Last Friday I asked a few current and former employees of The Forecaster to share their thoughts about our longtime publisher, Karen Wood. It didn’t take more than a few minutes for the email replies to start piling up.
That made it a little easier to write this particular column, which I never imagined I’d have to do.
For three decades, Karen was The Forecaster. On Jan. 3, I’m sad to say, her position was eliminated as part of a restructuring by our owner, MaineToday Media.
CEO Lisa DeSisto announced the change in a statement distributed to employees last Thursday, when she also announced Karen’s supervision of advertising sales has been transferred to Lee Hews, publisher of several MTM specialty magazines, under the new title of managing director.
“The Forecaster newspapers are on solid footing today thanks to Karen’s leadership over the many years,” DeSisto said. “… I’m sure many of you are shocked and saddened by Karen’s sudden departure. We appreciate the work Karen did over the years and wish her the very best going forward. Change is never easy but it is necessary in today’s media landscape.”
The reaction from members of The Forecaster’s extended family spoke volumes about leadership, shock and sadness.
“It’s hard to think of The Forecaster without Karen,” Steve Mistler, Maine Public chief political correspondent and State House bureau chief, said. “When I was there, I was always amazed at how she treated her employees like family. In fact, she always took a keen interest in my family, especially after my son was born. And it wasn’t perfunctory interest. It was as real as her laugh is loud.
“Maybe that seems like a small thing, but it always meant a lot to me while I was there. And it made me proud to work there even when times were tough at the company during the recession.
“She’s an advocate for employees. And as a journalist, I always appreciated how she respected that our job as reporters sometimes made hers a lot harder – and yet she never let you know it.
“I knew I would miss her when I left. And I did. Now it’s The Forecaster that’s going to miss her.”
Emily Parkhurst, now editor-in-chief of Seattle’s Puget Sound Business Journal, said Karen “was an inspiration to me when I was at The Forecaster, an example of what it means to be calm and poised under pressure. She was the kind of boss whose door was always open, whether you wanted to run a story idea by her, complain about a council meeting on beach access that went on until 2 a.m., or just talk about your personal life.
“Karen made sure The Forecaster was there for the people of southern Maine through the thick of the recession. That was no small feat. Newspapers were dying all around us. Her dedication meant a team of aspiring, young reporters had jobs through that difficult time. Journalism is never more important than when times get tough, and Karen made sure our newsroom could focus on what was important — informing the community and telling the stories that mattered. Southern Maine was better for her work. I cannot thank her enough for the opportunity she gave me during that time. I wouldn’t be the journalist I am today without it.”
Former staff writer Kate Bucklin, now manager of global events marketing communications for a Texas-based nonprofit, said “Karen has always exuded grace and positivity. She knows her job. She can sell ads as well as she can pick apart a news story. She was a role model to me in the way that she took a different approach to the business. She wasn’t ever the stereotypical, wary, chip-on-the-shoulder newspaper person. She interacted with everyone on the same level, with true interest and no pre-formed opinion, and those are traits I have modeled in my own career.”
Michael Hoffer, sports editor of The Forecaster, said he is forever grateful to Karen “for taking a chance on a hungry, unproven writer nearly two decades ago.
“What stands out the most about Karen was how she genuinely cared about every employee, whether it was someone just hired or someone who had been with The Forecaster for years. She made everyone feel welcome and important, regardless of their spot on the masthead.
“… Karen is on the short list of the finest and best people I’ve ever known. She brightens every room she enters and is a truly phenomenal person in a world that could desperately use more of them. The Forecaster and success we’ve had in the past, or will have in the future, will always be synonymous with Karen.”
Staff writer David Harry said Karen’s “guidance, humor and faith in all of us never wavered. It could be ice cream in the freezer on a hot day, contact information for a story, or sharing a ‘Monty Python’ joke. It was always the enduring sense she cared, and loved what she did.”
Former staff writer William Hall said Karen “clearly valued the reporters who worked for her as professionals, but first she valued them as people. She seemed to understand our individual strengths and perspectives, and that, in turn, helped us make the most of them. As publisher, she played a difficult role at the juncture of business, community, and the newsroom. And yet, we always knew she was our advocate, that she had our backs. She demonstrated her caring for us in sometimes overlooked ways, like the frozen treats she’d stock in the fridge on hot summer days. I miss working with her, but am certain that whoever next has that privilege will be better as a result.”
Suzanne Piecuch, longtime paginator at The Forecaster and Sun Media Group, said if she were to pick a fictional character who most embodies Karen, “it would be Capra’s George Bailey. It’s what you do, the way you give, the morale you uphold, the Potters you stand up to, the selfless energy and unquelled joie de vivre that in the end characterizes you. Karen has Heart, and she’s earned the love, loyalty and respect of those of us who know her at The Forecaster.”
Marian McCue, former editor and owner of The Forecaster, said Karen’s deep and abiding loyalty is one of her most defining characteristics.
“She is staunchly loyal to friends and family, and she has always been loyal to the mission of The Forecaster to provide local news, serving its readers and advertisers,” McCue said. “She set and maintained the standards and really believed in it, which is why this sudden sundering of her from The Forecaster is unimaginable. She really was The Forecaster, and she set a standard.”
And just to prove Karen could be less than perfect, there was this memory from Greg Kesich, editorial page editor of the Portland Press Herald:
“She is the author of what might be the worst typo of all time. … We had a small businesses profile feature called ‘On and off the peninsula.’ Karen was in a hurry laying out the page as usual and left out a letter in the headline, writing that it was the ‘penis-ula’ that we were on and off of.
“Oh, and the business was a hot-dog cart.”
As I said, it was easy to gather those comments, and there were many more that were similar. Now comes the hard part.
I worked with Karen for 14 1/2 years, including nearly 12 as editor. She was my boss, but she was also my friend and partner. We often referred to ourselves as Mom and Dad, the heads of household in a family where the kids – our reporters – grew up too quickly and, if we did our jobs well, moved on to bigger and better things. The comments I’ve used here from some of the many who blossomed at The Forecaster are a tribute to Karen’s leadership and her commitment to the newspaper, its mission and its role in the community.
I will always cherish my relationship with Karen. She was ultimately responsible for both the business side of The Forecaster and the news side, but she always respected and defended the independence of the news operation. She was a boss who treated everybody well, motivating us not with threats or intimidation, but with encouragement and enthusiasm. Her unfailingly positive and upbeat attitude helped bring the best out of everyone.
I’ve worked at newspapers big and small, on both coasts, and I’ve always told our “kids” that life is better at the bottom of the food chain: you get more freedom to write the stories that interest you, you can experiment with writing styles and techniques, and no one stereotypes you as “the science guy,” or “the food writer,” or “the city hall reporter.” You don’t get paid much at a paper like The Forecaster, but you get to do it all, to be successful and to fail, and at the end you’ll be a better journalist and a better person.
And if you’re lucky, you’ll have the opportunity to work with someone like Karen.
It was more than what Karen did or said that had the most impact on me and on everyone who has worked with her. It was how she made all of us feel: respected, appreciated, valued and loved.
I hope we’ve made her feel the same way.
Mo Mehlsak is executive editor of The Forecaster, American Journal and Lakes Region Weekly. He can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 107 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow Mo on Twitter: @mmehlsak.