Calling it the toughest personal decision he has ever had to make, Herald-Leader Publisher and President Timothy M. Kelly announced Thursday that he is retiring, effective June 3.
Frank Whittaker, McClatchy vice president of operations, announced that Rufus M. Friday, president and publisher of the Tri-City Herald in eastern Washington state, will be Kelly's successor. Friday, 50, begins in Lexington on June 6.
Kelly, 63, has served as publisher for 15 years; he was also editor of the paper from 1991 to 1996. During his tenure, the paper won two Pulitzer Prizes and two President's Awards from the paper's corporate parent, The McClatchy Co., including one delivered Thursday for the paper's coverage of the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games last fall.
Kelly has served on many community boards, including the Kentucky Blood Center and Commerce Lexington. For the past seven years, Kelly has been on the national board of the YMCA of the U.S.A.
Newspaper employees honored Kelly with a standing ovation after his announcement.
"I deeply appreciate the hard work you all have done here over the years," Kelly said. "I can move on now knowing the paper is in really, really good hands."
Kelly said it was entirely his decision to retire at this time.
"I'm incredibly proud of the journalism we've done in the last 22 years," Kelly said. "We have shown ourselves to be a watchdog that still has teeth."
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray said Kelly is not only a friend but also a superb journalist.
"He's never let friendship get in the way of honest reporting," Gray said in response to Thursday's announcements. "I've always felt the punches he's sent my way have been with community in mind, with good reporting and integrity in mind. Democracy depends on a free and independent press, and no one has represented that ideal better or more inspiringly than Tim Kelly."
Jan Brucato, former CEO of the YMCA of Central Kentucky, said Kelly served Lexington with passion. "Tim Kelly was not only a great leader in the newspaper industry, he was a great leader in our community," she said. "It's one thing to be paid to do something you love; it's another to provide this level of commitment as a volunteer."
McClatchy Chairman and CEO Gary Pruitt also offered congratulations to both men.
"We're particularly grateful for Tim's veteran leadership and steady hand over the past few years, which have been tumultuous for our industry," Pruitt said.
"At the same time, we're delighted to welcome Rufus to the publisher's job in Lexington," Pruitt said. "Rufus is a thoughtful, seasoned newspaper executive who will build upon the Herald-Leader traditions of journalism excellence and community service."
Friday an N.C. native
Raised in Gastonia, N.C., Friday had a paper route as a child and played tight end on North Carolina State University's football team. He became president and publisher of McClatchy's Tri-City Herald in 2005. Before being named publisher, Friday worked for two years as vice president of circulation at The News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., another McClatchy newspaper. He also spent 11 years directing circulation at Gannett Co. Inc. newspapers.
Friday has been involved in many education-related community efforts, including YMCA's Black Achievers Mentoring programs in Illinois and North Carolina.
Friday said Kelly will be a tough act to follow.
"We're in a very tough environment. ... But I'm determined we're not going to live in the past," he said, calling the Herald-Leader "healthy, relevant and a profitable asset."
With a slower-than-expected economic recovery, all McClatchy newspapers, including the Herald-Leader, have been asked to rewrite budgets based on lower-than-anticipated advertising revenues.
Friday said Kelly will redraft the paper's budget before he goes; he said that no options, including more layoffs, are off the table.
Asked about the prospect of more job cuts, Kelly said: "We have nothing more to say at this time. But when we do, it will be my responsibility."
Kelly plans fishing time
Kelly said he contemplated retiring in 2009, after the newspaper went through multiple rounds of job cuts.
But with the prospect of an economic recovery, new editor Peter Baniak in place and the World Equestrian Games on the horizon, Kelly said, he decided to stay.
In December, he said, his doctor recommended that he retire. He said he's had some health issues in recent years — nothing calamitous but enough to get him to look up from the newsprint and paperwork and think about the ultimate deadline.
"I have lots and lots more fish to catch," said Kelly, an avid fisherman. "I've been doing this (publishing) almost 15 years, which is almost 100 in dog years."
Kelly said he plans to remain in Lexington with his wife, Carol, so the couple will be close to their children and two young grandchildren.
A Kentucky native, Kelly said he used to obsess about working in Lexington, particularly about becoming editor.
"I knew all along this would be a tremendous place. ... We've got great story lines," Kelly said.
His 46-year journalism career began at 17 as a part-time sportswriter for his hometown newspaper, the Daily Independent in Ashland. By age 25, he was executive sports editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He also held leadership roles at the Dallas Times Herald, The Denver Post, the Los Angeles Daily News and The Orange County (Calif.) Register before returning to Lexington in 1989 as executive editor.
The Denver Post and Orange County Register won Pulitzer Prizes while Kelly was managing editor.
At the Herald-Leader, Kelly won the Ida B. Wells Award for diversity achievements in the news industry; two individual Excellence Awards from Knight Ridder, the paper's previous corporate parent; and the Commonwealth of Kentucky's White Ribbon Project recognizing "Men Helping End Violence Against Women."
Friday will be the paper's first black publisher. Because Kelly has tried to advance diversity of all kinds during his career, he said, Friday's appointment "is extremely meaningful to me that my successor is going to be a person of color."
Now, Kelly said, his focus will be on grandkids and fish. "You're going to have to find me on a lake somewhere," he said.
Reach Janet Patton at (859) 231-3264 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3264.