In memoriam: John Carroll, one of the great newspaper editors

June 15, 2015 By David Sullivan ACES News

John Carroll, who died June 14, was one of the editors who personified the great years of American newspapers, when, seeking an alternative to the stenographic coverage that had offered heat but less light during the McCarthy years and the early Vietnam War, a combination of heady ambition and previously unknown financial resources gave newspaper journalists a sense that they could not just cover the world, they could cover everything and anything in that world. His accomplishments as an editor – summarized in this Washington Post article — stand among the most notable in the industry’s history.

While Carroll knew that it starts with the story and the people who report it, he understood that journalism was a collaborative process, drawing upon the different talents of reporters, photographers, graphic artists, assigning editors, and copy editors, whom he saw as having an important part to play in the process.  To that end, as the editor in Lexington, Baltimore, and Los Angeles, Carroll strengthened the copy desk and empowered it to do the sort of work newspaper copy editors are meant to do – not merely chase commas and write a 3-36-2, but to see the story as the last editor and the first reader; to say not just “Is this what we want to say,” but, “Will someone not involved in the story understand it, believe it, be moved to thought or action by it.”

And so it is no surprise that Carroll was a longtime backer of ACES, since its early days as a group largely made up of newspaper copy editors. While he did not do what we did, he knew what we did, and what it brought to the paper. During his years as a top editor at the Baltimore Sun and Los Angeles Times, those organizations and their parents, Times Mirror and Tribune Co., were among those making sure that ACES was financially able to provide to their staffs the sort of training for which we are known – and that their staffs regularly were able to get it.

Melissa McCoy, who was deputy managing editor overseeing the copy desks at Los Angeles under Carroll, said, “John operated his newsroom with the belief that great journalism was a team sport. For him, copy editors were an irreplaceable part of that team. He knew that their tough questions, critical thinking skills, and precise editing could elevate good stories to great. When he first came to the Times, he couldn’t understand why copy editors didn’t have a larger role in the newsroom, and he quickly rectified it by giving them a seat at the table among the paper’s leadership.

“His honoring of each newsroom craft was a hallmark of his tenure. He was the sort of editor who walked around and talked to everyone, including the copy desks. He knew most copy editors’ names (no small task in a newsroom of 1,200), complimented them on headlines, and made sure they got in on projects early enough to have some effect. He also knew that every one of those 13 Pulitzers we won in five years was helped in some way by the work of a copy editor in ways large or small, and he made sure the entire staff knew that too. 

“He changed the culture for copy editing, not just at the Times but at the Sun and throughout the industry,” Mc Coy said. And she added: “John loved ACES.”

Carroll was a man of his times, and when the times changed rapidly, he drew a line in the sand and the waves swept over it, and he found himself leaving organizations he had shaped as the demand for profit grew – and this was before things got really bad. What he would make of some of today’s newsrooms, where even city editors are seen as outdated, and reporters are told to be guided in their coverage by analytics and to just post something, anything, quickly and with little or no review, I do not know. I only met him a handful of times, as he was gone from Philadelphia before I came. Yet I cannot imagine him seeing many of today’s trends as good.

But an editor like John Carroll sets an example that some of those coming up in today’s media world will look at and say, take some of this and some of that and create something involving content creators and managers, and content analysts – i.e. copy editors – that will aim for the journalistic greatness he stood for, imbued his newspapers with, and guided staffs to meet, and will set an example that those who care will want to follow and that those who do not may be judged by their actions. ACES salutes and thanks John Carroll, a longtime friend and backer in whose shadow we were honored to stand.

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