doing. It’s wonderful.

And the stories that Corinne Reilly has been doing are just phoneomenal.

Q: Oh yeah. They’re great.

Where did she come from?

Q: Don’t know her. She came after I left, but she’s terrific.

Joanne Kimberlin. There’s some fabulous writers.

Q: Absolutely. So how did this book project start?

I was getting ready to retire early to write another book I wanted to do, and Dick Barry, who was working through Landmark historical, asked me if I wanted to do this. And I thought, ‘Well sure.’

It took a lot longer than I thought it was going to. It took a long time to interview Frank because of his limitations with his laryngectomy. Sometimes we’d meet three days a week for three hours at a time, or a couple times it would be with a couple weeks in between.

Q: Was he interested in the project?

Yes. He never saw it, intentionally. Never asked to. I might have run one or two things by him for accuracy, but the upside of that is I truly believe that because he was not one to – I mean, everyone has an ego – but his was so self-effacing that I think he would have changed a lot to give other people credit when the credit was really his. On the other hand, if there are errors, they’re not caught. He never asked to see it. I really enjoyed getting to know him as well as I did. He was really just a very lovely man.

One of the interesting things to me is he was a very closed person. At least with me … he certainly was never a raconteur, never volunteered stories. A lot of the answers were yes-no. (Laughs.) … And so it was just pulling things out of him. And I would ask him about how he felt about things and for the most part – except for The Weather Channel sale, which I really think did break his heart – he would say, ‘I can’t go that deep into myself.’ He could not or would not.

Where I’m coming full circle is that when I did see him being very profusely exuberant about something was about their dog. When he almost died, I think it was in 2000 he was in a coma, the daughter in California brought out a little black Scottish terrier. Well, this dog was the apple of his eye. He just loved this dog. … It was so interesting to see that side of him.

Q: So I’m clear, this project was funded through Landmark?

No, it was not. It was funded through the Norfolk Historical Society. I think there were contributions from Landmark people, but it was not a Landmark project. I have not been paid anything.

Q: That’s a big investment of time.

It was, but I wanted to be published, and it was a foothold to learn how to write a book. Because boy was it hard. I would have been lost without (former Pilot reporter and editor) Earl Swift.

Q: How do they feel about the final product?

I don’t know. … I think they’re okay with it. What I did not have access to were Frank’s personal papers in the house. And I don’t know how many there were. He was, and I probably should have put this in the book, he was disappointed, Frank Sr., that he never kept his own papers. There were a lot of boxes in The Pilot vault, and I would dig through those. That’s where I found some of the what I thought were the aha moments, like the letter from (the late publisher of The Washington Post) Katherine Graham, but his papers don’t exist. And if there’s any personal stuff at his house, I didn’t have access to it.

Q: What do you want readers to come away with when they read this book?

I think I want them to come away with what a virtuous man this was and how unusual a man it was, a business man, in this kind of climate and culture. …

What set him apart was his legacy, and that’s being an entreprenuer, being a leader, and of course you have to look at the Civil Rights movement in the area and how he took a lead on that … how unusual that was. How he took the lead in getting a four-year college in Norfolk, and became its first rector for two terms. And then secondly I would want people to know that here was a man who could have sat back, rested on his laurels … Even though he was this successful, he never stopped trying to prove himself to his uncle. Never. …

Because of several factors. Because his uncle (Slover) was so revered, so successful. He didn’t have his own father, and her was his uncle who was his father, his grandfather he was 54 when Frank was born; he moved in with him when he was one year old — he was his montor, as Frank pointed out. He used those terms. He was always trying to live up to him, just as I suppose Frank Jr. had to try to live up to Frank Sr. and try to fill those shoes.

Q: What are you working on next?

Well there’s kind of an esoteric one I want to work on. It’s about a 14th Century mystic named Julian of Norwich.

Visit this link for more information on the event at Prince. Information on Sage’s book can also be found at the University of Virginia Press site here at this link. And here’s a link to piece by Margaret Edds in The Pilot on the book.

And if you are interested in The Pilot, which still is an important paper despite all the challenges newspapers face, you might want to read The Pilot‘s ethics policy, which includes words from Frank Batten Sr. from the 1970s, in a statement called “The Duty of Landmark Newspapers.”

Among my favorite lines:

Newspapers live entirely on the bounty of the public. The ability of journalists to report and to comment is based upon a unique grant of freedom from the public. Thus our duty is clear: It is to serve the public with skill and character, and to exercise First Amendment freedoms with vigor and responsibility.

Our news reports should never be influenced by the private interests of the owners or of any other group. Our editorials should exhibit vigor and courage, always respectful of contrary opinion, never tailored to the whims of the editor or publisher.

And:

A great newspaper is distinguished by the balance, fairness and authority of its reporting and editing. Such a newspaper searches as hard for strengths and accomplishment as for weakness and failure. Rather than demoralize its community, the great newspaper will, by honest and intelligent journalism, inspire people to do better.

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One thought on “Journalism: Q&A with Frank Batten Sr. biographer Connie Sage

  1. […] out John-Henry Doucette’s Q and A with Connie Sage, who has written a biography of Frank Batten, publisher of The Virginian-Pilot, […]

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