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Former head of publishing family business Cowles Media dies

By Rashmi Kumar

John Cowles Jr, who headed the eponymous media and publishing company when it was under family control, died on March 17 aged 82 from lung cancer.

Minneapolis-based Cowles Media Company, which was sold by the family in the late 1990s, published newspapers such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Cowles took over from his father, also named John, in 1961 as the editor of the family business’s flagship newspaper, becoming president and chief executive of the company in 1968.

But he first joined the media group in 1953 as a reporter covering the police beat, following a degree from Harvard University and a stint in the US army.

Despite attempts to build up the media empire through a series of acquisitions such as Harper’s Magazine and the Buffalo Courier-Express, the company suffered losses of around $25 million (€18.9 million) in the early 1980s.

Cowles was forced to sell some company assets and reportedly also fired the publisher in 1982 to take up the role himself.

His decisions led to him being ousted as chief executive and chairman of the family business’s board, which included his sister and two cousins, in 1983.

Although he left the board, Cowles controlled the family’s trust, which held 60% of voting power at the media business, until 1990 when he was succeeded by his son John III.

“[Cowles’s] response to his own firing, with equanimity and care for the newspaper as an enterprise, led him to be effective as a family leader through the sale in 1998,” John III told the Star Tribune.

The business was sold to the McClathchy Company in 1998. Besides his work in the newspaper business, Cowles was also known for his philanthropic acts to keep art and sports alive in Minneapolis – so much so that he helped raise $2.2 million to set up a theatre in the American city.

The publishing group was founded by Cowles’s grandfather, Gardner, when he bought Des Moines Register in 1903. Its portfolio later grew to include Look magazine and the Minneapolis Journal.

Cowles is survived by two sons and a daughter, a step-daughter, a sister and a brother, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.