Public Media’s Bridge Builder
On her first day as president and CEO of American Public Media Group, Jean Taylor led a Zoom call discussion that was open to all of the nonprofit’s 700 employees.
She took employee questions and placed herself under a virtual microscope on Aug. 23, about 11 months after her predecessor, Jon McTaggart, said he would step down amid employee complaints over racial and gender equity.
“Since then, I have set up opt-in Zoom calls with any employees who want to sign up,” Taylor says. “They can ask me whatever they want, so that’s part of listening.”
Dissatisfaction in the employee ranks is among the challenges that Taylor takes on in her high-profile public media job. In its 54-year history, the organization has had only two leaders, founder Bill Kling and his internal successor, McTaggart. Kling built APMG into a national media player, one that produces programming on the East and West coasts and has assets worth $375 million. McTaggart presided over an era in which public radio started producing content that could be heard on demand and in podcasts.
In the final years of McTaggart’s tenure, the organization was undergoing a racial reckoning, coping with a pandemic, and reporting during a period of extreme political polarization.
Taylor, former board chair of the Star Tribune, inherits those challenges. But she’s willing to take them on because she views public media as playing a critical, positive role in the life of the nation.
“This job felt like so many of the major elements of my career led me here,” said Taylor in a recent interview at APMG headquarters in downtown St. Paul. “It’s about digital transformation. My career is just digital transformation after digital transformation after digital transformation. It is coming at a time where culture change and the need to empower people is going to be very important for us to execute on the strategy that has been laid out.”
In addition, she says, “I just spent the last seven years [at the Star Tribune] thinking about media and how important media is for communities, for our democracy.” She notes that APMG is an “incredibly, deeply mission-based organization” that really appeals to her, and she says her skills and experiences are a good fit for the top position.
“The CEO of any media organization today faces a lot of challenges,” says Nancy Barnes, National Public Radio’s senior vice president for news and its editorial director. “Competition for audience, revenue, and philanthropy is as fierce as it has ever been.”
Three years ago, Barnes preceded Taylor in moving from a newspaper leadership position to a public media job. Before coming to NPR, Barnes was executive editor of Hearst Texas Newspapers and the Houston Chronicle and earlier served as executive editor of the Star Tribune. “As with my former newspaper world, public media needs to continue to rapidly innovate and embrace the digital world while nourishing its traditional base of listeners,” she says.
Barnes, who doesn’t know Taylor, says, “We all need to work harder and faster to change the culture in our organizations to be more diverse and welcoming and to reach and grow more diverse audiences.”
Taylor’s history of building good relationships with employees was among the many attributes the APMG board was looking for when it conducted a national search for the top public media job.
“Some [CEOs] can sit in a big, luxurious office and just have their direct reports come in. That’s not Jean,” says Tommy Merickel, chief sales officer at Taylor Corp., the North Mankato-based communication services business founded by Jean Taylor’s father, Glen Taylor.
When Jean Taylor served as president and CEO of Taylor Corp., Merickel says she got to know employees at all levels of the company. “Not everybody has the ability, nor do they want to take time, to listen, to hear, and to understand” their employees, Merickel says. “Jean does,” he adds, and in many cases she’s “more interested in listening than being heard.”
During her 16-year tenure as a Taylor Corp. executive, he says, she would routinely go out to seek feedback and input from her employees, so that she could incorporate their concerns and suggestions into her decision making.
That’s the type of communication she intends to carry into her public media leadership role.
Read more from this issue
Unexpected CEO opportunity
When Jean Taylor began 2021, she was serving in her part-time role at Star Tribune Media Co., as well as acting as an adviser to businesses in other sectors, which she’d done for about a decade.
“Jean is a strategic thinker who excelled at getting our leadership team to think beyond the pressures of the moment, beyond the status quo,” says Mike Klingensmith, Star Tribune publisher and CEO.
Glen Taylor bought the Star Tribune in 2014 and invited Jean Taylor to join him on the board. By that time, she had worked in business for nearly three decades and had developed expertise in corporate board governance. She later became the Star Tribune board chair, and she expanded its knowledge base by bringing on four independent board directors. In her board leadership role, she collaborated with Klingensmith, whom she describes as “one of the best leaders I’ve ever worked with.”
While revenue was plummeting at some major metro newspapers, she relished the Star Tribune’s success building its digital subscription base. She wanted to ensure that it continued to evolve as a business and serve as an important civic asset in Minnesota.
Unlike newspapers in many U.S. cities, the Star Tribune’s newsroom has not been hollowed out. In a nutshell, Taylor says, she and her father made only “two asks” of Star Tribune management.
“One is make this the best news organization you can, so that Minnesota is very proud of it,” she says. “And two, Glen has no intention of taking any money out of this business, but he also doesn’t want to put money in. And so run it like a business. Whatever cash [profit] you create is yours to invest in the business.”
Jean Taylor’s tenure on Star Tribune’s for-profit board overlapped with her service on the board of American Public Media Group, the parent of Minnesota Public Radio.
She joined the APMG board in 2013 and was appointed to APMG’s search committee not long after McTaggart said he would leave his position after a successor was named. Her career path took a dramatic turn this spring when she got a call from Jim Dwyer, chair of the APMG board, who also was chairing the CEO search committee.
Dwyer says APMG hired Koya Partners, a nationwide firm, to assist it with the search for the organization’s third CEO. After the search committee did virtual interviews with some of the first-round candidates, Dwyer urged board members to feel free to suggest additional candidates to Koya.
“I was talking after that meeting with another board member, and Jean’s name came up,” Dwyer recalls. “We both thought, ‘Jean would be really good at this, if you think about what we are actually looking for and the tone and tenor of what kind of leader that we want.’ ”
He conferred with Koya Partners, then Dwyer contacted Taylor. “I literally called her on a Friday afternoon and said, ‘Hey, I have a question for you. Don’t answer right away. Just take a minute or a weekend to think about it.’ And I said, ‘Would you be interested in being a candidate for [APMG CEO]?’ I surprised her.”
On the following Monday, Taylor said yes to the question and entered the official selection process. After three rounds of interviews that included several other candidates, she was offered the position.
Dwyer says Taylor met the board’s priorities of hiring a proven leader who had experience leading change in a digital era, as well as someone who could build “a healthy, inclusive culture” and advance commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Confidence to lead
In 2021, Glen Taylor is known for owning the Timberwolves, Lynx, and Star Tribune, as well as for founding Taylor Corp., which has now grown to about $2 billion in annual revenue.
But Jean Taylor, the second of his children, didn’t grow up in a wealthy household. “I was born the year my dad graduated from college,” she says. “So my parents were a couple of kids who moved from the farm to Mankato so my dad could go to college. I think when I was quite young, I’d call [our household] maybe lower middle class.”
Taylor, 58, recently attended her 40th class reunion with other graduates from Mankato East High School. She was president of the student council her senior year. However, she built her early confidence through relationships with students and teachers at the Mankato State laboratory school that she attended from kindergarten through eighth grade.
“We signed up for our own classes as elementary school students,” she says. “If you wanted lots of math and reading like nerds like me did, you could do that. And I got into theater there.”
The school was open to any child in Mankato, and there were no tuition fees. “We had goal sheets instead of grades,” she says. When she became a freshman at Mankato East, she got involved in speech and debate, with original oratory her favorite category. “It gave me the confidence that I could be in front of people,” she says.
An A student in high school and class speaker at her graduation, Taylor attended Augsburg University in Minneapolis. “I went there with the intent of being a communications major and being in media,” she says. “I pretty quickly switched to business because I love things like accounting and marketing and all that kind of stuff.”
Her business management degree from Augsburg opened the door to a nine-year run with E.W. Blanch, a Bloomington-based reinsurance company. “I started as a reinsurance trainee, and at the time I left, I was running all of the services side of the business for them,” Taylor says. “That is the place where I really learned I had supervisory management, and particularly leadership, skills.” While she was at Blanch, she also earned an MBA from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.
“I just spent the last seven years [at the Star Tribune] thinking about media and how important media is for communities, for our democracy.”
—Jean Taylor, APMG president and CEO
The Taylor Corp. years
Merickel, who has known Taylor for 37 years, says she was a successful company officer at E.W. Blanch. “That was really important for her to go make it on her own before coming to work for her dad,” he says.
“I’m a person who needs to continue to expand and find new challenges,” Taylor says, and after developing her business acumen at Blanch, she was open to a job at Taylor Corp. “My husband at the time was working [at Taylor] and had been in there for a couple of years, which gave me some exposure to it,” she says.
“I discovered through some opportunities to connect with my dad and other people at Taylor Corp. that lo and behold, my dad built a company that shares my same values,” she says.
“It’s all about the people. If you have the right people, that will drive your success.”
Beyond making employees a high priority, Taylor says that she and her father share “a very practical, commonsense approach to things—you don’t need to make things overly complicated.” To propel any organization, she says, leaders must take some risks, but she believes in thoughtful study before unleashing changes.
After she joined Taylor Corp., she spent her early years on project work, spearheading initiatives on leadership development, technology, and women in business. She also worked with a team to clearly define the core purpose and values of the company. Taylor then became an operational vice president, overseeing a group of companies.
In 2001, when Glen Taylor was CEO and Brad Schreier was president, Jean Taylor worked with Schreier on a company succession plan. Glen Taylor approved the plan to elevate Schreier to CEO and his daughter to president.
The new CEO had only two direct reports—Jean Taylor and Tommy Merickel. “Everything else in the organization reported to me,” Taylor says. “It was a way for me to take on management of a full organization but to still have Brad there.” Schreier focused on supporting her and driving the company’s revenue. Schreier ultimately retired in 2007, when Taylor added CEO to her president’s title.
“Glen built an incredibly operationally excellent company,” she says, which works well when the economy is growing. The company was founded as a printing business, but over time it developed many communications capabilities. Jean Taylor wanted to build a robust business that could withstand downturns in the economy.
“We started thinking about ourselves from the eyes of the customer,” she says, which allowed the business to start meeting more customer needs. “We became a marketing company, helping companies with their marketing,” she adds, whether the products were branded items or business cards or digital services.
“We became a technology company,” Taylor says, adding that some acquisitions she led for Taylor Corp. involved buying businesses that had “particular technology skills that we thought could add on to what we were doing.”
Merickel says that Taylor’s leadership tenure was “paramount, both on acquisitions and the movement to the digital era.” Instead of 80-some Taylor companies functioning independently, under Jean Taylor’s leadership, the business became more integrated in how it served customers.
“A lot of her acquisitions at that time were really taking Taylor from traditional print to the bridge of digital technology and to data analytics,” Merickel says.
After key executives who were part of her father’s generation retired, new executives joined Taylor Corp. “That [new] generation of leaders really created a much more empowered environment that helped us move more quickly and think more innovatively about where the company needed to go,” Taylor says.
But by 2010, after they navigated through the Great Recession of 2008, there was a split among some Taylor executives. The fallout was reported in an August 2010 article in the Star Tribune. “The HR executive, Donna DiMenna, said she quit after three top male executives sought to oust her and also scale back Jean Taylor’s role,” the newspaper reported. “Glen Taylor nixed the coup attempt, DiMenna said, but also declined to sack the men behind it.”
Jean Taylor left the company a few days after DiMenna resigned. In the aftermath, her father issued a statement saying she resigned for personal reasons and that he was saddened by her departure. He restored himself to the CEO position.
In 2021, Jean Taylor reflected on that career chapter. “I resigned from Taylor Corporation because Taylor Corporation wasn’t ready for me yet,” she says. “I was advocating more change than some were ready for.”
Taylor adds: “I’m a change agent. You’ve got to be ready for me.”
Back in 2010, DiMenna told the Star Tribune that Taylor was a “phenomenal leader and a visionary” who was modernizing the company. DiMenna said one of the three men who led the ouster effort told her that Taylor Corp. had already hired “enough” women leaders.
After leaving Taylor Corp., Jean Taylor moved into an 11-year career period that she calls active governance. “The roles I have had have been to not only sit on a board, but to actively support and assist management as they were moving companies forward,” she says. At some of the companies, Taylor had an ownership stake in the businesses.
Star Tribune transformation
Taylor doesn’t own a piece of the Star Tribune, but she was a close partner with publisher Klingensmith in revamping the news organization’s business model. After she accepted her new job as APMG CEO, she resigned from the Star Tribune board, which she had led for three years.
A 2020 Harvard Business School case study depicts Taylor’s high engagement in helping the Star Tribune shift from a largely print circulation and advertising revenue base to a model where an increasing revenue share is derived from digital subscriptions and advertising.
The case opens with Klingensmith preparing for a meeting with Taylor to discuss the paper’s recent financial performance as well as its revenue forecasts. “Taylor would never hesitate to push back against what she considered to be unrealistic growth expectations for the paper, and Klingensmith appreciated that in a board chair,” according to the case study.
During her board tenure, the Star Tribune became much more of a news media company, rather than simply a newspaper business. “I feel really terrific about the digital strategy that the Star Tribune has developed,” she says.
Chief marketing officer Steve Yaeger says more than 101,000 subscribers are paying for premium digital access to startribune.com, which is up 30.5 percent since the pandemic began in March 2020.
“What I was able to do at Star Tribune was to take my experience from other businesses and help the people at Star Tribune think more broadly about how that business could be run,” she says.
After Taylor’s departure was announced, Klingensmith wrote in a memo to Star Tribune employees that he appreciated her collaboration and guidance. “She has been a tireless advocate for the Star Tribune and demonstrated great skill and strategic insight in challenging me and the senior leadership team,” he wrote.
Taylor’s selection to lead APMG set off conversations among current and former journalists in the Twin Cities. Some worried about a concentration of power, with Jean Taylor holding a pivotal public media role and her father owning the Star Tribune. Some wondered whether they would engineer a merger of the Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio.
In response to those hypothetical scenarios, Taylor says, “Good journalism isn’t controlled by the owners. Good journalism has a great newsroom and has professional journalists who are independent and judge how they report on things. That is my belief. That is Glen’s belief. We are not conspiring.”
She also poured cold water on the idea that the two largest media organizations in Minnesota would combine into one entity. “Star Tribune is not for sale. American Public Media Group is not for sale,” she says. “That’s not for me to do. There is a board here. Neither are for sale.”
Klingensmith shares her perspective, saying it would be difficult to imagine a merger. “Although both Star Tribune and MPR are businesses rooted in journalism, they operate under completely different business models,” he says. “Star Tribune depends upon subscriptions to our news products and on advertising partnerships, primarily with local retailers. This is very different from MPR, which is, at its core, a philanthropic model.”
Although Jean Taylor left the Star Tribune for APMG, Glen Taylor has affirmed his family’s long-term commitment to the Star Tribune. “I can confidently report that the Taylor family remains as committed as ever to its stewardship of the Star Tribune,” Klingensmith wrote in a memo to employees.
Glen Taylor remains on the Star Tribune board, and he asked Klingensmith to become its chair. In a Star Tribune commentary published in late August, Glen Taylor told readers that the Star Tribune was “healthy and stable.” He expressed his optimism about the Star Tribune’s future, emphasizing that it had the fourth-largest metro daily print newspaper circulation in the country.
Passion for public media
Jean Taylor is the first woman to serve as president and CEO of APMG. Taylor, who is divorced, has two adopted children, an 18-year-old son and a 20-year-old daughter. She’s a lifelong Minnesotan who now lives in Eagan.
American Public Media Group defines itself as the largest station-based public radio organization in the United States. Beyond being the parent of Minnesota Public Radio, it also is known for an array of content that includes classical music and Marketplace economics programming. It has annual operating revenues of about $126 million.
“This is not an organization that has any burning fires in it,” says APMG board chair Dwyer, who is the former CEO and current chair of 8th Avenue Food & Provisions. He says Taylor’s charge will be answering the question “Where can we go to be even better at serving the communities that we currently serve and find new communities to serve?”
While the house may not be burning down, some employees were generating considerable political heat before McTaggart announced in September 2020 that he would retire. Some MPR and APM employees published an open letter stating that the organization had “fostered a harmful working environment for women and journalists of color.” Union leaders expressed strong concerns over workplace culture and hiring diversity.
“Right now, I am listening and learning and assessing the status of those situations to see where we are at,” Taylor says. “A lot has changed in the last year.” She notes that issues of race and equity in workplaces are being discussed with greater urgency across the U.S. Within public media, she says, “I think there has been some good work done in the last year, and there’s still work to do.”
To ensure MPR is a welcoming workplace, she says, there’s a need to “build a culture of equity within the organization that is attractive to all Minnesotans.”
Among Taylor’s priorities for her early weeks on her new job is meeting with equity experts. In recent months, two Black journalists have been hired for prominent roles within APMG. Sarah Glover was named MPR News managing editor in April, and Marketplace announced in September that Neal Scarbrough is its new vice president and general manager.
In addition to listening to employees, donors, and other stakeholders in meetings, Taylor is giving people a sense of her values and how she operates. “My first week I met with all 10 of my direct reports and asked them to do a high-level assessment of the organization for me,” she says, explaining that she’ll use that information to help her decide where to take the organization next.
She did not walk into this new job with a dramatic, detailed change agenda. “I believe this is the strongest public media organization in the country,” she says. “Will it be tweaked? Yes.”
It’s too early to define changes, because she’s listening to a broad swath of constituencies. She emphasizes that classical and contemporary music is a huge part of her organization, noting music’s role “is certainly to expand people’s minds, but it is also to nourish the spirit.”
Whether APMG employees are involved in music, lifestyle, or news programming, she’s eager to hear their thoughts. “That’s my style, and that’s also my value system about an organization,” Taylor says. “We are all in this together.”
This story appears in the Oct./Nov. 2021 issue with the title “Media’s Bridge Builder.”