Local Obituaries

John Carroll, a 'truly great' editor who transformed the Herald-Leader, dies from rare disease

After Dan Neil, left, won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for criticism, Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll, right, joined in the celebration. During Carroll's tenure, the paper won 13 Pulitzers. Carroll previously was editor of the Herald-Leader and was at the helm when it won its first Pulitzer, in 1986.
After Dan Neil, left, won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for criticism, Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll, right, joined in the celebration. During Carroll's tenure, the paper won 13 Pulitzers. Carroll previously was editor of the Herald-Leader and was at the helm when it won its first Pulitzer, in 1986. Los Angeles Times File Photo

John Carroll, who helped transform the Lexington Herald-Leader into a newspaper recognized for excellence as it exposed problems and drove discussion of education and other issues in Kentucky, died Sunday in Lexington.

He was 73.

Carroll, who went on to lead the newsrooms of The Baltimore Sun and the Los Angeles Times as they won more than a dozen Pulitzer Prizes, had been diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The degenerative brain disorder is marked by rapidly progressive dementia, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

The disease occurs in only about 300 people a year in the United States, but it is always fatal. The cause is unknown in most cases, according to the institute.

Carroll was editor of the Lexington Herald from 1979 to 1983, when the paper merged with the Lexington Leader to become the Herald-Leader, which he then led until 1991.

Under Carroll, the Herald-Leader won several national awards for journalism, including its first Pulitzer Prize. The 1986 award honored an investigation of payoffs in the University of Kentucky basketball program.

The paper also was a finalist for the top award in journalism five other times under Carroll.

"I think John was one of probably a half-dozen truly great editors of the last 50 years in America," said Timothy M. Kelly, who succeeded Carroll as editor of the Herald-Leader. "Excellence followed John everywhere he went."

Carroll's legacy lives on in Kentucky, particularly in improved education, said Al Smith, a veteran newspaperman who hosted Kentucky Educational Television's Comment on Kentucky public-affairs program for more than 30 years.

The newspaper campaigned for better education under Carroll's leadership, culminating in a series of stories in 1989 called "Cheating Our Children," which documented political abuses in the state's public schools and the tax system used to support them.

"Each installment was like a shell fired at the wall of apathy and neglect and ignorance and political corruption and lack of respect for learning that really held Kentucky back for so long," Smith said of the series.

The stories helped push legislative approval of the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990, then considered a national landmark in school reform. The state's schools have since improved markedly.

Before Carroll's time as editor, the locally owned Herald and Leader were parochial papers with little punch, observers said.

The papers had largely ignored the civil-rights movement in Lexington in the 1960s, and the impression among reporters was that influential people could get stories killed, said Beverly Fortune, who worked at the Herald in the 1960s before moving to the Lexington bureau of The (Louisville) Courier-Journal.

"They didn't want to upset advertisers," Fortune said of the owners of the Lexington papers. "Quality journalism was not a priority."

That changed after Knight Newspapers — which later merged with Ridder Publications to become Knight Ridder — bought the local papers in 1973.

No sacred cows

In 1977, Creed C. Black, a Kentucky native who had worked at newspapers around the country, took over as publisher in Lexington. Black was impatient to improve the Herald and the Leader, and he hired Carroll to come to Lexington in 1979 to help do it.

Newspapers were flush in the 1980s, and Lexington was growing. With the support of Knight Ridder, Black and Carroll were able to make significant improvements, including construction of a new office and printing center. The newspaper added reporters in Lexington, Frankfort and Eastern Kentucky, significantly increased circulation and expanded its coverage reach.

The Herald-Leader also began more aggressive coverage and commentary on a range of issues, including government accountability and coal industry practices.

"Really what happened was the Herald-Leader became a regional paper for about half the state rather than simply being a Lexington paper," Carroll said in a December 2001 interview. "Part of that was because the economy of the area was good. Part of it was building the plant, (which meant) later deadlines, better printing. And part of it was we built the staff. We added numbers and we added quality."

The paper won national awards under Carroll for public service, investigative reporting, defending freedom of information, fighting illiteracy, improving race relations and covering the horse industry. It also became a significant competitor to the Louisville paper, which had long been dominant in the state.

The late Robert Sexton, then executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, said in 1991 that Carroll had had a profound effect on journalism in Kentucky, and on the state.

"He's clearly made Kentucky a two-newspaper state," Sexton said at the time. "He has put the Herald-Leader in a leadership role in making education the issue of the decade and has been a consistent voice for getting Kentucky moving on several fronts."

The paper showed that it had no more sacred cows with a 1985 investigation of the legendary University of Kentucky's men's basketball program.

After months of digging by reporters Jeffrey Marx and Michael York, the newspaper published a series called "Playing Above the Rules," which exposed improper cash payoffs and gifts to UK players, and recruiting abuses elsewhere.

Then, as now, UK men's basketball was practically a religion for many people in Kentucky, and fans excoriated the paper.

Hundreds canceled their subscription. Advertisers boycotted. People rallied against the paper and made angry calls to talk-radio hosts. Someone shot into the pressroom, and there was a bomb threat.

Carroll, the force behind the investigation, was unflappable as usual, Marx said.

"John didn't flinch beforehand, he didn't flinch during, and he didn't flinch afterward," Marx said.

The 1986 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting that the series won was the first Pulitzer for any Kentucky paper other than The Courier-Journal.

A top reporter

Carroll, the son of newspaperman Wallace Carroll, grew up in North Carolina and started his career in journalism in 1963 as a reporter for the Providence Journal-Bulletin in Rhode Island.

After a stint in the Army, he worked for the Baltimore Sun as a correspondent in Vietnam during the war, then in the Middle East and at the White House.

Gene Roberts was a reporter for The New York Times in Vietnam and knew Carroll there.

"He was an exceptionally good reporter," said Roberts, who later became editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Carroll ran afoul of the U.S. military in Vietnam by publishing a story on plans to abandon the Marine base at Khe Sanh.

Military authorities charged that he had violated an agreement that required embargoes on stories about troop movements, and they took away his credentials.

But Roberts said Carroll did not violate the embargo. The story was not news to enemy soldiers because they could see from the surrounding hills that the United States was dismantling the base.

Roberts said Carroll thought the Army was trying to conceal the closing of a base that it had argued only months before was vital. He was right to publish the story, Roberts said.

Roberts hired Carroll as an editor at the Inquirer in 1972.

Carroll oversaw a series of stories on abuses by police that won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1978, and he headed the paper's Pulitzer-winning coverage of the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in Pennsylvania.

Bill Marimow, who worked on the Pulitzer-winning stories on police abuses, said Carroll was a great editor in part because he had been a top reporter, so he had a good understanding of what it was like to try to dig out stories.

"I think he really understood what it felt like to be in the trenches," said Marimow, who later was managing editor under Carroll in Baltimore and is now editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Marimow also said Carroll was more adept than other editors at seeing the potential big picture on stories.

Marimow cited a series that the Baltimore Sun published in 1997, when Carroll was editor, about pollution and injuries to workers who broke up old ships for scrap.

A reporter had turned in a story about a World War II ship being dismantled. The story had information about asbestos being dumped in the harbor, Marimow said.

"John immediately thought to himself, 'This has worldwide implications,'" Marimow said.

Carroll asked reporters to take a broader look around the country and overseas. They documented widespread problems in a series that won the 1998 Pulitzer for investigative reporting.

And Marimow said Carroll's enthusiasm for good stories was irrepressible.

"John absolutely loved and reveled in a good story," he said.

Carroll, who moved to the Baltimore paper from the Herald-Leader in 1991, was chosen by the National Press Foundation as editor of the year in 1998.

'Great leadership'

In 2000, he took over as editor of the Los Angeles Times.

The paper was going through a difficult time because of a special section it had published the year before on the opening of the Staples Center, the city's downtown sports arena. The paper had shared revenue from the section with the arena, which many saw as a conflict of interest and a threat to the independence of the paper's news operation.

Ethics experts criticized the paper, and hundreds of reporters and editors signed a petition complaining that the deal — which they hadn't known about — raised questions about the integrity of the paper, the Times reported.

John Puerner, who took over as publisher during the fallout and hired Carroll, said Carroll provided strong leadership from his first day, bringing in other top editors and restoring morale.

"He turned the whole focus of the newsroom back on journalism," Puerner said. "You understood the guy really knew what he was doing."

Puerner said Carroll had an eye for hiring good reporters and editors, outstanding news judgment, a passion for good journalism and great tenacity.

Carroll had a good sense of humor and a self-effacing, gentlemanly demeanor, but he could be forceful. He required a level of documentation in stories that many in the newsroom had not seen, Puerner said.

"He is an extremely thoughtful individual," Puerner said. "Quality of journalism, completeness, accuracy, fairness were always at the top of his mind."

Bob Drogin, who has worked at the L.A. Times since 1983 and is now the deputy bureau chief in its Washington, D.C., office, said Carroll's time at the paper was akin to Camelot, a "shining era when reporters could go anywhere and chase any story, knowing we had unstinting support from a wise, caring and inspiring editor."

Drogin said Carroll strongly backed reporters and allowed them the time and resources necessary to develop stories. Drogin worked for months and took trips overseas in researching a story on a defector who gave authorities false information before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

"He really inspired people in a way that made the newsroom a very fertile place," Drogin said.

Drogin said Carroll also was personally supportive, calling to encourage him during difficult times and checking whether he needed anything.

The Los Angeles Times was awarded 13 Pulitzer Prizes during the time Carroll was editor.

"That doesn't just happen. It takes great leadership," former Herald-Leader editor Kelly said.

In The New York Times, Alex S. Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, said Carroll had the courage to do what he felt was the right.

"He was able to combine a genuine integrity with a passion for news and an ability to work well with talented and unruly journalists," Jones said to the Times.

In 2004, Carroll received an award from the Committee to Protect Journalists for lifetime achievement in defense of press freedom, and the American Society of Newspaper Editors Leadership Award.

The next year, however, Carroll announced his retirement. There already had been staff cuts, and Carroll did not want to stay for further cuts that would diminish the paper, Roberts said.

Carroll had married Lexington native Lee Huston Powell in 1985, and they returned to Lexington after he left the Times.

Eloquent advocate

After he retired, Carroll was the Knight Visiting Lecturer in 2006 at the Joan Shoren stein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

In the face of cutbacks at newspapers across the country, he remained an eloquent advocate of an independent, engaged press and its importance to an informed public.

As a young reporter, he saw his job as turning over rocks, Carroll said in a 2006 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors that was adapted and posted by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

Many times there was nothing under the rock, he said, but sometimes there was.

Carroll said, for instance, that he visited one potential source for months without turning up a story, but this person ultimately provided information for a story that saved hundreds of thousands of people from a 26 percent rate increase in their health insurance.

"This kind of reporting is unglamorous, inefficient and expensive — and in America, it is done almost entirely by newspapers," Carroll said in the speech.

"Our mission is more daunting than that of our predecessors," he told the editors. "It is not merely to produce good stories. It is not merely to save our newspapers. It is — and this may sound grandiose — to save journalism itself.

"It is to ensure the existence, long into the future, of a large, independent, principled, questioning, deep-digging cadre of journalists in America, regardless of what happens to our newspapers."

Carroll was writing a book focused on the 1985 UK basketball investigation but had not finished it.

On CaringBridge.org, Lee Carroll said her husband told her soon after the first of the year that he was having trouble concentrating on the book.

"He said he just couldn't get his head around the material; he was having a difficult time getting his thoughts organized," she wrote.

Carroll's condition de teriorated quickly; specialists at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease as the cause.

Carroll is survived by his wife; daughters Maggie Vaughn of New York and Katita Strathmann of Maryland; stepchildren Huston Powell of Texas, and Griggs Powell and Caroline Powell of Lexington; three sisters; and nine grandchildren.

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