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A conversation with Lou Heldman

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, June 2, 2013, at 7:21 a.m.

Following decades in journalism, including being president and publisher of The Wichita Eagle from 2002 to 2007, Lou Heldman entered academic life.

His first position at Wichita State University was in the division of academic affairs, and Heldman’s job was to improve communications about the school’s academic side.

“The community has always been very aware of the athletic side and the art side, but there’s been less knowledge of what goes on in classrooms and research, so I was asked to look at those issues and see if … I could bring some greater attention to the terrific things going on,” he said.

Heldman also developed two courses to teach. One he called Media Transformation, which focused on the impact of the Internet on media, business and society. The other was on social media, which Heldman said “was probably one of the early university courses in the country focusing on social media.”

More recently, he’s been interim director of the Elliott School of Communication. Heldman said working with a dedicated staff and faculty was similar to working with reporters “because you’re dealing with people who have tremendous intellectual curiosity.”

Now, Heldman has been named acting director of WSU’s Center for Entrepreneurship.

The center’s director, Tim Pett, has been placed on administrative leave; the university isn’t discussing the reason because it’s a personnel issue.

Heldman is relishing his new role.

“I have always felt a great tie to the Center for Entrepreneurship because I’m so interested in business, so it was a pretty natural fit,” he said. “There’s a terrific faculty and staff associated with the center, and a lot of good programs are already established within the center. … My job is to take us to the next level of quality in everything we do.”

Did you at one point think you’d spend your whole career in journalism?

I don’t think most 18-year-olds have a very good sense of their future, but in my case I had known since the time I was 14 that I wanted to be a reporter on a big-city newspaper.

Why?

I worked for my junior high newspaper, and I was a shy, quiet kid, and I couldn’t imagine anything better than having a license to ask questions and learn about the world.

Did you want to be the next Woodward or Bernstein, or did you want to go into management?

In high school, I started working as an editor, and I really liked running things because it meant that I knew what everyone was working on, and I liked having a part in the whole paper.

Do you miss it?

I miss the people in the newspaper business, and I miss … the process of putting together a daily news report and then a website.

But …

I’ve loved every job I’ve had, so if I’d stayed doing that, I wouldn’t have had all the other opportunities.

I’m not sure you’ve fully answered the question.

I reached a point after 35 years in newspapers that I was still young enough to do something else, and I thought the newspaper business model was broken, and I wasn’t smart enough to fix it.

What is the state of newspapers today?

In communities this size and smaller, I think newspapers will be around for a long time. I came to believe that print on paper dropped on driveways wasn’t the most important thing we did. The most important thing we did was to gather information and put it through a process of verification before sharing it with people. And that expertise is still resident in newspapers, and now it’s coming through on websites and mobile apps, and I think that will live forever because there will always be people who want information from a trusted source.

What was it like returning to the classroom?

It was great. I love college students because it’s getting to watch intellectual flowers bloom. That sounds hokey, but I think students are great because every part of their life is in the process of change, and so I probably learned more from them than they did from me.

What was your reaction to being named interim director of the Elliott School?

When I left management in 2007, I was relieved that I would never again deal with budget and personnel issues because those are … the most taxing part of a leader’s job. But at the point that I was asked to be interim director, I’d had several years away and thought it would be fine, and it was.

And on being named acting director for the Center for Entrepreneurship?

Over the past couple of years, (I had) begun focusing more and more on entrepreneurship in my Media Transformation class because there’s such tremendous upheaval going on in media, and I thought that entrepreneurs were making a tremendous difference in media and business and society. So this past spring I devoted my Media Transformation seminar to having students prepare business plans to enter into the statewide business plan competition sponsored by the Center for Entrepreneurship.

One of my students … Tori Deatherage … developed a business plan that won second place out of 87 entries in the competition, so that was awfully exciting for our class. … We weren’t even a business class.

How entrepreneurial are you?

Well, considering that I spent part of my life as a business editor and part of my life as a CEO and the most recent part of my life in an academic environment, I think I have reinvented myself enough times that I could be considered somewhat of an entrepreneur.

Anything left on your career bucket list?

I feel that I have had wonderful mentors and great opportunities, and I think if I keep working hard, new mentors and new opportunities will come along.

You describe yourself as “a young 64.” Do you plan to work for many years to come?

Yes. I love going to work in the morning. Every job I’ve had I’ve loved learning.

Anything keep you up at night?

Thunderstorms.

No worries?

I’m not answering.

What’s one thing few people know about you?

I collect contemporary art and have been doing it since I was a college student.

Why?

I’m particularly interested in narrative art, and so my interest in storytelling translates right to my interest in art.

What’s your favorite piece?

There are three local artists I love: Patrick Duegaw, Wade Hampton and Curt Clonts. … Any one of their pieces is my favorite on alternate days.

I think Wichita has a great art scene, and I love going to galleries and museums.

Reach Carrie Rengers at crengers@wichitaeagle.com or 316-268-6340.

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