After nearly 34 years in the newspaper business, Rufus Friday might be due a relaxing retirement. Instead, the former president and publisher of the Lexington Herald-Leader is applying the many skills he honed as a media executive to a different set of challenges as the new executive director of the non-profit Hope Center and One Parent Scholar House.
“I’m 13 weeks in on the job now, and I can easily say that I am thrilled to be doing what I’m doing,” says Friday. “This is where I need to be.”
The Hope Center in Lexington provides homeless individuals with a range of services from food, clothing, and shelter to addiction recovery, mental health treatment, and employment assistance. The group operates a men’s center on Loudon Avenue and a women’s facility on Versailles Road.
Friday says he sees his job as finding innovative ways to address homelessness in Fayette County and help unhoused individuals become self-sufficient.
“We live in the most prosperous country on the face of the earth, and we have homelessness,” he says. “How can that be?”
Many of the Hope Center’s programs are run by people who were once clients of the organization. As graduates of the organization, Friday says they want to give back to others facing similar situations they once did. He says that gives them the knowledge and the empathy they need to successfully serve people who are going through homelessness, mental health problems, or addiction.
A point of pride for Friday is that the organization has continued to provide its vital programs throughout the pandemic.
“At the height of COVID… not one day did the Hope Center close its doors,” he says. “They pivoted, they made all kinds of adjustments to make sure that we were taking care of those individuals.”
The Hope Center also manages One Parent Scholar House, which helps single parents, especially single mothers, pursue a college degree or postsecondary training by offering affordable housing, child care, and social and academic supports.
“We come alongside those individuals and provide some life-building services for them,” says Friday. “We provide them with access to that educational component. We also provide an area for their kids to go.”
Overseeing Monumental Changes in the Newspaper Industry
A native of North Carolina, Friday worked for the Gannett and McClatchy newspaper chains in his home state as well as in Tennessee, Illinois, Alabama, and Washington before arriving at the Herald-Leader in 2011. During his career he says he saw newspaper production evolve from printing plates made of molten lead to modern digital equipment. Although the technology changed, Friday says the spirit of the work remained the same.
“It was always great to be part of an industry where you start with a blank sheet of paper every day,” he says.
But technology didn’t just change how newspapers were produced. It transformed the entire media landscape. First came the launch of 24/7 cable television news in 1980. Friday says CNN founder Ted Turner pledged then to put newspapers out of business within five years.
“His prediction was totally off, but what it did do was it helped us… up our game when it came down to how we produce and provide news and information,” he says.
The bigger disrupter, Friday says, turned out to be the social media revolution.
“We were so used to making sure that before a story was ever filed by a reporter, it was going to go through a number of filters, from an editor to a copy editor, and back again to the copy editor before it was actually printed or put up online,” he says. “Then you’ve got social media… and there is just no filter as to what’s factual and not.”
As newspapers struggled to compete with the immediacy of social media and cable news, Friday says he stressed to his employees a fundamental principal of journalism.
“It’s not all about being first, it’s about being factual,” he says. “First is good, but being factual is more important than anything.”
That grounding in accuracy also helped Friday respond to readers who were angry about his paper’s coverage. He says he understood that people might be angry about how a story was reported, but his primary concern was if it was factually correct.
“Never fear criticism when you’re right, and never ignore it when you’re wrong,” says Friday.
A Different Job, but Similar Skill Sets
After retiring from the Herald-Leader in 2018, Friday worked as a marketing consultant and as special assistant to the president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. Although he had served on the Hope Center board of directors since 2014, Friday says he was initially uncertain about taking the job of executive director. But then he thought about his father, who was an overseer in a cotton mill. Friday says his dad would rise at 4 every morning and visit the homes of each of his employees to make sure they were getting ready for work or to drive them to work if they didn’t have a car.
“It was all about his mission to make sure that he took care of those individuals,” says Friday. “I think that’s where I got it from.”
After talking with friends and praying about the Hope Center position, Friday says he realized this was the place he was meant to be.
“It comes down to… how can I help individuals have the type of fortunate life that I have,” he says.
While running a social service agency may seem like a far cry from managing a daily metropolitan newspaper, Friday says success at both jobs depends on common traits.
“One of the things I had to learn and appreciate was the skill sets of listening, having this level of empathy and compassion, and not judgment,” he says.
Now about three months into his new job with the Hope Center, Friday will serve a smaller, more focused audience than he did at the helm of the newspaper. But he is no less excited about the opportunities that await him each day.
“I’m looking forward to working with any partner, any corporate partner, our great friends at the city to assure that we are going to do everything that we can to put this fragile population on the road to self sufficiency,” says Friday.