A Life in Ink
After cutting his teeth at Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, alumnus Ed Estlow rose to the top of the Scripps media empire.
When DU trustee and former news executive Edward Estlow (BA ’42) recounts the stories of his storied life, he subscribes to a maxim out of his industry’s early primers: Just the facts, please.
Consider this crisp anecdote, served with a pinch of dry humor and a stealth punch line: “With six bucks in my pocket, I went to the University of Denver on an academic scholarship. My sports were football and track. I still hold the rushing record for football for one game, which will never be broken. The University of Denver dropped football in 1960. As a trustee of the University, I voted against the return of football a few years ago because I did not want my record broken.”
Estlow’s record is safe, and so is his legacy. At 91, he can look back on a life characterized by hard work and commitment. In the scope of his long career, he wrote newspaper articles, composed headlines, shot photos, developed film, drew editorial cartoons, lampooned politicians, sold ads, balanced books, acquired companies, negotiated with unions and prepared a media conglomerate — the E.W. Scripps Co. — for a public offering. Along the way, he hobnobbed with presidents, publishers and assorted newsmakers.
“I had a ball,” he says, surveying his decades of accomplishment and service.
That Estlow’s career straddled both the editorial and business sides of the news enterprise — two perspectives often at knock-down, drag-out odds with each other — affords him unusual insight into a complicated business. “He’s really a rare breed in that sense,” says DU journalism Associate Professor Lynn Schofield Clark. “He actually understands both sides, the divided cultures.”
He has worked to infuse that understanding — as well as a passion for the collection and dissemination of news and information — into the DU research enterprise named for him and his wife. The Edward W. and Charlotte A. Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media studies the worlds of journalism, digital media and popular entertainment and how the three intersect. Its Anvil of Freedom Award, given annually, honors individuals whose careers demonstrate true leadership and commitment to democratic freedoms, ethics and integrity.
Estlow’s passion for the news business remains robust today, but he doesn’t always like the industry’s current practices. “My biggest complaint is [that journalists] don’t stick to the facts. The tendency is to put a little spin in there,” he says. “The media in general is not as balanced as it used to be.”
Just as troubling, he says, is the incessant digging for dirt on politicians and candidates for public office.
“There is so much negative reporting that really highly qualified people are not going to go through that kind of abuse,” he says.
On the operations side, he continues, too many news executives succumbed to complacency in the early days of the Internet, believing their old business models would prevail. They failed to grasp the revenue opportunities offered by the digital world.
In acquiring his own media experience, Estlow never bypassed an opportunity. One of his earliest breaks came in 1939 with a scholarship to DU. The Great Depression was still casting its pall over the economy, so Estlow welcomed every bit of assistance he could muster.
“I worked on a ranch that summer after high school for a dollar a day,” the Colorado native recalls. By summer’s end, “I had $69, but I bought some clothes and bus fare.” That left him with just $6 for his start at DU.
Estlow played football, ran track, studied hard and worked two jobs. As an athlete, he set the bar high, amassing records and scoring points. For the football team, he played right halfback on offense and left halfback on defense. His junior year alone he scored four touchdowns, all of which were over 40 yards.
“The last football game I played was against the University of Colorado in 1941 on Thanksgiving Day,” he says. The Pioneers won. Estlow is the only starter from that Pioneers team still alive.
His time on the football and track squads introduced him to a lot of sportswriters, who seemed to have the ideal job. “I watched these men, and I thought it would be a lot of fun to be on a newspaper,” Estlow recalls. The seeds for his future career were planted, though he didn’t know it at the time.
Not long after that Thanksgiving game, he met a pretty blue-eyed brunette, Charlotte Schroeder (attd. 1941–42), in the student union. They had their first date in January 1942. “I dated her as far as my meager income would allow. … I was a Kappa Sig, and I gave her my pin that spring,” he says.
Dating meant the occasional movie and a meal at her mother’s house. “Her mother always said I ate a lot,” Estlow says. In truth, he adds, his appetite was huge. After all, he was burning calories on the track and foregoing meals to conserve cash.
The day after he graduated in 1942, Estlow reported to Fort Logan for induction into the U.S. Air Force. With World War II in progress, Uncle Sam had plans for the country’s able-bodied young men. While in uniform, Estlow wrote furiously to the girl waiting back home. One of his letters contained a proposal. Edward and Charlotte were married in 1944.
After the war ended, Estlow enrolled at DU’s law school on the G.I. Bill. “I didn’t stay to take my final exams my last year,” he recalls. Instead he departed for tiny Lovington, N.M., where his father-in-law had purchased the weekly paper and offered him the general manager’s job.
That’s when Estlow’s lifelong passion for the news business began in earnest. Like everyone on the staff, he tackled a range of jobs. “I had a society editor who was a bookkeeper,” he says. “I had to learn everything in case somebody got sick. I wrote stories, I sold advertising and took photos with an old speed graphic camera, and I developed the pictures.”
He also tried his hand at editorial cartooning, publishing his efforts on the front page and occasionally caricaturing the state’s governor, Edwin Mechem. “I got a call from his office one time: ‘Get off the governor’s back,’” he says, mimicking the staffer who dialed in the feedback.
Estlow’s relationship with Mechem was hardly helped by an incident that played out during campaign season. To ensure his prospects at the ballot box, Mechem was in town, knocking on doors and schmoozing voters. One day, he materialized at Estlow’s front door and asked for the newspaper’s support.
“I’m at home with the baby and diapers,” Estlow recalls. When Mechem made his request, Estlow held up the baby and named his price: “Governor, politicians always kiss the baby.” He handed over the infant and just as Mechem was ready to plant a big smooch on her cheek, “she wet right down his white shirt. Ruined his tie and shirt,” Estlow says.
After that, there was only one thing to do: “Governor,” he said, “you have got my support.”
Two years in Lovington proved just the experience Estlow needed to land a job back in Denver at the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News. Initially he was tasked with selling advertising, but in time, given his studies in labor law at DU, he was charged with setting up a personnel and labor department. That taught him to look at the operation from the perspectives of different employee groups — he had to negotiate contracts with nine labor unions.
By age 35, Estlow had risen to vice president and business manager at the News. “I was the guy who had to get the newspaper out,” he explains.
In 1965, Estlow was summoned to New York to serve as assistant to the vice president of business for the E.W. Scripps Co., parent company of the News and of a host of enterprises under the Scripps-Howard umbrella. “I didn’t want to go to New York,” he recalls. “I thought the skiing in Central Park was horrible.”
Estlow rose through the ranks and became CEO in 1976. He was the first CEO at the firm who was not a member of the Scripps or Howard families. Over the next nine years, he took the company public and pushed annual revenues from $500 million to $1.1 billion. He also introduced the company — whose holdings included United Press International (UPI), numerous radio and television stations and several daily newspapers — to the cable TV business.
Today, Scripps owns newspapers in 14 markets, an eponymous news service, a worldwide syndication company and 10 broadcast television stations.
“As CEO,” he says, “I had 12,000 employees in 120 countries.”
He also had access to the inside scoop, a business perquisite he relished. “You always heard [the news] first, and you heard about things that others would never hear about,” he says. He also mingled with the powerful, chatting with every president from Gerald Ford to George W. Bush.
Estlow’s easy humor and likability stood him well through some tumultuous years at Scripps. In preparing the company for a public offering, he faced a number of unpleasant tasks, including the closing of a handful of unprofitable daily newspapers — among them the Fort Worth Press and the Cleveland Press. What’s more, UPI was losing $9 million a year and had to be sold.
“It was tough dealing with all this,” Estlow says. Difficult as it was, he insisted on handling things according to his personal ethics.
“When I closed a paper, I paid [the staff ’s] full salary for a year or until they got another job. The board said, ‘You can’t do this.’ I said, ‘Well fire me. Because I am going to take care of my people.’”
In 1985, Estlow retired from his post and returned to his beloved Colorado, where he chaired DU’s Board of Trustees for five years, ending his term in 1990. During that time, the University confronted a number of serious fiscal challenges.
“He was a steady hand when DU needed a steady hand,” recalls Chancellor Emeritus Daniel Ritchie, who served on the board alongside Estlow. What’s more, Estlow’s investment in the institution grew out of his personal experience at DU. “Ed is quintessential DU,” Ritchie says. “I think his blood is crimson and gold.”
A former CEO of Westinghouse Broadcasting, Ritchie credits Estlow with bringing a rigorous code of ethics to journalism. “He’s a very strong, upright person with integrity,” he says. “I think journalism certainly is not what it was when Ed was there. And that is too bad.”
To honor Estlow’s service to journalism, the E.W. Scripps Co. established the E.W. Estlow Fund at DU. Initially, the fund was used to support the annual Edward W. Estlow Lecture, featuring a prominent journalist. In 1997, DU began recognizing the lecturer’s commitment to journalism and the First Amendment with the Anvil of Freedom Award.
Three years later, the Estlows and DU established the Estlow Center, which Lynn Schofield Clark has led since 2006. She credits Estlow with promoting an optimism about journalism at the center, even as traditional news organizations have struggled to remain viable. “Both of us are interested in trying to find the stories that are hopeful about journalism,” she says.
Estlow’s commitment to the center that bears his name and to the university that gave him his start strikes him as a fitting expression of gratitude.
“Listen,” he says, “this university provided me with an opportunity for the rest of my life. It taught me how to learn; it taught me discipline, motivation.”