John Robinson Block, Newsman

A life’s recounting in the subject’s own words
Photo by Renee Rosensteel Post-Gazette publisher John Robinson Block , a collector of rare books, at the entrance to his home library. Post-​Gazette publisher John Robinson Block , a collector of rare books, at the entrance to his home library.
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My twin brother, Allan Block, and I are the third generation in a family business that’s more than 100 years old. My grandfather, Paul Block, was an immigrant from East Prussia, and grew up, through his teens, in Elmira, New York. From age 10, he worked for a newspaper and learned how to sell advertising. He became good at it, moved to New York City and, eventually, established his own business selling national advertising for a host of newspapers.

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My grandfather was a “people person.” He had an engaging personality, and cultivated many friendships, including one with William Randolph Hearst, the famed newspaper magnate. He spent part of his time selling advertising for newspapers in cities where Mr. Hearst owned more than one. In each market, my grandfather sold advertising for Mr. Hearst’s main newspaper but, for the second Hearst paper, he sold ads through his company, Paul Block and Associates.

My grandfather and Mr. Hearst knew each other early on and, in the years just before World War I, the two men often went to the theater together, without their wives and, what can I say? They “womanized.” Sure, the two had fun together, meeting chorus girls and actresses by the score because my grandfather had also cultivated a friendship with Florenz Ziegfeld, the legendary Broadway producer, who was known for his various stage productions featuring young women.

At some point, my grandfather started dating an actress by the name of Marion Davies, who was just 19 years old at the time. But when she began making noise about wanting to marry him, he was faced with a dilemma. After all, he was married to my grandmother, Dina Wallach Block, and a divorce was out of the question. So he solved the problem, permanently, by introducing Ms. Davies to Mr. Hearst, and she became his long-​time companion, for more than 30 years.

Now, my grandmother was nobody’s fool. She knew about my grandfather’s infidelities, but was secure in her position as “Mrs. Paul Block.” She lived for 40 years after my grandfather died and completely honored his memory for all that time. To hear her tell it, my grandfather was the paragon of male virtue, in every possible way.

One time, I had a biography of Marion Davies, and was getting tired of hearing about my grandfather’s virtues. So, I gave the book to my grandmother and suggested that she read it. She had an apartment on Park Avenue in New York City, and would always read before going to bed. The next morning, my grandmother came out and was uncharacteristically quiet. Finally, she turned to me and said, “Here’s your book,” and then added, “Well, he was damned nice to me.” If you refer to the index of that biography and look up “Paul Block,” you would notice many references to my grandfather, about his relationship with Marion Davies and his helping to produce a film for her in which she was the “star.” By all accounts, it was a terrible movie and everyone disavowed it upon release.

In the early 1900s, Pittsburgh was home to a bevy of newspapers. As recently as the mid-​1920s, the city supported seven, not counting probably an eighth that was published daily in German. In 1927, when William Randolph Hearst decided to enter the Pittsburgh market, he brought my grandfather along as a business partner. With the support of Mr. Hearst, my grandfather acquired two Pittsburgh newspapers, one morning and one afternoon: the Post and the Sun, respectively. Mr. Hearst acquired a morning and an afternoon paper as well, the Gazette Times and the Chronicle Telegraph. But in short order, it was decided that my grandfather would publish in the morning, so he took over the Hearst-​acquired morning paper; and Hearst would publish in the afternoon, taking on the Block-​acquired afternoon paper. From that point on, the Post and the Gazette Times became the Post-​Gazette, and the Sun and the Chronicle Telegraph became the Sun-​Telegraph. That’s how my grandfather became the proprietor of the only morning newspaper in Pittsburgh. This consolidation left just three English-​language dailies: the Post-​Gazette, in the morning; the Sun-​Telegraph in the afternoon; and, also in the afternoon, the Pittsburgh Press.

My father, Paul Block Jr., and my uncle, William Block (who was four years younger than my father), were raised in New York City and Greenwich, Conn., and were both sent to Hotchkiss, a boarding school in Lakeville, Conn. The Hotchkiss School was a feeder into Yale College and both Paul Jr., and Bill went there, too. Because of my grandfather’s success, both boys were expected to go to work for him immediately upon graduation, but the newspaper business wasn’t my father’s first choice. After Yale, he earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Columbia University, and spent much of his time in his lab while simultaneously publishing newspapers, and supervising other businesses that we owned in Pittsburgh, such as Channel 11, known then as WIIC-​TV.

My father was an expert on compounds related to the thyroid and did some impressive chemistry work. But having been thrust into the running of our family business, without much input from our Uncle Bill, who was off fighting in World War II, my father continued to live a dual life. Uncle Bill was discharged from the military in 1946 and moved to Pittsburgh, even though my father had moved to Toledo. Neither of them wanted to be in New York, although the company’s headquarters remained there until 1951, at which time it was moved to Toledo.

Allan and I were born in Toledo because my grandfather published a newspaper there called The Blade. He published quite a number of newspapers at different times and, at the height of his success, which would have been the late 1920s, he owned about a dozen across the country. But business began to decline in the 1930s, due to the Great Depression. My grandfather was very heavily invested in the stock market, as were so many business people at the time. And he was hurt very badly by the “crash” in 1929.

My mother, Marjorie McNab Block, had been a star reporter and one of the very first women to break out of what was known as the “women’s news department” at The Blade. During World War II, when men were serving in the military, she covered the police beat, which was an unusual assigment for a female journalist at the time. She was a pioneer in that way. Later, she became director of Women’s News and Features, and was a tremendous feature writer and columnist. From all accounts, my mother was a woman with a magnetic personality, completely extroverted, warm and friendly. Many people, particularly in the newspaper unions, didn’t like my father. But nobody disliked my mother.

So, I was the product of an office romance at a time in which there was an invisible wall between ownership, top management and the workers. That said, however, my mother breached that wall and reached out to my father. I have a birthday card from 1946 which she sent to him when his first marriage was breaking up. My father’s first wife had chemical dependency issues, and it was hard for him to live with that. But in those days, mothers always got custody of small children and I have a half-​brother from my father’s first marriage, nine years older than me, named Cyrus Block. He was named after the great and longtime cartoonist at the Post-​Gazette that we all loved so much, Cyrus Hungerford.

When my brother and I were 5 years old, our mother died at age 43 from what is now known as Alpha-​1 Antitrypsin Deficiency. I was in first grade, and will never forget coming home from school that day. My father was waiting at the end of the walkway and, as I approached him, he said, “You will now have to grow up without a mother, because your mother died this morning.” The effect of that took years for me to understand, but I was fortunate enough to grow up under the wing of a truly brilliant person. My father was a genius, but he was also reclusive. He never went to fundraisers or social events. He belonged to no clubs. Unlike his father, he was not into hanging around with big shots. Mostly, he stayed in his chem lab, ran The Blade, and tried to raise us kids. If I had to decide who was my greatest teacher, it was, without a doubt, my father.

I was often told that my father didn’t want to have children, and this created tension between him and my mother. And after her death, it was clear that he was a reluctant parent. In my early life, I rarely saw him. We had nannies, of course. But nannies aren’t parents. Nonetheless, my father embraced what he had to do. And given that he was lonely and looking for love, we traveled a lot. We spent every summer somewhere, and most of 1962 in Paris because my father had an old flame there in whom he was interested. Eventually, he did remarry, and my stepmother, Mary Block, is still alive, and still wonderful. She was a great companion to my father for 25 years, until he died, in 1987.

When my father passed away, Allan and I were just 32, and the event changed our lives dramatically. A couple of days after the funeral, a meeting was convened where Willam Block Sr., our Uncle Bill, met with my brother and me and declared, “We are now partners.” There had been much speculation that Uncle Bill would be in charge if something ever happened to his brother. But while that may have been the plan when Allan and I were babies, it was not what my father had in mind for us as adults.

Mind you, Uncle Bill had not been particularly helpful to us when my father developed a sudden and rapidly progressing dementia. In fact, once my father became incapacitated, Uncle Bill went to Toledo and cancelled some policies that had been place at The Blade for decades. When I told him, “This isn’t what my father wanted,” he replied, “Well, your father doesn’t matter anymore. He’s not here. If you don’t like it, seek employment elsewhere.”

Unfortunately, my father’s lawyer had been somewhat in league with Uncle Bill, so Allan and I hired our own lawyers. In a very short time, when the full picture emerged, it was clear that my brother and I, together, owned 50 percent of the company. We were indeed partners with Uncle Bill, not employees. So, we had another meeting — Uncle Bill, the lawyers, Allan and I — and decided to continue, but agreed that some major decisions had to be made to move forward.

Allan and I were promoted immediately: I on the newspaper side, and Allan on the electronic end of our business. At first, I became executive editor of The Blade. And on January 1, 1989, Uncle Bill’s son, William Block Jr., and I became co-​publishers of the Post-​Gazette and The Blade. From the editorial side, I was in charge at both papers. I started using the title “editor-​in-​chief” at The Blade in 1989, but didn’t start using it in Pittsburgh until 1993. Truthfully, titles mean little to me. I was in charge and that’s one of the things that some people these days can’t seem to grasp. Nothing has changed at the Post-​Gazette through the years because there’s been continuity at the top since early 1989 — almost 30 years.

As a kid, I attended the same school my father did and, after grades one through eight at Maumee Valley Country Day School in Toledo, I went to boarding school at Hotchkiss, the same school my grandfather had selected for my father and Uncle Bill. Then I, too, went to Yale University, which helped to shape my life. I studied economics with James Tobin, who later won a Nobel Prize, and American folklore with William Ferris, who, after his career at Yale, became chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. At Yale, I also contracted a serious case of “bibliophilia,” and have remained a dedicated and incurable bibliophile all my life. I’m a book collector, and maintain thousands of rare books in my house, which is kind of the centerpiece of my existence.

I went to college during a time when certain professions were “in” and others were “out.” Business was looked down upon in my day because capitalism had created the Vietnam War. It was profit-​motivated, and profit was deemed evil, so college students rebelled against the corporate world. In the fall of 1973, when I matriculated at Yale, 60 percent of our class said they wanted to be doctors, and it was easy to understand why. Unlike business, medicine was still an accepted and noble profession, and it was lucrative at the time, too.

Another “save the world” profession during my college days was law. After all, with J.D.s in hand, we could march down to Mississippi and help people who were being denied their civil rights. Then, after Watergate and the exploits of Woodward and Bernstein, many students wanted to be journalists. In fact, many of my Yale contemporaries went begging for any kind of job on a newspaper, anywhere. So, there I was, a newspaper heir, with a father who had been in the business with his father, who had been a prominent news publisher and a close friend of William Randolph Hearst. I was connected to a well-​known daily, The Blade of Toledo, as well as The Pittsburgh Post-​Gazette, the latter of which was the first newspaper published west of the Allegheny Mountains. In essence, the P-​G was the first newspaper in the West of any significance.

After Yale, I went to work for The Associated Press and was assigned, first, to Miami, and then, later, to New York City. I was a pound-​the-​pavement reporter, covering homicides and other interesting news stories of which our newspaper and radio clients needed coverage. New York had once been an exciting place for a reporter to cut his teeth but, by the time I got there, there were only three daily newspapers left. Every once in a while, we’d get a big story, but not too often. So, after three years at the AP, my father summoned me to work for him in our company’s Washington bureau and then, three years later, in our foreign bureau. That’s the way it is in a family business.

My father spent only one year in Pittsburgh, in 1943, during World War II. But he hired a lot of the staff that were around up until the ’70s — some of the greats. Those were wonderful days for our industry. But recent years in the newspaper world have been traumatic and, like publishers everywhere, we’ve had to manage reduction. The fact that we’ve lost major national advertisers as they’ve gone out of business, or have been diminished, has made things tight. And it is sad that some of the major local entities won’t help us out more. They need advertising, and we still reach a prime audience. So, on the newspaper side of our business, we’ve been willing to lose money, but that can’t go on indefinitely. If my brother was sitting here, he’d say, “Come on, John, soon we’ll have to break even.”

I’m recently divorced, and have a daughter, Caroline, of whom I share custody. She gets good grades, and loves sports and all the other things that 12-​year-​olds get into. Fortunately for her, she is not a twin, like me. Sharing a birthday isn’t always fun, and twins always think that their parents favor one or the other. And when you’re a twin, especially as a boy, you fight. My maternal grandmother couldn’t believe how Allan and I would go at it. “When you get older, it will hurt you more than it hurts him,” she would say. My father, however, was more pragmatic. He bought us boxing gloves. So, for my brother and me, there have been times when we’ve had bad relations. But the wonderful part about being a twin is that, in times of difficulty, such as when my marriage ended 18 months ago, Allan was wonderful. He and I may often disagree about business but, when life gets tough, we support each other.

What people in Pittsburgh must understand is that, in my family, I am the one who stood in the way and said, “We will cut our costs, but we will cut them with a minimum impact on the product.” I assure you, my brother and cousin would have been much more abrupt in their changes, and would have cut much deeper. But I am proud of our product, much of the time. Of course, I see problems with some headline stories and with some things that can be seen only when you’ve been looking at newspages for as long as I have. But, in terms of what we put into it, we’re still producing a full-​blown newspaper, even if we don’t publish a print version every day.

Lately, if you tuned in to social media, you’d see posts about how the Post-​Gazette is starting to “lean right,” which is a lot of bunkum. Some people on our staff who “lean left” can’t accept that we are now, and have always been, a non-​aligned newspaper. We are not Democrat. We are not Republican. Yet people know how I vote because, if they consider who The Blade and Post-​Gazette have endorsed, that’s who I voted for. How could I put my name as publisher and editor-​in-​chief of a newspaper that’s making a voting recommendation and not vote for that candidate?

In the presidential election of 2016, nobody knew how I voted because we didn’t endorse anyone. But I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t vote for Donald Trump. I did. In fact, so did much of Pennsylvania. The state had a good Democratic turnout in Philadelphia and Allegheny County. But Republicans won virtually everywhere else, by huge margins. So, Pittsburgh is now like West Berlin used to be. It’s an island surrounded by people who are different and think differently than the city dwellers. And I am concerned about geographical inequity.

The American coasts have done well. But the fact is, middle America has been hollowed out. Try to find a town of less than 50,000 people anywhere in the U.S. that is doing well. Most of these places are in ruins, and their residents voted heavily for Trump. When railroads were the main mode of travel, trains used to make stops in these places. Now, they’re just “fly-​over” and “drive-​by” country, and all but forgotten. In the newspaper business, I’ve learned over time that you must capture the mood of the public by listening. All of us are witness to the times we live in. And if we decide to leave our cocoons, get out and mingle, and listen a little better, we’ll have more of a sense of what’s going on. I’ve tried to do that all of my career. And I’ve generally been in sync with the times in which I’ve lived.

In the estimation of our unions, our company is successful, despite today’s intense challenges. They think that the resources we earn in other businesses should subsidize our newspapers. Well, guess what? That’s what’s been happening but, again, it can’t continue. We have other stakeholders — bond holders, for example — and loans from banks. We have to control the situation. Obviously, we cannot run a newspaper in Toledo or Pittsburgh as a charity. In fact, the Block family has been one of the biggest charitable givers in Pittsburgh for years, if you look at the amount we’ve pumped in to keep the Post-​Gazette afloat. One year, it cost us $30 million. In a good year, like last year, we still spent $22 million. We haven’t turned a profit consistently since 2004. But I remain confident, believing that the business model has not yet become apparent.

Through the years, I’ve learned to be secure in my convictions and confident in what I do. Insecurity and lack of confidence are the biggest problems that most executives face, in addition to having an out-​sized sense of their personal limits. Insecure people micromanage everything, but confident people know how to delegate, and to make decisions that only they, individually, can make. They also have a clear sense of their personal limits which, to me, reflects having reached maturity. I learned this from aviation, from being a pilot.

Anyone who flies an airplane has to contend with the “aviation paradox.” Many people think that it’s dangerous to fly your own plane. You might end up crashing. And it’s true that some very skilled aviators have died this way. But some very ordinary pilots have flown thousands of hours safely, and not crashed. Why is this? Great pilots often do not recognize their own personal limits so, no matter how good they are, they’re a plane crash waiting for a time and place to happen. The other thing that I’ve learned from aviation is how to recognize an “error chain.” Pilots don’t crash just because they’ve made one mistake, at one moment. They crash because they’ve made error after error. The good news about an error chain is that you can recover by just breaking it, by doing things correctly. It doesn’t matter that you may have made 10 different errors during an instrument approach. If you start doing things right, you’ll be able to catch up and save the day.

Jeff Sewald

Jeff is an award-​winning independent filmmaker and writer who specializes in defining the cultural significance of American people, places, things and events. Among other projects, he is currently producing a television documentary about the history of jazz in Pittsburgh, and is co-​authoring the memoirs of famed forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht.

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