On an otherwise pleasant afternoon some 30 years ago, Creed Black charged into my office, threw a copy of the Louisville Times on my desk and asked a memorable question.
"I can't stand having to read another paper to find out what's going on in my city," he barked. "Why don't we put some news in our paper so people will have a reason to pick it up?"
It was vintage Creed. He was the hard-nosed publisher of the Lexington Herald-Leader, a man with big expectations for his two newspapers. I was the newly appointed editor of the afternoon Leader, who learned early that few sins were more unforgivable than being scooped by an out-of-town rival.
Another day, he voiced his irritation with a stupid mistake in a small local story. I told him I agreed it was a foolish error and said I had a long talk with the reporter who made it.
"You didn't edit that story?" he asked.
"No," I said. "That was not a major story, and I didn't have time to read it myself."
"Well," he said, giving me a dagger-in-the-eyes look, "you're the editor. You're responsible for every story and every line in the paper. You need to find the time."
Creed may have been a pain in the neck at times, but I doubt there was a publisher who ever took the job more seriously or cared more about putting out a first-rate newspaper.
He knew how much of a difference a good paper could make and was passionate about holding people accountable.
A framed quote from Napoleon Bonaparte occupied a prominent spot in his office: "Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets."
Like all of us, he had his blind spots. One year we put together a special section called "Valley of Neglect" on the Irishtown and Davistown neighborhoods, detailing problems in Lexington's worst pockets of poverty. The stories were well-reported and written by John Woestendiek, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
I was eager to hear what Creed thought of the section, and when he didn't say anything that day, I asked him the next morning.
"It's not what they're talking about in my neighborhood," he said dismissively. I think he regretted that remark because when we ran an editorial calling for the city to do more to help those areas, he made a point of commending it.
While Creed had a healthy ego, he knew when to keep it in check. In 1981, we worked up a series on leadership in Lexington that included picking the city's 10 most influential citizens. When we started, I told him I thought it best that he stay at arm's length and not even ask me about it since he could end up on the list.
He agreed without hesitation. Creed did make the list at No. 7, and we profiled him along with the others. All I remember him saying was, "Good package. You ought to get behind the scenes like that more often."
As demanding as Creed could be, he was also easy to admire. We once ran a story giving tips about how to negotiate a lower price when buying a car. The story had an attitude and probably went too far in suggesting that car dealers couldn't be trusted to play fair with consumers.
A group of dealers came unglued and demanded a retraction. They represented a huge chunk of advertising, and they knew it. Creed arranged a lunch meeting downtown at the Lafayette Club.
They gruffly stated their grievances, lectured us about "who pays for your paychecks" and said if a retraction wasn't published, they would pull their ads.
Creed listened politely and said he understood their problems with the story. We wouldn't retract it, however, because the story's advice was sound, even if its tone was wrong. Nor would any advertiser tell the paper what it could print in its news columns.
He said he assumed they bought ads because the advertising was effective for them, not because they were doing us a favor. If they decided it wasn't effective, they were free to spend their money elsewhere.
The meeting was a high point in the life of a young editor, who hoped that when push came to shove, advertisers couldn't muscle us. Some of the car dealers yanked their ads, but they soon came back, and word circulated that advertisers could not expect special treatment in the paper.
I was lucky to have Creed as a mentor, and Lexington was fortunate to have him as a community leader. He set high standards, and he moved journalism to a higher level.
Steve M. Wilson was the Lexington Leader's last editor before it merged with the Herald in 1983. He has held senior editing positions at various other newspapers and now lives in Phoenix. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.