Remembering Sue Clark-Johnson

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Sue Clark-Johnson, a professor of journalism at Arizona State University, former executive director of Morrison Institute for Public Policy, former Arizona Republic publisher and the first female head of the newspaper division of Gannett,died at age of 67. Joe Garcia, director of the ASU Morrison Institute Latino Public Policy Center, Judy Jolley Mohraz, former president and current board member of Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust and Michael Ryan, founder and president of Ryan Media Consultants talk about Sue Clark-Johnson.

José Cárdenas: Good evening. I'm José Cárdenas. Tonight, remembering Sue Clark-Johnson, a nationally known and acclaimed newspaper executive and the former publisher of "The Arizona Republic." We'll hear from people who knew her, coming up next on "Horizonte."

Video: Funding for "Horizonte" is made possible by contributions from the friends of eight, members of your Arizona PBS station.

José Cárdenas: Thank you for joining us. Last month, former "Arizona Republic" publisher and first female head of the newspaper division of Gannett, Sue Clark-Johnson, died at the age of 67. After retiring in 2008 Clark-Johnson returned to Arizona, where she remained active in community issues and headed up Arizona State University's Morrison Institute For Public Policy. Joining me to talk about Sue Clark-Johnson: Joe Garcia, director of the ASU Morrison Institute Latino Public Policy Center. Judy Jolley Mohraz, the former president of the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust and a current board member. Mike Ryan, founder and president of Ryan Media Consultants and a former vice-president at "The Arizona Republic." Thank you all so much for joining us this evening to remember a dear friend and national leader. The one common element, there are many but one that stands out in all the commentary we've read about Sue is she was a journalist's journalist to the core. And that had some very early antecedents.

Judy Jolley Mohraz: Her father was caught up in the McCarthy era, was blacklisted, had to write under pseudonym and I think he influenced her. I think she always, always felt that he had inspired her. One of her most cherished possessions was his typewriter, just a regular upright typewriter. I think that was in her blood literally in the beginning. And I think she was also I would say someone who loved history, loved public affairs, in college did as well, and I think all of that led and she was working for a paper, you know, at a very young age. So I think that was part of her heritage.

José Cárdenas: Michael, you and I were talking a little earlier off-camera about the fact that publishers from the advertising or business side of the enterprise or from the journalism side and it makes a difference why?

Michael Ryan: It makes a difference because of just their background. The one thing about Sue was even though she was involved as publisher, she never left her roots as being an editor, as being a journalist. And she always put that first because she believed that the quality of the publication, the quality of what the reporters and the editors did was paramount to the success or failure of a publication and that's where the "Arizona Republic," when she came and started and led the newspaper by the force of her personality, because she was so driven and so committed to making a difference in the community and that she expected that every day from the people that worked with her.

José Cárdenas: It wasn't just a business?

Michael Ryan: It definitely wasn't and she loved the newspaper business but she realized that deep down, what made the newspaper business -- the key to the newspaper business was the journalism that was being done.

José Cárdenas: You worked with Sue Clark-Johnson over the course of many years, she still had that journalistic editorial attitude.

Joe Garcia: From day one, she brought this energy that everyone at Morrison kind of had to step up it because for her, she was used to publications and deadlines. We're a think-tank. She wanted to make sure we had action and it was very important that Morrison become a little more dynamic, more interactive, hold more meetings, more dealing with the public outreach so it wasn't just a report we were putting out. The report was just the beginning of the conversation, to provide some information so people could have an intelligent dialogue. So it was about creating discussion. And she saw that more of an active form at Morrison institute than had been done before.

José Cárdenas: That's another theme that runs through all the commentary, while she was diminutive in stature, she was a force of nature but not in any ugly, heavy-handed sort of way.

Judy Jolley Mohraz: Well, here's this five-foot tall white haired sprite of a woman, generally in colorful clothes, and you could first think that this was not a leader of great influence and power and yet she was but she always used that power and influence in ways that brought people together, not in heavy-handed ways, not in ways -- I think she had the capacity to bring out the best in people because she saw -- she saw the potential of people and would bring them together, whether it was around a board room table, whether it was around a conference or whether it was around her famous dining table, she believed in people, she found things to like and be interested in them and she fostered that environment with everyone that she interacted with.

Michael Ryan: And she loved the nurturing part of the business. She enjoyed bringing people along, identifying people who had potential and then working with them and then allowing them those opportunities to succeed. I mean, she has a whole cadre of people in the organization that owed their career to her because she identified them as being potential leaders, and then really provided them the opportunity to succeed.

José Cárdenas: And I know you considered her to be a mentor, we've got a picture of the two of you together, it's a very nice picture on the screen.

Michael Ryan: I invited her to speak to my rotary club. The one thing about Sue was she was always prepared. I remember one of our editors at the "Arizona Republic" was really impressed when Sue first came and she was speaking to the Pulliam Fellows and most times when the publisher would come, they would just make some perfunctory remarks. She had read the background about every one of the interns and spoke specifically about things in their report that she really liked about them. Those people were blown away that here was this publisher of one of the largest newspapers in the company who took the time to really learn about the interns who had spent the summer in Phoenix but that was Sue because she was always on. I mean, she loved her job, and she lived her job 24/7.

José Cárdenas: Let's talk about that move from Reno where she had been the publisher of the Reno gazette, which is a significant accomplishment especially given her age but going from there to what was the biggest newspaper that the company owned, what was that transition?

Michael Ryan: It was huge because I mean, the fact was she went from a paper that was 80,000 to one on Sundays had more than a half a million in circulation. So what Sue realized was the potential of that because what this community knew, someone can come in and make an impact and Sue realized as a publisher of a newspaper, you could be a force for good in the community. And it's like Judy mentioned about rallying people around certain issues. For example, I mean Sue organized a water summit back in 2005. Now, there's a Morrison institute is really putting forth an effort with water but she identified the issues and wanted people to talk about issues, sometimes, before most people were really ready for it. She was kind of a visionary in the sense that she could identify issues and really help bring people together to talk about them and the key thing with Sue is to get some action done because she was never one who would want to sit around and talk. As Joe said hey, at the end of the day, what are you going to do about this? What are we going to do? So that was her newspaper background.

José Cárdenas: Joe, you interacted with her even before you went to work for her, you were working in Tucson. Give us an example of some of the kinds of issues you dealt with her.

Joe Garcia: We dealt with immigration early on, and that was before things got ugly. I think she thought that if she gave enough information about immigration and looked at it from a different viewpoint, I think she always looked at immigrants as people. She didn't demonize them and I think she saw that as potential and unfortunately, it got out of control as you know, nothing anyone could have done when it turned ugly but in Tucson, we would come up here because we were part of the chain and we would talk about immigration issues, what we would share, we were close to the Mexican border, we had a Mexican border reporter, and so it was a matter of sharing. And I remember one of the meetings, I was pointing out that, you know, the Mexican immigrant is the new Irish. And there were a lot of people at that meeting that didn't really like that because they said you don't understand the Irish came legally and so forth and so on but Sue wanted the discussion I think and the viewpoints on the table so we could look at immigration from a lot of different points. But it was always from a human standpoint as well and not just the political one. She was a people person. She was a force. I know when she would come onto the north floor of the Morrison institute when the elevator would open up, everyone knew Sue was there, she was a whirlwind, almost Tasmanian devil. She didn't need a paging system. She would be in her office and she will just lean her head out the office and joe! Joe! All right, I knew I was being summoned and I would go in there. It was just her style. Her style was very direct, very open. She and I sometimes would debate various things but not once did she squelch me or not appreciate the dialogue. Part of that was the respect for a newspaper person talking. She believed in the power of information and if you gave good information, credible information whether it be a newspaper's or a public policy report, she thought good could come out of that because people could talk intelligently about a complex problem.

José Cárdenas: Judy, it wasn't just newspaper people that she could relate with. You arrived at the same time, she did in 2000, right? She had immediate impact.

Judy Jolley Mohraz: She had immediate impact. She had loved Nevada, always loved Nevada but she loved Arizona. And she quickly reached out to connect with as many people as they could, to learn as fast as she could and she had this extraordinary intellectual curiosity. She wanted to happen what made issues what they were but what made people tick so she began very quickly, began to understand the challenges of downtown Phoenix, the challenges of the state, to appreciate I think the youth of the state, but the potential of the state, and she could bring corporate leaders, academic leaders, philanthropic leaders, community volunteers all together take a look at problems that had urgency, they had relevance to the future, the future competitiveness of the state and as joe and mike were saying, what are we going to do about it? And what are the specific concrete policies? And you didn't have out of a meeting with Sue with the idea that a committee would report back in some time with a report. You had action items that people were assigned or had volunteered, had found themselves saying they would do in order to move the project, move the issue.

Michael Ryan: That's where she really relished the role of publisher, of being able to get involved in the community because there's some publishers who, you know, by their very nature aren't really that outgoing. Sue was extremely outgoing and wanted to be involved. She realized that what the newspaper could do in helping to set the agenda, by the force of being -- publishing every day and with a website being able to get information out there. So she really used that to help, you know, address these issues and bring people together because she used the force of the role that she had in the community as publisher to really try to, you know, improve the community and the one thing is that was always interesting is when she left in mid- to around 2006 to go to corporate, to head up the newspaper division, it was interesting because she was one of the few people who really then missed that role of being a publisher. I think she missed not having her own community. When she was over staying from Washington, all the papers, it just wasn't the same because she loved that hands-on relationship and she stayed very much active. She would always come back on weekends to Arizona. So she was living in Washington, she never left Arizona. It's almost like she was a senator or something, the senator comes back every weekend to his district. She always would come back to this area because she loved it and wanted to stay involved so it was easy when she came back to the community after she retired to reconnect with the community because she never left the community.

Joe Garcia: I was in Washington, D.C. at a Gannett editors conference when Sue was named head of the newspaper division. And they did a q and a, all the editors from around the country were there and you could tell there was going to be a change in Gannett. The energy, you could tell the energy was changing. And I've never heard Sue say anything she didn't believe and that q and a, she was putting pretty much even on alert in Gannett that there's change that's going to take place and it was usually for the better. Under Sue I became editor of the daily times newspaper in Farmington, New Mexico. And I was probably one of eight or nine Latinos who was an editor of a daily newspaper at that time. I have no doubt Sue had a hand in it because when the ownership of the newspaper changed, Sue kept me with Gannett and usually, when you sell a newspaper, you sell all the players like a football team, you sell the players, she had given me the option and I came back to Arizona as a result. It was good to come back home. I remember bob Moore had asked about me specifically to Sue and at the time I didn't know Sue that well, but bob Moore, the editor, was saying too bad, I brought him here from Arizona and she goes don't worry, we're protected, joe. And we didn't know each other that well at the time. Of course, little did I know we would end up working together at Morrison institute. She came that very same week, I was hired, I was an independent contractor but she came on board that very same week. It's kind of interesting. I think we were meant to work together in some capacity and it was just kind of interesting how that worked out.

Judy Jolley Mohraz: Kismet. So Judy, it must have been a tough decision for her to decide to leave Phoenix to go to Washington.

Judy Jolley Mohraz: I think it was. You know, what mike said about Sue loving being a part of a community, in Washington you're in a rarefied environment, you're in a different environment. You're not connected to a community in the same way, and I think that was something she understood. She understood it would be corporate culture writ large and she was not one to stand on formality and corporate hierarchy in a lot of ways. I think she understood that as a woman, as a national leader in journalism, this was an opportunity. And she respected that. But to leave Arizona, to commute in a marriage that meant the world to her, those were not easy decisions and as successful as Sue was, as a woman with a remarkable career at a time when many women were not moving ahead, she always, always had that grounding of the personal relationships, as most important.

José Cárdenas: And you became one of her closest and dearest friends. Did she ever confide in you her own assessment of her years in Washington, did she regret leaving?

Judy Jolley Mohraz: I don't think she regretted leaving. I mean, I think she saw it as an opportunity but I would not say that she would have looked back on those years as the most fulfilling or the most satisfying. I think it was her years in Phoenix and her years in Reno, where she was deeply integrated, knitted into the community in every way that she found the fullest and most complete life.

José Cárdenas: Do you think she felt some sense of obligation to take the position because she would be the first female head of the Gannett newspaper division? She's noted for being a pioneer on diversity and the first woman to do this, first woman to do that. Was that part of the calculus?

Judy Jolley Mohraz: I think she was -- was urged by corporate to take this job. And Sue, you know, like many women who came of age when she did, understood that she was making decisions not only for her career but for women coming behind her, and so I think to take that job, to oversee this powerful force in American journalism, she understood that that was ground breaking. She was going to do a good job. There was no question about that. And how many preconceived ideas and barriers would be broken as a result of her and of a woman playing that role?

Michael Ryan: I think she felt that she could really make a difference because the fact was now instead of overseeing all the newspapers in the western group, she was overseeing every Gannett newspaper. I think the challenge there especially in the time, it was a turbulent time for newspapers, developing a website and communicating to readers on a 24/7 basis. I think Sue really relished that opportunity to lead the whole company. I think what happened, though, is she realized how much she missed being a publisher, being connected to a community. And I think as Judy also rightly mentioned, the personal toll, because she and her husband had a very close relationship, a very loving relationship, and I think it was hard, him oftentimes being out west, she being in Washington or traveling on business because she had all these newspaper sites to worry about.

José Cárdenas: And brooks had a journalistic background, as well.

Michael Ryan: Exactly. He was a publisher for a Gannett newspaper earlier in his career in San Bernardino.

Joe Garcia: But Sue when she left Gannett and retired and she had accomplished her career, more than anyone at that point as far as a female in Gannett leadership, she didn't stay retired. She could have stayed retired and lived off her laurels but in Morrison, she had the energy of wanting to do something and she said I flunked retirement. That's what she said because she didn't want to retire. She wanted to make a difference, and I think that's why she came to Morrison because she thinks we deal with the issues that the state is dealing with, the challenges and she saw that very similar to newspapers.

José Cárdenas: And among those issues, she was particularly interested in elections and the electorate and we've got a picture of her at I think one of the state of the state presentations and talking about that issue.

Joe Garcia: She started the state of the state conference, which is our signature event, annual event and right away she came and that was one of her first decisions. We got a hold of conference, got a hold of conference, about what? She goes well I don't know what, that's what we have to decide. She knew we had to get Morrison out of the -- from the ninth floor and into the community and we needed to bring people together to discuss issues and that was her baby and it's still going on, of course, today. We recognized her at a couple of state of the state conferences before because the influence she had an Morrison is going to continue, the Kyle center for water policy, she began that and obviously, it's grown into finally a formal center. The Latino public policy center was -- she made that happen. Without her, I don't know if we would have that center. There was a lot of things that she did at Morrison that will continue, but this was her whole idea. And when she walked away from it, I think it was hard but she wanted to try something new. She knew she had made an impact there that was going to be felt for years.

José Cárdenas: And Judy, one of the signature accomplishments while she was at Morrison was the drop report that piper trust played a leading role in working with Sue.

Judy Jolley Mohraz: Piper and Helios both. I think it was one of those landmark reports in terms of looking at the exploding young Latino population in the state and not only looking in terms of the human element, what will it mean if we have these dropouts? What if this human potential doesn't get realized in terms of graduation from high school, going on to college? But then, and here I think was, you know, that powerful issue of what does this mean for the state in terms of future income. If you have no tax base or if you have a diminished tax base, where is the competitiveness in the future of the state? So it was that humane sort of concern but it was also that -- I mean, Sue was strategic. I mean, she always thought in terms of strategy. And I think the other element was she could edit amazingly well and make sure that complex issues got translated into language that was accessible, that was free of jargon, that was something compelling for someone who was in a hurry reading fast. So I think the dropped report was able to lay out the issues of this powerful demographic force, this growing Latino population and what was it going to mean if they couldn't realize the education that has been the American dream?

José Cárdenas: And there's so much to say about our dear friend but we're out of time. So thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and remembrances. Sue was born on February 21st. This Saturday is February 21st. A memorial birthday celebration will be held for her at 10:00 a.m. at the Herberger Theater in downtown Phoenix. And that's our show for tonight. From all of us here at Eight and "Horizonte," thank you for watching. I'm José Cárdenas. Have a good evening.

Video: Funding for "Horizonte" is made possible by contributions by the friends of eight, members of your Arizona PBS station.

Joe Garcia:Director, Morrison Institute Latino Public Policy Center at Arizona State University; Judy Jolley Mohraz:Former President and Current Board Member, Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust; Michael Ryan:Founder and President, Ryan Media Consultants;

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