For six years, Rodney Mahone has been the publisher of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. For more than 26 years, he has worked for the newspaper company, rising from an entry-level job in circulation to advertising director and then publisher.
The son of an Army drill sergeant, Mahone attended Columbus public schools, including Kendrick High.
His tenure has come during a time of change for the Ledger-Enquirer, including the sale of the newspaper’s former building on 12th Street.
Recently, he sat down with reporter Chuck Williams to talk about the Ledger-Enquirer, his job, his family and the Page One Awards, which will be given Tuesday night.
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Here are excerpts of that interview edited for length and clarity.
Q: First of all, it’s an interesting time to be a publisher of a daily newspaper, isn’t it?
A: Absolutely, absolutely, it’s an exciting time.
Q: In what way?
A: It’s exciting because we are going through a transformation, and it’s a good transformation. It’s a transformation that allows us to deliver news and information to more people than we have at any other point in history. It’s a transformation that is allowing us to do more for our customers than we have been able to do in the past. A lot of that is really exciting.
Q: It has its challenges too, right?
A: It does have its challenges. We have been a print-first model for a really long time and now we are a digital-first model. That’s what we have transformed into and it is difficult to change from something that you have been for such a long period of time. It’s exciting but it’s challenging, and it has a set of challenges that impact everything from the type of workforce that we need now versus what we needed a decade ago. We’ve got to be much more quicker than we’ve been in the past to respond to changes in technology.
Q: Is that on all sides of the business? News, advertising, distribution, is that across the board or is it just the news?
A: It’s across the board. When you think about the solutions that advertising consultants had a decade ago, basically it was print solutions — half-page or full-page solutions. Now we’ve got a plethora of digital options that have just come into existence in the past decade, so it requires a different skill set and a different aptitude to help customers understand how to exist in this digital environment. ... On the news side, we are producing news on different platforms, in different ways that we did when we were a print-first model.
Q: You have been with the Ledger-Enquirer how many years?
A: I have been with the Ledger-Enquirer since 1990, so it’s 26 years.
Q: You started on the advertising side of the house, right?
A: I actually started in circulation. The first 14 months of my career I spent in circulation. When I first got out of school in 1990, I did not plan on coming back to this community, although we were in a recession and so I needed to have somewhere to live. I came home and lived with my parents but I also needed a job, and so I was there trying to decide between grad school or getting a job and I happened to be canvassing the downtown area with my resume and walked into the Ledger-Enquirer building — walked into human resources — and while I was doing the application, I met a circulation manager, Dennis Dunn. He hired me on the spot. For the first 14 months of my career, I was in circulation and I had a job that at the time was called a floating branch manager.
Basically, what that job entailed was going to distribution offices throughout the market where carriers met to prepare the papers for the routes and delivering a route if a carrier didn’t show up.
Q: Not good hours.
A: Exactly, so I literally began my career delivering the newspaper.
Q: When did you move in to the advertising side?
A: I joined in sales and the irony is, when I first got out of college with a degree in marketing my desire was to serve in some marketing capacity for a company. With the sales job that I got, I got an opportunity to serve in a marketing capacity for a lot of small local businesses. It turned out to be a really good outcome and not anything that I would have thought when I was in college I would have ended up doing. But yeah, I started off in sales and working with local companies and helping grow their businesses.
Q: When Dennis hired you 26 years ago, did he know he was hiring a future publisher?
A: I don’t know if he knew that, but as difficult as that job was, he was always encouraging. He was one of my mentors. Even Billy Watson, who was our president/publisher at the time, who has since passed, would come out to the distribution center and also invite me to his office and say, “You know... these are the years that you really need to learn the business and you need to work really hard and understand what we do.” It was difficult, but it felt like I was still on a path to upward mobility.
Q: Who are some of those mentors?
A: In the beginning, it definitely was Dennis and Billy Watson, but as I moved through advertising there were a lot of local folks — Jill Tigner and Dick Stone and David Fletcher and Pam Siddall — a lot of really good mentors that helped sort of mold and shape who I am today.
Q: How has the advertising side of the business changed when you analyze 25 years ago to today?
A: When I first started advertising in the early ’90s, what we saw was print advertising. Right now, we have a sales team that is selling a plethora of digital options ... and some of those digital options aren’t even on our site. They are not just selling our website, they are selling reputation management and digital assets in multiple areas. They are able to help our customers reach their audience much, much better than they were 10, 15 years ago, so things on that front have really changed for the better. We are more able to help a customer reach their key audience and help them to grow their business than we were 20 years ago when we were just putting an ad in a print publication that reached the masses but not necessarily their particular audience.
Q: Let’s switch gears a little bit. You said you moved here in the seventh grade. So your family is a military family?
A: Yeah, my dad was in the Army and enlisted several years before I was born, so the majority of my childhood I grew up on a military base. We moved every two years. The desire, and I remember it like it was yesterday, it was to get stationed at Fort Benning because this is home for them. My mom and dad are both from Waverly Hall. All of my family basically is in the Harris County area. Once Dad was stationed in Fort Benning, that is when we moved off post. We bought a house in south Columbus and I for the very first time went to a school that wasn’t in a military base, and that was Rothschild Junior High School. Of course, two years later he got stationed somewhere else but we stayed here until he retired and then he joined us after retirement.
Q: What did you learn growing up in a military family that’s helped shape what you are today?
A: One of the great things growing up as a military family is your tolerance level for folks from different backgrounds and different cultures. We lived in military housing for a really long time. We were surrounded by different types of people and from different places, and we had a really high tolerance. You learn to accept people for who they are and you are less judgmental because you’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by people that won’t always look like you or have the same experiences and backgrounds as you do. That has helped me in my ability to relate to folks from all different types of backgrounds.
Q: Where were some of the posts that you all lived on?
A: We were in Maryland; Fort Knox, Ky.; we were in Missouri — Fort Leonard Wood. We were two tours in Germany, and back to Fort Leonard Wood.
Q: What did you dad do in the military?
A: He was a drill sergeant.
Q: How is it to be raised by a drill sergeant?
A: It wasn’t really all that bad. He is just a phenomenal role model and he has just really a strong work ethic, and I think my brother and I share that work ethic. He is a big family man, and everything about family was important to him. We share that same value that family comes first, so I think another reason why I never left the market is because once I started having kids, both sets of grandparents were here. They are both retired, and that was important to us and we really couldn’t put a dollar figure on that. And it just sort of helped anchor us in this community because family is really important to us.
Q: You go two or three times a week and still eat lunch with your parents?
Q: At their house?
A: Absolutely, absolutely.
Q: At your parents’ age, what does that mean to you to be able to go sit down and share a meal in the middle of the day with them?
A: It’s a blessing because I’m at the age now where I have lots of friends that don’t have that as an option, so I embrace that and I’m really grateful for that. I’m grateful for the fact that my kids have really grown up knowing their grandparents and spending a lot of time with their grandparents. I just don’t take that for granted and I know anything can change at any point in time, and I feel really fortunate and blessed to be in a situation where we are as close to our parents — my in-laws are a mile away from my parents. We didn’t know each other growing up, my wife and I didn’t know each other growing up, but I literally married somebody that grew up a mile away from where I grew up.
Q: What are your parents’ names?
A: Clarence and Francis Mahone.
Q: You talk about family being very important to you, how do you define them? When somebody says family, what does family mean to you?
A: That’s a good question. It’s being there for your loved ones and being there in an unconditional way. When I think about my family and my kids, it’s being there to support them and to help them grow and develop and to be ... significant contributors in their community, and then also letting them know that home is always there and we’ve got their backs. Giving them this self-confidence ... that we are loved.
Q: Let’s switch back a little bit here again. I want to talk a little bit about community. Your role puts you in a lot of different places in this community, top to bottom. What do you know about Columbus through your role as publisher that you maybe didn’t know growing up here or you didn’t know in your earlier roles at the Ledger?
A: I have grown to appreciate this community much more than I did when I came back after college. We are incredibly fortunate. This community has a public-private partnership in the way that we rally behind good things for our community. I think that makes us unique, and I want the best for this community. We are, as a news and information company, responsible for making sure that we are holding the powerful accountable and shining a light to dark corners and giving a voice to the voiceless. I understand and embrace that responsibility wholeheartedly, but I think that allows us to become a better community. We are responsible for starting conversations that hopefully lead to good change.
This community is special to me. I have been raising my family here and I’m not planning on leaving this community, and so I’ve got more of a vested interest now and hoping to elevate this community and helping us to grow into even higher heights.
Q: Let’s talk about Together 2016. What is it?
A: I always wanted to have a publisher project since I’ve had this role. I’m in my sixth year and the timing hasn’t been right since I have been in this role. Honestly, what has been most important was selling our old building and transitioning into a new space that was more conducive to our needs, and that kind of took priority. Once we had that behind us, I wanted to do something for the community — and for all the reasons that you may call corny — because this is my community. I do want to do something positive for the community. I do want folks not only inside of the community to understand why this is a great place to live and to work and to raise a family, but I want folks outside the community to know that it is well, and I want people to move back to the community. I want millennials to come back to the community.
I have seen this project a couple of times in other markets, and so I thought if we tweak what I’ve seen, we could do something for our market that allows us to come together with 22 other business leaders in a way where we can tell this community’s story, which is a great story, in a way where it resonates with folks who are in the community, reminding them why this is a great place to live. We’ve got challenges like any other community, but we’ve got a lot of things to be proud of.
Deliver that message not only to folks inside the community but folks outside of the community in hopes that it creates positive buzz and then ...
Q: Has it created a positive buzz?
A: I think so. It’s only been 90 days, but I think so. The engagement in the marketing part of the campaign has been really, really good, and the feedback that we have gotten from the community has been good. I think it’s off to a really good start. I’m really excited about the 22 partners that have joined us in this endeavor. We pooled our financial resources together and the second component to this project is to do something in the community, some type of project in the community that has a lasting impression.
Q: Any idea what this could be or what ...
A: We are right now asking for submissions, but we are not going to build another RiverWalk — it’s not that much money — and we are not going to build another museum. But hopefully we do something that impacts all of the community in a positive way. That’s the desire. We are still soliciting ideas submissions from the community at this point.
Q: You were talking about one of the things you had to do was sell 17 West 12th Street. That had to be a very difficult task, right?
A: It was challenging on a couple of levels. There are not a whole lot of people out there looking for 175,000 square feet in the Uptown area in a building that really didn’t have a lot of opportunity and required more work, but it’s been our home since 1930 and I did not want to take our transition lightly. It was important to me that we find another space that was not only conducive to who we are now but allowed us to stay in the Uptown area. I did not want to move our team outside of Uptown, and there weren’t a lot of options in the area over the past couple of years. It was pretty challenging.
Q: Why was it important for you to keep the Ledger-Enquirer, its people and its brand, downtown?
A: I think this is sort of where the activity is and we’ve always been in this space, and for me it was going to be incredibly disruptive for us to move outside of this space. I thought that being close to this area is important and it borders Phenix City, which is part of our coverage area as well, and it just feels like it’s the central place that we should be. There were no guarantees, though, that we would be able to stay down here.
Q: We are in the Hardaway Building right now, a block from the court house ... and no more than two blocks from anything and the central business district.
A: Yeah, absolutely.
Q: I will ask you the question I ask everybody about downtown. It’s very different from the downtown where you and I started working 26 years ago, right?
A: Still shocks me to leave the parking garage on Friday and see families walking with lounge chairs and coolers and coming down here at 6 o’clock in the evening to enjoy events that are being hosted down here. I still haven’t gotten used to it.
Q: It’s a long way from what it was in 1989, right?
A: It’s a long way, but it’s a good thing. I think there are more good things in store for our community. I get really excited about our future.
Q: How important has the business community been in the revitalization of downtown Columbus?
A: I think it has been key. This is a community that really does support positive movement and growth, and I think that we couldn’t have this Uptown area if the business community didn’t rally behind it and wasn’t on the same page. I don’t think this is any accident — I think this is the result of a lot of forward-thinking, committed businesses and organizations in our community.
Q: In a few days the Ledger will do something it’s been doing for decades now. It will honor the best and brightest among our high school students and teachers. You have been around that now for 26 years. How important are the Page One Awards to you and to this newspaper?
A: Just unequivocally, it is the most exciting day of my year. It is an honor to continue that legacy. Tuesday, May 3 will be the 41st annual Page One Awards, and that night we will highlight 200 of this community’s brightest high school seniors on their academic achievements and their service back to this community. It is a program that allows us to celebrate achievement, both academic achievement and community service. I just think we are incredibly fortunate to be able to do that every year. We are fortunate to have Columbus Regional as our presenting sponsor and partner with us on the Page One Awards. What also makes it unique for me is every year that audience is filled with parents and relatives of the Page One nominees, and the audience changes every year because there is a new set of nominees. When the show is over, just to see the joy on those family’s faces, it just makes it all worth it and it makes us really proud.
Q: What do you think when you see the faces of those kids? It really is the future of the community. ...
A: It really is, and the desire is those talented young people, that even if they are going away to college — we’d love for them to stay here in the community for college but even if they are going away for college — we want them to come back here. We need that talent in this community, and that’s important. It reminds us that there is a really bright future out there for us with these young people at the helm.
Q: Do you ever have people come up to you this time of the year as Page One becomes front and center and say, “Hey, I was a Page One nominee or I was a Page One winner or runner-up?”
A: Happens all the time. Even teachers will say — I’ve run into teachers, my kids’ teachers — and they will say, “I was a Page One nominee.” That makes me feel a little old because sometimes those teachers are after I started working here, but I think it’s something that the community honors and appreciates. The scholarships that we have given over the years total more than a half a million dollars. I think it’s more than the monetary component of it. I think it’s just the honor. We’ve got really good judges that join us every year. As a matter of fact, there have been judges that have been with us for more than two decades.
Q: As the publisher of the Ledger, what keeps you awake at night?
A: What keeps me awake at night? Keeping our recruitment pipeline filled is a concern of mine, and I know it’s probably not unique to me — probably other business owners or business leaders are concerned with the same thing. We have a different skill set that is required now, and we need to have a bigger pool of candidates in our pipeline to help us execute the way that we need to execute. I’m not really worried about our plan; I’m more so worried about having qualified candidates out there for the jobs that we have now, folks that have a digital acumen and are nimble and creative and innovative. We have changed a lot, and changed a lot in a short period of time. The iPhone just came into existence in 2007, technology is moving really quickly, and so we need a skill set that can help navigate through those changes and help our customers — both readers and advertisers — navigate through those changes.
Q: What do you say to the people who have been writing the obituary of this industry for several years now?
A: We are a profitable model. We’ve been a profitable model. We’ve seen a lot of change. We’ve come through the great recession and we still remain a profitable model. The future looks really bright. If you are thinking about it from an advertising revenue perspective, less than half of our advertising revenue is tied to the print and paper. Our reliance on our old model of ad revenue has been reduced when it comes to print. We are headed in the right direction. We want to get there quicker, but we are in no way in bad shape. It’s just difficult to get people to understand that the model is different. If you are counting the number of pages in the paper today versus 15 years ago and looking at that as a sign of our success, that’s just not the right place to look. We are more than ink on paper.
We are a media company that’s delivering news and information on multiple platforms, and we are delivering audiences to the customers on multiple platforms. It’s difficult to judge us through the same lens that we used 20 years ago.
Q: When you came in at the height of the recession, this industry, these media companies, got hit with a double whammy. They got hit with technological advancement, incredible technological changes along with economic-based issues. ...
A: Absolutely. ... But we learn how to be nimble and we learn how to adapt and make changes. A lot of the changes haven’t been easy. A lot of the cost that was associated with our old print-first model, we’ve had to shed those costs and that has been painful because it involves people. But it’s what we need to do to be who we’ve become, and I feel really good about our future.
Job: President and Publisher of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer for the last six years.
Education: Kendrick High School, 1985; Georgia Southwestern University, B.B.A. in marketing
Family: Deirdre, wife of 17 years; two children, Brandon, 16, at Columbus High School, and Britney, 13, at St. Luke School.