John R. Nixon · 2006

By Ray Moscowitz

“He was definitely a newspaperman. But he also cared. It was not just a way for him to make money.” — David Stamps, Executive Director, Hoosier State Press Association.
“His reliability in service to newspapers is such that we have grown to consider him the prototype Inlander, the man most representative of community newspaper publishing at its best.” – Ray Carlsen, Executive Director, Inland Press Association.

Those succinct comments go to the heart of John R. Nixon’s highly successful career as the leader of a group of newspapers that won acclaim far beyond Indiana.

Born in Wabash on Oct.19, 1928, to Don M. and Eugenia Hubbard Nixon, John, like his older brother Joe, was destined for the newspaper business. His father had planted the seed for what would grow into Nixon Newspapers, Inc. by co-founding the weekly Saturday Spectator in Terre Haute in 1904. He was only 24, but he had worked for the Terre Haute Morning Express and, at 21, gone to New York to become a ship news reporter.

After earning a degree in economics at Amherst and serving in the Air Force, John Nixon, 26, became general manager of the family-owned Peru Daily Tribune in 1954. By then, the Nixon papers had been led for two decades by his mother, Eugenia, who became president of the company after Don Nixon was killed in an automobile accident in Michigan City.

In 1956, John Nixon became a partner in Nixon Newspapers Associates, which evolved into Nixon Newspapers, Inc. He became NNI’s Chief Executive Officer in 1975 and held that position until shortly before the company was sold in 1998.

As he rose to prominence, Nixon kept track of two symbiotic bottom lines: financial health essential for any business to survive, and a level of editorial quality that ensured readers’ acceptance. He was not content with NNI papers merely being above average. He wanted excellence, day in and day out, and he made that known by closely monitoring the papers’ efforts, but eschewing micromanagement.

Having grown up in the business, Nixon possessed solid journalism credentials, but his greatest strength as a publisher and corporate executive was his understanding of a newspaper’s role.

Like his brother Joe and father Don, John Nixon believed that newspapers should not only report the news, but address the issues of the day — from the Courthouse to the White House — in muscular editorials and personal opinion columns. When some newspapers, mostly small dailies, began dropping endorsement editorials in the ’90s, Nixon pooh-poohed the trend.

Along with the affairs of government, economic development became a running story and frequent editorial topic in the Peru Tribune. The paper dug into the movement long before it became a major endeavor throughout the nation.

While Nixon was at the forefront of economic development in Miami County, he also was playing a leadership role in the construction of the Salamonie and Mississinewa reservoirs, which have saved millions in flood damage and boosted recreation and tourism in Wabash and Miami counties. Nixon worked along side his brother and John Mitchell, the first Director of the Department of Natural Resources. (Mitchell later joined Nixon Newspapers as publisher of the Frankfort Times and eventually became NNI’s Chief Operating Officer.)

Nixon’s plate had room for another major undertaking during those years. When the Tribune’s general manager, Bob Mathes, became a key figure in establishing the Peru Amateur Circus, which revolves around school-age youngsters guided by volunteer adults, Nixon put the newspaper squarely behind the project. The amateur circus became a reality almost 50 years ago and today is internationally known.

The Circus Hall of Fame, a separate entity that came into existence later, benefited greatly from Nixon’s generous financial support and the Tribune’s backing. Located in Miami County, the Circus Hall of Fame occupies ground that once served as the winter quarters for professional circuses.

While Nixon thrived on being immersed in projects that improved the quality of life in his
community, newspapering was at the core of his existence.

In his quest for quality, he avidly supported training and development programs for NNI employees. The company made significant investments to send people to seminars and programs, such as those offered by the American Press Institute and the Inland Press Association. His advocacy of training led to NNI establishing its own programs at company headquarters in Peru.

A strong believer in recognizing superior work, Nixon enthusiastically approved establishment of the Nixon Newspapers National Writing Award in conjunction with Ball State University. NNI provided a significant cash award to the winner.

Like his brother Joe, John was a major figure in the Hoosier State Press Association and Inland Press Association. John served as president of both organizations. Among the major contributions he made to Inland was his idea almost 30 years ago to establish the annual Group Executives Conference. More than 100 newspaper CEOs now regularly attend the meeting, seeking ways to improve the newspaper business.

“He was such a blessing,” Inland Executive Director Carlsen said after learning of Nixon’s death on April 4, 2003. He called Nixon a natural leader and an innovator.

After NNI was sold, Nixon stayed active in journalism, playing a major role in helping 1UP!, a newspaper web design company, get established in Kokomo. The company was created by two former NNI employees in the early days of newspapers entering cyberspace. Nixon shared the company’s vision and supplied not only encouragement, but financial wherewithal. Today 1UP! is a highly successful venture, serving hundreds of newspapers.

Over the years, Nixon received numerous honors, both inside and outside the newspaper business. Among the last awards was the coveted Sagamore of the Wabash, which represents extraordinary service to the State of Indiana.

Now John Nixon’s induction into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame – where he will join his father, brother and John Mitchell — will serve as the capstone honor for those that preceded it.

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