Led Times to 13 Pulitzers

JOHN CAR­ROLL , 1942 - 2015

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Elaine Woo

Barely a week be­fore the 2003 re­call elec­tion that tar­geted Cal­i­for­nia’s gover­nor, a team of Times jour­nal­ists led by Edi­tor John S. Car­roll put the fin­ish­ing touches on a story that they knew could be a tin­der­box. They were right. When the pa­per re­ported — five days be­fore vot­ers went to the polls — that ac­tor-turned-GOP gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger had groped women, con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tors ac­cused the pa­per of tim­ing the story to help Demo­cratic Gov. Gray Davis. Although Sch­warzeneg­ger won the elec­tion and ad­mit­ted that he had “be­haved badly” to­ward women, thou­sands of read­ers can­celed their sub­scrip­tions.

Car­roll met the crit­i­cism head-on.

“One of our goals is to do more in­ves­tiga­tive re­port­ing,” he wrote in a com­men­tary pub­lished af­ter the elec­tion. “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, a coura­geous edi­tor whose in­stinct for the big story and un­re­lent­ing fo­cus on the craft of jour­nal­ism guided the Los An­ge­les Times to new heights, in­clud­ing a record 13 Pulitzer Prizes in five years, died Sun­day in Lex­ing­ton, Ky., from the de­gen­er­a­tive brain dis­ease Creutzfeldt-Jakob. He was 73.

Car­roll joined The Times in 2000 af­ter a dis­tin­guished ca­reer at the Philadel­phia Inquirer, Ken­tucky’s Lex­ing­ton Her­ald-Leader and the Bal­ti­more Sun.

At The Times, he fo­cused on in­ves­tiga­tive re­port­ing and beat cov­er­age, re­designed sec­tions and changed the mix of columnists, adding one, Dan Neil, who won a Pulitzer for crit­i­cism for writ­ing about cars.

Of the 13 Pulitzers the pa­per won un­der Car­roll, five were awarded in 2004. It was the largest num­ber The Times ever won in a sin­gle year and the sec­ond-largest in the his­tory of the prizes.

Times Edi­tor Da­van Ma­haraj said of Car­roll: “Our con­tin­ued suc­cess at the Los An­ge­les Times has been built on one key thing he preached: that pro­duc­ing great jour­nal­ism was eas­ier with team­work and would carry us fur­ther than what­ever we would ac­com­plish as in­di­vid­u­als.”

“He was one of the most sto­ried ed­i­tors of his gen­er­a­tion,” said New York Times Ex­ec­u­tive Edi­tor Dean Ba­quet, who served as Car­roll’s man­ag­ing edi­tor at the Los An­ge­les Times and later suc­ceeded him as edi­tor of the pa­per. “He knew how to de­liver the big, big sto­ries.”

Among them were ex­am­i­na­tions of pa­tients’ deaths at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Med­i­cal Cen­ter, which led to its closing. He also over­saw in­ves­tiga­tive se­ries on fa­tal crashes in­volv­ing the Har­rier mil­i­tary air­plane and the U.S. Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ap­proval of un­safe drugs.

The sto­ries ref lected his credo: “Write about life and death,” as he put it.

“Ev­ery place he went he gave peo­ple per­mis­sion to have a bit of swag­ger, to be­lieve in them­selves,” said Nor­man Pearlstine, a close friend and chief con­tent of­fi­cer of Time Inc. “He just en­cour­aged peo­ple to stretch, yet [he] would be that care­ful last reader whose notes on a story peo­ple trea­sured.”

Car­roll took over The Times af­ter a dif­fi­cult pe­riod, when the pa­per was strug­gling to re­cover from a scan­dal in­volv­ing a spe­cial edi­tion of its Sun­day mag­a­zine pub­lished un­der a profit-shar­ing agree­ment with Sta­ples Cen­ter, the sub­ject of the is­sue. The ar­range­ment cast doubt on the pa­per’s in­de­pen­dence.

With a gen­teel man­ner that be­lied his tenac­ity, Car­roll moved quickly to re­store the pa­per’s cred­i­bil­ity and rep­u­ta­tion, hir­ing top ed­i­tors from other pa­pers and push­ing re­porters to dig deep with­out wor­ry­ing about who might be of­fended.

Car­roll’s ten­ure co­in­cided with grow­ing fi­nan­cial dis­tress for Amer­i­can news­pa­pers and mount­ing de­mands to cut costs from Chicago-based Tri­bune Co., which had bought The Times a month be­fore his ap­point­ment. Adamant that “open-ended” cuts would dam­age the qual­ity of the pa­per, Car­roll re­signed in 2005 af­ter a lit­tle more than five years at the helm.

“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, who worked un­der Car­roll at two pa­pers.

His laser-like fo­cus on the craft of jour­nal­ism in­stilled de­vo­tion.

“John was the most charm­ing, inspiring and ex­as­per­at­ing edi­tor I ever worked for,” said Julie Mar­quis, who edited the King/Drew se­ries, which was hon­ored with the Pulitzer Gold Medal for public ser­vice in 2005. “He’d put you through 30 drafts and then say in his gen­tle­manly, South­ern way, ‘I think we’re mak­ing progress here.’ ... But you had to ad­mit Draft 30 was a heck of a lot bet­ter than Draft 29, so you kept go­ing, des­per­ate to please him.

“Writ­ers gave him ev­ery ounce of their tal­ent, ef­fort and re­spect.”

John Sawyer Car­roll was born in New York City on Jan. 23, 1942, and spent his early child­hood in Win­ston-Salem, N.C. He was one of four chil­dren of Wal­lace Car­roll, the edi­tor and pub­lisher of the Win­ston-Salem Jour­nal and Sen­tinel, and the for­mer Mar­garet Sawyer.

When Car­roll was about 13, his fa­ther ac­cepted a job in the New York Times bureau in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and moved the fam­ily there. Richard Masland, who grew up with Car­roll, de­scribed his friend as a medi­ocre stu­dent who en­joyed mid­night raids on auto junk­yards and other mis­chief.

But, Masland noted, he “was never the front man. He let other peo­ple ac­tu­ally do the rais­ing of hell.” That trait was use­ful as an edi­tor, when he guided re­porters into con­tro­ver­sial sto­ries. “He had that charisma you have to have to get other peo­ple to do things,” Masland said.

At Haver­ford Col­lege in Penn­syl­va­nia, Car­roll’s pen­chant for mis­be­hav­ior got him tossed into jail with two bud­dies af­ter a mis­guided ef­fort to shake hands with base­ball leg­end Wil­lie Mays dur­ing a Phillies-Gi­ants game.

The prob­lem “was that Mays was stand­ing in cen­ter field when John and his fel­low ine­bri­ates de­cided to shake his hand,” said Pearlstine, a Haver­ford class­mate.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing in 1963 with a de­gree in English, Car­roll was hired as a re­porter at the Prov­i­dence Jour­nal in Rhode Is­land. He left in 1964 to join the Army, serv­ing part of his time writ­ing for a base news­pa­per in Alaska.

In 1966, af­ter com­plet­ing his mil­i­tary ser­vice, he joined the staff of the Bal­ti­more Sun, which sent him to Viet­nam to cover the war. He scooped fel­low re­porters with a story say­ing that the U.S. mil­i­tary was aban­don­ing the Marine base at Khe Sanh, where it had fought one of the long­est and blood­i­est bat­tles of the war.

The story nearly got him thrown out of the coun­try.

Con­tend­ing that Car­roll had vi­o­lated a news black­out on the evac­u­a­tion of Khe Sanh, U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials threat­ened to yank his cre­den­tials. That pro­voked such an out­cry in the press corps that “the mil­i­tary backed off and re­duced John’s pun­ish­ment to a one-month sus­pen­sion,” re­called for­mer New York Times Man­ag­ing Edi­tor Gene Roberts, who at the time was the pa­per’s Saigon bureau chief.

“John got a story out that badly needed to be told,” Roberts said. “He comes over as sort of laid­back, gen­tle­manly in man­ner, all of which is true. But that con­ceals a de­ter­mi­na­tion to get the story — and get the story out.”

In 1972, af­ter re­port­ing stints for the Sun in the Mid­dle East and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Car­roll was re­cruited to join the Philadel­phia Inquirer by Roberts, who had be­come the pa­per’s edi­tor.

Be­gin­ning as night city edi­tor, he rose to metropoli­tan edi­tor. He was deeply in­volved in shap­ing a se­ries on bru­tal­ity by Philadel­phia po­lice of­fi­cers that won a Pulitzer for public ser­vice in 1978.

At the time, ac­cord­ing to Roberts, in­ves­tiga­tive re­port­ing was not a pri­or­ity at many pa­pers. “It was on the back burner,” Roberts said. “John put it on the front burner.”

In 1979, Car­roll left the Sun to be­come edi­tor of the Lex­ing­ton Her­ald-Leader. He led that pa­per to a Pulitzer in 1986 for a se­ries ex­pos­ing cash pay­ments to Uni­ver­sity of Ken­tucky bas­ket­ball play­ers in vi­o­la­tion of NCAA rules. The cov­er­age re­sulted in ad­ver­tis­ing and cir­cu­la­tion boy­cotts, protest ral­lies and a bomb threat but also brought changes in the uni­ver­sity’s poli­cies.

In 1991, af­ter nearly a dozen years in Ken­tucky, Car­roll re­turned to the Sun, this time as its top edi­tor. He guided a Pulitzer­win­ning se­ries on the deadly busi­ness of scrap­ping ob­so­lete war­ships, called “ship­break­ing.” He also over­saw a project that sent Sun re­porters to south­ern Su­dan to in­ves­ti­gate the coun­try’s slave trade.

At the Sun, Car­roll had a prom­i­nent critic in David Simon, a crime re­porter who later cre­ated the HBO se­ries “The Wire.”

Simon took a buy­out in 1995 when the staff was down­sized in a cost-cut­ting move. Much of the last sea­son of “The Wire,” in 2008, fea­tured a char­ac­ter based on Car­roll who had lit­tle re­gard for vet­eran Sun tal­ent and a zeal for win­ning prizes that warped cov­er­age of com­plex is­sues.

“Any­one who was there knows the truth,” said Ma­ri­mow, who was the Sun’s man­ag­ing edi­tor un­der Car­roll. “And I think the truth is that a news­pa­per that was some­what in­ert in the late ’80s and early ’90s was re­sus­ci­tated un­der the lead­er­ship of John Car­roll.”

No one dis­putes that Car­roll — who served on the Pulitzer board for nearly a decade and chaired it in 2002 — had his eyes on the awards at ev­ery pa­per he led. “His rep­u­ta­tion was as a prize ma­chine,” said Ba­quet, who didn’t know Car­roll be­fore he agreed to join him at the Los An­ge­les Times.

His fo­cus on win­ning jour­nal­ism’s top honor “was his way of rais­ing the stan­dards for re­port­ing and writ­ing all over the news­room,” said Leo Wolin­sky, a Times deputy man­ag­ing edi­tor un­der Car­roll.

Car­roll was of­ten de­scribed by as­so­ciates as “old school,” which some saw as a weak­ness, par­tic­u­larly in re­gard to the dig­i­tal news revo­lu­tion.

Be­fore his ar­rival, The Times had be­gun re­shap­ing its news­room to meet the chal­lenges posed by the In­ter­net. Like other ed­i­tors of his gen­er­a­tion, Car­roll was per­ceived as slow to grasp the mag­ni­tude of the change re­quired and dis­dain­ful of new me­dia’s in­cur­sions on print’s turf. “News­pa­pers dig up the news. Oth­ers repack­age it,” he told a gath­er­ing of news­pa­per ed­i­tors in 2006 af­ter leav­ing the pa­per.

At the same time, his fo­cus on news­pa­pers’ tra­di­tional mission — to be, in his words, “in­de­pen­dent, prin­ci­pled, ques­tion­ing, deep-dig­ging” pur­vey­ors of news — was, to a large de­gree, just the medicine the pa­per needed in the spring of 2000.

When he ar­rived that April, he found a news­room that was de­mor­al­ized by the Sta­ples con­tro­versy and wary of a fu­ture un­der Tri­bune, which had just paid $8.3 bil­lion to buy Times Mir­ror Co. from its long­time own­ers, the Chan­dler fam­ily. (Times Mir­ror also owned the Sun and other pa­pers.)

Be­fore Car­roll joined the pa­per, “we were at a col­lec­tive nadir from a morale stand­point,” said David Will­man, an in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C., bureau and Pulitzer win­ner. “John not only shored things up but took us to un­prece­dented heights. He steeled the op­er­a­tion with con­fi­dence.”

The new edi­tor’s first ma­jor move — lur­ing Ba­quet, one of the coun­try’s high­est-rank­ing African Amer­i­can ed­i­tors, from the New York Times, where he was na­tional edi­tor — buoyed the staff and, with the sup­port of Pub­lisher John P. Puerner, he set in mo­tion an over­haul. He not only re­placed many of the top ed­i­tors but shifted re­sources, largely dis­man­tling the pa­per’s Or­ange County ed­i­to­rial staff and closing sev­eral weekly sup­ple­ments while beef­ing up cov­er­age in other ar­eas, in­clud­ing in­ves­tiga­tive re­port­ing, out­door recre­ation and obit­u­ar­ies.

He was a hands-on edi­tor who liked noth­ing bet­ter than to wield his pen­cil on a story. For the big sto­ries, he pored over ev­ery word, some­times re-craft­ing the first few para­graphs and writ­ing cap­tions and head­lines. One of his best head­lines, con­ceived in the spur of a mo­ment, was for a story about the im­pact of a cer­tain drug on the porn in­dus­try. He wrote: “Lights, Cam­era, Vi­a­gra!”

Dis­pleased by lan­guage in a story about a Texas abor­tion bill, he wrote a memo cau­tion­ing sec­tion ed­i­tors to avoid po­lit­i­cal bias, say­ing that he did not want The Times to push a “lib­eral agenda.” He also scolded the staff for us­ing su­perla­tives — writ­ing that some­one or some­thing was “the best” or “the last” would bring a firm re­buke.

He was seen by some as be­ing too aloof from the busi­ness side of the pa­per, but Puerner, who was pub­lisher for most of Car­roll’s ten­ure, said this was an un­fair crit­i­cism.

“When we first met … he told me out­right, ‘Sit­ting in busi­ness meet­ings is not my fa­vorite. I’d rather be edit­ing the news­pa­per.’ I ac­cepted that,” Puerner said. “John couldn’t have been a bet­ter edi­tor for the L.A. Times at that point in time.”

In the end, Tri­bune’s de­mands to cut ex­pen­di­tures drove Car­roll away. A key mo­ment came in spring 2004, af­ter the pa­per had won five Pulitzers. As Times ed­i­tors and hon­orees gath­ered in New York to col­lect the awards, Tri­bune brass or­dered bud­get cuts.

Car­roll re­signed the fol­low­ing year.

“On the sur­face, it’s about cuts,” Car­roll later told the New Yorker. “But it’s also about as­pi­ra­tions for the pa­per and for jour­nal­ism it­self.”

The Times was Car­roll’s last news­pa­per. He went on to teach at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity’s Shoren­stein Cen­ter on the Me­dia, Pol­i­tics and Public Pol­icy and chaired the board of the News Lit­er­acy Project, a na­tional project teach­ing stu­dents how to be savvy con­sumers of in­for­ma­tion in the dig­i­tal age.

When he be­came ill, he was at work on a book in­spired by the Lex­ing­ton Her­ald-Leader se­ries about the Uni­ver­sity of Ken­tucky bas­ket­ball pay­outs.

He is sur­vived by his wife, Lee Car­roll; daugh­ters Maggie Vaughan and Katita Strath­mann; stepchil­dren Hus­ton Pow­ell, Griggs Pow­ell and Caro­line Pow­ell; sis­ters Mar­garet Car­roll, Posie Car­roll and Pa­tri­cia Car­roll; and nine grand­chil­dren.

‘Our con­tin­ued suc­cess … has been built on one key thing he preached: that pro­duc­ing great jour­nal­ism was eas­ier with team­work.’

— DA­VAN MA­HARAJ, Los An­ge­les Times edi­tor

‘John had … a real un­der­stand­ing that a news or­ga­ni­za­tion is there to serve the public — let the chips fall where they may.’

— WIL­LIAM MA­RI­MOW, Philadel­phia Inquirer Edi­tor ‘Ev­ery place he went he gave peo­ple per­mis­sion to have a bit of swag­ger, to be­lieve in them­selves.’

— NOR­MAN PEARLSTINE, chief con­tent of­fi­cer of Time Inc.

‘He knew how to de­liver the big, big sto­ries.’

— DEAN BA­QUET, New York Times ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor

Mel Mel­con Los An­ge­les Times

A GEN­TEEL, TE­NA­CIOUS EDI­TOR John Car­roll applauds af­ter the an­nounce­ment that Times re­porter Kim Mur­phy, right, had won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for in­ter­na­tional re­port­ing.

Anne Cu­sack Los An­ge­les Times

‘WRITE ABOUT LIFE AND DEATH’ Af­ter join­ing The Times in 2000, Car­roll fo­cused on in­ves­tiga­tive re­port­ing and beat cov­er­age,

re­designed sec­tions and changed the mix of columnists. He left the pa­per in 2005.

Bal­ti­more Sun

JOHN CAR­ROLL en­joys a drink on a boat off Hong Kong in 1969 be­fore head­ing to the Mid­dle East to re­port for the Bal­ti­more Sun.

Mel Mel­con

PUB­LISHER John Puerner and Car­roll cel­e­brate with oth­ers in the news­room af­ter the pa­per won two Pulitzer Prizes in 2005.


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