J. Stewart Bryan III, R.I.P.

J. Stewart Bryan III. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

J. Stewart Bryan III. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

J. Stewart Bryan III, long-time chairman of Media General Inc., died Saturday at age 77 from complications stemming from a fall at his home. Born and bred as a newspaper man, he presided in recent years over the transformation of Richmond-based Media General from a newspaper-dominated conglomerate into a pure-play corporation owning 71 local television stations across the country.

When I joined Media General in 1986 as part of the start-up team for Virginia Business magazine, the company was highly profitable. Newspapers were fat with display advertising, and Sunday editions were so loaded with classified ads they could double as doorstops. The company owned local television stations as well as the Fairfax County and City of Fredericksburg cable television operations, a New Jersey newsprint recycling company and a slew of smaller enterprises. But senior management at the time was widely regarded as aging, decrepit and lethargic, and the company barely fended off an effort by New York money manager Mario Gabelli to put its slate of nominees on the board of directors.

Taking over as CEO in 1990 Bryan brought new executive talent into the organization and as well as a philosophy of tempered change. A true Richmond blue blood, he epitomized what was best and worst about the city’s aristocracy. He was always the gentleman, unfailingly polite and considerate to those around him. He was unflappable in temperament and loyal to those who had been loyal to him (and to his father, former CEO D. Tennant Bryan). From what I could observe, he was highly ethical in his business and personal conduct. While I felt plenty of pressure from above as publisher of Virginia Business magazine (a tiny cog in the larger machine) to raise profitability, I was never encouraged to take ethical short-cuts of any kind.

The flip side of Bryan’s gentility was excessive caution in steering the company into the future.  Media General was slow and halting in responding to the Internet challenge — although, in retrospect, it’s not clear that any other newspaper has performed much better. At a measured pace, Bryan did some smart things. He sold the cable properties to Cox Communications at a huge premium. He sold the cyclical, capital-intensive newsprint recycling business. He sloughed off smaller non-media properties. And by the early 2000s, he had presided over the refocusing of Media General into a media company with newspapers, television and Internet. The vision, as best exemplified in the company’s Tampa operation, was to fuse the unique strengths of television, newspaper and the Internet into an integrated media platform.

To this day, I think it was a pretty good vision. If the world had moved at a slower pace (and if federal regulations hadn’t made it nearly impossible to own television and newspapers in the same media market), it might have worked. But no one anticipated the speed with which the Internet would disrupt the newspaper industry. Within a few short years, classified advertising — jobs, cars, real estate, personals — moved online, gutting newspaper revenues. The volume of display ads shrunk, too, and newspapers lost pricing power as readers of the print content and the display ads embedded in them migrated to Internet content and banner ads. While newspapers could boast of more readers than ever by combining print and online numbers, advertising yielded far less revenue per reader. As sales tanked, newspapers survived by cutting costs, including newsrooms, which diminished the value of their content in the eyes of readers. It was a vicious cycle that no one, not even the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post, has figured out how to reverse.

I saw most of this coming and in my last couple of years at Virginia Business, I desperately tried to transplant our still-strong business-to-business brand onto the Internet by means of hybrid print-Internet products and even some unique Internet-platform products. I felt confounded by an unwillingness of Media General to fund any initiatives — we had to boot-strap everything — and my inability to circumvent the incompetent leadership of the company’s Internet team. In my final gambit, I presented a proposal asking Media General to invest in an enterprise I called “Datamancer,” which would have leveraged the Virginia Business brand to create a cluster of business-intelligence products capable of generating a subscription-driven revenue stream. There was zero interest in the idea — perhaps less than zero interest. The response was more like, ew, get this proposal off my desk! I departed Media General soon thereafter, in 2002.

I cannot say my idea would have succeeded, but that’s almost irrelevant. The larger point was the lack of interest in even exploring it. My penchant for blurting out awkward truths in management meetings probably did not help me. But Media General’s corporate culture was antithetical to outside-the-box thinking. The company pursued a strategy within its field of competency of acquiring other media properties, consolidating operations, sharing costs and cutting overhead. Needless to say, Media General did not succeed in cost-cutting its way to growth.

Indeed, the company nearly met an early demise when it borrowed heavily to purchase a chain of television stations, roughly doubling its television portfolio. Bryan was no longer CEO then, but he allowed the transaction to move forward. When the 2008 recession hit soon thereafter, Media General was way over-extended financially. Amidst speculation that the company might default on its bonds, shares of its stock fell as low as $1 per share. The company survived by restructuring its debt in a last-minute deal and by unloading its newspapers. Since then, the company has rebounded smartly, with the promise of an extra boost from a federal ruling that will allow television stations to auction some of their broadcast spectrum.

I can’t imagine that Bryan, who had long before relinquished his role as CEO, had the same attachment  to Media General in his final days that he did back when served as publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. But it must have been some consolation to him that the fortunes of the company had rebounded to $16 a share.

Media General is in the midst of a bidding war right now, and there is a chance that it could be purchased by Des Moines-based Meredith Broadcasting Group at a modest premium. With Bryan gone, there is little to tie the corporate headquarters to Richmond. If Meredith takes over and consolidates operations in Iowa, Richmonders may have yet another reason to mourn Bryan’s passing.

There is a larger lesson here for those who obsess about the inequality of wealth and the rise of a permanent aristocracy. Once upon a time, Stewart Bryan ranked among Virginia’s wealthiest citizens. With money, lineage and social standing, he was a central figure in Richmond’s old elite. Disrupted by the Internet, the source of that wealth has shriveled. The old blue bloods hold no sway in Richmond any longer. Bryan’s passing marks the fading of a way of life. As long as America’s economy remains free, vibrant and dynamic, new generations of wealth will always supplant the old.

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13 responses to “J. Stewart Bryan III, R.I.P.

  1. So many people I know are slipping away. I met Stewart Bryan a couple of times during my tenure in Richmond and around Virginia. Even though we are in the same age bracket I met his father Stewart Bryan first when I moved to Richmond to help launch J. Sargeant Reynolds CC in 1972.
    A really true blue blood Virginia family but like most of us the internet exploded our worlds. Initially, I thought that the Times Dispatch was a leader in adapting to the internet. I was sufficiently impressed with the website that I shared it with other newspapers around the country where I had contacts.
    Great guy from a great Virginia family our sympathies to all

  2. He’s a person who made something – built it – provided something people wanted, made money at it , provided jobs for others – and as such the measure is substantial.

    He also cared for people if you judge the other things he got involved in and supported.

    and for some reason reading about him and his life made me think about these guys who were highlighted on 60 minutes:

    http://givingpledge.org/

    The Giving Pledge is a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.

    an impressive group of folks

    WHAT IS THE GIVING PLEDGE?

    The Giving Pledge is an effort to help address society’s most pressing problems by inviting the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to commit to giving more than half of their wealth to philanthropy or charitable causes either during their lifetime or in their will.

    It sounds like Mr. Bryan was one of them in mind and soul.

  3. Bacon – you poser. You claim to be a Richmonder but you have not replaced your first name with an initial and used your middle name instead. You don’t even have any roman numerals let alone a catch nickname like Tad or Biff. You accuse immigrants to this country of failing to assimilate but I’ll bet you have nary a set of duck shoes nor the rumpled khakis and dozens of rainbow colored Gator shirts that go with them. Tell me you at least drive a BMW or a Mercedes.

    More seriously, I am sorry to hear about J Stewart Bryan III. Sounds like an executive who made some good moves and some not-so-good moves. Even Steve Jobs tried to ride the NeXT for a while.

    As for Datamancer, you should have stuck with that one – with or without Media General. You were 25 years too early but you would have had time to get things right!

  4. Jim,
    Virginia Business just could not consistently produce the quality content for the data base you talk about it. Your plan had no chance.

    Meanwhile, it is one thing to be born to family money in a business model that was based on fat margins in monopolistic markets. It is quite another to deal and grow a business during a period of profound challenges.

    We saw what happened.

    And, you somehow forget that Nexstar in Texas will probably snarf up MEG, not Meredith.

    • You’re right, Virginia Business could not consistently produce the quality content I was talking about — not with existing staff and resources. The proposal I floated would have required a significant investment on Media General’s part. Not only was there no interest in the proposal, there was no interest in even understanding the proposal.

  5. Whatever happened to Reid Ashe? I actually worked with him at a little N.C. newspaper in the 1970s. He became a big deal at MEG and led the much-hailed “convergence” strategy of mixing print, TV and Internet in Tampa and then came to Richmond as president of MEG. Then, suddenly, he was executive vice president of MEG and then “retired” at the tender age of 62.

  6. “The old blue bloods hold no sway in Richmond any longer. Bryan’s passing marks the fading of a way of life.”

    Thank you for highlighting the Bryan family. They have long cared about Richmond. They also made a profit, until newspapers generally hit the skids, and that profit was good for shareholders, for employees, and for the Bryan family among many others. To quote Larry, this member of the Bryan family “also cared for people if you judge the other things he got involved in and supported.” He was a public servant despite holding no elective office.

    I’d like to echo Larry’s point about others like Stewart Bryan who have used their wealth for the common good. The power of personal philanthropy is that it’s personal: one individual, usually an entrepreneur, decides where to make a difference. The ‘Giving Pledge’ donors are not a group of elected officials, not a committee of do-gooders guided by polls, not theologians guided by higher authority, but businessmen who along the way have developed strong, sometimes quirky, sometimes stubborn, opinions on how to help address society’s most pressing problems. Public charity from wealthy donors is a very undemocratic concept, but look at the good that comes from it.

    We are immensely poorer when any community with which we identify lacks “blue bloods who care.”

  7. “We are immensely poorer when any community with which we identify lacks “blue bloods who care.””

    I endorse that sentiment and would add too that “all generous lives matter.”

  8. Curious timing. This morning Media General agreed to be bought by Texas-based Nexstar — hours before Stewart’s memorial service at the Commonwealth Club. The Meredith deal is over.

    It looks like it is bye bye to Richmond for Media General.

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