John Carroll was the respected eastern newspaper editor who the Tribune Company brought in to right the ship at the Los Angeles Times in 2000, after arranging with Chandler family dissidents to acquire the paper. Carroll put a new emphasis on investigative reporting and awards and led the Times to 13 Pulitzer prizes in five years. He died Sunday in Lexington, Ky., of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a degenerative and rare form of dementia. He was 73.
His former colleagues in Los Angeles and around the newspaper industry had been quietly aware of his fast-moving terminal illness.
Carroll was a successful editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Lexington Herald-Leader and the Baltimore Sun before being coaxed out of a planned semi-retirement to take over the LA Times. The paper had just been through the scandal over an unusual profit-sharing arrangement with the new arena in town, Staples Center, and a tumultuous era of change under CEO Mark Willes. Tribune wanted an accomplished editor from outside who could restore the Times' reputation for journalism and turned to Carroll. He brought in Dean Baquet from the New York Times to be managing editor and columnist Steve Lopez, changed the top editors of several desks and did away with the local suburban sections of the paper.
The 13 Pulitzers in a short time included four in 2004, the most the LA Times has ever won in a single year. "He was one of the most storied editors of his generation," said Baquet, Carroll's successor as editor of the LAT and now the top editor at the New York Times. "He knew how to deliver the big, big stories."
The Times leads its own obituary of Carroll with the stormiest story to run during his tenure: the report five days before the 2003 recall election revisiting old charges of groping, and adding some new allegations, against candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger. Republicans cried foul and Schwarzenegger went on to win. Carroll acknowledged that the timing on the final weekend of the campaign was not ideal, but he said the story wasn't done until then, and once finished, the disclosures needed to be put in the hands of voters before they voted. "At the risk of offending still more readers, I'll say that if you're put off by investigative reporting, this probably won't be the right newspaper for you in the years to come," Carroll said in a commentary during the controversy. He also had a previous motto: "A newspaper that gets no complaints is a dead newspaper.” In 2004, Carroll gave a speech that blasted the rise of Fox News and its style of partisan reporting.
Tribune's own issues and the industry-wide decline of newspaper readership and revenue led to pressures on Carroll to begin dismantling what he had built in Los Angeles, and he resigned after five years. "On the surface, it's about cuts," Carroll later told the New Yorker, per the LAT. "But it's also about aspirations for the paper and for journalism itself." His exit began a rapid turnover of editors as Tribune descended into its Sam Zell years and took the Times with it. (Then there was 2008.) Carroll was followed by Baquet, who left rather than make cuts that Chicago ordered; Jim O'Shea, fired for refusing to make cuts; Russ Stanton, who shifted the paper toward the smaller size and increased digital focus that the revenue picture called for; and the current editor in chief, Davan Maharaj. The LA Times staff is now less than half the size it was in Carroll's years, it is a renter in the downtown building it used to own, and the paper itself is owned by a spinoff of Tribune. But this year the Times won two Pulitzers, for writing about the drought by Diana Marcum and television commentary by Mary McNamara.
"John had great courage, quiet but consistent determination and a real understanding that a news organization is there to serve the public — let the chips fall where they may and never waver when it comes to telling the truth," said Philadelphia Inquirer Editor William Marimow, a longtime colleague, in the LAT obit by Elaine Woo.
From the New York Times obituary:
Though he lacked the celebrity, and swagger, of The Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, Mr. Carroll, like Mr. Bradlee, was regarded as one of the most influential newspaper editors of his era. “He was able to combine a genuine integrity with a passion for news, an ability to work well with talented and unruly journalists and the courage to do what he felt was the right thing to do,” Alex S. Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, said in an interview.
Outside the newsroom, Mr. Carroll was an eloquent and unapologetic defender of the ideals of journalism at a time of revolutionary change in the media industry. He saw editors and reporters almost as public servants and a free press as essential to a self-governing nation. In recent years, he watched with growing concern as the changing dynamics of the news business threatened basic journalistic values like deep reporting and patient persistence — rock-turning, as he called it.
“He believed big newspapers should take on the biggest subjects,” Mr. Baquet said. “Bad hospitals. Bad airplanes. International slavery. Nothing was too ambitious for John’s newsrooms.”
I worked for Carroll for just a brief time in 2000 before being recruited to open the Los Angeles bureau of the Industry Standard magazine. He was a great editor who was not quick to see the journalism potential of the Internet or its promise to bring newspaper reporting to a new generation of readers. But he inadvertently played a big role in the start up of LA Observed a few years later.
The first month that I began the blog, he wrote a lengthy memo to his staff complaining that the paper's news pages showed liberal bias in coverage of a Texas abortion controversy. The memo was unusual for Carroll and created quite a bit of discussion within the newsroom. Someone sent it to me. After consulting with senior journalists who I respected, about the ethics of putting internal memos on the web, I posted Carroll's note. It proved a bit of a sensation, especially on the political right, because it was news: the editor of a major paper that is regularly accused of political bias, addressing the issue head-on to his staff. The memo had internal impact at the paper, and had the potential to shape the coverage that readers saw. I felt that media blogs exist in part to bring some needed transparency to the mysterious processes of newsrooms, and after that one it became my practice to post relevant newsroom job postings and other memos. The Times, of course, later began posting some memos itself to the web, and now has the PR staff alert chosen reporters when they want something out. Though funny enough, I was told just last week by a veteran LAT editor: "The masthead is very sensitive about what appears in LA Observed… There has been a longstanding policy, going back to Russ Stanton, that some directives are never put in writing but only communicated orally to keep them out of LAO."