Sale of The Dispatch Means Much More than a Change in How Central Ohio Gets its News

One Family's Effect on 143 Years of History

The recent announcement that The Columbus Dispatch has been sold by the Wolfe family to a New York-based media group sent shock waves through the political and civic community in the state capital.

The Dispatch, Columbus’ last remaining daily newspaper, has been publishing for 143 years and has been operated by the Wolfe family since the turn of the century. At one time, Columbus, like most major cities, had several daily newspapers. But the Wolfes solidified their monopoly in 1985 when it ended a joint operating agreement with the Columbus Citizen-Journal, and that paper, which itself was a merger of two newspapers, folded.

The Dispatch’s new owners, New Media Investment Group, will, of course, continue to publish The Dispatch along with the many suburban papers and monthly publications that came with the acquisition. The flow of news will continue, but likely in different ways and via different channels.

What rocked the world of the city’s leaders is the realization that while the Wolfe family will almost certainly remain active in civic affairs, it no longer will wield the singular, powerful voice that could make or break a major initiative in the capital.

Columbus is a fast growing city and it’s likely that most residents, unless they are keen fans of local history, are unaware of the role that the Wolfe family has played for more than 100 years. Examples of civic involvement abound.

For example, in 1928, Edgar Wolfe brought a newly minted American hero – Charles Lindbergh – to Columbus. “Lucky Lindy” walked the fields of eastern Franklin County with Wolfe and others and pointed out where the city’s airport should go. Wolfe believed that aviation was not only a pretty cool thing, but cities that had a world class-airport would have a leg up on economic development.

All residents of Columbus are well aware of Jack Hanna, the ubiquitous Director Emeritus of the Columbus Zoo. But the zoo might not have achieved its world-class status if the Wolfe family had not – the year before Lindbergh came to town – had a few reindeer left from a holiday celebration and decided that could be the start of a city zoo. When that zoo was relocated, the Wolfe family helped develop the site into the beautiful Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens and later led the drive to sponsor an international flower show, AmeriFlora ’92. They also hosted acclaimed glass artist Dale Chihuly. Many of his works remain at the conservatory.

For all of their contributions and involvement, the Wolfe family remains very private and members do not go out of their way to boast about good works. For that reason, one of the greatest contributions is rarely discussed. In the 1950s, most major cities around the country were struggling with ways to provide health care to the poor. The solution for many was creation of a city- or county- owned hospital to serve primarily the indigent. The Wolfes – and others in Columbus – did not like that model. They called together the leaders of the city’s hospitals and after some intense discussions, they all agreed to serve all residents and thus share the financial burden of providing high quality care to all, regardless of their socio-economic status. The result is a world-class community hospital system open to all and the envy of many larger cities.

There are many other examples of civic involvement and the contributions will certainly continue through the Wolfe Foundation and other avenues. But the loss that central Ohio is likely to experience is the same that has taken place in cities across the country. For 200 years, family-owned newspapers have been a driving force in community affairs. Families such as Pulitzer, Hearst, Chandler, Graham, Ochs-Sulzberger, played key roles in the development of their communities. Now those names are topics in journalism history courses and their direct influence on major U.S. cities is gone as the print properties that provided them influence struggle to survive.

In Ohio, the Block family still publishes The Blade and continues to be active in Toledo. Descendants of Gov. James Cox own The Dayton Daily News, but corporate offices have been in Atlanta for years. Other Ohio publishing empires, such as Scripps and Horvitz, are gone.

Clearly, the flow of news continues and those of us who work in the communications industry recognize the challenges and opportunities presented by the reformulation of news channels. It’s also understandable that the corporations that now dominate newspaper ownership have to be primarily concerned about simply being able to survive financially and keep the doors open. Public involvement will necessarily take a back seat. Among the major questions are whether the still evolving, new media landscape will result in broader, more democratic involvement in civic issues and whether singular leaders – within media companies or from outside – will emerge.

Media are the means of social conversation in our society. There’s no doubt the conversation will continue, but major civic initiatives require focused direction and leadership. Every community in Ohio faces different challenges that now must be met in new and diverse ways. Who steps forward – and how capable they are in building consensus and acting in the best interest of the entire community – could play a large role in the ability of our cities to thrive in the decades ahead.

 

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