Respecting the past, building the future
Silvestri honored with Frank W. Mayborn Leadership Award
Tom Silvestri promotes innovation and seeks out new revenue sources in the news business, but he insists that the basic values of good newspapers have to be maintained.
As publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch since 2005, Silvestri doesn't point out one big story or award as the newspaper accomplishment of which he is most proud.
"In an odd way, it's the constant mastering of the daily grind. Our newsroom is capable of producing great stories and great enterprise, but you can't underestimate the power of doing it 365 days with gusto on every day," he said.
"What I really admire is the constant attention every day to what matters. That's what I look back on, and that's what provides the fuel for the next day."
Silvestri is this year's recipient of the SNPA Frank W. Mayborn Leadership award. The award is named for Texas newspaperman Frank Mayborn, whose foresight and guidance helped shape SNPA in the early 1950s and who served as president of SNPA from 1961 to 1962. The Frank W. Mayborn award is given each year to someone in the industry who has demonstrated great vision.
Silvestri, 63, grew up in Westchester County, N.Y. as the son of a police officer who always brought a newspaper home from his shift and the grandson of an Italian immigrant who learned English by reading the daily sports section. He considered an accounting career, but he was editor of his high school paper and then the college paper at Pace University.
Silverstri became a reporter for Gannett in Westchester County after graduation and joined the Times-Dispatch as a copy editor in 1982. Since then, he has found enough challenges and opportunities enough to stay in Virginia. "The grass is very green right here," he said.
He moved up through the editing ranks except for five years as Media General's corporate director of news synergy before being named Times-Dispatch publisher. These days, the Times-Dispatch is owned by BH Media and Lee Enterprises has taken over corporate management.
For SNPA, Silvestri is a former president and has moderated most of the P2P video conference calls this year. He is also the current chairman of the SNPA Foundation Board of Trustees.
The P2P video conferences demonstrate what Silvestri sees as one of the organization's greatest strengths, its emphasis on helping and collaborating with members. P2P participants are asked to contribute one idea to each session; it can be a best practice, a successful promotion, an internal change or a significant news story.
"If you contribute a good idea, then you have no guilt in borrowing all the other ideas," he said.
Under Silvestri's leadership the Times-Dispatch introduced the Public Square, a regular series of discussions on civic issues held by the newspaper. Topics have included everything from health care, immigration, gun control and regionalism to the movie "Lincoln" that was shot in Richmond.
The idea is to promote civic – and civil – discourse, Silvestri said. Speakers must observe a time limit and be respectful of all viewpoints. Held in the paper's auditorium, the events have drawn from 13 people to 400, and a couple of times people were turned away because the auditorium holds less than 200.
The paper is planning the 75th Public Square on the topic "Seventy-five hopes for Richmond."
In the search for new revenue, Silvestri looks forward and backward. Digital and video platforms offer new ways to tell stories, he said, but newspapers also have extensive archives. Especially in area as steeped in history as Richmond, newspapers are well-positioned to retell old stories in new ways.
Silvestri sees revenue opportunities in book publishing and holding events. The Times-Dispatch is also focused on increasing digital subscriptions and is using data to determine what types of stories immediately move people to sign up for a digital subscription.
The demand for high quality journalism and accurate, objective news reporting has never been higher, he said. "It's the bedrock standard of accuracy, no bias and transparency." In times of fake news and attacks on the news media, publishers have to keep listening to readers.
"You have a responsibility to readers who have been subscribers for 20, 30, 40 years to make sure they stay with you," he said.
Like all publishers, Silvestri has had to make painful business decisions in the last several years as print revenue decreases and digital revenue struggles. Layoffs have been necessary at the Times-Dispatch, but he said the focus has to remain on long-term solutions for the industry.
"Hope isn't a strategy. Everyone knows you can't cut your way to success," he said. Instead, publishers have a responsibility to work harder to find solutions.
Silvestri is also focused on the next generation of leaders in the news business. He said he is working with SNPA and the Poynter Institute on an executive development program. It's crucial that leaders be excited and stay excited about every aspect of what they are responsible for, including their mission, employees, products, innovation and the need to seek investment dollars.
"We have a community to serve. We have really talented employees to develop. Yes, we have to find new revenues to supplement the decline in print. But we have a chance to find answers that will extend our future into many, many decades."
Jane Nicholes is a veteran journalist based in coastal Alabama and is a regular contributor to SNPA. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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