Continuing a cause
Media General’s donation celebrates Stewart Bryan’s passion for journalism
- May 28, 2016
The death of J. Stewart Bryan III, a fourth-generation Richmond newspaperman, came in late January as the media empire his family built was changing hands.
On the day that relatives, friends and colleagues gathered for prayers and a celebration of life for Bryan at Richmond’s stately Commonwealth Club, Media General Inc., the company established nearly 50 years ago by his father, announced a final agreement under which it would be acquired by Texas-based Nexstar Broadcasting Group for $4.6 billion. The deal, which will close later this year, resulted from months of negotiations, including the termination of a Media General merger with Iowa-based Meredith Corp.
Bryan had been Media General’s chairman since 1990. His passing and the company’s acquisition mark the end of a significant chapter in Virginia’s business and media history. Media General once owned dozens of U.S. newspapers, including dailies in Richmond, Charlottesville, Lynchburg, Danville and Bristol. The family’s news media connection dates back to 1887, when Bryan’s great-grandfather became publisher of a newspaper that later became the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Media General’s flagship publication.
In 2012, the company sold its newspapers, with most of them being bought by a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (Virginia Business magazine, begun by Media General in 1986, was sold in 2009 to Richmond-based Virginia Capital Partners LLC.) Media General became a “pure-play” television station owner, operating or servicing 71 stations in 48 markets at the time that the Nexstar deal was announced.
Despite the Nexstar acquisition, the legacy of Bryan and Media General lives on, thanks to a $100,000 gift that the company made to the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) earlier this year.
In February, VHS established the J. Stewart Bryan III Endowment Fund to honor the journalistic passion of a man who inherited the mantle of a storied family business. Bryan’s family also was entwined with VHS. Like the succession of Bryans in the media business, four generations of the family served on the society’s board.
Paul Levengood, the president of VHS, says the fund will support a variety of research, scholarship and programming on the history of American journalism and freedom of the press, issues that were dear to Bryan. There is latitude in the fund’s description to include a number of unforeseen functions, including the acquisition of media collections, digital archiving of historic documents, research awards and more.
Particularly during the current already-historic presidential election cycle, Levengood believes the endowment may have immediate possibilities. “What’s the role of the media in the current landscape of media coverage and how we elect officials?” he asks. “It just seems that there are some wonderful opportunities to do what this fund is meant to do.”
In the days after Bryan’s death, Levengood notes, VHS began receiving an outpouring of donations in his memory. More than 40 contributions came to the society, he says, and so the idea of a memorial fund coalesced. “We had started to figure out what was the appropriate way to [direct] those funds in a way that [Bryan] was interested in and would have been proud of.”
After VHS announced the creation of the endowment fund, more than 60 additional donations followed.
Bryan was 77 when he died, days after he suffered injuries from a fall at his home.
Despite being the heir apparent at a family-controlled company, Bryan entered the newspaper business in the 1950s as a journeyman, taking mail-room, advertising and newsroom jobs before assuming an executive role with Media General. He was the company’s CEO from 1990 to 2005, a period that saw the company grow dramatically, acquiring newspapers and TV stations.
In an October interview with the Times-Dispatch, Bryan reflected on his respect for the role of a free press in American democracy. “If I have made any contribution, it has been being part of a newspaper that was trying to provide the right information for people to make up their own minds in the city of Richmond and Central Virginia,” he said.
“We have kept an eye on government,” he added. “I think the press has played an enormous role in the history of the United States. I have been a proud part of it.”
Those who worked closely with Bryan recalled his character and commitment to journalistic principles — descriptions that specifically noted him as a “gentleman” and a leader with integrity.
Levengood says that Bryan was mindful of Media General’s place in Virginia history. “He had made provisions in the negotiations, regarding the takeover of Media General, for a large portion of company records to end up at the historical society.” In 2001, VHS created the Reynolds Business History Center that now houses collections of records from many major corporations in the state.
Levengood adds that Bryan was a vital influence at VHS, a commanding presence on its board. “His personal leadership and the way he conducted himself — the absolute commitment he had to [VHS’] mission, its staff. ... I can’t imagine the place without him.”