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On top of the world

As leading newsman, RIT grad has a unique perspective on global issues

Thomas Curley
Thomas Curley ’77 in the New York City newsroom of the Associated Press.

From the conflict in Iraq to a verdict in the Michael Jackson trial, when news breaks The Associated Press wants the first word. AP’s leader Thomas Curley ’77 (MBA) – a veteran journalist and visionary business executive – has it covered, with journalists and resources in 121 countries.

Chances are you’ve “subscribed” to his global thinking for decades, via the newspaper with the globe on the front, USA Today. Curley was instrumental in the creation and launch of the country’s largest newspaper more than 20 years ago. He worked in every department of USA Today and rose through the ranks to become president and publisher.

His days of strategizing about a national color newspaper trace back to when he was at RIT pursuing an MBA. He was working full-time at Gannett’s Times-Union newspaper in Rochester and taking business classes part-time.
“It was hard to work full-time and get a master’s degree, but ultimately it was helpful because I did it over a period of years and as I saw the world from a different perspective I was able to integrate my education into practical work applications,” says Curley.

Thomas Curley
During his visit to RIT, Thomas Curley participated in a panel discussion on freedom of information. From left are Curley, Democrat and Chronicle Editor Karen Magnuson, 13WHAM-TV News Director Chuck Samuels, RIT Chief Communications Officer Bob Finnerty, Congresswoman Louise M. Slaughter, and Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.

As the current president and CEO of The Associated Press, the world’s largest news-gathering organization, covering major international news events like the war in Iraq and Asia’s tsunami is all in a day’s work for Curley and his 3,500 employees.

“My job is to get the news first, but first get it right,” Curley says.

Curley recalls when the deadly tsunami hit Asia in December. “The first word on the earthquake was reported by AP. We picked it up in Bangkok where our offices shook for several minutes. It then took us a bit of time to understand that a massive and horrible wave had been set loose. We got reports back from our people in several countries. One of our photographers was actually swamped by the wave. He lost his camera equipment but he was able to preserve some pictures.”

In April, Curley returned to his alma mater to receive the Isaiah Thomas Award, given annually by RIT’s School of Print Media to an individual who has made outstanding contributions to the publishing industry.

Comparisons between Isaiah Thomas and Thomas Curley are significant. Isaiah Thomas was a great American patriot printer, pioneer and innovator of the 18th century and believed strongly in the public’s right to access information. Curley is considered a 21st century pioneer in the publishing industry and a leading advocate for freedom of information.

Curley became a free-lance journalist at the age of 15, covering high school basketball for his hometown newspaper, Easton (Pa.) Express.

“At 15, when I got my first byline, it was all about ego,” says Curley.

Curley continued working at newspapers during college, graduating in 1970 from La Salle University with a degree in political science. Much has changed since his early days in the business.

“When I started in news, you got your news by appointment,” he explains. “You got it in a morning or afternoon newspaper or in an evening news broadcast. In the ’60s it often took hours or days for news to move from a remote region. Of course today it’s instant, immediately global and it never stops. The demands have grown and the number of people consuming news has risen dramatically. And the way they consume news has transformed the nature of how we work.”

In 1972, Curley landed a job in Rochester as a night city/suburban editor for Gannett’s Times-Union. In 1976 he became director of information for Gannett Co.Inc. and began coordinating the company’s newspaper research projects.

Al Neuharth, chairman of Gannett in 1979, named Curley as one of four researchers on a national newspaper project that spawned USA Today.

David Hunke, a former colleague of Curley’s and now president and publisher of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, credits Curley as the architect of America’s largest newspaper. Hunke shared this sentiment at the April Isaiah Thomas Award ceremony.

“For many of us, Tom was largely the architect, not only of the mission, but the whole culture behind USA Today. It was the first newspaper ever bold enough or brave enough to decide it wasn’t going to be about the people who owned it or comprised the newsroom, the circulation department or anything else. . . . This was about two decades before the rest of the country caught on to the fact that customers ought to be central. That may seem pretty simple, but in my business you have no idea how earth-shattering it was that a group of people led by Tom Curley would decide that readers would be what this newspaper was about.”

Shortly before his trip to Rochester for the ceremony, Curley squeezed in a phone interview from his office in New York City between appointments and preparing for AP’s annual meeting. He’s modest about his career accomplishments, but candid and sincere about his admiration for RIT and how his MBA prepared him to lead a global organization.

“I spent a lot of time working on strategy and understanding how to do business strategy. And that’s pretty much what you do in the job I have. You get a better appreciation for accounting, contract negotiations, HR issues, leadership, solving any number of business problems. So it (the RIT MBA) was very helpful. It opened up a world to somebody who had come up on the poet side.”

Despite the demands of running an organization that is 24/7/365, Curley finds time to serve as a vice chairman of RIT’s Board of Trustees. In July, he received the 2005 Nathanial Rochester Society Award, given in recognition of his contributions to the advancement of the university. “RIT is a place that attracts interesting as well as brilliant people. To be able to at least in some way try to stay up to date and engage in conversation with the talent that is there is a very special opportunity. RIT is a treasure and it’s nice to touch something like that – even if its just a few times a year.”

While on campus in April, Curley remarked to President Albert Simone, “I always have time for Al and RIT.” The two men have been friends for more than a decade and Curley knows how to push Simone’s buttons. “We’ve been together for almost a day and you haven’t mentioned the Red Sox,” Curley joked. Simone, a Boston native, then launched into an analysis of the Sox’s pitching roster. Curley is a San Francisco Giants fan.

Curley is also a fan of Phil Tyler. Curley says of all of his professors here at RIT, Tyler, associate professor of marketing, made the biggest impression.

“He had an energetic style and he was also teaching the subject that I became most interested in, which was business strategy,” says Curley. “Plus he liked baseball.”

Tyler remembers a particular project where Curley went to a toy store and purchased a male figurine with a globe for a head.

Curley’s marketing model was simple: the toy figure would represent John Q. Public for a national polling firm’s research about what news was marketable to the average “Joe.”

“He was special and stood out even as a student,” remarks Tyler. “He had an incredible work ethic. Very bright, very creative.”

Curley has restructured senior AP management, created an international division to drive content and new business overseas, and encouraged initiatives to celebrate exceptional journalism.

Thomas Curley
During his visit to campus, Tom Curley met with students.

The Associated Press this year won a Pulitzer Prize – an award considered the holy grail of journalism – for breaking news photography in Iraq.

“This award was especially poignant because half of the photography staff that was honored is Iraqi. And they had been assembled and trained by veteran AP people over a period of months. These photographers showed extraordinary courage and I think on behalf of journalists who risk their lives every day, they really are exemplary people.”

Curley is also an effective communicator, much like the namesake of the award he received. Legend has it that Isaiah Thomas rode with Paul Revere to rouse the militia for the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, the beginning of the American Revolutionary War.

And now Curley is among those “leading the charge” to protect the public’s First Amendment right, a right he believes is under threat. He says more documents were classified in 2004 than in any other year in history. “There usually is a move toward secrecy after or in times of war or public concern so it’s important to say it’s not just this administration that has moved to do that. Over the course of history that’s been the normal reaction, but it behooves the rest of us who care about these types of issues to raise questions and to examine when and why things are being classified or kept from public view.”

He cites the Sept. 11 attacks, few turnovers in government seats, and privacy concerns centered around the computer age as the reasons for the growing trend toward government secrecy. “The possibility of widespread distribution of personal information by electronic means has added a dimension and a complication in this era. That does worry the public, but in most cases, people understand that somebody better be watching the elected officials. Officials ought to be doing the public’s business out where the public can see it.”

Curley debated the issue of freedom of information in America during a panel discussion at RIT. Curley is advocating for a federal shield law similar to the one in New York state. The state shield law gives journalists protection from being compelled to testify or provide information about their sources.

“We [The Associated Press] have one reporter who is facing jail time. I’m quite concerned, but in a strange way it has been helpful in galvanizing industry support for freedom of information efforts and more advocacy for a shield law.”

From his former professors to former colleagues to his friends, Curley is held in the highest regard both personally and professionally. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter met Curley and his wife, Marsha Stanley, shortly after Slaughter was elected to the Monroe County Legislature in 1976. “When I would think, ‘Where is this (media) business headed?’ . . . I would always remember Tom,” says Slaughter. “I knew Tom was out there doing a decent, wonderful thing, really caring very much about the obligation he had to people.”

In a letter written by Slaughter congratulating him for winning the Isaiah Thomas Award, she expressed her long-standing admiration and affection. “He gives me both faith and comfort that the best of what we have will endure. Long may you wave, long may you publish!”

“You can’t sell out or lower your standards,” says Curley. “You either believe in your principles and stand up for them, or you’re dead.”

Kelly Downs