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James M. Schurz - 1933-2009

June 12, 2009

If we were asked to explain the ideals that got us into journalism, a number of us at The Herald-Mail could have taken about an hour to explain - or we could just have pointed to Jim Schurz, editor and publisher of the Herald-Mail for about a dozen years, and since 1986 a senior vice president of Schurz Communications.

Everything about Schurz was representative of journalism - real journalism, not the sound-bite serenade that too often passes for the trade in today's tweet-obsessed world. Schurz, who died Wednesday morning of lung cancer, might leave the newsroom for the day, but the newsroom never left him. After-hours conversations with friends were filled with talk of important events and the press that covered those events and made them meaningful to the public at large.

With a shock of dark hair, the vocal cords of a Howitzer and a gaze that could penetrate walnut, Schurz was a larger-than-life man who believed that the trust placed in reporters and editors was perhaps more sacred than any other.

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Politicians might represent the people in word, but it was the press that represented them in deed. In Schurz's world, in a newspaper's world, everyone was truly equal - rich or poor, educated or ignorant, prominent or unknown - newspapers would tell their stories, stand up for the downtrodden and demand accountability from those in power.

And heaven help the person or institution that would try to come between Schurz's newsroom and The Story.

He backed his reporters and editors with an iron resolve. He gave us confidence that we were doing the right thing, and that the paper had our backs. Our reporting had better be accurate, to be sure, but we never feared that some outside person of influence might intimidate us into soft-selling the news.

Moreover, at a time when small-city papers were often little more than a megaphone for the establishment, Schurz encouraged tough, aggressive reporting that was worthy of metropolitan-class papers. As The Morning Herald's coverage fanned out through the Tri-State, the quality of reporting improved regionwide as other papers recognized the need to boost professionalism in order to compete. It was cutting edge at the time, but it was at the forefront of a movement, and while large papers today are derided for declining coverage, there is no question that small papers during the past three decades trended in the opposite direction.

Schurz brought in the talent to make this advance possible, and paid decent wages and benefits that, at the time, were unheard of in the sleepy world of small papers.

Of course, a newspaper is much more than reporters and editors, and Schurz showed the same scrupulous attention and care for the people who ran the business side of the enterprise that makes news gathering possible. With pride, The Herald-Mail refers to itself as a family-run business, and no one embodied - and brought meaning - to the word family as much as Schurz.

Any employee who was nagged by a small problem or blindsided by a full-blown crisis was cared for by the Schurz family. Jim Schurz took genuine interest in everyone under his roof, no matter what the position or rank of importance. For all the professionalism he brought to the paper, it was perhaps this compassion that was valued the most.

In a day when plants are closed without a second thought, jobs are moved overseas and workers are asked to sacrifice while executives play around with thousand-dollar shower curtains, Schurz's philosophy almost seems like a quaint antique. But it was true - for him, the bottom line was not about money. The bottom line was that his paper produced a serious product; that the people who produced it were able to lead happy, fulfilled lives; and that at the end of the day, the readers and their interests were well-served.

And in that way, his life became ours, and ours his. Schurz was the proud leader of a proud team. In his honor, we trust his legacy will endure, his story be retold and his ideal be passed along as The Herald-Mail continues to perform its ultimate mission - to stand up for the readers it serves.

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