The story goes this way: When Rich Boehne, the CEO of the Scripps newspaper empire, was a copy boy at the old Cincinnati Post, he was considered something of — well — a nudge. A pushover.

One colleague remembers that the 15-year-old Boehne suffered relentlessly at the hands of the vicious practical jokers who comprised the Post newsroom in those days. Once, a grizzled desk editor ordered Boehne to fetch a soft drink from the 13th floor of the Post building on Broadway because “that’s where you find the coldest soft drink machines.” The frantic youth searched and searched, but could never locate exactly the right elevator to carry him to the 13th floor. (The punch line is therewas no 13th floor, owing to building superstitions of the time.)

A browbeaten Boehne finally returned to the newsroom with no frosty Mountain Dew from the 13th floor in hand, earning him a tongue-lashing from his boss and an admonishment that he’d better learn “to get his butt in gear.” Though the language, of course, was nowhere near that dainty.

Nobody’s pushing around Rich Boehne these days, though, except perhaps an angry economy and disappearing paper profits. It’s no secret the newspaper industry is in crisis, and that’s certainly “job one” for the recently christened chief executive of what is more formally known as The E.W. Scripps Co., headquartered on Walnut Street downtown.

“We have a lot of things to work through,” Boehne is saying while seated in the private conference room located just behind the chief executive’s suite on the 27th floor of the Scripps corporate tower. Boehne’s ceiling-to-floor plate glass windows offer a stellar view of the Reds, who at the moment are getting their clocks cleaned in an afternoon game at Great American.

“Structurally, Scripps is right where we thought it would be,” he continues of the media firm’s strategic plan. “We’re blessed with not a lot of debt.”

This position, Boehne says, translates to being able to consider growth options that competitors, in this convulsing financial climate might not. “We’re able to run toward the fire, not run away from it. ... This is a season of opportunity.”

“Opportunity” might seem an odd description for this particular season in the media business.

Newspapers are going bankrupt or closing their doors faster than you can say “Joseph Pulitzer.” Highly respected chains such as Knight Ridder and Tribune Co. are imploding altogether. Both advertisers and subscribers alike, reflecting radical changes in the economy and trends in reader habits, are flocking to the web, which threatens to scrap two centuries of journalistic tradition and legacy.

Boehne maintains that Scripps isn’t in the same position as some others, that the company’s leadership has deliberated and defined its inherent advantages: “What do we stand for? What is our brand? What’s the actual product? And not theplatform, the product.”

By way of the example, Boehne can be found on Twitter, telling young people that social media will tell a better story than traditional media. The medium, the platform, isn’t the message anymore; the message is being willing to take risks.

That isn’t to say print is dead in Boehne’s eyes. The executive is convinced he can drive economic value for shareholders while delivering spirited public service to readers and viewers.

As if to evidence this viewpoint, Scripps is bucking the trend by opening a new, $95 million dollar headquarters and state-of-the-art printing plant in September for its Daily News in Naples, Fla.

“What journalism needs is risk-takers and innovators, and putting up a new plant in the middle of a recession is a good sign of risk-taking,” notes Philip Meyer, author ofThe Vanishing Newspaper. “Now we’ll see how good (Scripps) is at innovating.”

“It does seem to be an odd time to be investing in printing,” echoes Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. “I will say it’s an unusual move. I have no reason to think the (Scripps) executive officers haven’t crunched the numbers.”

And what of those critics who suggest it is the shareholders and the very burden of public trading that are endangering America’s newspaper giants?

“I don’t think that’s true at all,” Boehne fires back. “It wouldn’t make any difference, public or private. I think it’s some people’s code for (if we were still private) that we wouldn’t have to make money. But somebody has to pay the bills.”

The Beginnings

Boehne began his ascent up the corporate ladder in the least likely of ways, as a beat reporter and editor. Actually, his first job for the Post was in high school, selling subscriptions.

After graduating from Highlands High School in Fort Thomas and Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, he landed a job as a part-time reporter at the dreaded competitor on Vine Street, The Cincinnati Enquirer. Later, he would join yet another Scripps competitor, the Community Press chain of suburban weeklies that encircle the I-275 loop neighborhoods on both sides of the river.

“Journalism was an early passion for me,” recalls Boehne, who notes he was framing newspaper front pages at the ages of 10 and 11, some of which are still found in his Newport home today.

He finally returned to his roots at Scripps, winding up on the business desk, covering Wall Street, the national economy and the media industry. Boehne, by all appearances, was happy to live out his days in the Queen City, slogging out business stories and pushing the news of the day out the door and onto the doorsteps of readers.

Then came the day in 1988 when Scripps chairman Bill Burleigh and CEO Larry Leser called Boehne and first hinted they were considering taking the corporation public. They needed somebody who knew both Wall Street and the company to serve as the first manager of investor relations. “They talked about taking a 110-year-old media company public. ‘Will you come over and help us?’”

Boehne was charged with building a base of public shareholders who would support the firm’s long-term mission and serve as viable partners for the Scripps family, who had closely held the ownership of the company for more than a century.

Somewhere in this timeframe came a nasty and prolonged Teamsters strike at Scripps’ The Pittsburgh Press; Boehne later said “it taught me about the danger of letting problems compound until there are few, if any, good options for resolution.”

The Challenges

By comparison, a snarling Teamster may seem like a kindergarten teacher compared to facing down today’s challenges in the media business.

Scripps newspaper segment profit plunged 88 percent in the first quarter of 2009, based on the severe downturn in ad revenue. Local advertising revenue was down nearly 25 percent to $26.6 million. National fell 25.7 percent to $6 million. Classified skidded 37.7 percent to $26.6 million. Online income tumbled 26.5 percent to $7.3 million.

Scripps certainly isn’t alone. Across the country, newspapers are ailing. Circulation numbers have plummeted. Advertising revenues are drying up. Page counts are down. News holes (the ratio of stories to ads) are shrinking. Stock prices of newspaper giants are at an all-time low. The very buildings that some of these titans inhabit are on the auction block.

What happened? What took a thriving fourth estate (so named because the founding fathers envisioned the press as the fourth arm of the democracy) and turned it into a quivering mass of journalistic Jell-O?

More than “what” is “who.” Their names are Craig. And Steve. And Bill.

It is the Google-zation of an industry. The traditional media business is being blogged and tweeted, Appled and Microsofted to death. Yes, a lousy economy and a recession certainly don’t help. But many believe when the economy turns around, that doesn’t mean the fortunes of newspapers will necessarily follow.

Advertisers are following readers into ether-space. The internet — from eBay to Craigslist — has proven a seductive medium that matches sellers with buyers and supposedly proves to advertisers that their money is well spent. Classified advertising (help wanted listings, car sale ads, and so on), in particular, is abandoning print for the CareerBuilders of the world. The information is interactive: searchable and downloadable.

Scripps was forced to close its Rocky Mountain News in February, leaving Denver with only one daily newspaper, while Gannett Co. shuttered the Tucson Citizen. The Philadelphia Inquirer and Minneapolis Star Tribune are in Chapter 11, both private-equity train wrecks. The Detroit papers have gone to publishing a print version only a few days a week.

Last year, nearly 6,000 journalists lost their jobs, setting a one-year record. Gannett Co., owner of The Cincinnati Enquirer, has been shedding employees — 11,400 in the past three years, including 198 atThe Enquirer —like there’s no tomorrow. And perhaps there isn’t.

Changing the Outcome

Boehne informs any questioners that, at Scripps, keeping newspapers healthy is all about focusing on local, local, local. From a small daily such as theKitsap Sun in Bremerton, Wash., to larger properties in Tennessee such as The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, and the Knoxville News Sentinel, Scripps will be made — or unmade — by the attention it pays to its local constituency.

Boehne also reminds people that Scripps is a local television news company, as well, owning a dozen stations including Channel 9 WCPO. Not all the eggs are in the print product basket. (The 7,200-employee company reports that of its $1.1 billion in revenue, approximately 62 percent comes from newspapers, 30 percent from local TV and internet, and 8 percent from its United Media division, which syndicates Dilbert, Garfield, Peanuts and others.)

“We’re very committed to local video news and are looking to expand our TV stations on the web,” he notes. “In 10 years, what we called today’s television will be very different.”

Another often over-looked gem in the crown of the company is the Scripps National Spelling Bee. While the mission of literacy can never be totally off-point for a newspaper company, it does cast Boehne in a different light for a national, even international, audience.

Boehne recalls how after the ABC network broadcast the Bee this spring (where he handed the trophy, the size of an aircraft carrier, to the excited winner), he nabbed his 15 seconds of fame on national airtime. “In airports right after that, people would come up to me and say, ‘I recognize you, but I don’t know your name.’”

Boehne stresses that, all these years, newspapers have been about essentially two things: “Storytelling and stenography.” The spiraling costs of newsprint and delivery, not to mention the reduction in news holes thanks to disappearing advertisers, have forced editors to dump the stenography role: Stock market tables, school lunch menus, police blotters and crime reports, some sports scores. “That wasn’t journalism, anyway.”

That leaves storytelling, something Boehne is passionate about. “I don’t have a traditional view of journalism. Personalities and analysis, that’s what we push,” in the news columns and on the air. “Breaking the boundaries ... becoming part of the community conversation.

“I tell editors if people walk down the street and don’t know who you are, you’re not doing your job. I talk about not letting anything significant go by if you want to insert yourself in the conversation.”

His roughest decision on the job so far as CEO? “Closing the Rocky. No comparison. It was the hardest day of a long career, but it was absolutely the right thing to do.” Boehne calls the Rocky Mountain News in Denver a great newspaper, no, afantastic newspaper, but one suffering under an increasingly lousy business model.

An obvious final question comes to mind. If company founder Edward Willis Scripps were to suddenly stroll into this conference room, what would he like about the current state of affairs, and what wouldn’t he like?

Hewould like the internet, Boehne insists. “I think this is the day E.W. Scripps prayed for. Free speech is available to everyone. I think he’d think this was fabulous.”

But, he wouldn’t like anything approaching a status quo.“We’re a company that he’d probably say, we don’t take enough risks.”

Easy enough for ol’ Ed to say. In a media environment that’s increasingly risky, some status quo might sound good.

But Rich Boehne will have none of it. “There has never been a moment when the market needed us more.

“At its heart, we’re a very entrepreneurial business.”

The Boehne File

Graduated:Highlands High School in Fort Thomas; Northern Kentucky University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism (1981)

Married:To wife Lisa. They have two sons, Luke and Jake

Lives:In a renovated home in Newport, once home to a piano manufacturing magnate

Neighbors:Restaurateur Jean-Robert de Cavel and former Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber president John Williams

Personal endeavors:Committed to the FreeStore FoodBank, where he serves on the board, as well as other “urban core” issues

Commutes:Often by riding a bike across the bridge to work

An E.W. Scripps Co. Timeline
  1. 1878 — Edward W. Scripps, just 24 years old, borrows $10,000 from his brothers to launch America’s first information revolution. He founds a newspaper in Cleveland,The Penny Press, that will be the first to target the emerging, but yet unserved, mass audience of urban workers.
  2. 1883 — Scripps acquires theCincinnati Penny Post.
  3. 1890 — Scripps changes the Cincinnati Penny Post’s name to theCincinnati Post and debuts theKentucky Post.
  4. 1892-1921 — Scripps acquires or starts papers in dozens of cities from L.A. to New York City.
  5. 1949 — Channel 9 WCPO (its call letters in honor of theCincinnati Post) goes on air.
  6. 1988 — Scripps goes public. Shares open at $8.
  7. 1994 — Scripps purchases Cinetel Productions, a Knoxville-based creator of programming for cable. Executives start knocking around an idea for a Home & Garden Television (HGTV) network. Later, concepts such as the Food Network, DIY Network and others will also become reality.
  8. 2007 — TheCincinnati Post andKentucky Post publish their final editions.
  9. 2008 — Scripps closes itsAlbuquerque Tribune.
  10. 2008 — Stockholders agree to spin off the company’s HGTV, Food and other networks into a new corporation, Scripps Networks Interactive (SNI). Rich Boehne is named president and chief executive officer of the E.W. Scripps Co.
  11. 2009 — Scripps closes itsRocky Mountain News.“I tell editors (in the company) if people walk down the street and don’t know who you are, you’re not doing your job. I talk about not letting anything significant go by if you want to insert yourself in the (community) conversation.”

Scripps Newspapers
  • California
    • Record Searchlight (Redding)
    • Ventura County Star
  • Colorado
    • Colorado Daily (Boulder)
    • Daily Camera (Boulder)
  • Florida
    • Naples Daily News
    • Treasure Coast Newspapers
  • Indiana
    • Evansville Courier & Press
  • Kentucky
    • The Gleaner (Henderson)
    • (online only news site)
  • South Carolina
    • Anderson Independent-Mail
  • Tennessee
    • The Commercial Appeal
    • Knoxville News Sentinel
  • Texas
    • Abilene Reporter-News
    • Corpus Christi Caller-Times
    • San Angelo Standard-Times
    • Times Record (Wichita Falls)
  • Washington
    • Kitsap Sun (Bremerton)Rich Boehne with the bust of E.W. Scripps in the company’s corporate tower.