Desperately Seeking Susan
Susan Clark-Johnson is known to most as the powerful publisher of the Reno Gazette-Journal, the mighty Gannett newspaper in northern Nevada, and as senior group president, Pacific Newspaper Group of the Gannett corporation. In addition to being in charge of the Reno daily, she also oversees a number of Gannett newspapers on the west coast. But in casino circles, Clark-Johnson is also known for her other gig: She's a highly paid member of Harrah's Entertainment's board of directors, a corporation her newspaper is supposed to cover in an objective manner. When her dual role was revealed in 1994, it sent shockwaves throughout the national newspaper community, generating stories in the Washington Post and trade publications like Editor & Publisher."My feeling is that it's a clear conflict of interest," says journalism ethics professor Jake Highton, who teaches at the University of Nevada campus in Reno. "Here she's serving on the board of a member of the state's largest industry, and the paper is supposed to be covering it. In that position, you have to be above suspicion. It seems to me that it violates the role of a newspaper."We talk about Sue Clark-Johnson in ethics classes. My opening remark to the class is that we don't need ethics classes for students. We need it for publishers and TV station managers."If Clark-Johnson's dual role is a topic in Highton's journalism classes, it isn't something that she brings up at public appearances. And if anyone brings it up for her, she often avoids the subject. When she hosted a meeting of an outfit called New Directions for News (an institute, founded in 1987 to foster "innovation in newspapers to make them more relevant and useful in the service of a democratic society"), Harrah's, the casino she works for, was the locale. Asked whether she felt her role as a Harrah's board member was a conflict of interest, she refused to talk."I'm at a social event ... I'm here at a social event that I'm hosting," she said, and the petite, salt-and-pepper haired publisher briskly terminated the interview. The social event, which was sponsored by a press organization, was closed to the press, closed to the public and cost $1,650 to attend. According to a Securities and Exchange Commission document, Harrah's board members are paid $2,500 per month, $1,500 per board meeting and $1,200 per committee meeting. Clark-Johnson was elected to the board for three more years in 1996. If she attends all the board's meetings, Clark-Johnson can make up to $46,800 a year from Harrah's.How does Clark-Johnson prevent money like that from influencing her at her fulltime job as publisher of a major daily newspaper in a casino market? It's impossible to tell. After refusing to answer the question at Harrah's, she didn't return phone calls, faxes, e-mail messages or letters sent to her home and office addresses.We wanted to ask her about the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) code of ethics, adopted Sept. 1,1996, which states: "Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know. Journalists should: Avoid conflicts of interest. real or perceived. Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility. Refuse gifts. favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity. Disclose unavoidable conflicts." SPJ says it has no record of Clark-Johnson being a member.We also wanted to ask her about what the Columbia Journalism Review quotes the Gazette-Journal's own employee handbook as saying: "Employees will not have any outside interest, investment, or business relationship that dilutes their loyalty to the company or dedication to the principle of a free and impartial press."We started asking ourselves more questions about her: Just who is the real Sue Clark-Johnson? How powerful is she?Research on the Internet and through public records uncovered the portrait of a woman who wields tremendous clout within Gannett Company Inc., which owns the Reno Gazette-Journal and also publishes USA Today. It is, by most estimates, the largest newspaper chain in the country. Clark-Johnson runs one of the more profitable medium-sized newspapers in the Gannett chain, a paper that is criticized by some as being editorially shallow, but which nonetheless brings home the bacon for its parent company. She also created a local nonprofit group, Forum For a Common Agenda, that meets regularly in the Gazette-Journal offices and boasts the names of some of the most influential businessmen in the Reno area. Clark-Johnson became a powerhouse through hard work and guts. But many believe she's compromised her ethics by serving on the board of one of America's largest casino chains.Citizen SueSusan Clark-Johnson was born on Feb. 21, 1947, in Mount Kisco, N.Y. Her parents are Emile Schurmacher and Elizabeth Woolf, according to her most recent marriage license application. (Susan J. Clark was married to Samuel Brooks Johnson, the publisher of the San Bernadino Sun, at the Hyatt Regency on Jan. 3, 1996; it was her third marriage. She was divorced from her second husband in 1991. She went by the names Sue Clark and Sue Clark-Jackson before becoming Clark-Johnson.) She graduated from State University of New York at Binghamton in 1967. She started her career in newspapers as a family news reporter at the Binghamton Press Company and became women's editor of the Binghamton Evening Press in 1968."I was 21 and was hired as a women's reporter for the Binghamton Press and Sun Bulletin in New York, covering club news and doing features," she said in an interview with the Boston Globe in 1989. "The editor of the women's section left abruptly, and I was asked to run the department until they found someone else." "But Clark-Jackson was asked to head the department permanently, and she has never stopped moving up the ladder," the article continued. She hired on at the Niagara Gazette as family news editor in 1970, became editor, then became publisher in 1977 -- only the fifth woman to be promoted to the top job on a Gannett paper.Al Neuharth, former CEO of the Gannett Corporation and founder of USA Today, says of her promotion, "Most of the publishers, including Sue, were not ready [to be promoted]. I thought she'd grow into it. I told her if she didn't, I'd fire her and if she did, I'd promote her. "She is an extremely bright and motivated journalist," he said. "My relationship with her was professional -- she was polite and worked well with others."If Gannett has one laudable quality, it has been the promotion of women and minorities to positions of prominence. As Gannett CEO, Neuharth advanced this principle perhaps more than anyone else."I felt that most of us in the media were continually preaching diversity, but we didn't practice it. Having a diverse newsroom and not having middle-aged white guys making all the decisions was not only the right thing to do, but it was good business," Neuharth said.While Neuharth wouldn't comment for the record on Clark-Johnson's job at Harrah's (when be retired from Gannett in 1989, he declared he wouldn't comment publicly on matters of the day-to-day business), he did say this: "I'm not sure if we had a written conflict-of-interest policy. We had understandings of what people could and couldn't do." Known in the '80s as Sue Clark-Jackson, she was promoted to publisher of the Binghamton Press & Sun- Bulletin in December 1983. In July 1984, she became one of two vice presidents for the Gannett Corporation's northeast region. It was as publisher in Binghamton, N.Y., that she got a taste of controversy when her application for membership to the Binghamton Country Club was rejected, although her male predecessors had been accepted, according to a June 30, 1984, UPI story."It's not only personally insulting, it's also a great insult to the company I represent as president and chief executive," she said in the UPI story. She also said she wouldn't contest the rejection. " 'I don't think I want to belong to an organization that doesn't want me,"' she added. An organization "'that doesn't respect my position or my gender."' It was also during her tenure in Binghamton that the Evening Press -- which had been an afternoon newspaper for 81 years and had a circulation of 57,000 -- ceased publication and merged with the Sun-Bulletin, a paper that was also owned by Gannett and had a circulation of 27,000, according to a July 19, 1985, UPI story. The move cut production jobs, but, according to Clark-Jackson, replaced them with jobs in circulation. She came to Reno to be publisher of the Gazette-Journal and was appointed president of Gannett West Newspaper Group in December 1985. She served as a jurist on the Pulitzer Prize in journalism committee. She bought her first home in Reno on Powderkeg Circle in the Juniper Trails subdivision of Caughlin Ranch in April 1986.She was recognized as Gannett's Manager of the Year in 1990. The Reno Gazette-Journal has received plenty of in-house laurels under her stewardship, including Most Improved Newspaper in Gannett in 1991. It has even won the Best of Gannett, the Gannett Company's highest award honoring editorial excellence.The Year Of Living Dangerously1994 was the year Susan Clark-Jackson hit the fan. She became senior group president, Pacific Newspaper Group, Gannett Co., Inc. in June 1994. As president, she became responsible for 18 newspapers in Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Guam (her husband, Brooks Johnson, as publisher of the San Bernardino Sun, is her employee).She was elected to the board of directors of Promus Companies, Inc., (former parent company of Harrah's, which owns casinos in Reno and across the country) in July 1994, pending her qualification by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission. She also bought a $440,000 property on Jill Street in Incline Village in July 1994.The Reno Gazette-Journal announced her election to Promus Company's Board on July 30. At that time, directors who were not employees of PHC (Promus Hotel Corporation) or its direct or indirect subsidiaries were paid a monthly fee of $2,083 plus $1,500 for each PHC board meeting and $l,000 for each committee meeting they attended. Promus and Harrah's Entertainment Corporations split in 1995. Meanwhile, Promus and its subsidiaries paid Gannett's Pacific Newspaper Group $890,251 for newspaper advertising from Jan. 1, 1994, to Feb. 28, 1995, according to SEC documents. It was in September that Susan Clark-Jackson's ethics came under fire from media professionals across the country. The Post reported that Clark-Johnson's role at Harrah's has had a negative effect on morale at her newspaper.Howard Kurtz's Post story read: " 'We cover that industry on a regular basis and that particular casino on a regular basis,' one [unnamed] staffer [at the Reno Gazette-Journal] said. 'Even if you play everything straight. there could still be a perception that there's a conflict, that you're in bed with Harrah's, that we can't be trusted.' Some newspaper publishers have worked for charitable or nonprofit institutions ... But it is unusual for a news executive to accept employment with a profit-making corporation." Editor & Publisher published a story by M. L. Stein on Sept. 10, 1994, in which industry professionals, including some from her own newsroom, took Clark-Jackson to task.Columbia Journalism Review gave the Reno Gazette-Journal a "dart," one of the most damning indictments in journalism, in its November issue. A dart is issued by the magazine to media people who have engaged in questionable journa lism. Gazette-Journal editor Ward Bushee fired off a letter to E&P that ran Oct. 8, 1994. Among other comments about E&P's story, Bushee states: "Her [Susan Clark- Jackson's] interest in the Promus board stems from her desire for greater understanding of the community's major industry -- gaming. Our major industry is struggling to survive and she has demonstrated she can help it ..."Controversy is nothing new to Clark-Jackson. As a young publisher in upstate New York, she challenged the all-male membership of a country club (she was admitted, although she does not golf)," Bushee concluded. But Grace Sanford, who has worked at the club for 18 years, could find no record of her membership and thus, in the search for the real Susan Clark-Johnson, the plot thickens.Executive Decision"She's a hell of a good executive, one of the best I've ever been around," says former Gannett board member and Reno columnist Rollan Melton of Clark-Johnson. "She knows the business top to bottom. She's very well-regarded by her colleagues. She's got a healthy attitude and a good sense of humor -- she establishes goals and lets people do their jobs. She's a pleasant person to be around socially and professionally." Melton commands more than 50,000 Gannett shares and has served as chairman and CEO of Speidel Newspapers Inc., a Gannett subsidiary. He is a trustee of the National Judicial College and the John Ben Snow Trust and Foundation. He served as a Gannett director since 1977, before retiring from the position this summer.Melton did not, at first, want to talk about Clark-Johnson's Harrah's gig. "I don't want to comment on that. I don't want to get involved in that," he said. But then he called back, willing to comment. "I've never seen one conflict -- I've never seen one sign of conflict of interest. She's hands-off auld lets the editors run. She's a very straight arrow on news. I've never seen her get in their [the editors'] way. I've worked with nine or 10 publishers. She's the first woman, and she's just the tops. I count her among my most valued colleagues and a very good friend." When it was mentioned that as a Gannett boardmember, he's Clark-Johnson's boss, he said, "In theory, that's true." But he says he is also a hands-off sort. Melton turned 65 on July 24 and retired from Gannett's board on May 6.Susan Slept Here"I hope that my involvement with Promus gives me greater understanding of my community's major industry," said Clark-Jackson in a statement to E&P. "Many publishers serve on bank boards, chambers of commerce and United Way. What's the difference?"The difference is that gambling is the single largest industry in the state and newspapers should be able to cover it without conflicts of interest. You often find members of business serving as directors on newspaper boards, but you don't often find it the other way around, said Jim Naureckas, editor of Extra!, the magazine of FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), a national media watch group. Naureckas believes that outside businesses shouldn't be involved in the decision-making process of the news media, or vice versa."It's a national problem," Naureckas said, and mentioned several conflicts that have come about because of the recent national merger mania. (NBC/General Electric and ABC/Disney are two examples). "As a director you are obligated to pursue the interests of the business of the board you are on -- it's a fiduciary responsibility," he said. "Ideally, you want independence so reporters can cover business and government without thinking about their employers' interests," Naureckas said. "It certainly sends a signal when your publisher is on a board that your newspaper is not looking for hard-hitting news. It doesn't take long for journalists to get a pretty good idea of who the sacred cows are." While on the subject of boards of directors, it should be mentioned that Drew Lewis, the chairman and CEO of Union Pacific who retired from UP last month and the man who engineered the train merger that the city is fighting tooth and nail in the courts, is also on Gannett's board of directors. He was elected to the board May 7, 1996.The News & Review told U.S. Senator Harry Reid, who is spearheading the state's efforts against the railroad,about Lewis' position and he was surprised. Reid wants fewer trains running through downtown Reno because they hurt casino business."No," said Reid, "I was not aware that Drew Lewis is on the board of Gannett. That is a real conflict of interest."It's dual loyalties like this, however, that may affect editorial contents, according to Naureckas. Indeed, a Jan. 16 Gazette-Journal editorial was published with the headline, "City errs in denouncing extra trains." Gazette-Journal editor Ward Bushee did not return a News & Review phone call requesting a comment.Lewis is joined on the Gannett board by such personages as Thomas A. Reynolds Jr., another director at Union Pacific and chairman emeritus of the law firm of Winston & Strawn of Chicago: Rosalynn Carter (Jimmy's wife): Meredith Brokaw (Tom's wife): and Rollan Melton.Gannett pays its directors $42,500 annually. Each director also receives a fee of $1,250 for each board meeting attended; each committee member gets $1,000 for each committee meeting attended. Directors who are employees of the Gannett or its subsidiaries receive no director fees. While Gannett's annual report does list Susan Clark-Johnson as one of 27 directors and executive officers, it does not list her salary. A Gannett spokesperson implied that it was nobody else's business. Go figure.How To Succeed In BusinessThere seems to be no question about Clark-Johnson's abilities as a businessperson. Even papers like the Cincinnati Enquirer track her stock -tracings. For example, a July 29, 1996, story said, "Susan Clark Jackson (sic), an affiliated person [with Gannett Co., Inc.] exercised an option for 8,050 shares between $43.75 and $44.55 each June 11-21, and sold them between $70.50 and $71.25 each June 11-21 and now directly and indirectly holds 12,571 shares." She also runs with the "big boys" in Reno. She co-founded the Forum for a Common Agenda, an organization that includes some of the most prominent local businesspeople, and meets regularly in the Gazette-Journal offices. The Forum was granted nonprofit status in 1992 (according to a determination letter addressed to Susan Clark-Jackson from the Internal Revenue Service) and its office is inside the Reno Gazette-Journal building. The RN&R could not obtain a current list of the board of directors.FCA staff consultant Kathie Bartlett said, "I don't have a current one. People are constantly coming and going these days, so it's in reorganization."One past board of directors' list, however, lists the directors as Buz Allen of Bank of America Nevada; staff consultant Kathie Bartlett; Bob Burn of Washoe Health System; Don Carano of the Eldorado Hotel Casino; Gary Carano of the Silver Legacy; Clark-Johnson; UNR president Joe Crowley; Michael Dermody of Dermody Properties; Bill Dickerson of CareBorne, Inc.; Clark J. Guild, Jr. Of Guild, Russell, et al.; Walter Higgins of Sierra Pacific Resources; Mac King of Nevada Bell; Ron Krump of Krump Construction; Ernie Martinelli; Alan Means of Caughlin Ranch; Boume Morris of Boume Morris Inc.; Tom Outland of Macy's Reno; Jim Rogers of Harrah's; John "Bud" Russell of International Games Technology; Joey Scolari of Scolari's; Ferenc Szony of the Reno Hilton and Larry Tuntland of First Interstate Bank. Also missing are director's salaries."I don't have that kind of information," Bartlett says. "You might be able to get that off of their annual reports of earnings or from Securities and Exchange Commission filings, which governs publicly traded corporations."Actually, it's the Internal Revenue Service that keeps stats on non-profit organizations, and the Forum is not a publicly traded corporation. Christina Wasson, internal communications specialist of public affairs for the IRS, suggested www.nonprofits.org for information about the Forum. The document gave P.O. Box 22000 for the Forum's mailing address, the same as the Gazette Journal's. The Forum was listed as a corporation. Its assets were listed as $15,479 and its income $49,665.Forum for a Common Agenda includes crossmembership with Nevada Non-Partisan Coalition, a group of politically active people that purports to "getting honest, qualified candidates elected to public office in Washoe County" and Northern Nevada Network, "a 'doing business as' for Frank Partlow" who is a sometime columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal and a business consultant. "She has really committed herself and committed the paper to doing good things for the community," Partlow said. In the December 1995 issue of Editorially Speaking, Mark Silverman, director of Gannett's NEWS 2000 program, discussed "how newspapers can take a more active role in helping readers improve their lives by exposing problems, offering solutions and providing leadership."Editorially Speaking is a Gannett in-house newsletter mailed to the top editor at each newspaper. To get an idea of how the Gazette-Journal provides leadership, one only has to look at its 1995 Forum "Green Book." In it, the Forum suggests doubling "our first-class room base within the next 10 years" to enable the state to better compete for tourist dollars."We believe that business leaders need to come together as the Forum for a Common Agenda to work with other community leaders to develop and implement solutions to those issues that will create a healthier community," the 53-page program read. "And when all is said and done, the community must act."When all is said and done, however, the tried-and-true method to act for the betterment of the community is to make your presence felt on Election Day. Newspapers and newspaper people clearly understand that, as evidenced by the Reno Gazette-Journal's "Your Vote Counts" campaign of the last election. Susan Clark-Johnson ostensibly agrees, since she sat on the four-person editorial board that made the endorsements for last November's election. (Incidentally, the Gazette-Journal's endorsements agreed with the Nevada Non-Partisan Coalition's in all but six cases, one of which was a tie.)Ultimately, however, in our quest to seek out Clark-Johnson, we weren't able to find any record of her being registered to vote in Washoe County. "According to this," says Harry Day, field registrar and mail-in registration coordinator at Washoe County Registrar of Voters indicating the data base of voter records, "she is not registered to vote." That detail seemed so inconceivable that the RN&R resumed twice more to the Registrar of Voters to check the variety of names we found while trying to find the real Sue Clark-Johnson.One final phone call to her office yielded no results. "Yes," said her assistant, "she's been getting your messages." Where is Clark-Johnson registered to vote? It's just another unanswered question we have for the publisher of the Gazette-Journal.