ColumnistsMy Turn

Retiring on Top

‘It is a fantastic feeling going out on top’

By Bruce Frassinelli 

There is much to be said about retiring while at the top of your game and not overstaying your welcome

I retired as publisher of The Palladium-Times in Oswego on Dec. 31, 1998, at age 59 1/2. I considered myself at the top of my game. The paper was thriving, profitable, and I was rewarded with consecutive bonuses for achieving the goals set by our corporate bosses.

An avid reader of industry newsletters and magazines, I could see the gathering storm clouds descending on the newspaper industry. So many articles were speculating what would happen to newspapers as the internet was gaining significant popularity as an advertising medium.

Advertising and circulation revenues are a newspaper’s lifeblood. While news may be its main reason for being, advertising and circulation pay the bills and provide the news department with the resources to do its job effectively.

I was starting to hear about cutbacks at some big-city papers, which were going through retrenchments and consolidations. Smaller-city papers, such as The Palladium-Times, had not begun to feel the pinch, but I was convinced that it was just a matter of time.

I thought of the agony of laying off staff, cutting expenses, robbing Peter to pay Paul and the crushing impact this would have on morale. I had been in the newspaper business for 32 years. I had worked my way up through the ranks, first as a reporter, then a bureau chief, regional editor, managing editor, editor, general manager and, finally, publisher.

My experiences were incredible. I can never recall on even one occasion when I woke up in the morning and said to myself, “Oh, no, I have to go to that dreaded job again.” I loved my job and the newspaper’s role in helping to make the community better.

The Palladium-Times had changed hands three times in the previous four years, and it was likely to get sold again. Despite my solid record of achievement, I was concerned that a new owner might call me in one day and say, “Bruce, you have been doing a phenomenal job, but we are going in a different direction, so your services will no longer be needed in three weeks from now.”

I got chills just envisioning such a scenario. All of the enormous satisfaction I enjoyed for this long and successful career would be dashed in a five-minute conversation. Not only that, it would be a constant albatross throughout my golden retirement years, making them less golden.

If I retired on my terms, while I was still on top, I would enjoy the afterglow of a successful career for the rest of my life, and that was very important to me.

In the fall of 1997, I announced that I was going to retire at the end of 1998, so there was an orderly transition. I had plenty of time to say my goodbyes to the various constituencies that the newspaper serves, and I even had a hand in helping to pick my successor. I was so lucky.

As Frank Sinatra’s hit song said, “I did it my way.” I felt proud of my accomplishments, of the positive impact the newspaper had on the community, of the relationships I built with readers, advertisers and community leaders and proud of mentoring those coming behind me. (The advertising director of the paper during part of my tenure was Jon Spaulding, now publisher of The Palladium-Times.)

Many people who plan to work until, let’s say, age 65 or beyond are forced to retire earlier because of failing health, or they get laid off or fall victim to ageism.

It takes hard work and even some luck to get to the top of one’s profession. A publisher is the chief executive officer of his or her newspaper.

Climbing the corporate ladder has allowed us to see the changing landscape at different levels. Each level has its pitfalls, its dangers and, at each rung, the demands and the pressures become increasingly more daunting.

It is a fantastic feeling going out on top. Nearly 19 years later, I have never regretted, not even for one minute, leaving when I did. For all of these years and for those yet to come, I can enjoy the memories of my successes and accomplishments, the accolades from my coworkers and bosses and the beautiful written note of commendation from the corporate CEO thanking me for my service and success of the newspaper.

I think about those who stayed around too long. Their demise and the humiliation they suffered played out in a very public way. Muhammad Ali, for example, one of the top fighters of all time, was just a shell of his glorious self, and we cried for him as lesser opponents pummeled him during his last several bouts.

Obviously, when it comes to deciding when to retire, there are many practical considerations. We also must determine what we want to achieve in our careers. Each of us must decide what going out on top looks like.