A lesson every newspaper owner needs to understand

Chip Hutcheson

Feb 1, 2024

... In my mind, those “how tos” take second place to advice passed along years ago by a man who was remarkably successful in his profession -- Paul “Bear” Bryant, legendary head football coach at Alabama.

Someone wanting to buy a newspaper can get plenty of advice on how it should operate once you take over ownership. There are many words of wisdom pertaining to how to staff the newspaper, how you can grow revenue and how to build circulation. But in my mind, those “how tos” take second place to advice passed along years ago by a man who was remarkably successful in his profession — Paul “Bear” Bryant, legendary head football coach at Alabama.

He learned soon after taking that job an important life lesson — one he made abundantly clear to all his assistants. That advice: “it really doesn’t cost anything to be nice, and the rewards can be unimaginable.” It worked for him, and it can work for anyone who buys a newspaper.

Here’s a recap of how Bryant came to that understanding.

He drove to south Alabama to recruit a prospect, stopping at a small block building that had a simple sign, “Restaurant.”

The older man who owned it took his order and asked why Bryant was in town. He explained he was the new Alabama football coach on a recruiting trip. The owner gave him directions to the local high school, and as Bryant was leaving, the owner told him the meal was on him. Bryant said no, the lunch was so good he felt he should pay, and left a nice tip along with it.

The owner asked if Bryant had a photo or anything else he could hang on the wall to show the coach had been there. He didn’t, but instead took a napkin and wrote the man’s name and address on it and said he would send something.

The prospect didn’t impress Bryant, who upon his return to Tuscaloosa found a picture, wrote on it, “Thanks for the best lunch I’ve ever had,” and mailed it to the man.

Many years later, Bryant returned to the area to recruit an offensive lineman. The player had two friends going to Auburn and said that is where he would go.

Two days later, the phone rang in Bryant’s office. It was the player who had turned him down, now asking, “Coach, do you still want me at Alabama?”

Bryant immediately replied, “Yes, I sure do.” Then he followed with the natural question: “What changed your mind?”

The prospect said, “When my grandpa found out that I had a chance to play for you and said ‘no,’ he pitched a fit and told me I wasn’t going nowhere but Alabama — and wasn’t playing for nobody but you. He thinks a lot of you and has ever since y’all met.”

Bryant asked who his granddad was. The prospect answered, “You probably don’t remember him but you ate in his restaurant your first year at Alabama and you sent him a picture that he’s had hung in that place ever since. That picture’s his pride and joy, and he still tells everybody about the day that Bear Bryant came in and had chitlins with him. My grandpa said that when you left, he never expected you to remember him or to send him that picture, but you kept your word to him and to Grandpa, that’s everything. He said you could teach me more than football, and I had to play for a man like you.”

When Bryant told that story years later, he said, “I was floored. But I learned that the lessons my mama taught me were always right. It don't cost nuthin’ to be nice. It don't cost nuthin’ to do the right thing most of the time, and it costs a lot to lose your good name by breakin’ your word to someone."

That is a lesson every newspaper owner needs to understand. Owning and managing a newspaper is not cause to boost your ego and propel you on a power trip. The best way you can succeed is to remember it doesn’t cost to be nice. That doesn’t mean you cave in to your staff or advertisers, but in every possible situation, you seek to find a way to be nice. Mark Twain said it this way, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.”

Don’t be the one who carries a cat by the tail and bears the scars and scratches to show for it.

So there is no misunderstanding, how does this concept of “costing nuthin’ to be nice” play out?


  • When you walk into the newspaper office, make it a point to say hello to every person. Make them feel noticed and appreciated.
  • Always look for ways to say “thank you.” That can be for a staff member who has done a superb job on a story or working with an advertising account; it could be an advertiser who begins to do business with you for the first time or a local elected official who faced a difficult time in office but persevered through it with integrity.
  • Always give the customer more than is expected. My ad salespeople were told that when an advertiser complains, the salesperson should ask what would make the customer happy. Then that salesperson was given the opportunity to do more than what the advertiser requested. It didn’t need anyone’s approval — that was the best way to make certain that the salesperson listened to the complaint and had the power to resolve it.
  • Don’t try to be a know-it-all and a do-it-all person. You might be the smartest person in the room, but in many cases, you will face situations you have never encountered, but someone on your staff might have learned how to let go of the tail of the previously mentioned cat.
  • Everyone makes mistakes — own up to the ones you make without trying to deflect the blame.
  • Always tell the truth. A lie will make it hard for an employee, an advertiser or a news source to trust you again.
  • Whenever possible, try to understand the views of others. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but at least make the effort to understand. A good statement to make is: “I hear you and understand what you are saying. Now let me explain my thoughts/situation.”
  • A final but important reality — you can never encourage anyone too much. If you disagree, consider this question: Have you ever been encouraged too much by someone? I don’t think so. I still remember the words of encouragement from my first boss 53 years ago. His encouraging words helped me understand how I could encourage others in my 41 years as a publisher. Take the time to give frequent and sincere encouragement. It pays huge dividends.

Chip Hutcheson is the retired publisher of The Times Leader in Princeton, Kentucky. He was NNA president in 2015. He currently serves as a content strategist for Kentucky Today, the online news website of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. chiphutcheson@yahoo.com