2019: The sale of WBNS marks the end of an enduring media empire.
In June 1995, a rumor was circulating that the University of California system was wooing Gordon Gee, a beloved figure and rainmaker then in his first of two stints as Ohio State president. University board chair Jack Kessler put out calls to several bigwigs, including John F. Wolfe, who at that point was 20 years into his tenure as publisher of The Columbus Dispatch, the newspaper his family had owned since 1905. Wolfe responded by walking into the office of Mike Curtin, the paper's editor-in-chief.
Curtin chuckles as he recalls a quintessential John F. Wolfe moment. “He said, ‘Mike, you're going to write this editorial that's so sugary-sweet, and is going to express so much love for Gordon, that he won't be able to turn away from us.'”
Which is exactly what Curtin did. The editorial he penned, “Ohio State should do its best to keep Gee,” not only sang his praises but also mentioned the 45 percent pay differential between his job and the California position—and recommended the university trustees address that issue.Read the rest of Columbus Monthly's Defining Decade series.
It's the kind of clout only the head of a family-owned news organization can, or perhaps would want to, exert. In much of the U.S., local ownership of major news outlets ended long ago. But here in Columbus, it lasted until this year, when the Wolfes sold WBNS-TV and radio to Tegna, an offshoot of Gannett.
The end had been coming for a while. In 2015, the Wolfes sold The Dispatch and all its affiliated print publications (including Columbus Monthly) to New Media Investment Group, parent of GateHouse Media. A year after the sale, family patriarch John F. Wolfe died at the age of 72.
John F., as he was called to distinguish him from his more ruthless cousin, John W. Wolfe, who died in 1994, was lauded as a shy philanthropist with an abiding passion for Columbus. “John was patient, thoughtful and totally unselfish in every way,” L Brands founder Les Wexner said in a statement after his death. “He was a leader for the ages.”
His death also left a huge hole in the city's power structure. For the first time in a century, Columbus is moving forward without a Wolfe in the mix. The Columbus Partnership—the civic organization co-founded by Wolfe and his good friend Wexner—has recognized the need to cultivate a new generation to replace Wolfe and other aging leaders. The organization has expanded its roster of members to 75, with more than 20 joining since Wolfe died in 2016.
Of course, none of the new leaders have the standing of Wolfe—or an editorial page that can drive the city's civic agenda—but the community has managed to navigate some dicey political situations without Wolfe, particularly 2017's complicated Save The Crew effort. “I've now got enough experience watching this that I've seen a whole cadre of CEOs come and go,” says Alex Fischer, the CEO of the Columbus Partnership. “We buried one of our founders. I think we're stronger, not weaker. That doesn't mean we don't celebrate their contributions and their accomplishments and love them dearly. But it also means that life marches on, and we've got to carry forward their vision and their expectations.”***
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