FARGO — As Forum Communications Company CEO and Forum Publisher Bill Marcil Jr. sits in his corner office on the main floor of The Forum building — the same office once occupied by his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great, great-grandparents — he spends most of his day making big picture decisions about the media and technology company that’s been in his family for more than 100 years. But every once in a while, his mind drifts to simpler days when he was just starting out.
“Yeah, it was 1987 and I was interning with the photographers,” Marcil Jr. said.
He was tasked that sweltering, June day with getting photos of the huge Billy Graham gathering at Dakotah Field back to the office in downtown Fargo, through a heavy traffic jam. There was no such thing as cell phones or email, so the 23-year-old future CEO started pedaling.
“I was trying to do the right thing and succeed and please everyone,” he said. “I had to ride my bike from NDSU to the newsroom and get to the darkroom in time.”
He did make it, and the photos made the paper with minutes to spare.
“Billy Rides to Deadline,” is just one of many anecdotes filling the new book, “Forum Communications Company — A Narrative History 1980-2018,” written by longtime (now retired) editorial page editor Jack Zaleski.
“If we had picked any other author to write this, it wouldn’t have been the same book,” Marcil Jr. said. “He was here 30 years, so from that perspective, it gives the reader a really inside view of the ins and outs of the company.”
Some of the stories are funny.
“Some of the characters that have gone through this company over the years, you couldn't make them up," Zaleski said.
One particular story details how mesh guards were placed on the windows of The Forum south employee stairwell to protect the hard drinking, chain-smoking reporters and editors from crashing into the windows as they stumbled down the stairs following a long night of work.
“You have to read it, but I put it in terms of ‘maybe it’s just an anecdote, maybe it’s true,’” Zaleski said. “But the fact of the matter is, during that era (the '30s, '40s and '50s) a bottle in every desk was not uncommon.”
Other stories are very serious, including an attempted hostile takeover of the company in 1984 that the Marcil and Black family fought off.
“I think that story was important to tell because that was really a watershed in the history of the company,” said Bill Marcil Sr., who was publisher of The Forum and president of The Forum Publishing Company at the time. “Had we not prevailed with that situation, the company probably would have been sold and none of us would be here.”
The book is a follow up to an earlier, more academic, historical account of The Forum from then Moorhead State University Professor Melva Moline in 1978. Marcil Sr. says they had been looking at updating the history of the company for a few years.
“My grandchildren have been pressing (his wife) Jane and I to write some of this stuff down that we've been able to accomplish and be a part of in our lives,” he said. “So that kind of pushed me over the edge, I think.”
It was Jane’s great-grandfather Norman B. Black who started the family business in the spring of 1917 with the purchase of The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican for $100,000. From that time forward — through wars, economic hardships, fires and floods — the news business had its ups and downs. But Marcil Sr. says Norman B. Black set the tone for those leaders who followed, including his wife, Jenny Black, son Norman D. Black and grandson Norman D. Black Jr., Jane’s father.
"Norman number one was more outspoken, I think, than the others. He was a risk taker,” Marcil Sr. said. “He had an expansion type of business attitude, so I think he’d be happy with where the company is today.”
Zaleski adds that even during the Great Depression, the Black family was choosing to reinvest in the business, as evidenced by the completion of the two top floors of The Forum building in the 1930’s. (If you look closely as you drive down First Avenue, you can see a slightly different color of the brick from the original three-story building, compared to the fourth and fifth floors.)
Marcil Sr. says they’ve tried to embrace Norman B. Black’s growth mindset by becoming Forum Communications Company and buying other newspapers in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin, while also maintaining broadcast properties WDAY-TV and 970WDAY.
“We've always had that expansion in mind, wanting to grow the company. And we did that, basically, because from Jane’s and my perspective, it's fun,” he said. “One of the reasons we grew the company is for the employees — giving them some chances for upward mobility. That's been the most enjoyable part about this whole profession — 50-some years that I've been here to see these employees grow and mature and develop. And that's been a wonderful part of the business.”
Bill Marcil Jr. agrees that his ancestors’ vision is alive and well.
“I've had to channel my great, great-grandfather’s spirit, because as Jack said, he cobbled together $100,000 and put his marker down in Fargo. That took a lot of spirit. That was a lot of money back then. And he didn't have any money,” Marcil Jr. said. “So over this last two or three years, we've had to embrace digital and make some real significant changes on the print side. I feel like many times I've had to channel that entrepreneurial spirit of saying, ‘Okay, we've got to take some risk here. I don't know if this is the right thing to do. But we're going to try it.’”
Zaleski says the book, which is on sale now at Shop.Forumcomm.com. is not only a business story, but a family story about an institution that has been part of this community for 140 years and owned by the same family for 103 years. And in the days of the 24-hour news cycle and sometimes unreliable reports on social media, longevity and consistency matters.
“We hope that they're going to come back to newspapers, who have the infrastructure and have the capability to present legitimate news.” Marcil Sr. said. “I've always felt that a locally-owned newspaper was important to the community, because we go to church with the people that are advertising, and our readers are connected to us. That’s important.”
For more information:
“Forum Communications Company — A Narrative History 1980-2018” sells for $33 at Shop.Forumcomm.com.
A virtual book discussion is scheduled for 2 p.m. on October 27 featuring FCC Chairman of the Board & Retired Forum Publisher William C. Marcil, FCC CEO & Forum Publisher Bill Marcil, Jr., and Author & Retired Forum Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski, Click here to register.