Pawhuska History: Do you know about Paul Miller?

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital
Paul Miller, who was a 1925 graduate of Pawhuska High School, went on to become the top executive at the Associated Press and the Gannett Company. He was a leading figure in 20th century U.S. journalism.

Nearly a century ago, a Pawhuska minister’s son finished high school and set off in pursuit of a journalism career. He worked his way up through the business and became a news executive best known for his talent as an organization builder.

As the flow of events would have it, the organization he built into an industry leader now owns the small weekly newspaper in the town where he got his start.

The minister’s son who became known as “the Great Acquirer” was Paul Miller, who graduated in 1925 from Pawhuska High School. He was born in September 1906 in Diamond, Missouri, and died at the age of 84 in West Palm Beach, Florida. The journalism building at Oklahoma State University is named in his honor, and the company he labored so mightily to build – Gannett Co. – is the largest newspaper firm in America. The Pawhuska Journal-Capital is one of the many publications it owns.

Miller worked as a news-gathering employee of the Associated Press before he became an executive. He rose to the rank of AP Bureau Chief in Washington, D.C., by 1942 and held that position during World War II. Even after becoming an executive, he wrote a regular column about national and world events, and he occasionally demonstrated a continuing urge to cover the news. For instance, his obituary in The New York Times recounted that during a 1971 vacation, Miller interviewed the prime minister of Japan and filed a story.

In 1947, Miller left the Associated Press as an employee and moved to Rochester, New York, to become an executive assistant to Frank E. Gannett, the founder of the Gannett Co. By 1957, Miller moved into the top executive position in the company.

A young Paul Miller is shown here, at work in a newsroom setting. He was a reporter and editor before he became a news executive, and retained throughout his career an interest in covering news.

In a personal letter from September 1948, Miller described the size of the Gannett Co. at the time, saying it "included 21 newspapers and five radio stations in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Illinois.” A 1985 article in the Pawhuska Journal-Capital said that Miller guided the growth of Gannett to a total of 80 newspapers.

Upon its 2019 merger with GateHouse, Gannett consisted of about 260 daily papers, and many weeklies.

Miller became president and CEO of Gannett in 1957 and president of The Associated Press in 1963. He was the first news-gathering employee of The AP to become its top executive.

Miller was known an outspoken defender of the value of a free press. He was Washington Bureau chief for the Associated Press from 1942-47, and his papers (now housed at Oklahoma State University) reflect a wide array of wartime contacts, including with U.S. presidents and foreign leaders. His papers also reportedly contain information about corporate management decisions by the Associated Press and Gannett.

In an interview with AP feature writer Saul Pett, when Miller stepped down from the AP Board after 28 years, Miller indicated he thought Gannett would continue to grow.

 “Why buy more? When is enough enough?” Pett asked Miller.

“This is going to continue," Miller said. "Are you going to say to a fellow he can’t sell his newspaper? Or if you say that one company can’t own more than X number, what is the number – 25, 50, 70? And on what do you base that? I expect we’ll have over 100 newspapers in the foreseeable future.”

Paul Miller was a standout member of the Pawhuska Huskies football team in the early 1920s. He was an All-State selection and a team captain.

Miller regularly wrote editorial columns during his run as a top news executive. When President Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, Miller lamented that the president had not told the American people the truth about the Watergate scandal. He observed that no one recorded on Nixon's White House taping system “is heard to advance the thought of just doing the right thing. Indeed they just kept digging themselves in deeper.”

“They thought they had it made," Miller concluded of the Nixon White House. Still, he mused about whether things could have turned out differently: “What if the president had said to the country, as he did so gracefully and eloquently Thursday night, ‘Here it is. I have made a grievous mistake. I regret it deeply. I am working as hard as I can to clean it up. I will keep you informed. Meantime, please try to bear with us.’ No one can say for sure what the outcome might have been, but how much better for everybody it probably would have been.”

As leader of Gannett, Miller was a defender of the principle of local editorial autonomy, rather than corporate-level dictation of a single editorial policy. Gannett was a "group" of newspapers with publication-by-publication autonomy, rather than a "chain" of publications bound to articulate the same conclusions.

Paul Miller is shown here during the process of making a speech. Miller was known for having a lively wit.

Miller was also known for retaining a concern for his small-town Oklahoma roots, which local newspaper accounts of his remarks at a Sunday, Oct. 31, 1948, mortgage-burning service bear out. The service was at First Christian Church of Pawhuska, where his father, the late Rev. James Miller, had been pastor and provided for a growth in church membership and the construction of a new church building.

Miller's address was the occasion for a family reunion of sorts, as his mother returned to Pawhuska from Seneca, Missouri, and other family members traveled from Clarksville, Tennessee, Claremore, and Tulsa. Miller was by then a resident of Rochester, New York.

The church originally cost $80,000. A good portion of that was paid at the outset, with a debt of $35,000 remaining that was paid out over 21 years.

Miller described his father as a practical man who “applied his Christianity to everyday life, to real people, to familiar things." He also described his father as a believer in the supreme power of prayer to “solve anything.”

“I am sure he used to pray for the Pawhuska High School football team … Certainly he did when we played Fairfax!”