Olivia Myers Farrell: She's as Influential as She Wants to Be

Writing about the boss can be a minefield, so we'll keep this short and to the point: Olivia Myers Farrell, CEO of Arkansas Business Publishing Group, is the most influential woman in media in Arkansas in 2010.

The fact that she is not as well known as Jeff Hankins, the president and publisher, is part of her approach to a business that buys ink by the barrel.

"I choose not to exert my power and influence, and I do that for a specific reason: I do not want any of the reporters here abusing their positions. I want employees to take their power and influence responsibly," Farrell said. "All of the editors here have more power and influence than I do because I choose not to exert it."

That philosophy comes at a price, she said.

"I don't use [ABPG publications] to promote relatives; I don't suppress stories. I've lost friendships over it. If you go into journalism, it's like you take a vow to be on the outside."

In 1978, Farrell was hired as an advertising account executive for Arkansas Writers Project, publisher of a monthly magazine called Arkansas Times. In 1982, she bought out one of the original partners in Arkansas Writers Project and was part of the team that launched Arkansas Business in 1984 and a slick magazine called Southern in 1986.

Southern's circulation grew to 240,000 after only two years, and Arkansas Writers Project sold it in 1989 to Southern Progress Inc., a Time-Warner subsidiary. In 1995, Farrell and partner Alan Leveritt split the business: Leveritt remained publisher of the Arkansas Times, which became a weekly newspaper in 1992, while Farrell formed Arkansas Business Publishing Group and began expanding its roster of niche publications. The lineup includes Little Rock Family, Little Rock Soiree, Arkansas Bride, ArkansasBusiness.com, InArkansas.com and more than a dozen other print and online publications.

"The influence I take most seriously," Farrell said, "is how we run this company. I don't worry about the stockholders. I was just born and raised with the idea that if you take care of the people and the product, the money will take care of itself. And that's been borne out."

"I so totally disagree with the Wal-Mart philosophy that we should get everything we can from our vendors," she said. "I want vendors to make a fair margin so we can both thrive together."

Unlike many - maybe most - media companies in Arkansas and across the country, ABPG maintained its staffing level in the depths of the Great Recession, raised employee salaries and continued paying 401(k) matches. Part of the resilience of niche publishing companies, Farrell said, is that they were never addicted to the 30 percent profit margins that were formerly common at daily newspapers. Many newspaper chains are struggling largely because they took on heavy debt loads because they assumed those fat margins would continue forever.

At a time when news organizations worldwide are trying to figure out how to remain viable in the Internet age, Farrell said she was "not at all worried about niche publications and local niche publishing and what we do at ABPG."

Instead, "I'm worried about the future of journalism because of what's happening to the daily newspapers. We still need the beat reporter at the police station and city hall."

The future, she said, may belong to the "cowboy entrepreneurs" who figure out new ways to deliver the news that will always be in demand.

"I don't believe the world will become so dumb and stupid that we'll run out of people who want reliable quality information and are willing to pay for it."

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