Kenneth Thomson died this week. The name probably is unknown to virtually all of you but Thomson - actually the company bearing his name - once owned this newspaper. Thomson was the Canadian billionaire who went on a buying binge in the 1980s and bought newspapers by the dozens. By the end of the '90s, Thomson and his company had sold nearly all of those newspapers in favor of electronic information gathering.
Thomson was an interesting character. Described by those who knew him as shy and somewhat aloof, Thomson had actually inherited his vast fortune from his father, who started the company with one small Canadian radio station back in the '30s.
I met Ken Thomson once upon a time. Shook his hand. I had earlier met Sam Walton and so my short list of billionaire handshakes now numbered two. But unlike Walton, Thomson was less than an imposing figure. He seemed awkward in most settings. He spoke to a large gathering of newspaper publishers only once. I was there. He ended his very brief remarks with an amazingly off-color joke. Everyone laughed because you are supposed to laugh at the joke of a billionaire or so I believed.
In the end, Thomson taught me a few lessons on the newspaper business. But truth be told, I learned what not to do when it came to newspapering. Thomson and his company - like countless other large corporations - were interested in profits and nothing else. Sure, they talked about community involvement and integrity but the bottom line was always about the bottom line - meaning just how much profit can you squeeze from a small town newspaper.
I've thought of Ken Thomson many times through the years. I would be less than honest if I said I had pleasant thoughts of the Thomson era in Sikeston. Instead I learned that local decisions are almost always the best decisions and I learned that people are much more than just numbers. The corporate philosophy said that workers at a newspaper were expendable and little mattered other than the margin of profit.
Ken Thomson may have been a billionaire. He may have been the richest man in Canada. He may have left a fortune estimated at $16 billion.
But when it came to understanding small town America and specifically how to run a small town newspaper that has value to the employees and the community, Thomson was out of his element. He'll leave a legacy but it won't be the success of putting together a newspaper network in small towns. On that front, Thomson died a pauper.