July Q And A: Kentucky’s David Thompson

David T. Thompson is a Hall of Famer who is fortunate to be alive.

The executive director of the Kentucky Press Association also is eloquent in his advocacy for newspapers — especially his all-in members — but realistic about the challenges and pace of change.

Talking with him about his impressive career leaves the solid impression he’s seen it all.

And this: You can’t find a better cheerleader for the Newspaper Association Managers.

In agreeing to participate, Thompson called it an honor to be featured in this month’s Executive Director Q&A.

Actually, it’s our honor.

Read on and you’ll know why. (Just don’t ask him about his “closest friends.”)

David, can you introduce us to your association?

KPA is the nation’s 10th oldest state press association and in 2019 we celebrated our 150th anniversary. Fortunately, that went better than the 125th in January 1994 when the week we had set to celebrate, Kentucky got its first blizzard in decades and the whole state was shut down for more than a week. So months and months of planning were taken care of with 17 inches of the white stuff. I’m proud that since 1993-94 we’ve had 100 percent of newspapers eligible to be full members as members. It hasn’t been much of a struggle to maintain that because if you offer beneficial services and do all that you can to help them, they will remain loyal to the organization.

We also have the largest board of any state press association with 29 voting positions. We have 14 elected directors, four State At-Large, five division chairpersons, five executive committee members and the chair of KIPA. We also have two representatives from the journalism schools/departments who are ex-officio.

KPA Executive Director David Thompson

KPA also welcomed a new division three years ago – the Kentucky Intercollegiate Press Association. That’s an organization of 13 to 15 student publications at colleges and universities. We have a long-standing relationship with those student publications so the KIPA members came to us a few years ago to ask that KPA run the organization for them. 

What makes the KPA different from other associations?

Our Board has a long history of making as many services as possible available to all members at no additional cost. One of our most successful services was the Kentucky News Press Service that we started in October 2010 and fully funded. That required a full-time staff member and we paid libel insurance coverage for the 95 or so newspapers in the service.

As I had warned members from the outset, KPNS is “free for the foreseeable future.” Well, when the foreseeable future arrived, we tried to get them to ante up. Only a handful did but far from an amount that could sustain the service. Still, we tried to keep it going by cutting back the hours of the director of the service. Then when the pandemic hit, we were no longer able to fund it and shut it down. That’s after about 70,000 stories were shared for all participating newspapers to use, plus another 6,000 to 7,000 editorials. All of those coming from the participating papers. We didn’t require them to upload stories; that was done by the director. But it was a costly endeavor that I hated to see us close down.

Now you: What’s been your career path? 

My father was sports editor of the Lexington Herald so I started working there as soon as we lost in the district basketball tournament in March 1965, my senior year. I stayed there until being drafted in early 1968 and got an “early out” from the Army in December 1969, because it was time for basketball to start and I applied for a “seasonal” work early out. And the Army bought it.

I had made the decision the month JFK was killed that someday I wanted to be editor of my local newspaper, the Georgetown News and Times. I got to live that dream in March 1979 and remained there until September 1983. I left because the company that owned the paper put it on the market and I wasn’t in a financial position to purchase it.

The same week, an ad came across my desk as publisher that KPA was looking for an Executive Director. I figured what the heck, I’m not qualified at that level but not knowing who the new owners will be, I figured no harm in applying. Ended up I got the job with KPA and am about to celebrate the 38th year!

How would you describe your position and role to someone outside the newspaper industry?

When my two daughters were younger, if someone asked them “just what is it your father does?” they would respond he opens the mail and talks on the phone. In all seriousness, it’s the best job ever if I didn’t have to worry about my 138 closest friends called the Kentucky legislature.

I’ve met scores of great people across the state who are newspaper owners and publishers and editors and ad managers, and just reporters and ad sales folks. I do have to lobby but don’t look at me like one of those pinstriped suit lobbyists everyone complains about. I’m in an advocacy position, advocating for newspapers but at the same time for regular citizens of Kentucky because of Open Meetings and Open Records and Open Government. It’s a lot of public relations, building up newspapers, helping the public understand why we (the industry) do what we do and how we do it.

What do you like best about your job?

Everything not involving my 138 closest friends.

Least? 

Anything involving my 138 closest friends.

What is your proudest career moment? 

2006, when I was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. Ours is not operated by KPA but by the University of Kentucky, so that made it special. There have been many special moments in the last 38 years but that one I never expected I’d receive. I was honored with the Al Smith Award for Public Service through Community Journalism in 2019 and it’s special because only one person receives it each year.

What are some of the 2021 priorities for you and your association? 

We’re in the communication business. Strangely enough, communication is our President’s focus for 2021. And she’s pretty much on target. We take for granted that anytime we send an email, every recipient is going to read it. We are incorporating a program called Slack that allows us quick communication with our members and allows the members to ask questions of other members. Some of our newspapers were using this already within their own companies so it’s been fairly easy to move into Slack as a way of communicating with groups of our members or with individuals.

Our communication wanes during legislative sessions and we’re working on focusing in social media areas that will allow quicker and broader communications to our members. Things do get overlooked because of the vast number of emails our members get. We mark anything legislatively as URGENT in the subject line to draw their attention but it still doesn’t get the notice. 

We may have to depend on emails, texts and other communication resources to make sure the messages get out and get the attention we need. If not, it’s often too late for them to help us take action on supporting or defeating legislation

How has the COVID-19 experience changed your association?  Can you share any lessons? 

COVID and a financial hardship changed KPA and KPS at the very beginning of the pandemic. Within a month of the first case in Kentucky, we laid off four employees. One of them had been here more than 25 years. Two had been here almost 20 years. But the Executive Committee saw the opportunity to make changes in staffing that would tremendously help the bottom line so the layoffs took place.

We were most concerned that advertising would plummet because of COVID. After all, we were hearing that from our member newspapers. And I have to be honest. We didn’t know with the financial downturn already in place, if COVID would put the nail on the coffin of KPS, as the president of the organization at the time said. But the four remaining staff members went to work, focused on advertising sales, ended up with $1.137 million in political ad sales for the elections and 2020 ended up as one of the best years in the organization’s history.

What keeps you up at night when wrestling with challenges? 

A lot of times it’s just routine duties that will keep me awake, remembering that I have to do this or accomplish that and wanting to make sure I remember the next day to get those jobs done. But from January to April of each year, the nightmares are about the legislature. Thinking about testimony, thinking of ways to combat legislation coming to a committee, thinking about who can we get on “our side” to help stop or sufficiently change legislation. Going over testimony in my mind as I try to go to sleep. It’s hard to edit that way and then remember how to put it on paper the next day but by working it out in my mind as I try to go to sleep I can think of ways to say things differently that could make the outcome better.

If you had unlimited resources to advance our industry, where would you invest your time and money?

I’d spend it on staffing, to get the newsrooms and sales departments back to the level they were just a few years ago. I’d make sure each newspaper had an “investigative” journalist. That’s the part that’s lacking now that I hear so many people complain about newspapers. There isn’t the emphasis on investigative reporting as it used to be.

I’d buy the most modern printing presses and get them to the 28 newspapers that have shuttered their presses in the last few years. In 1993-94, we had 43 printing plants in Kentucky. That’s down to 15 now. We’ve got daily newspapers now that are printing out of state, way out of state. For them to get tomorrow’s issue back home for delivery, they have early press times and earlier deadlines. It’s hurting our industry but perhaps has the ulterior motive of getting readers to switch over to reading the newspaper online because the news there is up-to-the-minute. 

What is something most people don’t know about you? 

There are a few around – Dave and Beth Bennett, Mark Thomas, Bill Rogers, Felicia Mason and Robin Rhodes to name a few – in 1997 who know about this. I “died “four times on Wednesday, Oct. 29, 1997, starting at 5:56 p.m. We were practicing handbells at church and I damped (to stop it from ringing) one of the bells on my chest. That set it off. The hospital was only about 2 miles from the church but in the time to get there, EMS personnel had to revive me four times. The bottom third of my heart is “dead” but everything else is ok. I’ve not had any more heart attacks since then – thankfully – though I suffered from atrial fibrillation twice in 2017.

What do you like to do outside of work? 

My wife got me a T-shirt for Christmas that states: “I have a retirement plan. I plan on watching my grandson play baseball.” Well, that’s true but actually it should read “grandsons” since the two oldest had been playing baseball for several years. Golfing used to be the pastime but with health issues it takes more effort now so I’m down to just a couple of times each year. The NAM golf outing at the convention takes priority for me in playing.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    
How would your advice differ when offered to someone trying to break into the business compared with an industry veteran with 10 to 15 years until retirement?

Wow, you are going to get an education like you never thought you’d need. This industry is changing so fast that it’s hard to keep up with. But you must because otherwise you’ll be left so far behind you’ll never catch up.

Anything else to add? 

Back to what my daughters always said when someone asked what it is their father does, only NAMers really know. Basically no other person in our state has any idea what goes on each day at a state press association. That’s why NAM is so very, very important.

To the ones who haven’t been in their position very long, NAM is the lifeline you need to help you grow in your job. We are all brothers and sisters in NAM and our commitment is to help our comrades in NAM as best we can. Make use of those friendships from day one.

David makes his weekly newsletter a personal note to members, with plenty of links, of course.

–Tom Silvestri

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