Patrick Springer, Published November 28 2010
'Best job in the world'
The room was quiet. It would be hours before the sleeping press would rumble to life, but the smell of printer’s ink filled the air.
“I still get a thrill when I walk through the mailroom or see the presses running,” he said, pausing during a reflective moment. “I get a shiver down my back.”
Those sensations mix with nostalgia these days. Effective Wednesday, after tenure of more than 40 years, Marcil will step down as publisher of The Forum.
At age 74, Marcil will relinquish the publisher’s role to his son, Bill Jr., but remain chairman of Forum Communications Co. He’ll transfer top leadership of the firm’s flagship newspaper to the family’s fifth generation in a lineage that dates back to 1917.
The publisher’s job is to oversee all of the key departments at a newspaper – news, advertising, production and delivery – in a role that combines organizing with motivating and setting policy.
Marcil leaves an imprint well beyond The Forum through his involvement in business and civic affairs, assuming roles that, in one way or another, represented his industry, community or state.
He helped lead an economic development effort in the 1990s to diversify North Dakota’s economy and held national posts in business and newspaper circles – roles that put him in contact with national figures and world leaders.
In recent years, he was a newspaperman forced to grapple with disruptive changes driven by technological advances, chiefly the Internet, which continues to reshape the media landscape.
“Any way the customer wants to get news, we have to get it to them,” he said, adding that the printed page will coincide with evolving online and electronic delivery methods.
Early on as publisher, he faced another kind of technological change: the conversion of The Forum’s press from hot-metal to offset printing. It was the first of many changes to come.
His newspaper career had improbable origins dating back to 1961, when Marcil worked as branch manager of a loan company in the Twin Cities.
The world of finance wasn’t all glamour.
“I had my share of repossessed cars,” he said. “You learn the facts of life real fast when you’re out repossessing cars and washing machines.”
Still, he took a pay cut to move to Fargo and go to work for The Forum’s advertising department.
The reason for the switch had everything to do with a young woman from Fargo he’d met a few years earlier in the Twin Cities through mutual friends.
“We started dating,” Marcil said of meeting Jane Black. “One thing led to another, and we were married, and here we are.”
It happened that Jane Black’s father was Norman D. Black Jr., publisher of The Forum. After the couple was married in 1960, Black offered his son-in-law a job at the newspaper.
Marcil declined the offer – the young couple wanted more time off on their own – but later accepted when they were expecting their first child. He started at The Forum as a retail advertising sales representative, with no promises about where that might lead.
Although he knew he wanted a career in business – Marcil graduated in 1958 with a business degree from the University of North Dakota – he had no firm idea about what kind of enterprise to pursue.
A humble upbringing
Born in Rolette, N.D., his family lived in Garrison, N.D., before settling in Sherwood, N.D., now a town of 300 northwest of Minot near the Canadian border.
He inherited an interest in business from his entrepreneurial father, who managed a grain business and sold scrap metal as well as insurance.
During the younger Marcil’s college years, he had a few educational experiences outside the classroom that developed calluses. One of his jobs was working for a contractor to build grain bins.
“It was hard work, but it paid well,” he said. “I didn’t mind it at all.”
Once established at The Forum, Marcil found opportunities in the family business. But it was more than just that; Marcil discovered that he had a passion for newspapers.
“It really grew on me,” he said. “It was such a tradition within the family.”
In a series of promotions as openings occurred over seven years, he became classified advertising manager, promotion director, production manager and assistant to the publisher – an on-the-job education in the business.
Then, tragedy struck. A few months after Norman Black’s wife died, he failed one day to show up for work. Worried, Marcil and a colleague went to Black’s home, where there was no answer.
Marcil broke open the door, and they discovered Norman Black was dead. Unexpectedly, at age 33, Marcil was unanimously named publisher by the newspaper’s board of directors.
From the very first day at the helm of the newspaper, his closest adviser has been Jane, although her role has never been in the spotlight, while his was the public face of their partnership.
“Everybody tested me early on,” he said. For instance, someone might call to try to keep a drunken driving conviction out of the paper. Or an advertiser might threaten a boycott if a story deemed damaging ran.
“I’ve had a certain amount of pressure,” Marcil said. But he stood his ground, quickly learning that a financially strong newspaper is crucial to maintaining editorial independence.
And although Marcil takes an active role in deciding positions of the editorial page, he has been deliberately hands off when it comes to news coverage.
“It’s always been my policy to let the editor run the news department,” he said. “I’ve never been actively involved in the operation of the news department.”
At the outset, Marcil had no grand strategy as publisher, other than to surround himself with capable people. “My goal,” he said, “was just to not make any major mistakes.”
Then, in 1984, a major conflict divided the company. A legal fight over consolidation of ownership divided its 36 shareholders. The underlying tension was whether or not the company should invest in expansion opportunities.
At one point in the feud, Marcil was ousted as publisher in a secret meeting later declared illegal. “It was messy,” he said, recalling that factions developed in Fargo-Moorhead, supporting one side or the other. “It was an uncomfortable time.”
At the end of the legal battle, which concerned the value of the company, ownership was consolidated among the heirs of Norman D. Black Jr., among the families of his two daughters.
A new era in Forum Communications Co. was about to unfold, one that would occupy Marcil’s strategic role as chairman of the company, a hat he wore along with that of publisher.
With ownership now tightly held, the company could embark more freely to expand as opportunities came along, often when newspaper owners approaching retirement contacted Marcil with an offer.
In the mid-1980s, Forum Communications sold off South Dakota Broadcasting Co., bought newspapers in Detroit Lakes, Minn., and Park Rapids, Minn., and opened ABC affiliate stations in Bismarck and Minot.
In retrospect, Marcil regrets selling the South Dakota stations, which he thought was a prudent step at the time to avoid taking on too much debt after consolidating ownership.
“It was the biggest mistake of my career,” he said. Despite those qualms, Marcil added that he has always avoided taking on too much debt, a problem that has plagued many media companies.
Another major step came in 1995 when the company bought daily newspapers in Dickinson, N.D., Jamestown, N.D., and Mitchell, S.D.
But the most transformative acquisitions came more than a decade later, in 2006, when Forum Communications bought the Grand Forks Herald and Duluth News Tribune.
“We never considered expanding outside the Midwest, and we had many opportunities to do it,” Marcil said. By concentrating its holdings geographically, he added, the company could benefit from efficiencies, including shared printing operations.
The reach of Forum Communications grew substantially during Marcil’s tenure, branching out from Fargo roots emanating from The Forum and WDAY radio and television stations.
Today the company owns nine daily and more than 20 community newspapers in four states, a radio station and two television properties, as well as commercial printing plants and wireless Internet service operations.
As publisher of North Dakota’s largest newspaper, Marcil has one of the biggest soapboxes in the state – a position that carries a lot of influence.
Lloyd Case, who as president and CEO of Forum Communications Co. has long worked at Marcil’s side, said Marcil has never acted like a stereotypical press baron.
“He never took advantage of the power that he could have,” Case said. “He was always very thoughtful of that.”
Throughout his time with The Forum, Marcil was active in business groups, most notably the Chamber of Commerce, where he ultimately served as chairman of the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Before serving on the chamber’s national board, Marcil was active at the state and local level. That involvement made him a natural to serve as chairman of the Vision 2000 Committee, a state chamber initiative that worked to revamp North Dakota’s economy.
“He was always straightforward with me,” said George Sinner, who served as governor during the Vision 2000 process in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“Obviously we don’t agree on a lot of things, but we agree that you have to get the work done,” said Sinner, a Democrat, noting Marcil’s views align more with the Republican Party.
“In the end, we wanted the same things,” Sinner said. “We wanted the work environment to be good; we wanted the social environment to be good. I think it’s safe to say Marcil has been a force for good in the state of North Dakota.”
Marcil also served as chairman of the board of the Newspaper Association of America, succeeding the late Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post.
Marcil credits Allen Neuharth, former chairman of the Gannett media chain and founder of USA Today, with getting him involved in the national newspaper group and being a mentor.
A native of Eureka, S.D., Neuharth wanted more Midwestern representation among national newspaper industry leaders, who skewed heavily to the East and West coasts.
“He made a great impression on the people there,” Neuharth said of Marcil. “I had the greatest respect for him and had a good relationship with him for many years.”
The seats on the boards of the national organizations gave Marcil opportunities to mix with political and business leaders.
Once, for example, Marcil introduced Ronald Reagan at a luncheon – after calling in a favor from Graham that helped to land the president as featured speaker to address newspaper publishers.
He also traveled abroad as an ambassador of the nation’s newspaper publishers, including a state dinner in Beijing in which he was seated beside the Chinese premier.
“So here I’m sitting next to this guy that runs China, this huge country with a billion people, and I’m someone who came from Sherwood, N.D., with a population of 450. What the heck am I going to say to this guy?”
Marcil’s answer to that question: North Dakota grows lots of wheat that could feed a lot of people in China. The premier thought that sounded good, but perhaps North Dakota could buy some Chinese oil?
“It turned out we really liked visiting with each other,” he said.
A new path
Through it all, though, his wife, Jane, has been his partner and confidante.
“Jane and I talk about the business all the time,” he said. “I don’t make any major decisions around here without her being a big part of it.”
For her part, Jane Marcil believes her father would be pleased with the direction her husband has led the paper and company, including his strategy of regional growth and an aggressive move to online delivery.
“I’m guessing it’s something he would have done,” she said. “I think he was progressive in that way.”
When the family turned to the matter of who should be The Forum’s next publisher, the factors quickly pointed to 46-year-old Bill Marcil Jr.
Their oldest child, Debora Morehouse, really wasn’t interested in returning to Fargo. Her own career path had been the world of broadcasting, and her family now is well established in upstate New York.
As for the man who will be The Forum’s next publisher, he hopes to emulate his father’s accessible approach to managing the newspaper and his ability to bring people together to solve problems.
“I’ve been hearing that from a lot of people,” the junior Marcil said of his father’s knack for forging consensus. “He’s been able to transcend the extremes and kind of be in the middle,” a place he’d also like to find himself.
When he’s not setting the course of the company, Bill Sr. will find himself more often behind the wheel of his recreational vehicle, touring the country, long a favorite pursuit. Friends and relatives have told him he ought to write a memoir about his experiences.
“I should have kept a diary,” he said. “I have the best job in the world. I really do.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522