By Anna Grace Usery
*Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 5 of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media Magazine. Autry, author of “Mississippi,” will meet students, faculty, and the public on Thursday, October 11, at 2 p.m. in the Overby Center lobby.
Acclaimed author, businessman and Ole Miss alumnus James Autry discounted the proverbial phrase, “Jack of all trades, master of none” when he rose to the top of his successful media, business and literary careers.
He in fact defies separation of left-brained and right-brained mentalities, cohesively twining successes in media managing and writing with creative vigor. He now serves as a national educational speaker, and consults and conducts leadership trainings for many international corporations in Australia, Canada, Iceland, The Bahamas, The Netherlands and Singapore.
He remains humble about his accomplishments, and says he’s simply grateful to have had the experiences.
Each of his 13 published works including, Nights Under a Tin Roof: Recollections of a Southern Boyhood, Life After Mississippi, and his book released in June 2012, Choosing Gratitude: Learning To Love The Life You Have, are succinct portrayals of Autry’s grounded Southern raising all the way to his lesson-learned outlook on his life.
His awards include the prestigious Johnson, Smith and Knisely Award for the book that contributed the most to executive thinking in 1992, Love and Profit: The Art of Caring Leadership.
As a Memphis, Tennessee native, Autry ping-ponged between his hometown and north Mississippi in his early summers after his mother and father divorced. His experiences in Mississippi shaped several poems included in Nights Under a Tin Roof. Although Autry only calls a part of himself a Southerner, his occupation as a writer was never a question.
“I always knew I wanted to be a journalist,” said Autry. “I always told people what my goals were when I was young. I wanted to be a newspaperman and make $50 a week. People ask if that was my only goal, and I always say ‘yes.’”
Autry said his older brother Ronald was his hero in their father’s absence, despite an 11-year age gap. Autry sought paperboy jobs from the age of 12 to escape the destitution his father left him and his mother in. He yearned to follow in the footsteps of his brother, who worked for the Associated Press in Memphis and eventually advanced to AP bureau chief in Atlanta.
He knew an education was required in order for that to happen. Autry had somewhat of an unconventional start to his journalism career at the University of Mississippi, and it began with a clarinet.
“I wasn’t an athlete by any means,” Autry said. “A friend and I went to the first day of football tryouts and after the ‘beltline’ (lining up and running the field while the upperclassmen hit you with belts) we decided we’d never go back again.”
The same friend got involved with the high school band and encouraged Autry to join. He confessed he didn’t know how to play an instrument, but the friend reassured him all they really needed were bodies to march.
“I was handed a clarinet that I eventually learned to play,” he said. “I went to Ole Miss on a clarinet scholarship and marched all four years I was here. During my senior year there was a spot open for drum major, so I tried out and got it.”
With a journalism degree in hand, Autry then segued into the military. He flew jet fighters in France for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during the Cold War for three years.
After exiting the Air Force he became editor and publisher of a small weekly newspaper, The CourierChronicle in Humboldt, Tennessee. While this was a valuable journalistic and life experience, Autry found himself searching for something more.
A fellow journalism student put him in touch with Tom Textor, the sales director of Better Homes and Garden Books. Textor was an ex-Navy pilot himself and when the two met in person they spent most of their time talking about flying. A job in sales was offered and Autry declined, as it was not in the realm of journalism.
However, Textor put in a good word for Autry with the managing editor of Better Homes and Gardens magazine when they were looking to replace a copy editor in 1960. Autry obtained the copy editor job and by 1962 he was appointed managing editor. He left Meredith in 1967 to become editor and publisher of New Orleans magazine.
Autry returned to Meredith Corp. in 1968 and by 1970 became the editor-in-chief of Better Homes and Gardens. By 1976, Autry had become vice president and editor-in-chief of all magazines and books.
In the late 1970s, he went from being editor-in-chief of books and magazines to the general manager of the magazine group.
“In other words, I moved from the editorial side to the business side,” Autry said. He fostered an atmosphere of teamwork and creativity that was very productive. “We went from four magazines to 17 in two years.”
Autry is well respected in all regards – especially by two Meek School of Journalism and New Media staples: Dean Will Norton and Samir Husni.
Norton is a longtime friend, and Husni, the director of the Magazine Innovation Center, looks to Autry for mentorship.
As a transplant from Tripoli, Lebanon, Husni didn’t land in northern Mississippi after swirling his finger and picking a spot on the map. He landed in Texas and later Missouri to further his education. Then thanks to Norton and Autry in conjunction, he arrived in Oxford. The Meredith Corporation allotted money to spearhead the inception of the first magazine service journalism program in the nation, with Husni at the forefront.
As his mentor, Autry introduced him to people in the media and sent his first publication, “Samir’s Husni’s Guide to New Magazines,” to every magazine publisher in the U.S. to showcase the man in whom he believed.
“Some people may be deceived by Jim’s soft-spoken, Southern, genteel approach to things, but behind those attributes is a great brain at work,” Husni said. “It’s a brain that mixes the creative part with the execution part. He treated business with passion, creativity and all the complexities that a business needs with genuine interest.”
Autry’s experience in the magazine industry caused him to draw many insights to advise better working relationships and managerial directions. His leadership skills are known throughout the world.
“Managers inevitably believe they need to boss people,” he said. “You can’t scare people into doing a good job, but rather instill a certain level of confidence in your employees to see favorable results.”
Although the Golden Rule has always applied to his life, Autry clarified you don’t have to like whom you work with, but you do have to care about each other to ultimately achieve a common goal. Using that defined focus to achieve common goals is one he’d use for the remainder of his life, emphasizing always living his life in context with others.
He says it’s something for millennials to live by, too.
“Our lives are not about ourselves,” Autry said. “The context we live in compared to others should be about supporting, nurturing and being sensitive to others.”
Norton said Autry had no reason to go out of his way to supplement the magazine journalism program at Ole Miss, but he took $25,000 out of his magazine budget to help establish it.
“Autry never acts like he’s a big deal,” Norton said. “He’s one of the few people I can call a spiritual person. He makes decisions, not for fame or money, but because he’s not going to be on Earth forever and he wants to do right.”
Norton said when he went to Autry’s retirement party in Des Moines in the early ’90s, the place was filled with people.
“People loved him,” he said. “Those people knew he cared about each and every single one of them.”
Retirement as senior vice president of The Meredith Corporation and president of its Magazine Group came early.
“I had done everything I wanted to do in my career,” he said. “Also, my wife was carrying a heavy load with our autistic son, Ronald, and I wanted to help more. I’m glad I decided to do that for us.”
He and his wife Sally Pederson, former lieutenant governor of Iowa, now play huge roles in supporting autism awareness groups.
Ronald now has his own apartment, takes care of two pets and calls his dad every morning to tell him what the weather is going to be like.
Autry’s outlook on present and future magazines is positive, saying journalism is no longer focused on the technical side of things, but on knowing your social sciences – aka your audience. Television wasn’t the end of radio, the internet wasn’t the end of TV. The mediums just needed to adapt to change.
“Magazines have always known who their audiences are,” he said. “Advertisers will soon find clicks aren’t really potential customers.
There will be a huge shakeout and advertisers will find their way back into mediums focused on service journalism like magazines.”
For aspiring journalism professionals, Autry advises: “Envisioning yourself as a brand is inaccurate and dehumanizing,” he said. “You are a human being, so start thinking of yourself as one.”