John Stewart Bryan III, who spent more than 50 years as the fourth and final generation of his family to work in the media business, died Saturday.
Mr. Bryan, longtime chairman of Media General Inc. and former publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, suffered a fall at his home on Jan. 15 and had been hospitalized at Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital since then.
His death came at a time when Media General is in the middle of a sale. A bidding contest has emerged between Texas-based Nexstar Broadcasting Group Inc. and Iowa-based Meredith Corp. to merge with Media General.
Standing up to state and local governments and businesses trying to thwart the public’s right to know was a hallmark of Mr. Bryan’s career.
“If I have made any contribution, it has been being part of a newspaper that was trying to provide the right information for people to make up their own minds in the city of Richmond and central Virginia,” Mr. Bryan said in an interview in October.
From 1978 to 2004, he served as publisher of The Times-Dispatch, the newspaper his great-grandfather acquired in 1887 and the one his father also served as publisher at for more than three decades.
Mr. Bryan, 77, took the reins of Media General in 1990 and grew the publicly traded company that his father had created in 1969 into a multimillion-dollar corporation that now only owns 71 television stations, including WRIC in Richmond. Media General exited the publishing business in 2012 when it sold its newspapers, including The Times-Dispatch, to a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
“We have kept an eye on government,” Mr. Bryan said about the role that his newspapers and television stations have played. “I think the press has played an enormous role in the history of the United States. I have been a proud part of it.”
Mr. Bryan served as Media General’s board chairman since 1990 and was its CEO from 1990 to 2005. He had held a seat on the Richmond-based company’s board since 1974.
Marshall N. Morton, Media General’s former president and CEO, said Mr. Bryan believed media companies have an obligation to serve the public.
“It was fun working for a man who felt he had a duty to his company as opposed to someone who just worked for it,” Morton said.
“He was so easy to work with that he drew people to him. People enjoyed the opportunity to bounce ideas off him. He created an atmosphere of collegiality. He stimulated a lot of fresh thinking. He was a great mentor.”
Thomas A. Silvestri, president and publisher of The Times-Dispatch, said Mr. Bryan’s death is a sad time for employees, retirees and readers of the newspaper.
“Mr. Bryan was an unabashedly strong supporter of the RTD and its journalists,” said Silvestri, who succeeded Mr. Bryan as publisher in 2004. “Also, his personal connections to our diverse workforce, especially those employees who spent their entire careers at The Times-Dispatch, were deep. I’ve also lost a valued mentor whose lessons will never be forgotten and always appreciated.”
The ever-so-genteel Southern gentleman known for his assortment of bow ties, Mr. Bryan said he felt he had been a newspaperman at heart his entire life.
“I did what I did because it was fun and it was unmitigated fun for the first 40 years, but the last 10 to 15 years, it is questionable about the fun portion,” Mr. Bryan said in the October interview, noting that newspapers across the country have struggled in the past decade with declining advertising revenue brought on by the digital revolution, the recession and ensuing slow economy.
Mr. Bryan launched his career with summer jobs in the mailing room and circulation departments at the now-closed Richmond News Leader from 1954 to 1957.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia in 1960, he served active duty as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps and returned to his alma mater for one year of law school.
Uncertain that he wanted to follow his father and grandfather in the newspaper business, Mr. Bryan decided to find out in unfamiliar territory by taking a job as an advertising salesman for The Burlington Free Press in Vermont in 1963.
Two years later, he joined The Tampa Tribune, a newspaper that his father’s company owned, as a reporter. Mr. Bryan covered the state legislature in Florida in the mid-1960s and the Virginia House of Delegates during the 1968 session for The Times-Dispatch.
Being a reporter covering state politics was the best job — and the most fun — Mr. Bryan had in the newspaper business, he said.
He returned to Tampa in 1968 as vice president of The Tribune Co., which owned the The Tampa Tribune and The Tampa Times. He became its publisher in June 1976.
While in Florida in 1969, his father, D. Tennant Bryan, created Media General as a holding company for his family’s growing number of newspaper and television properties in Virginia, Florida and North Carolina. Media General shares were publicly traded on the American Stock Exchange in 1970.
Mr. Bryan was named president and publisher of The Times-Dispatch and The News Leader on Jan. 1, 1978, succeeding his father.
He took on the role of chief operating officer at Media General in 1989. In 1990, he was elected chairman, president and CEO of Media General, when the company owned a handful of newspapers and television stations.
Mr. Bryan grew the company during his tenure as CEO. When he stepped down as the company’s top executive in 2005, Media General owned 25 daily newspapers, 26 television stations, interactive media and part of a newsprint business.
While he remained chairman of Media General until his death, he retired as an employee of Media General in 2008, marking the first time in decades that a member of his family had not held a high-ranking role as an executive employee of the company.
But he still came to work his corner office in the Media General building on East Franklin Street nearly every day.
Striving to produce honest and accurate journalism was Mr. Bryan’s hallmark during his career in the newspaper business. During his career, Mr. Bryan faced tough decisions about whether to print particular articles. Publishing news or an opinion wasn’t always easy for him, he had said, because those decisions sometimes created enemies among his friends.
But he said he stood steadfast because the issues were important ones for the public to know.
While publisher of The Tampa Tribune, for instance, Mr. Bryan said he received a phone call from the top executive of a major corporation threatening that several companies would pull their advertising if the newspaper ran a story about possible corruption at a local nonprofit.
After consulting with editors, Mr. Bryan determined the story was too important to be kept out of the newspaper. The threat never materialized.
Mr. Bryan received numerous awards during his career. He was named in December to the inaugural Hall of Fame class of distinguished Richmonders as part of the RTD Person of the Year program. He was inducted into the Greater Richmond Business Hall of Fame in 2003.
He was honored in 2012 as the recipient of the George Mason Award for his significant contributions to the advancement of journalism in Virginia. The award, presented annually by the Virginia Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, cited his long-term support for open government.
“The people’s business should be held in public,” Mr. Bryan said in the October interview.
Over the years, Mr. Bryan had been involved in the community in many ways. He served as campaign chairman for the United Way operations in the Richmond and Tampa areas. He has served on a number of nonprofit boards, including being chairman of what is now Goodwill of Central & Coastal Virginia and Junior Achievement of Central Virginia.
When a governor nominated him to serve on the board of visitors of a state university, he turned it down. “I felt a newspaperman should not be involved.”
Survivors include his wife, Lisa-Margaret “Lissy” Stevenson Bryan; two daughters, Talbott Bryan Maxey and Anna Bryan Sullivan; and five grandchildren.