In 1985, Kelly Lecker was named the top speller in the Badger State Spelling Bee, sponsored by the Wisconsin State Journal.
Now her love for words, facts and journalism is bringing the Wisconsin native back to that same news organization.
On Thursday, Lee Enterprises named Lecker the next executive editor of the State Journal, effective April 11. Lecker, 49, currently serves as both the interim editor and the managing/investigative editor of the Columbus Dispatch in Columbus, Ohio.
“I grew up reading the State Journal, and I’ve always had a lot of respect for the paper and the newsroom’s ability to keep Madison informed,” said Lecker, whose family still lives in northeastern Wisconsin.
Lecker succeeds Jason Adrians, who in January was promoted to the position of vice president-local news for Lee Enterprises.
“Kelly is an excellent journalist, a fantastic leader and is exactly what the State Journal needs in its next executive editor,” Adrians said in a statement.
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“She’s relentlessly positive and forward looking when it comes to growing audiences and serving communities, and her experience with investigative journalism and digital content innovation make her an ideal fit for the challenges ahead.”
Marc Chase, Lee’s Midwest news director, called Lecker “a proven leader in a major metro market.” The city of Columbus has a population of about 879,000.
“We’re lucky to have Kelly take the helm of one of the finest news organizations in Lee Enterprises,” Chase said. “Her drive for relevant investigative journalism will help direct an already strong news compass in Madison.”
A graduate of UW-Stevens Point, Lecker joined the Dispatch as a reporter in 2004 and has served in several roles there, including as metro editor and digital news editor. She previously worked at The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, and the Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
In Columbus, Lecker’s focus has been, “What can we do that best serves the community — and let’s do that really well,” she said. “I take all my roles seriously, and love them all, but my job as investigative editor is really meaningful because we can really dig into and shine a light on injustices and better help people understand the issues.”
In recent years, Lecker’s staff has conducted investigations into the misuse of funds by leaders of the Columbus Zoo and charges of systemic racism at a nonprofit health system. Early in her reporting career, Lecker traveled to Mexico to work on an award-winning project about a town largely supported by money sent home by migrant family members working in Ohio.
More recently, the Dispatch has worked to expand its coverage to every community in the city, she said. Every month, reporters would work out of a library in a different neighborhood, typically in areas that had been under-covered by the newspaper, as part of a project dubbed the “mobile newsroom.”
Lecker grew up on a dairy farm in Cecil, where her mother still lives today. After morning farm chores, Lecker attended school in Bonduel, known for its many state spelling bee champions. In middle and high school she played flute and tenor saxophone, basketball and softball, was on the debate team and was a longtime member of 4-H.
A Wisconsin State Journal story from 1985 described Lecker as a “cool-headed seventh-grader” who studied spelling bee words for two hours after school every day with a teacher and again with her parents at home.
“The State Journal sent me to the National Spelling Bee when I was 12 years old, and that had a huge impact on my life at that time,” Lecker said.
The exposure and travel to the national bee outside Washington, D.C., was thrilling, she said, “but really, what was impressed upon me was that there was so much celebration around academics and the written word. That really helped me on my academic path to become a journalist.”
At UW-Stevens Point, Lecker majored in journalism and Spanish and minored in military science.
“I knew a lot of people who joined the military after high school,” Lecker said. “It was very important in my education because it taught me about leadership and team-building and things that I use in my job today.”
In her spare time, Lecker likes to go kayaking, paddle boarding, scuba diving and wreck diving in the Great Lakes.
“I love football,” said Lecker, who will move to Madison with her “pandemic puppy,” a German shepherd mix named Fezzik.
In her new position, Lecker said, she hopes to strengthen the State Journal’s already deep ties to the community.
“I really think that it’s important to reflect the community and cover all parts of the city. I’d really like to get to know the community and hear from them what they think of the paper, what’s going on in their neighborhoods and what we should do more of and less of.”
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