John Prescott, 80; Washington Post President in '70s
Friday, March 21, 2008
John S. Prescott, 80, who was president of The Washington Post during the 1970s when management and labor fought over automation of production tasks and job security, died of cancer March 17 at his home in New York.
Mr. Prescott, an experienced newspaper business executive, was hired for what is now known as the position of general manager in 1972. Katharine Graham, the late publisher who hired Mr. Prescott, said in her 1997 book, "Personal History," that he deserved "great credit" for the contract settlement with the printers in 1974 after several years of labor unrest.
"John was a most intelligent executive of very high integrity who worked here at critical times for The Post," said Donald E. Graham, chief executive and chairman of The Washington Post Co.
Mr. Prescott was born in Cleveland and enlisted in the Navy during World War II, serving in the United States. After the war, he graduated from Williams College, then went to work as an advertising salesman at the Baltimore Sun. He moved on to newspapers in Michigan, then became labor relations manager at the Detroit Free Press and the Miami Herald. He was general manager of the Charlotte Observer and the Philadelphia Inquirer before going to The Post.
"Prescott was an entirely new kind of executive for The Post," Robert G. Kaiser wrote in a Feb. 29, 1976, article about The Post's labor troubles. "Independently wealthy, he started in newspapers as a reporter [in high school and college] and was once an officer in the Newspaper Guild unit at the Baltimore Sun. He moved into management and became one of Knight [Newspapers'] most successful executives.
"Prescott hired new executives and changed the responsibilities of others. He discovered problems at The Washington Post that Mrs. Graham and other executives had not known existed. He personally guided prolonged negotiations with The Post's printers' union which resulted in an unprecedented contract, allowing The Post a free hand to introduce new technology that would revolutionize the production of the newspaper."
Mr. Prescott also set up a training program for managers who would replace the blue-collar production workers in case of a strike. He sent a letter to printers, warning that a work slowdown would result in firings. That training proved necessary for the paper when a wildcat strike occurred Nov. 4, 1973, and several unions were barred from returning to the paper. Mr. Prescott, on the word of a union leader, allowed the pressmen back into the building, who took over from the replacement workers and stopped the presses.
Labor strife continued, primarily slowdowns that caused the paper to miss its delivery deadlines until 1974, when Mr. Prescott led the negotiations that resulted in a landmark contract with the printers union.
On the day that contract was ratified, Katharine Graham announced that Mr. Prescott was being transferred to a new job.
"I continued to think we were not making enough progress and there was still a lack of firmness with the unions. With some reluctance . . . I decided that we needed a stronger hand at the helm at the Post," Graham wrote in her book. His new job gave him oversight of the business operations of a division that included The Post, the Trenton Times, The Post's stake in the International Herald-Tribune, a newsprint manufacturer, the news service and the newsprint warehouse.
He left The Post Co. a year later, in September 1975, and became a partner in Whitney Communications, which at the time co-owned the International Herald-Tribune with the New York Times and The Post. Mr. Prescott oversaw the firm's magazine division, his wife said. He retired in the late 1980s.
In 1990, he was chairman of an unsuccessful venture with entrepreneur Roger Kranz to start another daily newspaper in Washington, to be called The Washington Reporter. Mr. Prescott also co-owned two weekly newspapers in New Hampshire for several years. For the past 28 years, he lived in New York and Lovell, Maine.
He volunteered with the Correctional Association of New York and was a member of Fourth Universalist Society Unitarian Church and the Greater Lovell Land Trust.
A son, John S. Prescott III, died in 2002.
Survivors include his wife of 57 years, Robin Balch Prescott of New York and Bath, Maine; three children, Ann V. Prescott of Bath, Lyle S. Prescott of Portland, Maine, and Robert T. Prescott of New York; and seven grandchildren.