Randall Shields: Late publisher valued community journalism

0
129
20190917dr Randall Shields tribute.jpg Randall Shields inside the press room in the Daily Reporter’s printing plant. His work in marketing commercial printing was pioneering, but his favorite part of the newspaper business was the journalism. Tom Russo | Daily reporter

website in 2003, it had a paywall. Readers howled, but Shields was steadfast.

“What other business gives away its product?” Shields asked frequently, usually in exasperation, foreshadowing the battle lines that soon would be drawn at newspaper companies nationwide.

If that approach put Shields out of the mainstream in the newspaper industry, that was OK by him.

“Randall was also very much the contrarian in the HNE group with his opinions about strategy, frequently ruffling the feathers of our other managers,” says Jeff Brown, who was president and CEO of Home News Enterprises before it was sold to AIM Media in 2015. He worked closely with Shields for a decade. “I remember him saying to me once during one of our heated debates that every management team needs an SOB who gives you the other side of the argument. ‘I just happen to be your SOB,’” Brown remembers Shields saying.

But Shields’s analytical approach to problem-solving, Brown said, often led to good decisions.

In 2005, at a time when many newspapers were beginning to make deep cuts to stay on top of their profit margins, Shields decided the best way to expand the Daily Reporter’s audience was to expand its portfolio. The Daily Reporter started three free weekly newspapers in the county’s western townships starting in 2005. Two of them, in Fortville/McCordsville and New Palestine, are still thriving today.

Shields also resurrected a defunct weekly shopper section, the Advertiser, and in 2006 convinced HNE to acquire the struggling Pendleton Times and Lapel Post in Madison County. The papers were merged and re-energized as a new weekly edition that would go on to be named the HSPA’s Blue Ribbon weekly newspaper in 2011.

Shields also spearheaded construction of a $3 million addition to the Daily Reporter’s printing plant at State Street and New Road in Greenfield, which enabled HNE’s commercial printing operation to double its footprint in the marketplace. At one time or another over the past 15 years, a majority of the smaller newspapers in central Indiana have been printed at the plant on New Road.

“Community daily newspapers outsourcing their printing to other neighboring printers was a novelty at the time, but Randall proved the concept was viable,” Brown said. “Combining printing operations to reduce costs is now a standard industry practice.”

Brown said Shields’s work to boost HNE’s commercial printing business “was one of the largest contributors to our company profitability and crucial to the long-term survival of our newspapers.”

But Shields’ love of journalism was his passion.

“I got the news bug early on,” Shields said in an interview in 2014 as he looked back on his career upon his retirement. Early in his career, he worked in production, which is about as far from the newsroom as you can get at a newspaper, but he gravitated toward reporters and their work.

“I loved that whole part of the news business, he said. “I thought newspapers were the glue to hold communities together, and that was the part of the business I loved.”

Shields, who was salutatorian in his class at Mt. Vernon High School and who also graduated from Indiana University, was selling newspaper computer systems in the 1980s when he decided he wanted to become a publisher and run his own newspaper. He was hired as the publisher in Mitchell, South Dakota, in 1990 and also worked in Sedalia, Missouri, before coming back to Hancock County in 1997.

At the Daily Reporter, he enjoyed talking to reporters about their stories, and he read every edition voraciously. But contrary to the belief of some of his detractors, he never dictated coverage. Most of the time, in fact, the first time he read a story was after the paper came out.

Shields was a crusader for transparency and loathed conflicts of interest in government. Ethics were not something to be compromised, and he frequently called out those who tried to game the system.

Randy Sorrell, executive director of the Hancock Economic Development Council, said he and Shields served together on the HEDC board for years and frequently discussed topics of interest in the community.

“Quite frankly, we disagreed about almost everything,” said Sorrell, whose relationship with Shields went back 25 years. “But there was one area where he and I were in complete agreement. He was very principled and held to very high ethical standards, for himself and others.”

Shields understood the role his newspaper needed to play to safeguard those standards.

“The newspaper is vital to a community,” Shields wrote in a farewell column at the time of his retirement in December 2014. “I am proud of the Daily Reporter and our weekly publications in New Palestine, Fortville/McCordsville and Pendleton and the staffs through the years that have produced them. We strived to get it right; to produce the best newspapers our communities could afford.”

In retirement, Shields and his wife, Patrice, who survives, traveled widely and enjoyed spending time with their three children. In September 2018, Shields, who had undergone a liver transplant in 2004, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had spread to his liver and lymph nodes. The Shieldses moved to Maryland in December to be closer to their children, and chemotherapy treatments stopped in July after Shields developed severe complications. He entered hospice care later that month.

“The journey forward is uncertain, and assumed to be growing more difficult,” he wrote in a long email to friends on July 28. “We are in a good place, with good care and with our children close by. We are a team — always have been — and work things out together.”

[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”Inside” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

An obituary for Randall Shields is on Page A3.

[sc:pullout-text-end]