I have written precisely one letter that made any notable difference to my life. I mailed it to John Carroll, the editor of The Baltimore Sun, when I was 24 years old. I had covered higher education for several years in Durham, N.C., and I wrote, presumptuously, that Carroll's pages gave the colleges and universities of Maryland short shrift.
Naturally, I offered myself as the solution to a problem that I had so helpfully identified.
Carroll, who died Sunday morning, became my editor for six years at the Sun, where he revived the paper's standards and national profile; he then went on to restore the Los Angeles Times to distinction after scandal and leading it to 13 Pulitzer Prizes in just five years. That's an almost unimaginable record for a paper west of the Hudson or Potomac rivers.
The man who took a chance on me (and who reminded me of that fact when I once came up short on a story) proved at once ambitious, charismatic, curious, drily witty, exacting, genteel, hard-driving, and inspiring. He radiated unusual calm, even as he was infuriating editors and reporters with yet another request for more reporting, more writing, more editing.
"A journalist's work is a counterweight to the misuse of power," Carroll said in an address to the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2004. "A journalist lives or dies by that humblest form of knowledge, the simple fact. And a journalist, when things get tough, can serve only one master: the public."
He covered Vietnam and Watergate as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun before leading regional papers. But had he gone on to edit The Washington Post or The New York Times, he'd have been a legendary figure instead of an editor honored largely inside his profession. Carroll's dedication to the civic purpose of journalism instilled pride in many journalists that such editors work elsewhere.
Many of the newsrooms he led walked a bit taller.
In Philadelphia, as city editor, John helped the Inquirer overcome a corrupt past to become one of the nation's preeminent papers. He personally oversaw an investigative series on police brutality against suspects there, rewriting the lead to give it more punch — a piece made all the more vital given the power the police wielded in that city. In Lexington, Ky., where he first became executive editor, Carroll championed an investigation that proved boosters had paid cash — against NCAA rules — to recruits for the beloved University of Kentucky basketball program. Protests against the investigation included a bomb threat and a gunshot fired inside the paper's pressroom.
At The Baltimore Sun, he sent a black city columnist and a white foreign correspondent to expose systemic slavery in Sudan. To prove the point, the pair bought two slaves and released them to freedom. After reading a piece on a sidelined vessel in the Baltimore harbor, Carroll commissioned what would become a Pulitzer prize-winning series on shipbreaking, the deadly practice of dismantling discarded ships.
In Los Angeles, he unified a demoralized staff by focusing energies on its journalism. One front-page project exposed the incompetence with which an inner-city hospital gave care to patients. Recognizing an overlooked industry's importance to his region, he assigned the paper's first beat reporter to cover pornography — and then enjoyed putting playful headlines on some of the first stories that ensued. (The LA Times recalled one of them in its obituary: "Lights, Camera, Viagra!")
He warned against liberal bias creeping into headlines and copy. But he liked a scrap regardless of partisan stripe: Just days before the election that transformed Republican action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger into the governor of California, Carroll published an extensive report documenting allegations of sexual harassment. Carroll wrote that voters deserved to know about the behavior of candidates they vote for and warned readers who disagreed that they might not want to keep subscribing.
He disdained business meetings, a virtue that these days would be seen as a vanity, and denounced newspaper executives who sought to prop up profits despite structural shifts in the industry and tossed underperforming properties aside. "These papers are like cards in a deck; you shuffle them, you deal them, you fold them," he told me after the collapse and sale of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, which had included the Inquirer and the Lexington Herald-Leader. "And the meaning of them as an institution in the community seems to have been lost."
When asked by the LA Times' owners at the Tribune Co. in Chicago to make yet another budget cut in 2005, Carroll resigned. He said the push to boost profits came at too high a journalistic cost.
John did not lack for gumption.
Like all editors, Carroll had his blind spots.
In Baltimore in the mid-1990s, Carroll had a falling out with David Simon, already an accomplished police reporter. Carroll believed the poverty, crime and addiction that plagued Baltimore required incisive coverage. But he found certain articles dwelled too much on the city's dysfunction. Simon developed a powerful piece on an addict who stripped copper pipes from row houses in Baltimore's residential neighborhoods. His astonishing story served as a metaphor for the invisible hollowing out of the city. Carroll objected that it lionized the addict's criminal activities, a kind of poverty porn. The piece was delayed and ran in the paper's diminished magazine section rather than on the front page.
In Simon's masterful HBO series The Wire, the addict appeared as a hopeful character tottering on the edge of redemption. Carroll was lampooned as a waspy, patronizing figure from a different age, out of touch with his newsroom and his city.
Carroll later privately told me he should have worked harder to harness Simon's drive, though the reporter's enormous talent and anger destined him for bigger things anyway. But Simon's fictionalized depiction was unfair to Carroll as well. Simon believed Carroll was focused on prizes at the expense of meaningful journalism.
Carroll also had a blind spot about his industry's future.
I remember asking John once — it must have been around 1997 or 1998 — what he thought of The Washington Post's website. The site was a dazzling effort to offer a fresh experience beyond print. John told me he'd settle for competence and let the Graham family spend $70 million or so a year on the website until they figured out a way to make money from all those bits and bytes. He was wrong about the importance of digital transformation to the profession. But at the same time, he had a point. Don Graham's team never did crack that code. His family sold the paper to someone they believed had a better chance to do so: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
We were not close friends, but John was always welcoming on the phone or in person.
When I last saw him, in December, we lingered over lunch in Lexington, where he and his wife Lee had returned to retire. We swapped stories about children (his and mine) and grandchildren (his) and journalism (everyone's).
That said, I noted he was somewhat frailer than before. About a month later he was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and incurable neurological disease.
On that afternoon, however, he showed flashes of the vigor and verve that defined his years in newsrooms.
After lunch, we took a quick drive and walked about the University of Kentucky. With pointillist detail, he identified telling elements of the atrium of the library, where he was burrowing into the archives in pursuit of the book that was to be his final project.
Once again, he had decided to focus on the university's athletics program. Once again, he had uncovered scandals with hilarious twists spanning as far back as a century ago. He laughed at the punch lines to his own anecdotes. But he was intent on nailing down all the facts just so. The man loved a good story. And he wanted it to be bulletproof.