WISC-TV’s parent company maintains family focus in big media fishbowl

You might say that John T. Murphy, the founder of the Morgan Murphy Media empire, had a vision right from the start. Unfortunately, his crystal ball turned out to be just a bit cracked.

Back in 1890, after cutting his teeth at The Boston Globe, Murphy set out on his own. He identified Superior, Wis., as an up-and-coming market and purchased the Superior Telegram, hoping his fortunes would grow along with the borders of the Great Lakes shipping hub.

“It was strategic, because it was thought that Superior would be the size of Chicago by the early 1900s because of it being the most inland port on the Great Lakes and shipping being so big,” said Brian Burns, vice president and COO of Morgan Murphy Media and the stepson of current CEO Elizabeth Murphy Burns.

“How do you become trusted? Well, you become part of a community, and that’s certainly very important for us.” — Brian Burns, COO, Morgan Murphy Media

It didn’t quite work out that way, of course. The Chicago population as of the 2010 Census was 2.69 million. Superior, on the other hand, was almost a hundredth the size, holding steady at 27,244.

So much for seeing into the future.

Still, no one who can lay claim to a piece of John Murphy’s legacy today has reason to complain. The Evening Telegram Co. (still the company’s legal name) spun off Morgan Murphy Media in 1956 when John Murphy’s grandson Morgan Murphy expanded the business.

“I mean, I think it was funny that it didn’t really work out the way it was planned, but it worked out just fine,” said Burns.

That it did. Today, the company runs WISC-TV, Madison Magazine, another TV station in La Crosse, three more television stations in Washington state, and several radio stations in both Wisconsin and Washington.

It’s a big operation, but it’s still a bona fide family business, as evidenced by the special Connecting Generations to the Community Award it received at the recent Wisconsin Family Business of the Year Award presentation.

It’s also a bit of an anomaly in this age of media consolidation — but it’s one that, according to Burns, allows the company’s media properties to really stay connected to the community.

“It’s always been a pillar of the way we do business,” said Burns. “The thought would be certainly that people are trusting us to deliver important news and information to them on a regular basis, and how do you become trusted? Well, you become part of a community, and that’s certainly very important for us.”

Community roots

Those aren’t just platitudes. The mark that the company has made on Greater Madison is indelible. That’s particularly evident with respect to the contributions of the company’s executive vice president, George Nelson, who was instrumental in reshaping Madison’s built environment through his work on several high-profile projects.

“George has been responsible for a lot of things, but the highlights over the years are, he helped facilitate the construction of MATC, the Truax campus; he was very integral in getting Monona Terrace built; he’s been past board chair for the Madison Community Foundation. He most recently was involved in fundraising for American Family Children’s Hospital. Time and time again, he’s sort of stepped up to the plate and tried to help from a community standpoint.”



According to Burns, another thing that distinguishes WISC-TV is its unusual focus on community issues.

“The other thing that I think makes us unique, and you don’t see it at any of the other stations in town — and quite honestly there aren’t many around the country — is we have an editorial board and we have a full-time editorial director [Neil Heinen], so we’re trying to bring important issues to the forefront and be a good citizen in that way. We realize that the news that we report impacts people’s lives, and we just want to be there and try to pay attention to what’s concerning, what’s of interest, and focusing on people in our community and trying to get those stories told.”

Against the media grain

Given that the trend in media is consolidation — with more properties falling into fewer and fewer hands — one naturally has to wonder whether the temptation to sell is ever-present and always growing, but that’s not on the radar for Burns, who operates the company’s day-to-day affairs and is in line to take over as CEO one day.

“I don’t think we have the temptation to sell,” said Burns. “I think we’re always interested in listening, because it’s just good business to listen, but I grew up around the business, and the first time I ever worked here, I was 14 years old, working an election night, and I’m the fourth generation and I want there to be a fifth. And I’m not focused on the generation behind me, I’m focused on the generation in front of me.”

Of course, the generation in front of Burns presents some looming challenges. The way in which people — particularly young people — consume media is rapidly changing, and all media companies are being forced to adjust.

“I look at our company as being in the content business, we’re not in the television business, so we just want to be in a place that whatever the mechanism is for the viewers — the users or ‘viewsers’ as we like to call them — that we’re in a place to be able to deliver it in that form and fashion,” said Burns. “Yeah, it’s certainly a pressure, and I think that’s why we’ve made such a focus for the last 15-plus years with Channel 3000 [WISC’s website].

“It was very early on that we started Channel 3000, and it’s fun looking at some of the old shells of the websites there. But that certainly is an example of, okay, we’re going to dedicate resources to it, and we certainly have made it its own pretty decent-sized independent business.”

But even with his eye on the future, Burns is keenly aware of the legacy he’s been asked to help preserve.

“The people that started this company and stewarded this company throughout the years, I think about them a lot, and even though I’m thinking about trying to keep the business going and making it profitable and beneficial for generations to come, certainly you don’t ever want to give up the past, and certainly it’s always top of mind to think about what they would do,” said Burns. “Fortunately, I’m in a position where Elizabeth is still very active in the organization. She’s our president and CEO, but she’s given me the ability to run the company on a day-to-day basis, and basically her advice that was the loudest with me was, ‘You do what you feel like you need to do, and I’ll tell you if you mess up.’ And we’re going on four years now, and fortunately we’ve never had the ‘you messed up’ conversation.”

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