Martha Ann Walls

Walls 2 copyMartha Ann Walls is president and chief executive officer of Southern Newspapers, Inc., a Houston-based company founded by her late husband B. Carmage Walls. Martha Ann “Molly” Williams married Carmage Walls in 1954. Throughout her marriage, she was always actively involved in the newspaper company, even more so after the couple moved their operations from Alabama to Texas in 1967 with the purchase of The Baytown Sun.

Listen to Martha Walls’ interview:

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Read Martha Walls’ interview:

Wanda Cash:  Today we’re visiting with Martha Ann Walls.  It is Dec. 10, 2008, and we’re at the headquarters of Southern Newspapers, Inc. in Houston, Texas.  Ms. Walls is affectionately known as Molly.  Molly, let’s talk.

Molly Walls:  All right.  I was born in 1927 in Gadsden, Alabama, and I got into newspapering because I was working at a job I hated and I heard there was an opening at an office and I said, “I’ll take it.”

I never have worked on a newspaper, I’ve always worked for a group that owned newspapers.  And the thing I liked best about it was the people I met.  I  didn’t have any education for newspapering or journalism; didn’t have any training except I have always been organized, some say to a fault, and most important lesion I guess that I’ve learned from my 63 years in newspapers is tolerance and patience.

My best stories about newspapering are not Texas oriented.  They stem from the time that my husband was publisher in Montgomery, Alabama, and…

WC:  Your husband was Carmage Walls.

MW:  My husband was Carmage Walls and he had been in the newspaper industry since he was, I think he said 12 or 13 years old.  Then we moved to Montgomery, Alabama, in January of ’63.  My husband had bought the newspaper there, intended to send someone else in as publisher and he learned that the owner of the newspaper that was selling would only sell if Carmage Walls would come sit in his chair.

So we moved to Montgomery in January the same month that George Wallace was inaugurated and Martin Luther King and he started the war.  And again this is Alabama and not Texas, but it is journalism.

At that time they were publishing a white edition of the newspaper and a black edition and no black names were included in the white edition and they had four editions every day of each one.  My husband said this is morally wrong and fiscally stupid.  He said we’re gonna have one newspaper for everyone in the community.  Well, the whites got mad because there were black names in it — a lot of whites got mad because there were black names in the paper and a lot of the blacks got mad because there weren’t as many names of blacks as there had been.  And the KKK burned a cross on our lawn and threatened death to our children and us.  The sheriff came to our office and I was I guess you’d call co-publisher because I had an office next door to my husband’s, and the sheriff came to our office and said, “I want you all to carry guns because this white supremacist in the area said he was gonna kill you.”

So we carried guns and we had someone to watch our children all the time.  This went on for a couple of years.  That’s the most memorable thing.  Sometimes I’d like to forget it.

WC:  Did you find the atmosphere different when you moved to Texas?

MW:  Yes.  We moved to Texas in ’73 and yes, I found it different.  It was a much more open atmosphere, it was more… There was some bigotry, there always has been and there always will be.  It wasn’t as much as there was in Alabama.  And thankfully Alabama has matured and gotten over a lot of that stupidity.

WC:  Did you face much pressure from advertisers in the community when you changed the publishing cycle and incorporated the black edition into the white edition?

MW: Yes.

WC:  And was that a financial suffering for you?

MW:  Yes it was.  It didn’t last long because those advertisers needed us more than we needed them or at least as much and so that part did not last long.  And I like to think that a lot of people’s attitudes and thinking changed when they started looking around and searching their hearts.  You ask what, who had taught me the most about journalism and that would be my husband.

WC:  Tell us when Mr. Walls died and how the company went forward after that.

MW:  Well, back in the 50s, as part of our estate planning, we asked for and received permission to divide our company and I’m sure that people thought, tax people thought we were getting a divorce, but it was just forward thinking and Carmage kept a few papers but we had given or allowed our children to buy papers from the company because we wanted them to have their inheritance then instead of after we died.  So in effect we had his company and my company and each of our children had his or her own company and we, we didn’t serve on each other’s boards. We really kept it separate, separate books, separate. The only thing we shared was office space and my company owned the office space and his company paid rent for the space he used. And we maintained that until he died and he died in ’98. Wait a minute. That’s right.

WC:   November ’98.

MW:  What, one of the questions what should journalism schools be teaching.  Have I answered that? Well, journalism is hard to tell a news story, in some cases it’s hard to tell a news story that isn’t editorial and what journalism schools should be teaching is the difference. And editorials belong on the editorial page; they don’t belong with the news. I feel very strongly about that.

WC:  Are you seeing evidence of that blur on today’s front pages and inside news pages?

MW:  Yes I am and that’s disturbing. The reader should not know the writer’s politics. If it’s a news story, it’s a news story. If it’s an editorial, it’s an editorial.

WC:  Let’s talk about that a minute and how Southern Newspapers manages or guides or enables the community newspapers that they own. How involved is the central office, the central management, in the operations of the community papers?

MW: Hiring the publisher.  That’s it.  We don’t dictate editorial policy. I don’t.  Well, the few times that we replaced publishers in some cases that was the problem and others weren’t meeting expenses.  But we encourage at the outset that you’re publisher, you’re reflecting the community, you’re not dictating to the community, you’re reflecting. And the ones that we keep do that.

WC:  So how does that mirror your personal leadership style?

MW:  Hands off.  If a publisher comes to me with a question I’ll answer it, but it’s never an order.

WC:  Let’s talk a little bit about the issue of private ownership of newspapers and publicly held newspaper companies. This is last quarter of 2008.  We’ve just seen the Tribune Company file for bankruptcy. Every day brings news of more layoffs, profit-driven layoffs. So how are the privately held newspaper companies doing?  And how are you surviving when some of your colleagues in the metro areas, big papers, the publicly held papers, are struggling today?

MW:  Well, one, they answer to a different boss. The balance sheet is the prevailing force.  With our company the quality of the newspaper is the prevailing force. And now, we have to make some money but we are fortunate in that we bought at the right time and we got good tax advice and our company is out of debt. We don’t owe anybody except Cooper and his wife who sold their interest in the company.

WC:  And that’s your, one of your sons?

MW:  One of our sons. That’s the only debt this company owns so we’re financially independent and the big city newspapers that are owned by, not even individuals, but houses, brokerage houses, are not financially independent.

WC:  Is there a difference in the journalism that’s practiced at community newspapers compared to metro daily?

MW:  I think so and that’s the key, the words:  local and metro.  We are small-town newspapers and small-town newspapers well television doesn’t hurt us, local radio does, is a so-so competitor but television is not a competitor because we publish local news and television does not, generally, except for maybe an hour a day.  And I think that makes us independent.  And the important thing is, if we emphasize anything, it’s stay local because television is not going to tell you about Uncle Henry dying or Suzy’s new baby.  We deliver that kind of news, local news.

WC:  And had there been, over the years, with you and Mr. Walls, was there a deliberate decision to keep your newspaper properties at a certain circulation level, at a certain market size?

MW:  No. At one time Carmage was president, we first we got our financing from Jefferson Pilot Insurance Company and then they decided newspaper business was a good business and they’d liked being in it. And Carmage was president of the company, Jefferson Pilot Communications, I think, for some period of time but and he acquired newspapers for them, for that company.  Then he wanted to be independent and so he bought some of the newspapers from that company and set up his own company. In the beginning he had worked for his mentor Charles Marsh and he acquired newspapers for Mr. Marsh and then later Jefferson Pilot and he set out, he became an owner.

WC:  So today in 2008 you have various properties.  Would you describe what they are?  Give us a range of ideas of what sort of newspaper holdings.

MW: Well most of them are here in Texas. We have three small papers in Alabama. And my daughter who is the other owner of Southern Newspapers, Inc. owns one of the papers in her own name and we have a semi-weekly in Georgia. The rest are here in Texas and they’re, they’re all community papers.  Galveston is the largest, but it is not part of Southern.  It’s a stand-alone that the family foundation and Lissa and I own.  But the rest of them are in Southern, in the corporate Southern Newspapers.

WC:  So what was the acquisition philosophy?  Was it geographical?  Was it county seat oriented?

MW:  No, it was whatever was on, whatever was for sale that we thought was a good investment.  There was no, there was no set of rules or… And usually we bought a paper from a family and usually it was because of inheritance taxes. Someone died and the family had to sell. A few we bought just because somebody wanted to but most of the time it was death taxes. And it’s one of the things that I’ve always been proud of is that nearly all of our, the former owners, continued to live in that town and many have told me that they were glad we bought it instead of maybe somebody else.  That’s a high compliment.

WC:  So, where are newspapers heading?  I know Southern has had a strong presence on the Internet for more than 10 years.

MW:  I think that it’ll be the Internet.  I’ll never see it in my lifetime and I doubt if Lissa will in hers. I don’t think the print product will go away because, well, I just think that people like to have something in their hands that’s black and white and they can read it and re-read it and then maybe say a few cuss words and write a letter to the editor. Watching television you watch it and say a few cuss words, but you… I don’t think anybody ever responds to the television station or the…  I certainly don’t.  I think that it’s the solidity of the newspaper, the have and hold that will keep it alive.

WC:  Yet Southern is a viable presence on the web.

MW:  Well yes, but I think it’s to lead people to the newspaper, I don’t think it’s to substitute. I mean it may tie it but I can’t see it ever taking the place of the print produce.

WC:  Can you reflect a little bit about women in the business from the perspective of being the owner of the company, having a daughter who’s a co-owner and having women publishers and how, maybe you’ve seen that evolve over your career?

MW:  Well, I’ve watched it evolve from practically no females to what I call an equal playing ground. My husband was the most liberated man I know and he, early on was just appalled that women were second-class citizens in the journalism field. He encouraged me and he encouraged others to change that. And I think it…  I think it’s fair now, I think it’s come a long ways in 63 years.

WC:  Were there challenges for you as a woman?  A lack of acceptance, or perception that you were just Carmage’s wife?

MW: I don’t know.

WC:  Did you ever feel any of that?

MW:  I didn’t feel it. It may have been there but I didn’t feel it.  Maybe I chose not to feel it.  Because I do think we choose how we feel about things, many things.

WC:  We were talking earlier about what you described as your low profile. Go back and talk a little bit more about that.

MW:  Well, I don’t… Well I just don’t like being on stage, I don’t know how to explain it. I’d just rather be – not ignored – but just not noticed.

WC:  You said earlier that it was your preference that the readers, the constituents in the communities where your newspapers operate, never knew that you existed and that they didn’t know anything about Southern Newspapers office in Houston.  Do you want to talk about that as part of your hands-off style?

MW:  Well that is, that’s part of it. That’s what keeps the newspaper local. Direction is not coming from Houston, Texas to New Braunfels. The New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung is produced in New Braunfels for the people of New Braunfels by the people of New Braunfels. That’s what local is. You throw Houston in there and it’s not local any more.

WC: Have you faced some ethical dilemmas in issues that have cropped up maybe in the local communities that somehow got the Houston office involved?

MW:  Occasionally I’ve had an irate phone call, which I try to handle politely, but no decision, because as I tell the person, you need to take this up with the editor or the publisher and when they say I talked to him or her and I didn’t get anywhere I say, “Well, I’m sorry that no one could help. Thank you for calling.”

WC: Does that work?

MW:  If I hang up after I’ve said thank you for calling they don’t usually call back.

WC: Do you think there’s going to be a new business model for journalism? There’s talk out there today about non-profit journalism where readers send in a contribution much like they do to support Public Television or National Public Radio.  If they like the story and they want to see the journalist continue working they’ll send them a check, a membership donation.

MW:  Well, I can’t see that happening.  I just… One, I think if you have to pay to have something printed it probably wasn’t worth it.

WC:  So you mentioned earlier that journalism schools need to emphasize the need for objectivity and teach students to keep their personal politics, their personal biases out of their reporting.  If you could stand up in front of a journalism class and give the valedictory address and send them out to work for Southern Newspapers’ newspapers, what would you tell them?

MW:  Just what you have just said and to be honest; don’t sell your soul for money or for compliments, recognition.

WC:  Somebody once said that being a newspaper publisher was a lonely business that it was hard to know who’s your friend, who loves you for who you are instead of for what you can do for them.

MW:  Well, in a sense it is a lonely profession in that a good publisher has to be able to allow something to be said or written about a good friend or a loved one.  And I don’t think that’s…  I just think it’s part of the makeup of the profession.  You have to be apart of what’s going on while you’re being part of it.

WC: Have you had a good time?  Have you enjoyed your career?

MW: Well, I have because it’s people, it’s never boring and of course my husband and I worked together so long and I loved him so much that if he’d been a garbage collector I probably would have been happy collecting garbage.

As it turned out I was happy working with him in the newspaper profession and I’ve tried to live up to his standards, which are pretty high, for himself and for everybody else.

WC:  And now you have a daughter to carry on that legacy and a son in Alabama and a grandson and…

MW:  Well, and then our son who died, Tom’s widow owns a newspaper in Alabama and so my older daughter Jean is the only one of the children who’s not been involved in the newspaper.  The other four have been.

WC:  Let’s wrap this up with the hard question.  What lessons has your life work taught you?

MW: Patience, appreciation, a lot of patience.  That’s why I still come to the office every day after 64 years of it.  I just love being part of this profession.

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