Even in retirement after three decades of service to journalism and the newspaper industry, Cheryl Dell is living the criteria for the Ralph D. Casey/Minnesota she’ll receive September 11 at the Inland Annual Meeting.
Named in honor of the first director of the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communications, the Casey Award is intended to honor someone who is an agenda-setter, “bringing about change while exemplifying the finest in journalism and community service.”
A year and a half after retiring as president and publisher of The Sacramento Bee, Dell is certainly doing community service. She is currently empaneled with 19 others as a member of the Civil Grand Jury in her county in California.
In the state, each county has a Civil Grand Jury of ordinary citizens who serve a one-year term. As the official California Courts website explains, “Its function is to investigate the operations of the various officers, departments and agencies of local government. Each Civil Grand Jury determines which officers, departments and agencies it will investigate during its term of office.”
“We have the authority to look at all kind things related to good government…and to on our own initiative,” Dell said. “It’s really a lot of fun, and really intellectually stimulating. You feel you’re doing something for the community.”
In other ways, Dell said, it’s been a “normal retirement” these 18 or so months, Dell said. She’s mentoring some people still in the industry, participating in book clubs, taken classes in cooking and herbal medicine, and traveled a fair amount.
She’s also been paying attention to newspapers, and the newspaper business.
“I see them as every bit as important as I did when I was sitting in the chair, so to speak,” she said. “The work being done by journalists is just terrific—I wish there was more of it.”
For Dell, the work in news has been important to her since she was a high school student in Modesto, California, first interning at an AM radio station with news programming, and then in college becoming a paid part-time reporter.
She got her first taste of the sales side of the newspaper business when she was hosting one of those Sunday public service talk shows stations would broadcast to fulfill FCC public service programming requirements. Since none of the salespeople at her station were particularly interested in selling the program, Dell was allowed to sell her show and get a commission.
Dell’s first job out of college wasn’t the “non-profits, you know, saving the world” position—but selling ads in a shopper. Soon she was working at Dean Lesher’s more upscale chain of shoppers.
But Lesher, the legendary founder of the Contra Costa Times and its sibling publications, saw something in the “feisty” Dell.
“He told me, ‘Young lady, you belong in newspapers,’ and literally (immediately) I was a senior sales manager at the Contra Costa newspaper,” Dell said. “I cannot believe how fortunate I was that Dean said that.”
A newspaper career was born that would include stints at Gannett and Harte-Hanks, but most lastingly at The McClatchy Company, which she joined in 1997 as advertising director of The Modesto Bee. She took her first position as a McClatchy publisher at Tri-City (Wash.) Herald, followed by The News-Tribune in Tacoma, Washington, and then, in 2008, as publisher and president of The Sacramento Bee.
Dell’s involvement in Inland began when as a Washington state publisher she was asked to speak at an association event. She says she was impressed from the start: “What I remember so vividly was the networking and the linkage. There was an enormous respect for sharing best practices, and enormous feeling that ‘my success is your success’ sort of thing.”
David Lord, the former president and CEO of Seattle-based Pioneer Newspapers (now Pioneer News Group), got her involved as a member. “I mean, who’s a better ambassador for Inland than David?” Dell said with a laugh.
She would go on to join the Inland Press Association board, and serve as association president for the 2014-15 term.
“The friendships have certainly transcended retirement but the professional relationships were invaluable,” she said. “At Inland there’s a willingness to be open, a willingness to be honest as we face these challenges—and a real commitment to the mission.”