It is with trembling hands that I tell you about the blood on the out-basket.
The blood was the result of an overnight knife fight in a big-city newsroom, back when newsrooms were more like precinct stations than insurance offices. It was discovered in the dark, early hours before another edition of the afternoon paper roared to life. A prim secretary starting her day like clockwork shrieked out the news: "There's blood on my out-basket!"
Managing editor Mike Waller leapt to his feet and shouted: "That's the name of my book!"
Thirty-two years later the story came true with the publication this spring of Waller's "Blood on the Out-Basket: Lessons in Leadership from a Newspaper Junkie."
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I say my hands tremble because Waller, now retired to a street named Full Sweep on breezy Hilton Head Island, cut a path through the newspaper business big enough to require a machete, not a switchblade.
In a 41-year career, he was a senior editor at The Courier-Journal and the Louisville Times, editor of the Kansas City Star and Times, and editor, publisher and CEO of the Hartford Courant. He was publisher and CEO of The Sun in Baltimore when it employed 1,800 and had sales of $350 million. He oversaw newsroom staffs of up to 385 journalists and budgets of between $10 million and $20 million before retiring in 2002.
Waller was managing editor of the Kansas City Star the night two skywalks collapsed into a crowded lobby of a Hyatt Regency hotel, killing 114. Immediate newsroom teamwork -- and the strategic decision to hire engineers to help document what really happened -- led to a Pulitzer Prize.
Waller's book is not about fighting to the top. It's about getting there by cooperating, communicating and rewarding jobs well done. It's about the strength that comes from managers sharing power. It's about the value of educating staff members. It's about uncaging the ideas and passions of the rank and file. It's about listening.
Waller is convinced that the leadership principles that took him from the farmland of Durand, Ill., to our shores of the Atlantic Ocean can lap over to any industry, in any era.
After his golf game Monday morning, we met at a pizza restaurant, where I heard a slice of good news for newspapers. Nobody is offering what newspapers offer, he said. People who want to understand issues that matter to their lives must read newspapers.
The blood from newspaper cuts seems to gush well beyond the out-basket today. But Waller offers the hope that newspapers can't be beat when it comes to using sources and documents to get beyond the spin, lies and "he said, she said" to tell people what's really going on.
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.