Tucked away on the third floor of the Media General building downtown, beyond the maze of cubicles,is a modest office with a television tuned to the news and the front page of a framed yellowing newspaper hangs on the wall. This office belongs to Tom Silvestri, half businessman and half newspaperman.
Silvestri, president of the community newspaper division of Media General Inc., is serving his second year as president of the School of Business Alumni Association, a group he has participated in for eight years.
He and other alumni helped rescue the business school’s December reception for graduates that previously had been canceled by school officials.
“We got sponsors who donated a total of $3,000,” Silvestri said. “You work hard for your degree and I think you should be able to celebrate it. It was one of the most heartening things I have been involved in.”
Jackie Estep, 24, a December graduate from the business school, earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration and management. She said she was a little disappointed about the reception.
“The reception was held on Friday, the night before graduation,” she said. “It was nice of the (alumni association) to organize it, but I would have rather had our names called at the actual graduation.”
When Silvestri attended Pace University in New York City as an accounting major, he became interested in journalism after joining the student newspaper staff.
Later, he became editor and graduated in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in literature and communications since Pace did not offer a journalism major.
“I started out at the Times-Dispatch as a copy editor, then night city editor, then assistant state editor and jumped to the Richmond News Leader when they started metro business in 1986 and became the business news editor,” Silvestri said. “Then I went back to the Times-Dispatch and became associate city editor which led to my position as the deputy managing editor.”
Silvestri said he graduated from VCU in 1986 with his MBA for two reasons.
“One: I was heading into a job that I really wanted, and I wanted to learn more about how business operated,” he said. “I didn’t want to be at the whim of people just telling me.
“Two: I had a minor in accounting so business education wasn’t foreign to me. A lot of journalists don’t like numbers, but I was probably stronger in numbers than I was in writing.”
Although he spent more than five years working on his master’s degree, Silvestri said he became attached to the business school because of its professors.
“I’m still very close to some of the professors, and when you’re at key intersections in your career they’ll show up,” he said. “Wallace Johnston, ‘Dr. Wally,’ who is retired now, would call me at weird periods just as I was trying to make key decisions and it’s almost eerie – almost Spielberglike.”
After Silvestri earned his master’s, his career became more business oriented. He started working for Media General Inc., which created a new position for him titled director of news synergy.
“Media General acquired nearly all of their community newspapers by 1995 with the exception of the Florida papers which report to Tampa,” he said. “I came to help launch the news bank, which is the shared content network. My job was to be the project leader on that, and from there I came to work from a more business and group publisher standpoint.”
Gil Thelen, executive editor and senior vice president of the Tampa Tribune, which is a part of Media General Inc., has been a colleague and friend of Silvestri’s for years.
“Tom’s one of the 10 smartest editors I’ve ever known: high standards, great people instincts, fine story doctor and acute analyst of organizational complexity,” said Thelen, last spring’s Virginius Dabney Distinguished Professor for VCU’s School of Mass Communications. “He’s charged in his new job to dramatically (change) our community newspapers, and he’s accomplishing that. He’s also funny and a great companion.”
Silvestri said these days the most writing he does is for memos, but he thinks it’s important for journalists to be involved in the business side.
“I think in many cases the business side is a better judge of the quality of the newspaper. Journalists tend to take the defensive side. They like to explain all the efforts it took to arrive at the product,” he said. “Being on both sides, you see how important the business side is and how it furthers the excellence of journalism.”
Silvestri said he misses journalism – especially during the sniper case and around election time – but thinks he will stay with his current position for a while.
“It drives my wife crazy. I’ll go about two or three years and finally get settled into one thing and another comes along,” he said. “But I’m not a politician. I only need one vote to stay. So as long as my boss thinks I’m doing a good job, and I’m helping the company, I’ll probably stay. I’ve been very lucky.”