'This job has opened my eyes'

Jul 31, 2012

Charleston’s Hawkins is retiring,
but he faces forward, not back

Editor’s note: The National Newspaper Association will hold its 126th Annual Convention in Charleston, SC, home of The Post and Courier, founded in 1803. Bill Hawkins, its editor since 2005 and publisher since 2009, is set to retire at the end of this year.

By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
As the oldest continuously published newspaper in the South, and one of the oldest in the entire U.S, The Post and Courier of Charleston, SC, survived the Civil War, the advent of TV, the conversion to cold type, the demise of the afternoon daily and Hurricane Hugo.
Publisher Bill Hawkins has no doubt the newspaper will survive the dramatic shift to digital media, too.
Like a youngster with new toys for his sandbox, new bells and whistles on his bicycle, and extra arrows in his quiver, Hawkins has taken The Post and Courier to new heights using technology without turning his back on newsprint.
“We have changed,” he says. “We have a state of the art digital desk, and we are first on every platform. Our mobile use is up 116 percent over last year. We even have a social media director. We have a full complement of tools. News, information, advertising—any way anyone wants it delivered, we can do it.”
The Post and Courier even has a weekly TV show on Comcast Cable, hosted by a popular former TV reporter.
The Post and Courier traces its ancestry to three 19th century newspapers, The Charleston Courier, founded in 1803; The Charleston Daily News, founded in 1865, and The Evening Post, founded in 1894. Over the years, the newspapers merged, finally becoming The Post and Courier in 1991.
The newspaper has been in the Manigault family since 1895.
“One thing that has not changed is newsprint is still our core business,” he says. “With all the hoopla over digital, that is still just a fraction of our revenue. I predict the gap will close eventually, but that hasn’t happened yet.”
Hawkins, who will retire Dec. 31 from his post as executive editor and publisher of the storied southern newspaper after 44 years in the business, claims his career has been accidental.
Serendipitous is a better description.
He possibly is living out a self-fulfilling prophecy set in motion before he was ever born.
Like many publishers and editors, Hawkins comes from good newspaper stock. A born and bred Yankee who has been in the South so long he qualifies as a naturalized southerner, Hawkins got his start as editor of his high school newspaper in Sewickley, PA, a suburb of Pittsburgh.
Even though his father, Frank Hawkins, who served as editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and his great grandfather Charles Hawkins, who founded the New Castle Herald in Virginia, the younger Hawkins thought it was great that his high school newspaper was published in the pages of the weekly Sewickley Herald.
He studied government at Cornell University while holding down summer jobs at the Beaver County Times in Alquippa where he learned to love reporting.
“Being a reporter is the best job in the world,” he says.
After college, he entered the U.S. Army, serving with the 11th Infantry Brigade in Vietnam. He earned a Bronze Star as an intelligence officer, and is a life member of the American Division Veterans Association.
He thought he’d enroll in law school after his service ended, but with an October discharge date, he would have to wait nearly a year before going back to school.
“I was married and I needed a job,” he says.
So he went to work as a reporter covering state government at the Harrisburg (PA) Patriot-News and has never looked back.
“After six months on the job, I thought ‘who needs law school? I love this job,’” he says.
From Harrisburg, Hawkins began making his way south, stopping at the Baltimore Evening Sun for 14 years where he covered state and local government and worked his way up the ladder to become assistant managing editor.
From there, he migrated to Durham, NC, to take over the news operations for The Morning Herald and Evening Sun, which he merged into the Herald-Sun in 1991.
The Herald-Sun had been in the Rollins family since 1895, but sold it to Paxton Media Group who took over management Jan. 1, 2005.
Hawkins was out, but not for long.
Then Post and Courier Publisher Larry Tarleton, who retired in 2009, recruited Hawkins to Charleston.
“When Larry called to offer me the executive editor’s job at The Post and Courier, I couldn’t get to Charleston fast enough,” Hawkins says.
He started there in March 2005.
Three years ago, he succeeded Tarleton as publisher, while retaining his executive editor’s role.
Over the years, Hawkins found his niche in service to the North Carolina Press Association and the South Carolina Press Association as one of just a handful of publishers and editors who have served as president of two different state newspaper trade groups.
In North Carolina, he made his mark early in the legislative arena, and one of his proudest moments was passage of a historic reporter’s shield law in 1999 when he chaired the NCPA’s legislative committee.
The battle had encompassed 16 years of litigation and three months of lobbying, and for Hawkins, it was a worthwhile fight.
“That was a wonderful achievement,” he says. “It was a long shot to go after a shield law, and passing it was immensely rewarding, both personally and professionally.”
A framed photo of the bill signing ceremony, with a signing pen and copies of the ratified law hang in Hawkins’ office.
“The South Carolina Press Association is fabulous, too,” he says. “It is a very strong association, and I got involved from the beginning. One of the association’s greatest achievements is to own its own building. It serves as a place for folks to gather and train, and it physically represents the vitality of the association.”
For a lifelong news guy, Hawkins has loved his tenure as a publisher.
“This job has opened my eyes to the full scope of the newspaper business, and what a unique business it is.”
His advice for young aspiring journalists:
“Go for it,” he says. “The reality is there are enormous opportunities out there. What we are looking for in journalists today are multi-media specialists with the ability to tell stories in print, video and on Twitter. They have to do it all.”
Looking back on his own career, he considers himself a lucky man.
“I have been lucky to have worked for great family newspapers that supported the newsroom, supported their communities and never abused the public trust,” he says.
Even in the face of the recent recession and digital disruption, he remains optimistic about the future.
“Digital actually makes the job more fun,” he says. “Change is inevitable. In the future our entire readership may migrate to the Internet, and we’ll migrate with them. We own the news and information and advertising of the low country. We’ll adapt.”
With a boyish enthusiasm that hasn’t waned during his 44-year career, one might wonder why he’s ready to retire.
“Because I’m old,” he says and laughs.
“I have a lot to do. I have two grandkids in New York and two in Virginia. I don’t see them enough, and they are growing up. I want to travel while I still have legs,” he says. “I also have some personal projects that have been on the back burner. Plus, it is time.”
He’s at work planning the next chapter, and wants to remain in Charleston and stay active in the community.
“I’m not just going to sit on the beach, although I do plan to do my fair share of that,” he says.
As a longtime resident of both Carolinas, Hawkins has lived in a barbecue-lovers heaven, but allows that he’s not likely to become a certified barbecue judge.
“I’m more of a shrimp and grits guy,” he says.
And he intends to stay that way.