Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
|Los Angeles Times photo by Wally Skalij|
John's reaction to all that summed up the difference in journalism and other trades: “In marketing, the idea is to manage the number of complaints down to zero. That’s fine if you’re making toasters, but a newspaper that gets no complaints is a dead newspaper.”
Earlier, when John arrived to take the editorship of the Lexington Herald in 1979, I was a bureau reporter for The Courier-Journal, which covered all of Kentucky from its Louisville base and enjoyed strong circulation in much of Eastern Kentucky, where the Herald and its afternoon sister, The Lexington Leader, were punching below their weight. But the Knight-Ridder chain, which had brought John in from The Philadelphia Inquirer, put new emphasis on covering the rural region at a time when we started sending it an early edition without late sports—even UK ballgames.
Under John and Publisher Creed Black, a native of Harlan in southeastern Kentucky, the merged Herald-Leader became a real force in Eastern Kentucky, and that was especially important in 1989, when the state Supreme Court ruled the state school system unconstitutional—in a case brought by poor, rural districts. The Herald-Leader's response was an investigative package called "Cheating Our Children," which turned over some long-stuck rocks in the region, as John might have said, and had as much or more impact on the education-reform legislation as The Courier-Journal did. Rick Edmonds recalls John's five rules for investigative projects.
When John left to edit The Baltimore Sun in 1991, I was The Courier-Journal's political writer, and I can admit now that it was a bit of a relief to see him go. He knew how to recruit good people and manage them in ways that produced a newspaper that was in many ways fully competitive with the larger Courier-Journal. It certainly was with me. In those days, the front line of Kentucky's journalism wars was on Shelby Street Frankfort, in the shadow of the state Capitol, where our bureau's address was 614-B and the Herald-Leader's was 612-A. John's successors maintained that competitive spirit, and both papers benefited from it; Kentuckians also benefited from it, especially those in the far reaches of the state, far from the major cities.
The last decade's financial pressures on newspapers mean that rural coverage and circulation have greatly declined, at papers in Kentucky and elsewhere. Now my job is helping the smaller, rural news outlets pick up the slack. John Carroll will continue to inspire us.