Sunday, June 14, 2015

John Carroll, one of America's great editors, made us all better, and will continue to be an inspiration

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

The best tributes to the late John Carroll, one of America's greatest newspaper editors, will probably be written by people who worked with him—those whose journalism and careers he profoundly influenced and whose work benefited from what Wendell Rawls, who co-wrote their first Pulitzer Prize winner, called his "velvet touch, soft ear, careful tongue and steel spine."

Los Angeles Times photo by Wally Skalij
But many who weren't on the same payroll as John, including those of us who competed against him and his staffs, can feel after his tragic death that we really did work with him—in that great, collective cause that all journalists should feel: public service that improves communities, states, our nation and our world.

"Kentucky is a better place because of him," community-journalism specialist Liz Hansen, recently retired from Eastern Kentucky University, said of our friend on Facebook. That's one of the finest compliments that can be paid to a journalist, and John deserved it—for what he did for the Lexington Herald-Leader, for the newspaper's service area, for Eastern Kentucky and for the state's educational system, including the University of Kentucky, where I work.

If there was a sacred cow in the Lexington news media, it was UK basketball, but John directed an investigation of payoffs in the program, and it won the newspaper its first Pulitzer Prize in 1986. That also cost the paper advertising and circulation, and a gunshot through the pressroom windows amid protest rallies and a bomb threat, but the university changed its ways.

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.

1 comment:

Ben Gish said...


Very nice piece on John Carroll. I hadn’t even realized he was ill. He and his wife drove to Whitesburg a couple of years ago while he was working on a book that I dealt with his involvement with UK basketball/Pulitzer. Without getting too far into it, he was retracing Sam Bowie’s steps to Fleming-Neon and the job Bowie and other UK players held on a strip mine around the time Bowie suffered a major leg injury, apparently the result of Bowie's being young and having fun on a mini bike, though whether he got the injury in that manner was never known for sure.

At any rate, Mr. Carroll and his wife invited me out for what ended up being a long dinner/meeting at the Courthouse Cafe in Whitesburg. He genuinely appreciated the help and information I gave to him and treated me as if he had known me for my entire life. I will forever be grateful that I was able to thank him on that night for the work he did in trying to get the Pulitzer Prize people to recognize my parents for their “lifetime achievement.” I will also never forget that he was very proud — and rightfully so — of his family, particularly his son’s high-level involvement in organizing the Lollapalooza Festival and other big-time concert events across the U.S.

Upon hearing of his death early Sunday afternoon I couldn’t help but reflect on just how vital he helped make the Lexington Herald-Leader to the people of eastern Kentucky in a very short time. And with the Courier-Journal answering the Herald-Leader’s gains here tit-for-tat, it made for a period of daily newspaper coverage in this region that seems mind-blowing by today’s standards. (In the Sixties and Seventies, the only daily papers in Letcher County were The Courier-Journal and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.)

In large part because of Mr. Carroll’s efforts, the coverage got to be so good the Associated Press saw fit to open a bureau in Pikeville. Sadly, hardly any of what Mr. Carroll helped create exists today. It's hard to find the Herald-Leader on newsstands and even harder to have it delivered to your home. The once-mighty and great protector or our region, The Courier-Journal, can't be found here at all, and while the Pikeville AP bureau has never been officially closed, it hasn't been staffed in many years. And we wonder why daily newspapers are in trouble today?