Mark Ferree · 2012As a longtime executive with Scripps-Howard Newspapers, Indiana-born Mark Ferree always believed in the vitality of the industry he spent his life supporting.
“No other profession offers the opportunity this one does to those willing to apply themselves,” Ferree said in 1960, when he was elected as the new president for the American Newspaper Publishers Association (ANPA). Ferree went one step further, however, calling newspapers “basic to our whole way of life. We should never be afraid of anything.”
Ferree supported his words with action just a year later, when on May 9, 1961, he and seven other American newspaper executives from such institutions as the New York Times, Dallas Times-Herald, and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, met with President John F. Kennedy to discuss the importance of national security regarding news coverage of the failed Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba. The president had initiated the conversation weeks earlier in a speech before an ANPA meeting in New York. In spite of pressure from Kennedy, the news executives stood their ground on freedom of the press.
“The conference in the president’s office was a total failure,” noted Pierre Salinger, White House press secretary. “Although JFK produced a number of recent news dispatches that clearly violated national security, the news executives told him bluntly that they would accept no new security restrictions — voluntary or official — in the absence of a declaration of national emergency.”
Even before the meeting, Ferree had staunchly opposed the threats to established press freedoms. Although after Kennedy’s ANPA speech, Ferree had indicated that when national security was involved, publishers would respond to a patriotic appeal from a president, he went on to say that if it involved censorship, “the only censorship workable or acceptable to newspapers of this country would have to be voluntary censorship along the lines worked so successfully by newspapermen themselves in the last war [World War II].”
Ferree’s high regard for his chosen profession came naturally. Born in Marion on Jan. 19,1905, Ferree got his start on newspapers as a delivery boy for the Richmond Palladium-Item. His older sister was married to the publisher of that newspaper, Ed Harris, whom Ferree described as “a wonderful person, a good newspaperman and gave me my liking for newspaper work.”
During high school he worked as a reporter and editorial writer at the Marion Chronicle. He also developed fond memories of carrying buckets of water at 50 cents a day to a Curtis Jenny biplane that gave sightseeing flights at a cow pasture north of town. Sometimes he had to use the water to not only cool the aircraft’s engine, but to also wash down the passenger seat after someone had lost their breakfast after a thrilling aerial ride.
Ferree enrolled at Indiana University, where he continued to write as a student, covering the downtown beat for the Indiana Daily Student newspaper. When he left the university in 1925, however, Ferree did not find work at a newspaper. Instead, he took a job as a sales trainee with the Dashiell Motor Company selling Dodge automobiles in Chicago, where he had worked during summer vacations, before returning to journalism as telegraph editor on the Evansville Courier.
While working on the Courier, he received a telephone call from Olin W. Kennedy, editor of the Miami Herald. “He offered me $65 a week,” Ferree said. “I was making $35 and couldn’t believe my luck.”
In 1930 he married Ruth Gauntt Welborn of Evansville; the couple had one son, Evan. And he soon left the newspaper business.
Over the next few years, Ferree worked as the head of advertising and publicity for the Southern Pine Association. But newspapering kept tugging at him. He returned to journalism in 1932, selling advertising on commission for the Washington Daily News, a job made possible by help from fellow Hoosiers Nelson Poynter, Lowell Mellett and Ernie Pyle.
“I made so much selling to the retail lumber and home building trade they were happy to put me on salary,” Ferree recalled.
He later became advertising director and business manager for the Indianapolis Times before becoming assistant general manager for all Scripps-Howard newspapers on Jan. 1, 1945. He became executive vice president and director of the E. W. Scripps Company, the operating company of Scripps-Howard Newspapers, in 1952.
A self-professed practical realist, Ferree refrained in his business dealings from “pontificating or offering gratuitous advice.” Instead, he preferred to give those in charge of each newspaper in the Scripps-Howard chain “freedom and complete autonomy.”
He played a key role in cutting costs by merging printing plants between Scripps-Howard and competing newspapers in such cities as San Francisco, Albuquerque, Birmingham, El Paso, Evansville, Knoxville and Columbus. “Costs are cut, competition continues, and both papers are stronger,” he said. “Most importantly, two separate and distinct editorial voices are preserved to serve the community.”
Although the Scripps-Howard offices were in the New York Central Building at 230 Park Ave. in New York, Ferree spent between one-third and one-half of his time visiting newspapers in the chain around the country. Most of the trips were made on the company’s plane, a Douglas B-23, and Ferree estimated he flew nearly 50,000 miles every year. Fellow Scripps-Howard employees described him as someone who “runs in oil,” meaning he worked smoothly and got along with everyone.
“Scripps-Howard executives are not ‘ulcer men,’” he once observed. “They enjoy what they are doing, like I do, I am sure. And because of that, they get things done through hard work—not worrying.”
On weekends, he and his wife relaxed at their country home in Lewisboro, N.Y., where Ferree could be found chopping wood or walking his Labrador retrievers, Cappie and Petite.
As president of the ANPA, Ferree worked on a special committee to promote better understanding of daily newspapers. “Newspapers need to be promoted as an important part of the political, economic, social and cultural life of the United States,” he said.
For years he had been concerned that critics led the public to believe that newspapers were in danger of fading away. Those critics who chop away at the roots of the newspaper tree, he asserted, never recognized that they, “with all free citizens, live and work in the shade of that very tree.” Ferree warned that if newspapers, as fully independent mediums of news and opinion, faded away, “criticism would wither, not for lack of a target but for lack of its chief protector.”
Ferree always maintained strong ties to his native state. In 1959, he was named Hoosier of the Year at the annual dinner of the Indiana Society of New York. Also that year, IU awarded him its Distinguished Alumni Service Award, praising him as a “journalist, editor and distinguished administrator in the complex world of newspaper publishing.” In 1977, seven years after his retirement from Scripps-Howard, Ferree received a honorary doctorate of law degree from IU.
In 1981, Ferree and his wife gave $100,000 as an endowment for journalism education at the university. The endowment now supports the Mark and Ruth (Welborn) Ferree Scholarship for undergraduate journalism majors.
Mark Ferree died of a heart attack on Feb.13, 1982, after clearly establishing a powerful legacy leading to induction into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.
By Ray E. Boomhower, Indiana and Midwestern History