Longtime LEO Weekly readers fondly remember those John Yarmuth Father’s Day columns about his relationship with his son, Aaron.
Now Aaron Yarmuth is all grown up, and he’s bought the paper his father founded. Last week, just days after the purchase was announced, I met Aaron at his cool Waterfront Park Place condo where he was preparing to host Derby guests and talking excitedly about a new vision for LEO.
While he’s finalizing the deal to buy LEO and NFocus magazine from Nashville-based SouthComm, the 30-year-old Yarmuth is making big plans that include, primarily, a long-awaited embrace of digital technology, while keeping the “edgy” nature of the paper’s editorial voice.
Meanwhile, he’s planning to play in a U.S. Open qualifier in May, with his dad, the congressman, as his caddy.
Yarmuth also tells Insider Louisville that the paper’s offices will move west, from its current spot at 301 East Main to the Glassworks Building, sometime in the early summer.
The purchase of LEO, in the works for about a month, took most local media watchers by surprise when it was announced via the alt-weekly’s Fat Lip blog April 29. Yarmuth said there was at least one other group interested in buying LEO, but ultimately it was something he wanted to do. While he said he’s seeking other investors, at this point he’s the only one.
Aaron Yarmuth is a Kentucky Country Day and Indiana University grad, with a master’s earned at American University. He started a tech firm, Digitalville, whose mission “is to promote the research and advancement of digital sciences for the purposes of education, job training and cultural enrichment.” It’s a nonprofit.
Here are some highlights from our conversation…
Insider Louisville: How did this surprising transaction come about?
Aaron Yarmuth: Surprise would be the right word because I was as surprised as anyone. It all started through conversations I had with a colleague, a woman I serve with on a board. She’s a tremendous friend and ally and a force in this community. But that was just to help start conversations on where we might find some really interested, good potential owners for LEO. Particularly someone local who would support the mission and spirit of the publication.
And that was about a month ago. Really I gave them some names, I didn’t include myself. This wasn’t the Dick Cheney search committee. But it came full circle and became something that not only I could do, but that I was really interested in pursuing. So there was no grand plan or strategy to take over this publication. It was sort of serendipitous.
What advice did your father give you?
The first time I spoke with him he said I will try to remain dispassionate when giving advice, but it’s going to be very hard for me to remain unbiased because there would obviously be an emotional connection. He gave me some very sound advice. He sat down with existing publisher Dave Brennan and got a good handle on the state of the paper, where it’s been and where it is now and some of the potential going forward. We had a very good, open, candid conversation. There will be some awkwardness with him being in Congress and LEO seeking to challenge its elected officials. I told the staff the only way they could ever get in trouble with me is if they pulled a punch.
My dad quickly reminded me that he gave (John David) Dyche his start at LEO, and he is by no means a liberal force in this community.
Will you start writing a weekly column like your dad did?
There is a romantic side of me that wants to do that and take that role back. I think it’s a little bit premature to commit to that. There are a number of things that are really high priority that I think my focus should really be on.
I’m definitely not short of opinion, and I love this town. It’s unique in so many ways. There are some troubling aspects and areas that we can do better, whether it’s local or national or international. I would hope that I can be a voice and stir the pot a little bit.
What is your role going forward?
This will be a very uninteresting, broad answer. I want to be very engaged. I think my role will be different in the first six weeks than it will be in the next six months and evolving from there. I do want to be intimately involved. I see myself as an enabler. I want to be there to give them more tools, more resources and give them direction whenever possible. They’re the pros, and they’re the true heart and soul of LEO, so I really want to turn them loose and, if anything, get them to be more edgy.
Will we see changes in technology in the paper?
That is the first real investment I want to make. I already had some great meetings with some real in-the-weeds tech folks in town, some great groups, and it’s amazing who some of these organizations that are in Louisville that seem like they should be in Austin, or Denver or San Francisco. Some really high-end talent. We’re going to work with one of the firms to not only give them a laundry list but really seek out what LEO readers are looking for.
When it comes down to it, it truly is all about (the readers). It’s a point of pride for the community, and it’s really going to be targeted to their wants. That being said, I see media as a whole as one big grab for attention. That goes for print, online, televsion. You’re always fighting to get in front of the consumer, and sometimes that’s for 40-second consumption. The truth of it is, because of digital technology there are no local media outlets. We’re competing for Louisville eyeballs with Facebook, Buzzfeed, Deadspin, New York Times, Courier, and maybe even the San Francisco Chronicle, because it’s so easily accessible. So not only are you competing for that attention, those outlets are hitting their viewers in the face. They’re popping up on their phones, their iPads, and LEO doesn’t do that.
I think it’s great that you can walk in to North End, or Hillbilly Tea and pick up a LEO on your way to brunch, but that’s not the way most people consume their media. Without question, we have to be in your face, and it suits us to be in your face.
Was NFocus always part of the purchase?
It was a package deal. That said, SouthComm was willing to sell them separately. I’m a casual consumer of NFocus; I’ll be much more diligent in my consumption now, but it’s a really strong publication, and I think it has a really important place in this community. I think that given the same resources and investments that we’re talking about with LEO, it could really be an important publication and something that has potential for real growth.
Laura Snyder, who is the current editor, has an enormous heart and passion for the publication and a vision for where she’d like to take it, which she never was really afforded the opportunity before.
Are staffing changes ahead?
I would love the opportunity, especially as we make investments in digital and online tools, that will afford us the opportunity to be more creative. I think there will be opportunities in the future to make staff additions there.
At the moment, though, I will make no bones about it, the paper wasn’t a cash cow. It wasn’t printing money. It will not be a serious money-making endeavor for me. Like my dad always told me, don’t work your entire life for free, I’ve done it and it sucks. I’ve met with the staff once, they all seem relieved, really excited, and I really want to see with that how much they’re willing to go the extra mile. Now that they’ve got direction and an enabler in chief, I guess. I want to see where we can take it before we begin making these tactical additions.