It takes passion and drive for someone at the height of his career to go back to school to finish his degree.
“In all those years out of school, my career went so fast, but it would haunt me,” began Andy Weber, the 61-year-old CEO of Farm Journal Media. “It would actually wake me up at night thinking ‘I did all that work but I don’t have that degree.’ ”
Weber did indeed go back to college and was awarded a Bachelor of Science degree in Life Sciences Communication in December 2014. During this time he has become a strong supporter of the Department of Life Sciences Communication and its students. Last year he and Farm Journal Media began a scholarship and internship program for students interested in agricultural media. He also served as the keynote speaker at the LSC student and donor recognition reception on May 4.
Weber’s story begins back in the 1970s when he was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He said at first he lacked focus and stopped and started several times, working on-and-off in iconic Midwestern ‘70s industries such as a steel mill, a meat packing plant, and a canning plant.
“Finally I decided I needed to get on with my life and went to the dean of the college and got special permission to take 24 credits my last semester to graduate,” he said. “I was getting through it pretty well, but then went on the job interview trail. I started to have some trouble with finals and then got a job with an agricultural magazine so I was left with two incompletes and no degree.”
What followed was a whirlwind career that took Weber from a sales job in a company’s livestock publishing division to being in his first CEO-type position at just 30 years old. Within five years, he was running all of the Midwest subsidiaries for a healthcare media company owned by Thomson Reuters, where his only connection to agriculture was his veterinary division.
His next gig took him to Disney/ABC and ended with him running a $250-million engineering and manufacturing division when Disney sold his company to Reed-Elsevier. It was after this that he decided he wanted back into agriculture.
“I was having no fun,” Weber explained. “I was making a ton of money but not getting out to get to know my readers, customers or employees and I didn’t like that. Finally a headhunter found me that was looking for a CEO for Farm Journal Media. I’ve been running things there for 15 years now.”
Then just a couple of years ago Weber read a story in The Wall Street Journal about universities luring back people like himself to finish their degrees. After almost “dropping the paper in excitement,” he immediately drafted a letter to the dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences to ask if this was possible at UW-Madison.
“I told them I wanted to earn it,” he said. “I began working with the chair of LSC Dominique Brossard and a couple of others to get the last few credits I needed.”
Brossard had Weber use social science insights to analyze the history and dynamics of public perceptions of genetically modified crops in the United States.
“Andy was an extremely committed student who brought first hand knowledge of the topic,” Brossard said. “He connected the readings to his own experience in very insightful ways and wrote a great synthesis paper. I really enjoyed working with him on the topic. It was very enriching.”
Weber said he is passionate about the subject because it has so many implications for agriculture and the work he does at Farm Journal Media, a 138-year-old company based in Philadelphia.
Farm Journal Media is a powerhouse in the agricultural media industry. It encompasses over 50 brands run by 200 people and 50 agricultural journalists. Its five magazines reach over one million farmers and its website has a million unique visits a month. In addition the company produces 750 hours of live original TV and radio programming on 200 network affiliates.
The company also holds about 75 hands-on events each year to help farmers and ranchers better their work. It has also embraced new media. About 85,000 farmers get up to nine text messages a day about issues such as market values and the weather.
“The premise behind Farm Journal Media when it started is still what we stand by today, and that is serving farmers and ranchers with practical information to make their jobs easier and better,” Weber said. “We call that service journalism.”
To carry on these messages Weber and Farm Journal Media started a scholarship and internship program for LSC students. The programs are meant to raise awareness among students about how rewarding a career in ag media can be.
“I’m so excited to have my degree and I wanted to connect my name with the department somehow,” Weber said. “But the overriding aspect is that I really want to give back and expose students to this type of career path that has given me so much fulfillment.”
Coincidentally, Weber’s daughter is actually set to graduate this May from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He said he was excited four years ago when one of his children wanted to become a Badger and the moment is even better now that they are graduating so close together.
“She tried to get me to walk with her but I thought it through and decided this is her time and not mine,” he added. “All of her friends want to throw me a graduation party. She fell in love with Madison when she visited years ago and is my little Cheesehead now.”
His passion for spreading the word about service journalism has taken him across the country to give keynotes at universities and also engage with students and communities in outreach events focused on communicating the importance of farming and where food comes from. His keynote at the LSC student and donor recognition reception was titled “Service Journalism: Take Your Seat at the Table.”
“Service journalism is the relentless pursuit of practical information to make a profession better, which in this case is farming,” he said. “And it’s things I learned back in Agricultural Journalism all those years ago that got me into this. I learned how to think like the people I was trying to reach instead of working as an authoritarian who thinks they know more than their audience. It is those types of lessons that are important and are still taught in LSC today.”