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John Carroll: Remembering a Newspaperman Who Helped Shape Journalism

John Carroll, a veteran reporter and editor who led several of America’s great newspapers and who directed the Lexington Herald-Leader to its first Pulitzer Prize, died Sunday in Lexington, Ky. He was 73 years old.

Carroll came to Lexington in 1979 after working for the Providence Journal in Rhode Island, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inqurier. He was editor of the Lexington Herald for four years, and served in the same position for the newly merged Herald-Leader until 1991.

He spoke about his work in Lexington in a 2012 KET broadcast of the interview program Conversation with Champions.

[Editor’s note: Upcoming dates and times for KET rebroadcasts of Conversation with Champions: John Carroll — KET: 6/19 – 12am/11pm | KET2: 6/17 – 3/2pm

Carroll’s tenure at the Herald-Leader is perhaps best known for the paper’s investigation of cash payments to University of Kentucky basketball players. The series garnered the paper a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 as well as boycotts and a bomb threat from angry readers.

“A newspaper that gets no complaints is a dead newspaper,” The New York Times reported Carroll as saying about the fallout from the stories.

Carroll’s passion for investigative work also prompted a 1989 series about public school funding in the commonwealth that helped lead to the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990.

Fought Corporate Cost-Cutting

After spending more than a decade in Lexington, Carroll went on to lead the Baltimore Sun and later the Los Angeles Times. In Carroll’s obituary, that paper described him as “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.”

Carroll is credited with turning around the Times and restoring its credibility. The paper won 13 Pulitzers during Carroll’s five years as editor, but his relationship with the Times’ new corporate owner was contentious. The Tribune Publishing Company acquired the Times along with the Baltimore Sun, the Hartford Courant and other newspapers in a 2000 merger. Carroll disputed Tribune’s drive to improve profits by cutting newsroom staffs.

“These papers were being treated as if they were invented yesterday and they weren’t making as much money so let’s just discard them,” Carroll lamented in a 2012 interview for the Investigating Power Project at American University. He said it was arrogant to treat newspapers that have existed for centuries like start-up companies and hold them to the same standards of profitability.

A Strong Advocate for Journalism

Tiring of the budget battles and staff cuts, Carroll left the Times in 2005 and moved back to Lexington. He served as a visiting lecturer at Harvard University and as an outspoken advocate for the traditional role of journalism and newspapers in American society.

At that time, Carroll said newspapers still earned 20 percent profits, or about twice what a Fortune 500 company would make. Yet he said newspaper editors still had to battle corporate owners over the value of their work.

“The crisis of the soul has to do with the cultural difference between the corporation and the values of corporate business and journalism. There’s a widening gap between the two,” Carroll said in the News Wars documentary on Frontline.

“The corporate people believe that every employee of the company should be loyal, first and foremost, to the shareholder, and that is a prevailing ethic in American business… The journalist believes that he or she works not for the shareholder primarily, but for the reader and for the public.”

Despite the rise of the Internet along with bloggers, citizen journalists, and content aggregators, Carroll argued that good journalism requires experienced reporters to investigate, analyze, and enlighten citizens about the important stories of our times.

“I still think that there’s a need for trained, full-time, professional reporters who are overseen by trained, full-time, professional editors,” Carroll told PBS. “The only people who are going to be left standing as journalists in great numbers will be newspapers, and their business is being badly damaged by the owners.”

A Journalist with a Gentle Manner

The son of a newspaperman, Carroll was born in New York City and raised in Winston-Salem, N.C. and Washington, D.C. He graduated from Haverford College in Pennsylvania with a degree in English. He worked briefly in Providence, R.I., before serving a brief stint in the U.S. Army in Alaska, where he edited a base newspaper.

Fellow journalists credited Carroll with being a good editor because he had been an accomplished reporter. He covered the Nixon White House, was a correspondent in the Vietnam War, and reported from the Middle East. Several colleagues remember Carroll for his gentle manner and distinctive looks.

“I used to tease John that with his white hair and tall and slender build, he looked like a U.S. senator from Kentucky,” Dean Baquet told the Baltimore Sun. Baquet served under Carroll in Los Angeles and is now Executive Editor of The New York Times.

Carroll died of a rare degenerative brain disorder called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. He was working on a book about the Herald-Leader’s investigation of the UK basketball program.

In 2010, Carroll appeared at the Kentucky Author Forum in Louisville to interview Harvard professor Michael Sandel about his book “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?”