Virginian-Pilot’s new publisher not deterred by its possible sale

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by Elizabeth Cooper

It’s not easy being a newspaper publisher these days, especially when your paper is for sale. Yet Maurice A. Jones, president and publisher of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, refuses to operate with a short-term mindset. He’s too busy competing for readers and advertising dollars against a myriad of news and entertainment sources.

“The challenge is part of the attractiveness for me,” says Jones.  “It means every day I’m never underemployed.”

Jones, 43, took the helm of the state’s largest newspaper in April, three months after its parent company, Norfolk-based Landmark Communications Inc., announced that its properties were for sale. Last month, Landmark agreed to sell the Weather Channel for a reported $3.5 billion to a consortium including NBC Universal and two private-equity firms, Bain Capital and The Blackstone Group.
The sale of The Pilot is anticipated for sometime this fall. “There’s still a question mark whether the new owner will allow me to continue to do this job,” he says. 

But the uncertainty doesn’t seem to faze Jones. He is the first black publisher in Landmark’s history. His ascent makes The Pilot the nation’s largest daily newspaper with a black publisher, a fact Jones calls humbling. Still, he adds, “It’s my prayer that this won’t be the only thing people remember.”

Jones is a Rhodes Scholar, a corporate lawyer and a former high-ranking state official. He simultaneously served as commissioner of the Virginia Department of Social Services and deputy chief of staff under former Gov. Mark R. Warner. In his new role, he’s helping to shape the next chapter in the newspaper business. ”The notion of being a newspaper is becoming obsolete,” he asserts. “We really have to be in the information business, advertising business and connecting business. We’re heading in that direction, but we still have a ways to go.”

Jones is focusing on sales and local content, a strong online presence, a compelling weekend product and other steps to ensure that The Pilot is a 24-7 news and information enterprise. “When people look for information about things local, we want them to look to one of our products.” 

Newspapers that master customer relations will thrive, he says.  That requires ongoing dialogues with readers, viewers and advertisers.

For Jones, this approach echoes his work in state government where he focused on issues such as poverty, child support and education. Margaret Schultze, assistant commissioner for the Virginia Department of Social Services and a former special adviser to Jones, says his jump to the newspaper industry in mid-career did not surprise her.  “He was so innovative and always open to new ideas.”

Jones joined Landmark in 2005 as publishing group vice president. “I wanted to be in an enterprise with a double bottom line — financial and public service,” he says. 

His zeal for public service took root during his youth in Kenbridge. His grandparents raised him on a farm and instilled core beliefs in hard work, education and helping others. With the aid of a teacher,
Jones became a General Assembly page in Richmond. “I got that exposure to a world that a country boy from a town of 1,200 had not been exposed to before,” he says. “I came back to school resolved to be a lawyer.”

The same teacher encouraged him to apply to Hampden-Sydney College, and he believes she was a factor in him getting a scholarship. While Jones was an undergraduate, Josiah Bunting — a former Rhodes Scholar who was president of the college — encouraged him to apply for the prestigious scholarship at Oxford University.

Jones earned a master’s degree in international relations at Oxford. The experience changed his life. “Oxford made me much more aware of the world outside the U.S.”  After Oxford, Jones enrolled at University of Virginia School of Law where he graduated in 1992.

His background has served him well at The Pilot.  “Being a lawyer taught me how to be a student,” says Jones. In fact, “When I stop learning, this will probably not be the right place for me.”





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