John Carroll '63 has brought egalitarian leadership and
editorial acumen to the Los Angeles Times. by Joe Quinlan '75
He may run America’s largest metropolitan daily newspaper. He may
chair the selection committee for the Pulitzer Prizes. He may even be
the most admired newspaper editor in the country, at least by his peers.
But he doesn’t throw Oscar Night parties. Or have PR agents book
him on Charlie Rose or “Nightline.” Or write big books on
the side, at least not yet.
Try to Google him and you’ll find the pickings thin. Perhaps no
surprise, since he’s spent most of his four-decade career in putting
out daily papers in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Lexington, Ky.
His biggest fans, in fact, are his own reporters and editors—all
of whom invariably underscore the same attributes: his dedication to journalism,
especially the daily sort that still gets delivered to your doorstep.
Meet John Carroll ’63, editor of the once-venerable journalistic
cash machine know as the Los Angeles Times. It’s a job he took less
than three years ago, when the paper was in crisis and when many in the
news business, smitten with dot-com fever, had already written off big
Since he speaks so rarely and so reluctantly about himself and his career,
let’s let him explain how he wound up in Southern California…
“Back early in 2000, I was ready to leave the Sun after 10 years.
And I was close to accepting an offer from Harvard to run the Nieman fellowship
program for journalists.
“We’d even done some house hunting up in Cambridge, and I
was working on the outline for a book.
“At the last minute, I got a call from a member of the search committee,
who was also a senior executive for the Tribune Company, which was buying
Times Mirror, which in turn owned both the Sun and the Los Angeles Times.
“He asked me to put Harvard on hold and consider the Times job.”
So, the book idea went back in the drawer and Carroll shipped west, knowing
full well the challenge he faced.
The Los Angeles Times was wrestling with a circulation and pricing issues,
a controversial incursion by advertising types to its news side and a
perception that meaningful local coverage was less than a priority. It
was a turnaround challenge of the first order. Add internal political
struggles—former publisher and founding family member Otis Chandler
openly criticized Times management—and it was clear the paper would
be no easy fix.
“People warned me,” says Carroll, “it’s a battleship
that will take a decade to turn around. The bureaucracy will kill you.”
His soft voice drops down even lower… “I think we’ve
proven them wrong.”
Carroll points to tough decisions and management changes—10 of the
14 names on the paper’s masthead have changed in little more than
two years. Departments are not only talking together—they’re
“From day one, John was out in the newsroom, proving by his actions
that he was what we needed…what we craved…a real journalist,”
says Richard Lee Colvin, former Times education writer who now directs
the Hechinger Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University.
“He was down in the cafeteria the first week, sitting with a real
mix of people and listening to what they had to say. It wasn’t like
some politician popping in for a photo op.”
“It may not be a revolution, but it’s the kind of shift that
actually works best for this type of organization,” Carroll reflects
on his work in Los Angeles. “And our readers seem to be noticing
the improvement as well, and that’s the real test.”
Simply put, Carroll’s improvements have made the paper more readable—and
more relevant to Southern California. Always lauded for foreign and national
coverage, the Times sometimes paid scant attention to local crime, metropolitan
and regional news. Under its new editor, the paper’s Metro section
explored Southern California with new commitment, resources and smart
writing. A fading lifestyle section was killed. And trenchant Steve Lopez,
a former Time magazine and Philadelphia Inquirer writer, was hired as
lead columnist. With Carroll in charge, the Times simply seemed more connected
to Los Angeles.
And to its staff as well. As Colvin remembers, “Years ago, top editors
liked to keep their distance from the troops. They especially liked their
private dining rooms. Well, John Carroll did something that nobody had
ever thought of—he made the private rooms available to any reporter
who thought they might need to impress a source. It may sound like a small
thing, but it made a huge impression on the reporting staff. He’s
a true small d democrat. And it’s something that comes through almost
“John Carroll cares about things that are important—things
like schools and equality and how government deals with these issues,”
says Chris Lee ’89 a Washington Post newsman who interned for the
editor in Lexington. “He wanted his paper to be fair, but also not
to be afraid of covering tough issues in detail, even if it ruffled feathers
and even if embarrassed some politicians who could cause trouble.”
The Carroll commitment to tough issues was on full view at the Lexington
Herald in the mid ’80s. The paper revealed a scandal-plagued University
of Kentucky basketball program; its reporters and editors defied death
threats—even a shot fired into the pressroom and a bomb scare—to
support the investigation. The Herald won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting.
University reforms were put in place. And Carroll collected enough material
for the book he still intends to write.
Of his own battle of Lexington, Carroll recalls, “They don’t
have to like you. But they do have to pay attention and read you if you’re
going to be a success.
“To our pleasant surprise, we actually sold more papers than ever
during the periods of controversy.”
And though blamed for Kentucky basketball being placed on probation, Carroll
was actually welcomed back last year and inducted into the state’s
journalism hall of fame.
“It’s been wonderful and amazing to track John’s professional
growth over the years,” observes Loren Ghiglione ’63, current
dean of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism—and legendary
Haverford News editor four decades ago.
“For a long time, he was a sort of strong, but quiet leader at mid-sized
papers, but now he’s got a much larger stage, both with the Times
and the Pulitzer Committee. He’s right in the middle of all the
forces that are impacting newspapers—the economy and technology
and diversity and war coverage—you name it. I can’t think
of a better person to be in that position—to set an example for
all of us.”
Perhaps the most crucial example for Carroll to set is how a savvy manager
transitions from running established eastern papers to supervising coverage
for the radically diverse city that is Los Angeles. For to grow his newspaper,
the editor must make inroads to new arrivals and those who don’t
traditionally see the Times as part of their L.A. experience.
Says Carroll: “Here in Southern California, we’re really on
the leading edge of the changing face of America and Americans. There
are incredibly large numbers of emigrants from all over the world here.
We’ve got well over 100 languages spoken. You can drive down the
freeway and listen on your radio to Lakers games—in Farsi.”
Accordingly, Carroll looks toward a newsroom that someday reflects the
diversity he sees on the streets of Los Angeles. The Times already has
accomplished much in terms of minority hiring; Carroll notes that, “Every
editorial employee except me works for an African-American because both
the managing editor and editorial page editor are black.”
Placing Latinos is more problematic, Carroll says, explaining that “Hispanic
promotion and hiring are about 20 years behind where they should be.”
And though the Times persists in outreach at schools and colleges, it’s
Carroll’s view that a generation will pass “before substantial
progress is made.”
Carroll traces his own social interests and concerns back to student days
at Haverford. Though the son of a prominent newsman, he was not active
in student journalism like classmate Ghiglione.
“Haverford made a huge impression on me—even more than I knew
at the time,” he says. I remember when I was in high school and,
through a friend, meeting Bill Cadbury, who was a professor and later
dean at the College. He made a big and very positive impression on me,
wasn’t easy for me to get admitted. Frankly, I wasn’t the
greatest student. And while I can’t say I was the last member of
my class admitted, I was on the waiting list for a very long time.
“My experiences at Haverford have served me well, both personally
and professionally. And it wasn’t just the academics. It was, more
than anything, learning to make a distinction between societal rights
and wrongs. That’s what Haverford instilled in me more than anything
“I think the same thing happened when my daughter (Kathleen ’89)
was a student, and it seems to still be the case today.”
After graduating, Carroll was hired as a cub reporter for the Providence
(R.I.) Journal, but within a year, he began a two-year stint in the Army.
“Sometimes I think I would have been better off if I had been in
the Army earlier and then come back to college to finish up. I think I
was too young to appreciate all that I had while I was in college, and
I think I was a little too old after I graduated to take the drill sergeant
Discharged in 1966, the Baltimore Sun hired him the young reporter, eventually
sending Carroll to the Middle East and then to the White House during
Richard Nixon’s first term.
Though first, he had a war to cover.
“I got to Vietnam at the end of 1967, when the war was still going
full steam. It was totally different from today, where reporters are herded
into briefing rooms and shown videotapes.
“Back then, reporters went directly into combat—we traveled
with the troops pretty much everywhere—in helicopters and on planes
and on the ground. That’s the way it was done.
“And my experience was that the troops in the field were always
glad to see us, to share their stories—even if the generals back
in Saigon were less than thrilled with the media.”
Considering Pentagon media management circa 2003, Carroll speaks tersely:
“They can control the flow a news in short war,” he said.
“But I don’t think the public will stand for such sanitized
information for very long.”
In 1972, Carroll made what was perhaps his biggest career move, giving
up the lone wolf, star reporter life to become an editor, joining the
Inquirer and trading coverage of Nixon for a Nixon favorite, Frank Rizzo.
“Anyone who moves inside gives up something. When you’re a
newspaper reporter, there’s that rush you get when you pick up the
paper and see your name and your words; the rewards are both immediate
“As an editor—and this is at any level—the rewards are
both indirect and incremental. Other than getting out the paper itself,
I like knowing that I have a hand in the career development of my staff.
But it’s not something you can tote up at the end of the day or
even a month. It’s a bit like being a teacher, I guess.”
A lingering irony in Carroll’s newsroom career is that his management
titles—currently Executive Vice President and Editor—may sound
more bottom line than journalistic.
Said one media critic recently: “Many of the people running our
big news organizations seem more interested in having lunch with Warren
Buffet or dinner with Barry Diller than they do in their own product.
They seem more intent in being seen as media moguls and getting big contracts
than in serving the reading and viewing public.”
In spite of his own titles, Carroll devotes the overwhelming majority
of his time to news, leaving business to, well, the business types.
“My own view is that that at too many papers, editors are being
drawn into business planning and are paying way too much attention to
it. They ought to be editing.”
Indeed, such views were considered old-fashioned in the late ’90s
when dot-com fever dominated the news business. Careful not to gloat,
Carroll explains his colleagues’ Internet hunger: “People
got way ahead of themselves. Before the bubble burst, there were some
influential people who said that the website would become the business
and the paper would fade away.
“A lot of money was lost before the world realized that for now
at least, a website can work as an extension of a paper or magazine, but
not as a stand-alone business.
“We’re all going to be reading newspapers for a long time.
At least if I have anything to do with it,” Carroll adds with a
I first met John 30 years ago as a cocky Haverford junior who’d
just finished a summer reporting stint for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.
His classmate, Greg Kannerstein ’63, had introduced us and I became
one of the dozens of Haverford students who benefited from Greg’s
journalistic pipeline to John, Loren Ghiglione and others. Chris Lee ’89,
mentioned earlier, is another.
John kindly took me out to lunch, and even listened quietly as I talked,
I’m sure, way too much. He’d just been hired by the most admired
editor in the country, Eugene Roberts, to supervise local coverage for
the Inquirer, the #2 paper in town.
I told John my professional goal was to be the Bulletin’s city editor
when I was 30. He reached for a napkin and started scribbling a chart
with numbers. He looked up, smiled faintly, and pointed to the sheet:
“Your problem,” he said softly, “is that the Bulletin
won’t be there in 10 years.”
I gulped hard but kept a straight face. After all, the Bulletin was 150
years old and its demise was unthinkable. To me at least.
Nine years later, the Bulletin folded. By then, John was editing the Lexington
(Ky.) Herald. I was in New York, a senior producer for national affairs
at MacNeil-Lehrer, the nightly news show on PBS. When we reported the
Bulletin’s closing on the program that night, I remembered the napkin.
And I smiled. And I vowed to listen—hard—when John Carroll
ever talked about the media again. — J.Q. ’75