Lessons of a Legacy: Five Editors on John Carroll

August 2, 2005
Category: Uncategorized

By Gregory Favre

John Carroll is leaving the newsroom. And this craft we share is diminished by his departure.

John’s last day editor of the Los Angeles Times is August 15, then he’ll take a little time “to loaf” before deciding what comes next.

He left a legacy of excellence, at the Times, The Baltimore Sun, the Lexington Herald-Leader, The Philadelphia Inquirer and all the other places he graced with his presence. And he left with class, no angry parting shots, no excessive rants about the bottom-line push that is driving so much of what we do and don’t do, no finger pointing.

He left with good words about his successor, Dean Baquet, the man he brought to L.A. to be his managing editor, and about the Times‘ staff and the excellent journalism he knows it will continue to practice.

So just what made John Carroll, the son of a distinguished newspaper editor and publisher, the late Wallace Carroll, a strong leader? What in his makeup made it possible for him to lead staffs to a stack of Pulitzers, as well, of course, to the kind of daily coverage that keeps readers in touch with their community and the rest of the world? And what did he teach those who worked with him to make them better?

I sought out several news leaders who have worked closely with John in pursuit of a word picture of John Carroll as a leader.

They are:

  • Tim Kelly, publisher of the Lexington Herald-Leader who was managing editor there under John.
  • Bill Marimow, managing editor of NPR who was John’s ME in Baltimore.
  • Marty Kaiser, editor of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, who was deputy ME in Baltimore.
  • David Holwerk, editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee who held the same post in Lexington.
  • Wendell (Sonny) Rawls, the new director of international investigations at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, who, along with Acel Moore, won a Pulitzer in Philadelphia under John’s direct supervision.

Here’s what they said.

Rawls on Carroll: “He had a velvet touch, a soft ear, a careful tongue and a steel spine. You always had a sense that he was working on your side, not behind your back, and that he had the courage to stand with you, to stand for what was right, for what was in the best interests of his people and his newspaper and that we were all doing work that mattered and could, would and should make a difference in the lives of our fellow citizens. He seemed invariably to be a voice of reason and calm and assurance.”

“I learned from John that it’s important to be decisive and tough when being tough and being decisive are required.”Kaiser on Carroll: “He had incredible focus on things he thought were important. He wouldn’t give up easily. For example, his focus was often on great projects and impact hires. That is how he spent much of his time. He seemed to always know where he was going with great confidence that he would get there. Editors today seem to be overwhelmed by demands on their time and energy. At times it is like we are under attack by thousands of little gnats. John was able to ignore the clutter –- the gnats — and keep focused. He could ignore the details of stuff he felt didn’t matter. He was good at delegating things he didn’t think were important or would take time from where he wanted to be focused. He understands that what is important is what is in the newspaper, good reporting and telling great stories. I think of his ability to focus when it seems like there are a million things that need to get done with everyone wanting my attention. He was relentless in moving toward his goals, but he always did it calmly and firmly.”

Marimow on Carroll: “When I was reporting, I always felt that John was keenly enthusiastic about a good story and 100 percent supportive of the reporters on The Inquirer city desk. When John was metro editor, working with Jonathan Neumann and me on stories about police violence in Philadelphia, he was tireless in helping us refine and shape our stories and lobbying to get us however much space was required to tell the stories well.

“John inspired the staffs of The Inquirer and The Sun by his intense interest in major stories and, equally important, by generously giving his time to staffers. He spent hours working with the copy desk and the news desk to ensure that the headlines were eye-catching and that the play was appropriate. (By the way, John is an A-plus headline writer. In describing a Maryland boot camp for juvenile offenders, John wrote the memorable headline in a very tight layout: “From ‘Yo’ to ‘Sir’ “)

“He made it clear what he valued. And his remarkable attention to detail on a major project was really something to watch.”“I learned from John that it’s important to be decisive and tough when being tough and being decisive are required. This pertained not only to the editing of stories with flaws but also — and perhaps more importantly — on key personnel decisions. Overall, I think that John showed me — rather than told me — that on matters of principle, the newspaper’s editor can’t compromise. Because we hold public officials to high standards of conduct, we have an obligation to hold our staffs to the same high standards of accuracy, thoroughness, fairness, and — most important of all — honesty.”

Kelly on Carroll: “John is first and foremost an excellent journalist. Producing great journalism begat more great journalism and so on wherever he went — be it Philadelphia, Lexington, Baltimore or Los Angeles. That he was able to do it from more of a line editor’s seat in Philadelphia and then from the editor’s seat in a mid-sized market, a metro market and a national market is all the more remarkable. He had an unrelenting focus on the kind of journalists he wanted to populate his papers and the kind of journalism he wanted his people and his papers to produce.

“He made it clear what he valued. And his remarkable attention to detail on a major project was really something to watch. Here’s the editor of the paper making sure every word of a cutline or a drop head was right, not just the main headline or the lede. It had to be right.

Holwerk on Carroll: “I should begin by saying that I literally owe my career to John. When he arrived at the Lexington Herald, I was a copy editor — not a particularly good copy editor, but competent, which was more than could be said for some of my colleagues. It is impossible to overstate how bad that newspaper was at that point (1979). John looked at some of my clips from my career as a free-lance writer and concluded that I would be more valuable in another role, so he made me a state capital reporter, and I was off.

 

“John’s foremost quality as a leader is his ability to spot talent and put talented people in the right jobs. He did it with me and I saw him do it with numerous other people. As for his finest leadership quality, I’d have to say it was his calmness. Nothing ever seemed to flummox him, and as a result people who worked for him always had the sense that they would succeed and do great things, even if they were doing something they didn’t know how to do.”

Before we close, let’s revisit some of John’s own words from a speech he made in 1999 when he was named Editor of the Year by the National Press Foundation:

Today, if you read the regional and local press — the papers that reach most Americans — you’ll sense something missing. That crucial ingredient is faith — a widespread confidence that what we do matters. Today’s journalists are constantly being reminded that they are functionaries of business, yet they know in their hearts that the stock price is a hollow god. They believe — perhaps quixotically, under some owners — that they work for the entire community, not just the stockholders. They sense that newspaper work can, and should be, a wonderfully satisfying and entertaining way to engage the world, and that in a free society there is no mightier sword than the written word.

John, loaf a while and please come on back.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect title for Sonny Rawls.