Indy publishing legend exits after 32 years

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Go ahead and congratulate Deborah Paul on her retirement this month as executive vice president and editorial director of Emmis Publishing.

Just don’t call her a legend.

Deborah paul monthly mugDeborah Paul

Ugh—makes one seem old, bristles the 65-year-old Paul, who appears to have the energy to do her job for another 32 years.

Like it or not, the longtime editor-in-chief of Indianapolis Monthly and head of Emmis magazines in five other markets is a legend.

Paul just doesn't want to play the role of Mildred Heath, whom she notes in her April column in Monthly was still working at a local Nebraska newspaper until age 101.

Health only got three years of “freedom” until dying at age 104, Paul noted. “It’s a mistake to get off the stage too late,” she told BJ.

Paul’s column reflects her own struggle with the decision to retire. On the other hand, she won’t miss conducting performance reviews, PowerPoint presentations and having to fire another employee. “Too much blood,” she wrote.

Paul has presided over city/regional magazines with total circulation of nearly 1 million. Besides Indianapolis Monthly there’s Atlanta, Cincinnati, Texas Monthly, Los Angeles and Orange Coast.

“I have done critiques of our magazines for all these years,” said Paul, who's fond of sending yellow sticky notes to editors with her appraisals. One can imagine the editors in distant cities sticking pins in voodoo dolls fashioned in her likeness.

But Paul, the stickler for improvement, drove award-winning journalism. “We beat The New Yorker one year. And GHQ. That has made me feel terrific.”

If it wasn’t for Paul, Emmis Communications might not be in the publishing business, which accounted for about 30 percent of the $53.4 million in revenue the Indianapolis-based media company posted in the most recent quarter.

Emmis makes most of its money from radio holdings throughout the U.S., including Indianapolis stations WIBC-FM 93.1 and WLHK-FM 97.1.

Several years ago, Paul was editor of Monthly and had done a story on Emmis and its Chairman/CEO/President Jeff Smulyan, who is a distant cousin of Paul’s. Smulyan got to talking to the magazine’s owners and ended up buying the magazine, along with several others around the country.

“I only am in this business because of Debbie Paul,” Smulyan said.  “She just has a gift for the content of magazines.”

Providing the right content in the era of the Internet and social media has become more challenging, however. Now, content has to be crafted for multiple platforms. “Gosh,” Paul added, “there’s so much competition now for everybody’s time.”

Nevertheless, she contends, there remains a demand for long-form journalism and compelling, original content. “The tricky part of all of this is balance. … The fact of the matter is, even if paper and ink become obsolete, I think the stories we tell never will.”

Paul started out writing for her high school paper at Broad Ripple High School. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in education from Indiana University. After her kids were born,  She freelanced for a number of publications including Monthly’s predecessor publications. (The magazine got its current name in 1981.) She was editor in chief of the magazine for 18 years and has written somewhere around 360 columns.

Paul recalled the difficulties of trying to juggle career and family back in the day when women who did so were considered trailblazers. She’d go to the restroom, then sneak out and take her son to the orthodontist.

“I had the same guilt as so many working mothers of my generation. ‘Did I screw up your life? Was it terrible to come home from school and have a baby sitter sitting there?’”

Her older son is a lawyer and younger son is an interventional cardiologist. ”I guess their success has proven me wrong,” she said.

Paul’s last year at Emmis has been a good one. “I went to the Academy Awards last year for the first time ever. I live-blogged. It was just a blast. … I had all these people following me. It’s a new world.”

Paul plans to freelance her column to Monthly and do some consulting for Emmis. She plans to enjoy the grandkids and do a little traveling.

Taking over as editorial director for Paul is Mary Melton, editor of Los Angeles.

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