It was the unlikeliest place and time for the start of a publishing empire — a small Mississippi Delta town nearly 60 years ago.
But Bill McNamee, who saw the potential in a four-page weekly agricultural supplement to a local daily newspaper and later capitalized on the revolution in the way farming was done, parlayed that vision into an operation that eventually covered 22 states and set a new standard for farm publications.
Delta Farm Press, under his leadership, became one of the most respected agricultural publications in the nation and was the launching pad for what became four regional newspapers that spanned the Sunbelt from Maryland to California, at one time reaching some 240,000 of the nation's farmers and agribusiness and government leaders, with 13 offices nationwide.
William Scott McNamee, 78, died June 24 at his home at Clarksdale, Miss., where he had continued to live after his sale of the Farm Press company in 1984.
“We are saddened by the death of this outstanding entrepreneur,” said Mike Gonitzke, current Farm Press publisher. “His vision of excellence in agricultural publishing made the Farm Press publications leaders in the market. We still strive to maintain the standards that he set.”
The late B.F. Smith, for decades leader of the politically powerful Delta Council, once said of McNamee, “I know of few who have made a greater contribution to American agricultural publishing than he has.”
Farm Press Editorial Director Hembree Brandon says, “Bill's concept of farm publishing was unique in the industry — a weekly tabloid newspaper when everything else was monthly magazines. His goal was to give his farmer readers the timeliest, in-depth information on topics important to their business, and he never wavered from that. The validity of that concept was borne out in the success the publications achieved under his leadership.”
McNamee, who grew up in Tutwiler, Miss., and moved to Clarksdale in 1953, attended Mississippi State University before service in the Army Air Corps in World War II.
Upon his return from the military, he looked for a job until he could enroll at the University of Missouri school of journalism, and went to work at the Clarksdale Daily Press in February 1946. He continued to work there during summers while attending college, and then returned full-time after earning his degree.
“Delta Farm Press' original purpose, when it was started in 1943, was as a vehicle for reprinting ads that had already run in the daily paper and giving them an exposure to a limited additional rural audience,” he recalled on the occasion of the publication's 50th anniversary in 1993. “It had no staff whatever. The paper was thrown together each week by the back shop personnel of the Daily Press.
“Delta Farm Press was sort of an ugly duckling that nobody at the daily paper had much time for,” he said. “It never was more than eight pages, with about 1,500 circulation in three counties. Much of the editorial content wasn't even farm information, but was syndicated consumer articles — essentially ‘boilerplate.’ I told the publisher I'd like to work on it.”
It proved to be a fortuitous undertaking.
“I was 22 years old,” McNamee recalled. “It was my first job. I never had another one. It became a total commitment and remained so for 35 years.”
In 1968, he bought the publication and, “It was just me — and all those notes payable.”
While Delta Farm Press wasn't printed in slick magazine format, the very fact that it was on newsprint and arrived weekly made it popular with an ever-growing farmer subscriber base, he said. “Farmers liked our little weekly paper; they felt it was their own. I drew from them and their farming knowledge to print the kind of information they needed. In time, it became known as ‘the bible of Mid-South agriculture.’”
For 19 years, it was basically a one-man show. “I chose every article, laid out the pages, wrote the photo captions, every headline, sold all the ads, did the circulation work,” he said. “In all those years, I never had a real vacation.”
In the late 1960s, when agriculture began making the transition to larger, more specialized equipment and revolutionary developments in chemical weed/insect control, Delta Farm Press was in a unique position to capitalize on the advertising value it could offer to the hundreds of companies offering products to farmers.
“Bill was in the right place at the right time — and knew how to take advantage of it,” says Hembree Brandon. “He put together a very capable staff, advertising snowballed, and his ‘little weekly’ mushroomed to 80 to 100 pages or more for each issue.”
McNamee went on to launch other editions — Southeast Farm Press and Southwest Farm Press in 1974, and California-Arizona Farm Press (now Western Farm Press) in 1979 — utilizing his tried-and-true concept of weekly newspapers.
A stickler for quality editorial content, McNamee said, “If the product has credibility and the respect of its audience, the advertising will follow. We wanted to give our readers the ‘meat and potatoes’ of farming — information they couldn't get anywhere else, long before the monthly magazines could get something into print.”
His keen interest in agricultural policy fueled an equally keen interest in politics and legislation, and his editorials, often controversial, were widely read; many were printed in the Congressional Record.
He received many national awards; one of which he was the most proud, the Missouri Medal, considered one of the most prestigious awards in U.S. journalism, was conferred in 1980 by his alma mater.
He sold the company in 1984 to a British-based organization, which later sold it to a management group. It is now owned by Primedia, a New York-based media company.
After the sale, McNamee traveled widely and continued to be active in politics.
Funeral services were June 27 at Clarksdale, Miss., with burial at the Rosemound Cemetery at Tutwiler. He is survived by a son, William Scott McNamee Jr., Oxford, Miss.; a daughter, Marion Wynn McNamee, Jackson, Miss.; a brother, Charles Thomas McNamee, Roswell, Ga.; three nieces, Jo Carol Thackston, Greenville, Miss., Les Cartledge, Ormond Beach, Fla., and Jane Beck, Roswell, Ga.; and a nephew, Tom McNamee, San Francisco, Calif.