John H. Hetzler is the new publisher of The Albany Herald. Hetzler was previously The Herald’s general manager and takes the place of former publisher Mike Gebhart, who is relocating to Atlanta to concentrate on his duties in Southern Community Newspaper Inc.’s corporate offices.
ALBANY, Ga. -- John Hetzler could be one of those been-there, done-that kind of guys when it comes to the newspaper business. His 40-plus years in the industry have earned him that right.
But the romance and mystique of the industry seeped into his blood when he was a college student, working for $70 a week as a copy boy for his hometown Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, and it never went away. That's why the 61-year-old Hetzler, who was named publisher of The Albany Herald Feb. 14, breaks into a boyish grin when he talks about the "daily miracle" that the industry provides.
"A lot of people look at the daily newspaper as an entitlement, like it's just something that's there," Hetzler said. "They don't think of it as a business. But I don't know of any other business that manufactures, wholesales, retails, designs and produces a brand new product like a newspaper, all in one day.
"We always strive for perfection in this business, but because we're human, mistakes are going to happen. We learn from our mistakes and from our successes, but we don't dwell on them. While people are complaining, we're on to the next daily miracle."
Hetzler will have an opportunity to fulfill a long-held dream at The Herald. While he briefly served as publisher of a paper in Merced, Calif. -- a "mistake" that lasted only six months -- his ambition has guided him toward the job he accepted last week.
"I was working as vice president of advertising for Freedom (ENC Communications) with a group of dailies and weeklies in (New Bern) North Carolina when I got a call out of the blue from (now-former Herald Publisher) Mike Gebhart," Hetzler said. "I was happy to renew my relationship with Mike -- I'd actually replaced him at a job in New Haven (Conn.) -- and he told me about the paper in Albany.
"I said to myself, 'You're 60 years old, how many opportunities like this are you going to get?' I came down and talked with Mike, and I just knew things were going to click. It was a great move for me."
Hetzler came to The Herald in 2010 as Gebhart's second-in-command, his responsibilities primarily in the advertising, circulation and information technology departments. When Gebhart, who had served in the dual roles as Herald publisher and executive vice president of Southern Community Newspaper Inc. for eight years, announced he was moving to Atlanta to concentrate on his duties in SCNI's corporate offices, he made it clear his successor was firmly in place.
"John has worked hard for this opportunity, and he deserves this," Gebhart told Herald employees at a Valentine's Day staff meeting. "Our rich, 120-year history as the leader in providing local news and advertising to the greater Albany market will continue with a full-time captain now steering the ship.
"I have confidence that John will lead The Herald for a long time to come. He is well prepared for this endeavor. John and I have discussed in great detail that his No. 1 priority will be responsibility for all revenue streams at the newspaper. He will be focused on growing advertising and circulation in this market."
No one can deny Hetzler's qualifications. After what turned into a decade-long stay with the Dayton Daily News, he was wooed to Seattle to work at the renowned Post-Intelligencer as that newspaper's co-op advertising manager. It would be the first of many moves.
"Hey, I was single, that part of the country was beautiful, and I was up for the adventure," Hetzler said of his move to the West Coast. "I had a ball there."
The business of the industry reared its ugly head as Hetzler settled into his Seattle job when a merger left him a victim of downsizing. He worked outside the industry in sales for five years, covering 11 western states and parts of Canada before getting an offer to return home: to Dayton and to the newspaper industry.
He came back to Ohio, met and married his wife Carol -- now the executive director of the Albany Area Arts Council -- and started a nomadic career that carried him to San Antonio, Texas; Westchester, Pa.; New Haven; the ill-advised move to Merced; and finally to New Bern, N.C., before he got the call from Gebhart.
"Carol and I are both very adventurous, so we've looked on each new position as an opportunity for new things," Hetzler said. "One thing I've found everywhere I've gone is that I haven't been in one place where the people are mean. We've always been a part of paying it forward."
Now that Hetzler has an opportunity to run the show at The Herald, he said there might be small tweaks here and there.
"My mandate here is to hit the numbers, to meet the budget and turn a profit," he said. "How we get there, though, is my call. And one of the ways I intend to do that is get the right people in the right places throughout this company. We sometimes forget that people are what make or break a company, especially in this industry.
"I feel that the way you improve your product is to play to your strengths, not dwell on your weaknesses. The strength of this newspaper for the last 120 years is providing content no one else in the market can give. Anybody with a laptop can get into this business now, but we have to make certain we are the best at what we do."
Hetzler is not buying into the doom and gloom that has infiltrated the newspaper industry as some of the country's major publications have ceased or reduced their once-dynamic imprint on their communities.
"I'm old enough to remember when television expanded into major markets, and I started hearing the obituary for the newspaper industry back then," he said. "It resurfaced with the wide distribution of cable television, the growth of satellite radio and the growth of digital media.
"One of the unfortunate things about newspapers and their attempt to tell the whole story is that we've kind of become our own detractors. When circulation is down or newspapers stop printing, it becomes front-page news. And, of course, TV and radio are quick to talk about it, too. But you never hear them talk about their decline in ratings or their decline in viewers and listeners. We're victims sometimes of our own credibility."
Hetzler said The Herald and other newspapers will straddle the divide between old and new technology as they seek to find what exactly the public is looking for from such publications.
"The evolution in this business has been monumental," he said. "There have been greater changes in this industry in the last 10 to 20 years than in all the years since Gutenberg invented the printing press. As we look to the future -- and try to find a workable balance between our printed product and our Web product -- it won't depend on what we come up with but instead on what the market demands.
"We won't throw in the towel and let our newspaper die, but we have to take a look at the transformation that's taking place between 'print dollars' and 'digital dimes.' We have to strike a balance."
While some look on such a challenge as daunting, the new Herald publisher faces it with relish. He is, after all, living his dream.
"What I want is people here who feel the way I do; I want The Albany Herald to become a destination place to work," Hetzler said. "I want to change the culture here, make it a fun place to be, a cool place to work. You do that by getting good people -- even in some of the more thankless jobs -- and then thanking them for doing their job well.
"Every day, a minimum of 66,000 people -- most who own their own homes and are financially well-heeled -- are inviting us into their homes. They're getting the things from us they can't get in 30-second sound bites. That's huge, and it's one of the things that allows my wife and me to get up in the mornings and say, 'This could be the best day of our lives.' I'd love it if more people felt that way, not just at The Albany Herald but in Albany as well. Then we'd have less people complaining and more people talking about solutions."