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Robert W. Decherd ’73, Titan in Texas Journalism, Reflects on Changing Media Landscape

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Fifty years ago, as Robert W. Decherd ’73 stood with his fellow editors at The Crimson’s centennial celebration, he said that the event “has meant more in an institutional way than any Harvard Reunion or office party ever could.” Now, as Decherd returns to Harvard for his 50th reunion, he remains convinced.

“Our 50th reunion may mean more to me and my fellow Crimeds because we had the privilege of presiding over the paper’s Centennial celebration,” Decherd wrote in an email to The Crimson. “So being back for the 150th Celebration, followed closely this week by our 50th reunion, reinforces the respect we have for one another.”

As an undergraduate, Decherd worked as a reporter for The Crimson, later serving as the paper’s first president from the state of Texas. Decherd’s time at the paper was characterized by protests over the Vietnam War, student occupations of University and Massachusetts halls, and rioting in Harvard Square. Despite the tense circumstances, Decherd wrote that he was proud to cover this dramatic piece of the University’s history at The Crimson.

“I think we were successful in navigating the many, often conflicting forces present at Harvard then by listening to both sides engaged in every issue and trying to present differing views in an even-handed fashion,” he wrote. “This was a distinguishing characteristic of our Guard and the one thing I am most proud of.”

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Decherd has moved from the president’s chair at 14 Plympton St. to serving as the CEO of the A.H. Belo Corporation — a media company which operates newspapers and news stations around the nation.

The corporation — which is the oldest continuously operating business in the state of Texas — most notably publishes the Dallas Morning News, an outlet that has been owned by Decherd’s family for four generations. As an undergraduate, however, Decherd had no plans to join the family business and instead wanted to strike out on his own.

“Yes, I aspired to be a journalist and actually had a job at the Baltimore Sun as a reporter. And then the fall of my senior, my father died,” Decherd said in an interview. “It was not so much a choice as the reality that I needed to come back to Dallas and see how this evolved.”

Since entering the Belo Corporation in 1973, Decherd has overseen both the evolution of the company and its journalistic landscape. Under his leadership, the company’s television presence expanded, with the number of company stations growing from two to 20.

As the internet has pushed journalism out of the era of print media and into the social media age, Decherd says that this shift “has been incredibly disruptive” for local journalism.

“As much as the critics viewed what they described as the ‘monopoly of legacy journalism’ for really most of the 20th century, there were things about it that were really good,” he said. “There were hierarchies of how news and information was gathered and edited and curated before it ever was published.”

“And that’s in stark contrast to the instantaneity of the Internet, which has fundamentally changed the way all of journalism — specifically local journalism — is practiced,” he said.

In this liminal time of journalistic evolution, Decherd holds fast to the ideal he formed during his time as a Harvard student: “communities need high quality, reliable news and information — whether it’s delivered instantly or with some curation.”

“People need — and I think they yearn for — quality news and information and insights,” he added. “And we have to find a way in an internet-driven world to deliver that.”

—Staff writer Sally E. Edwards can be reached at sally.edwards@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @sallyedwards04.

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