Farrugia to step down as The Day's publisher

Gary Farrugia, publisher of The Day, is seen in his fourth-floor New London office Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. He has announced he will be retiring from the position by mid-year. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Gary Farrugia, publisher of The Day, is seen in his fourth-floor New London office Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. He has announced he will be retiring from the position by mid-year. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

New London — Gary Farrugia, The Day’s publisher since 2002, informed employees Thursday that he will retire by mid-year.

In an email, Farrugia said The Day Publishing Co. enjoyed “a period of stability” in 2017 and that it was “a good time to pass the baton to someone new.” He said The Day’s board of directors has asked him to remain on the board following his retirement and that he also will continue to serve as a part-time consultant to D2 Media Solutions, a company marketing initiative.

Among newsroom staff, the 66-year-old Farrugia’s plan to step down was a poorly kept secret, a fact he acknowledged in a wide-ranging interview this week. Eligible to take an early-retirement offer a year ago, he deferred.

“I was in no rush,” he said. “I love this job. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.”

JM Search, a Philadelphia-based recruitment firm, is conducting a nationwide search for Farrugia's successor. The field will include in-house candidates.

"He's a tough act to follow," said professor Maureen Croteau, head of the University of Connecticut's journalism department and a long-serving member of The Day's board. "I think his reputation and The Day's reputation are going to ensure many quality candidates come forward."

Farrugia began his email with an update of the company's finances.

“We beat our profit goal for 2017 because of a healthy performance from Day Advertising and increased revenues from readers,” he said. “The rapid climb of D2 Media Solutions and Digital Advertising Services led a strong year in several sales categories. Shore Publishing and The Times weekly group again delivered solid earnings.

“But more important, after a decade of relentless disruption — from recession, radically new technologies and, not incidentally, chaos in the media industry — we finally, in 2017, saw a period of stability for the region and for The Day Publishing Company.”

Farrugia was named editor and publisher in the fall of 2001 and took over Jan. 1, 2002, succeeding Reid MacCluggage, who had held the position since 1984. Farrugia relinquished the editor part of his title in 2008, reflecting his focus on the business side of the company’s operations.

The Farrugia years have been marked by expansion and technological advances — and adaptation to harsh economic realities.

No longer solely a newspaper publisher, The Day Publishing Co. has assets that also include theday.com, a major online presence; Shore Publishing, which puts out seven free weeklies west of the Connecticut River; The Times Community News Group, seven free weeklies east of the river; D2 Media Solutions, a digital marketing agency; and commercial printing.

When he arrived, 97 cents of every dollar the company generated came from the newspaper, Farrugia noted. Three-quarters of that was advertising, one-quarter circulation.

In 2017, he said, the daily newspaper’s advertising accounted for 36 percent of total revenues. Consumer revenues, including circulation, “voluntary pay” solicited by the Shore weeklies and sales of books the company prints generated 29 percent, and advertising in the weeklies, 28 percent. Digital advertising represented 7 percent.

Farrugia said his biggest disappointment as publisher was having to abandon the “growth path” his predecessor had begun and which Farrugia aggressively pursued.

In his first year, 2002, The Day expanded coverage into northeastern Connecticut, adding staff and publishing separate editions for Norwich-area towns and the shoreline. In 2003, the paper unveiled a makeover and announced it was taking an equity stake in Shore Publishing, a Madison-based chain of weeklies stretching from Old Saybrook to East Haven. Soon, The Day would add weeklies of its own, eventually blanketing the shoreline between Old Lyme and Stonington.

In 2008, The Day took full ownership of Shore Publishing, a move Farrugia called "a salvation."

Farrugia looked back on what it would have taken for The Day to better withstand the Great Recession that struck in 2007.

"We needed a bigger head of steam," he said.

For newspapers already dealing with the growing influence of online news sites, the economic downturn took a major toll. Its revenues falling, The Day under Farrugia would offer incentives for early retirement, eliminate jobs and call for employees to accept furloughs — days and weeks of unpaid time off.

He’d seen the headwinds picking up while he was in Philadelphia, where he was vice president of new business development for Knight Ridder, which then owned The Philadelphia Inquirer. Circulation had been declining, the advertising climate growing more and more challenging. 

“It hit the major metros first,” Farrugia said. “It was top of my mind in interviewing (at The Day), but I underestimated how hard and how fast change was coming. I knew staying put with a one-horse operation — a newspaper and nothing else — was not going to be a good place to play defense from. While interviewing, I was fully about diversifying.”

He said he soon learned that The Day's employees were comfortable with change, even eager to embrace the new.

"There’s a real sense of pride, a sense of stewardship here,” he said, referencing The Day’s rare ownership structure, a split-interest trust that all but guarantees the company’s autonomy. Conceived by Theodore Bodenwein, an early publisher of The Day, the arrangement insulates The Day from pressures faced by some media companies beholden to shareholders.

As publisher, Farrugia said he’s most proud of the quality of The Day’s smaller-than-it-used-to-be newsroom, which, he said, “wins a boatload full of awards every year.” Since 2010, for example, the New England Newspaper & Press Association has honored the paper's daily edition with a Newspaper of the Year Award six times.

Downsizing the staff, he said, was “traumatic,” causing him lots of sleepless nights.

“The worst was the time between knowing it was going to happen and it happening,” he said. “We’d done our budgets ... now, how many jobs does that equate to? Our saving grace was our business model. We had the luxury of being strategic in making cuts.”

Today, the company, including Shore Publishing, has 218 full- and part-time employees, the equivalent of 190 full-timers. In May 2008, those numbers approached 525 full- and part-timers, the equivalent of 359 full-timers. In December 2002, the full-time equivalents totaled 305.

Croteau, The Day board member, pronounced Farrugia a "good fit" for the post he's held the past 16 years.

“Gary’s excited by change. It’s an adrenaline sort of thing for him,” she said. “It’s one of his strong points.”

Croteau marveled at the paper’s online evolution.

“We might not have survived under a different kind of publisher, one who was totally print-oriented,” she said.

Ralph Guardiano, principal and co-founder of Overabove, an Essex marketing firm, said Farrugia had been instrumental in persuading him to join The Day’s board in 2009.

“He and (board member) Lynda Smith recruited me, partly because everything was changing so fast (in the digital world),” Guardiano said. “I think that’s what Gary’s done best — keep up with the changes in publishing, technology and the community. He’s done a very good job keeping The Day a trusted source of news and information.”

How well has The Day survived survival mode?

“We’ve emerged,” Farrugia said. “We’re a much stronger presence in our market, in part because our competitors have declined so much more than we have. Again, it’s our business model. We produce the best news we can afford to produce. We ask, 'What’s the best news we can afford to produce?' as opposed to the corporate (approach), which would have us perform to a predetermined profit margin.”

Plenty of challenges await his successor, Farrugia said, not the least of which is the fragmentation of society in the digital age. If it continues unabated, he said, it’s a threat to the media’s role, if not our way of life.

“People have to believe that what happens in Stonington is germane in East Lyme,” he said. “Or if EB (Electric Boat) or the casinos are laying off or hiring, people have to want to know if it will help or hurt them."

News sources — print, online and otherwise — have to keep finding ways to tell people what’s useful to them, he said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

Publishers of The Day

Gary Farrugia, 2002-18

Reid MacCluggage, 1984-2001

E. Wesley Hammond, 1976-84

Deane C. Avery, 1976-84

Barnard L. Colby, 1959-76

Orvin G. Andrews, 1939-59

Theodore Bodenwein, 1891-39

John A Tibbits, 1881-91

 

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