Ward reflects on success with The Breeze

Ward reflects on success with The Breeze

Tom Ward, Valley Breeze founder and publisher, retires this week after 24 years with The Valley Breeze, and 43 years in journalism. Here he’s with his wife, Carol, and their three grandsons. From left are Ben Kellogg, 5; and James McMorrow and Sam Kellogg, both 2. (Breeze Photo by Michaela Kellogg)

Tom Ward has one simple answer when it comes to the success he and his team were able to achieve as they started to grow The Valley Breeze: “It was just a march of one foot in front of another,” he says.

People would occasionally ask him if he understood what was happening as the reach of the publication grew, he said, and all he could think of was that there were a lot of pictures to take and pages to lay out that day.

Ward leaves The Breeze a year after selling it with mixed emotions, he says, including pride at what he and his staff have been able to accomplish, sadness that his run as publisher is over, and gratitude that he can now enjoy some of the fruits of his labor.

“Too many people never get to slow down,” he said, noting that he’ll be 67 this summer and that his father never got to enjoy a retirement.

“I’ve never not loved this business and this paper,” added Ward. “I love the business, but I’ve been working for 56 years straight.”

And for most of that career leading up to his own business, he said, he worked well beyond 40 hours per week, which is “what it took to become the person I was and start The Valley Breeze and not be afraid of the workload.”

Ward, a Cumberland resident, is sticking around in his retirement to spend time with his family, do volunteer work he’s been wanting to do for some time, and probably contributing ideas to the paper he founded.

He hopes to do a good deal of volunteer work, though some of that will have to wait due to the coronavirus. He will remain on the board of Mount St. Charles, helping to plan its 50th Class Reunion next year (his class of 1971), he expects to volunteer with the Stadium Theatre, and hopes to help out with the Arnold Mills Fourth of July Parade.

He will work to transition the Breeze-sponsored State Spelling Bee and help as needed, and will help the paper continue with its Yellow Bag Day cleanup.

Ward said he’s happy that The Breeze will continue on in its tradition of excellence and hard work.

“I’m aware of what’s going on around the country, and I can tell you, we’re one of the strongest papers of our kind in the country,” he said.

“Tom, Jamie, and the rest of The Valley Breeze team have always focused on the communities they serve, which we are committed to continuing as Tom retires,” said Breeze owner Richard Whippen. “I wish Tom a very happy retirement during which we know he will still be a strong advocate for The Valley Breeze for years to come.”

So how did The Breeze grow from a single newspaper produced in his living room to a group of five community papers covering much of the Blackstone Valley? There were many factors, says Ward, but the start came just at the right time in the right market and “everything clicked.”

He said he didn’t know exactly how his little venture would turn out, thinking that it would just be a Cumberland/Lincoln edition. His confidence grew as it “took off like a rocket” in 1996 and 1997.

After hearing from Woonsocket how much residents loved the paper, he and his team started an edition there in 1999 and it was an immediate success, said Ward. At that point there were enough pages for a Living section.

Ward remembers after the first year popping a bottle of champagne and talking about how there was “never, ever going to be another first year, fun, invigorating, scary …”

“There’s nothing like it,” he said. “To start something from scratch, have it loved right out of the gate, you just feel that high. It was amazing.”

With two editions in place, The Breeze started hiring more people, including former news editor and current part-time layout person Nancy O’Halloran, who was so attentive to detail. Marcia Green was doing most of the news writing, Ward worked the calendar and layout.

“Everyone was doing different things,” he said. “It was exhilarating. So many businesspeople completely bought into the concept, and off we went.”

In 2006, Ward and Deputy Publisher James Quinn purchased The Observer and its North Providence paper, starting The Valley Breeze & Observer and North Providence Breeze.

Everything stayed fairly stable until the end 2007, when Ward “noticed a really frightening drop in sales.” The days after 9/11 had registered barely a blip, he said, but this was way worse. He would later learn that December of 2007 was officially declared the start of the Great Recession, even though no one was talking about it at that time. The loan to pay for The Observer was also hitting in early 2008.

The paper found its footing again by spring 2008, “not gangbusters, but OK,” said Ward.

Two years after that, in August of 2009, The Valley Breeze Pawtucket edition, the fifth publication, was started.

Ward is confident that The Breeze is a model for local news reporting that can last. The challenge for everyone in media is on the digital side, he said, and Whippen and his team have expertise there.

“The Breeze is going to evolve, it’s going to remain entrepreneurial and nimble,” Ward said. “I think at a certain point we have to find ways to have readers support the paper.”

Whippen seemed like the right fit from the beginning when he approached him about buying the paper, said Ward, leading a small company that loves local newspapers and local news and wanted to embrace that challenge.

Ward said he knows at lot of the paper’s success has been in knowing what it is. He remembers Larry Berman at The Call opposing him when he tried to incorporate more national news into the paper, and he knows now that Berman made the right call.

“It’s all local. You have to be unique, that’s what’s going to make us different,” he said.

The paper started “with really hard-working people,” each with a talent and skillset he didn’t have, said Ward. Everyone was underpaid in those early days, he said, but all had the courage to take the risk.

There are so many people to thank, says Ward, including his wife, Carol, and family.

He said he can’t thank readers and advertisers enough for how they’ve supported The Breeze, “because at the end of the day, everything depended on business support for the free paper.” Those businesses needed support from the readers who embraced the paper.

“I owe them both a deep debt of gratitude,” he said.