Black, Vega ready to accept Neuharth Award

For the last 21 years, Al Neuharth has handed out his award for Excellence in the Media. Some of the who's who in the media industry who have received the famous University of South Dakota alumnus' award range from Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, another USD graduate, Don Hewitt and most recently Katie Couric.

Last year, Couric was presented the award on its 20th anniversary in a big ceremony in the DakotaDome.

However, the same fanfare hasn't been felt around this year's event. Part of the reason could be the presentation won't be held in Slagle Hall, its regular venue, which is still undergoing a long, drawn out construction process. This year, the Wayne S. Knutson Theater at USD's Fine Arts building will have the privilege of hosting the event.

Another reason could be the two recipients of the award. This year, Cathie Black, chairman of Hearst Magazines, and Frank Vega, chairman and publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, will accept the award from Neuharth.

Now I am not saying both recipients aren't deserving of the award, but they don't have the name recognition as a Couric, Bob Schieffer or Tim Russert. However, Black and Vega have clearly done enough in the media in order to earn what is considered a lifetime achievement award.

Black has spent four decades in the media and has been dubbed by some as the "The First Lady of American Magazines" and was called "one of the leading figures in American publishing" by the Financial Times.

Black heads Heart Magazines and for the past 15 years, she has managed the financial performance and development of some of the most-well known magazines, such as Esquire, Cosmopolitan, The Oprah Magazine, Redbook and Popular Mechanics.

A few years ago, Black wrote BASIC BLACK: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead At Work (and in Life). The book was so successful that it reached number one on the Wall Street Journal business book list in 2007.

Vega has known Neuharth for a while. He was part of a research team to help with the launch of USA Today, which was founded by Neuharth. Neuharth credits Vega for devising and implementing a national distribution and sales plan that made the first national daily paper one of the highest circulating papers in the U.S.

Vega became the publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005 and along with its website, SFGate.com, it reaches 1.9 million Bay Area residents each week.

However, recognizing Vega may be what some consider "old hat." While Vega set up a business model that helped USA Today become one of the biggest papers in the country, that same business model no longer works in today's newspaper industry.

Vega has also had to deal with several problems – the same problems that have plagued many major newspapers in recent years – while publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle. When Vega took over, the circulation of the paper was at 400,906, but by September of 2009, it fell to 251,782. There were even rumors in early 2009 that the Hearth Corporation could shut down The Chronicle just like it did with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Vega was able to change the business model that has focused less on advertising and more on increased subscription fees. The paper has claimed the new strategy has produced improved financial results.

My only question is if Vega should've received the award before the slide of newspapers. Vega is being awarded for a business model that was successful before media hit the world wide web. Now, USA Today has struggled to catch up as it sees competitors pass it by on the internet super-highway with even The San Francisco Chronicle not far behind the national paper.

Maybe the second recipient or even a future recipient should've been awarded to someone who has embraced the online media market like publishers from The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, two of the most popular media sites on the web.

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