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Distinguished Nebraska publisher John Gottschalk receives 2007 Casey Award

By Jen Keavy

On October 23, SJMC director Albert Tims presented the 2007 Ralph D. Casey/Minnesota Award to John Gottschalk, publisher of the Omaha World-Herald newspaper and chairman/CEO of its parent company, at the Inland Press Association's annual meeting in Chicago.

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Photo by Courtesy of the Omaha World-Herald

Presented since 1951, the Casey Award, named for Ralph D. Casey, is the highest honor awarded by the Inland Press Association and the SJMC for distinguished public service and leadership in the newspaper industry. A pioneer of journalism education, Casey was instrumental in establishing the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism & Mass Communication and served as the School's first director from 1930 to 1958.

John Gottschalk's nomination for the Casey Award received unprecedented support, including letters from U.S. Sens. Chuck Hagel and Ben Nelson; Nebraska's governor Dave Heineman; Omaha's mayor Mike Fahey; the presidents of the University of Nebraska and Creighton University; chairmen and CEOs of Nebraska's largest corporations; and the executive director of the Nebraska Press Association.

The son and grandson of newspaper men, Gottschalk has spent his entire life in journalism--as a boy working for small-town newspapers in rural Nebraska to recently, as the leader of Nebraska's paper of record. His career began in Sidney, Neb., where he owned and operated the Sidney Telegraph from 1966 to 1974. In 1975, Gottschalk came to the Omaha World-Herald as assistant to the president, working his way up to president and chief operating officer within ten years. In 1989, he was named chairman and chief executive officer of the company and publisher of the World-Herald. In late 2007, Gottschalk announced he was stepping down from his post as chief executive and publisher, effective January 1, 2008. He continues to serve as chairman of the board.

During Gottschalk's tenure, the Omaha World-Herald Company experienced significant growth and expansion. With four daily newspapers in Nebraska, three daily newspapers in Iowa, 21 weekly community newspapers in Nebraska and Iowa and direct marketing and product fulfillment companies in eight states, the World-Herald Company is a much different corporation than when Gottschalk came on board in the 1970s. The Omaha World-Herald is the 53rd-largest newspaper in the United States by circulation, although Omaha is only the 75th-largest metropolitan area. Moreover, the World-Herald is the only employee-owned major daily newspaper in the nation. Under his leadership, the paper won numerous awards for its coverage of high school and college education, child welfare, water conservation, Nebraska military involvement and immigration.

Like Ralph Casey, Gottschalk believes deeply in the idea that newspapers should embrace their role as social trustees. Gottschalk's focus for the newspaper has been local news coverage, especially on city and state government as well as the expanding Omaha metro area. His strong belief in informing citizens is underscored by the paper's commitment to local news coverage across Nebraska and western Iowa. In addition, the paper has retained its Washington and state capital bureaus, added investigative reporters and continued to publish both morning and evening editions for the metro area.

In an article published in the World-Herald announcing his retirement, Gottschalk stated, "We must always seek to clearly distinguish the Omaha World-Herald from any other news organization in our marketplace as the source of significant reporting on the most important issues facing our citizens."

Gottschalk was described in the Casey Award nomination letters as a civic "workhorse." In the early 2000s, his decision to build the Freedom Center, a state-of-the-art production and distribution facility for the paper, and to purchase and renovate a downtown building to make it the Omaha World-Herald headquarters, played an instrumental role in the $2 billion redevelopment of Omaha's downtown and riverfront. During the campaign for the Holland Performing Arts Center, he was the chairman of Omaha Performing Arts and led the planning and fund raising for the $90 million facility. He's also been credited with helping Omaha become the first city in the nation to develop a plan to improve education from kindergarten through high school with community involvement.

In presenting the award to Gottschalk, Tims said, "The many letters supporting Gottschalk's nomination tell us that John is not simply admired--he is treasured. It is clear to me that if the state of Nebraska had a 'First Citizen,' that citizen would be John Gottschalk."