Diane McFarlin was reluctant to become a publisher of a daily newspaper. Her ultimate acceptance was a good move, both for her and the community.
Diane McFarlin, who fell in love with journalism when she was in high school in the 1970s, took the biggest risk of her journalism career in 1999.
The gamble: To go from executive editor to publisher of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the largest daily newspaper by circulation in Manatee and Sarasota counties. A move from the newsroom to the boardroom was never a priority.
“I had been asked twice before and declined,” McFarlin says. “I had always envisioned myself being an editor.”
But McFarlin accepted the publisher position in the fall of 1999. On a personal level, the risk paid off nearly instantly McFarlin says because she loves to learn, and a new publisher at a daily newspaper rides a large learning curve.
Several Sarasota business leaders say McFarlin's gamble also paid off for the entire community. As the Herald-Tribune's publisher for the past decade, McFarlin has left a mark on many people and organizations, both in and out of the newspaper, which is owned by the New York Times Co.
One key sign of McFarlin's influence: The flurry of calls she receives weekly to join a board, speak to a group or work for a cause. “She's so busy and so good at what she does that everyone wants her,” says Brenner Glickman, a Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Sarasota who volunteers with McFarlin in a fundraising campaign for the All Faiths Food Bank. “I'm just glad she chose the food bank.”
To be sure, McFarlin, 56, recognizes some of the requests stem from her title first. Title alone, however, doesn't account for how McFarlin has been able to impress and lead.
“She's brilliantly articulate,” says Judi Bell, vice president of nonprofit resources at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, where McFarlin is vice chair of the board. “You feel like everything is going to be just fine when you talk to Diane. She's very calming.”
McFarlin's ability to calm others and stay calm herself has been essential the past three years, when the newspaper industry got walloped by the recession. The Herald-Tribune's staff, for example, was cut from 600 employees in the boom years to 350 by last year. “That was the most painful experience of my career,” McFarlin says.
In a misery loves company category, McFarlin leaned on other local executives going through the same pain. Her club included her significant other, Sarasota homebuilder Lee Wetherington, and real estate executive Michael Saunders.
“I didn't want to come across as being in denial,” says McFarlin. “But I didn't want to lose my sense of optimism.”
More recently, McFarlin brought her optimism to another task for which her influence will be widely felt. This one is with the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, where McFarlin is part of a small group of board members interviewing candidates to replace longtime leader Stewart Stearns, who retired last year.
McFarlin brings together groups and businesses that rarely do things together, according to several people who know her and have worked with and for her. That was especially true with Season of Sharing, a fundraising campaign the Herald-Tribune launched in 2000 in conjunction with the Community Foundation to provide financial resources for local families in need.
The campaign raised more than $2.5 million through 2008. But in 2009, McFarlin began to personally recruit other local media companies — the Herald-Tribune's competitors — to join the campaign. McFarlin has since brought 10 media organizations into Season of Sharing, including the Bradenton Herald and the Observer Group, publisher of the Business Review.
Tom Waters, vice president of charitable giving at the Community Foundation, says McFarlin's effort recruiting other companies to Season of Sharing was an inspiring use of her influence. Waters, who has known McFarlin for a decade, says he saw her work the phones and networking venues like no one else.
“It was amazing to see the legwork she put into it and to reach out like that,” Waters says. “It was a real wow moment.”