John S. Carroll, 73, of Lexington, Ky., a former editor at The Inquirer who rose to become one of the leading journalistic figures of his day, inspiring prize-winning stories at four daily newspapers, died Sunday.
His family announced Mr. Carroll's death at his Lexington home of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare degenerative brain disorder. He had been ill since January.
"John was a visionary as an editor: He always saw forests - the big picture - when many of us were lost in the trees," said his friend, Inquirer Editor William K. Marimow.
"John was a superb colleague," Marimow said, "a great listener and a spellbinding storyteller who loved the rhythms and cadences of the newsroom and enriched the lives of all of us who worked with him."
Mr. Carroll cut his teeth on the night shift in 1972, after being drawn to Philadelphia by Inquirer Editor Eugene L. Roberts, Jr., his friend and mentor. By the time he left the paper in 1979, Mr. Carroll, already a fine writer, had matured into a skilled editor.
Over the next 26 years, Mr. Carroll moved from The Inquirer to editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, then the Baltimore Sun, and finally of the Los Angeles Times. At each stop, he won accolades for cutting-edge journalism.
Under his direction, the LA Times won 13 Pulitzer Prizes in five years ending in 2005, effectively placing it among the ranks of the nation's top newspapers.
"I think he was good all along, but that was his strongest five years," Roberts said.
At The Inquirer between 1972 and 1979, Mr. Carroll advanced from nightside to city editor, and then to metropolitan editor with responsibility for regional news coverage.
"He learned everything very well, and fairly quickly became one of the best editors of our time," said Gene Foreman, retired deputy editor of The Inquirer who had teamed up with Roberts to manage the paper.
When a nuclear meltdown threatened the Three Mile Island power plant in March 1979, Mr. Carroll was the key architect of the Inquirer's Pulitzer Prize winning series.
A low-key, unruffled man with good listening skills, Mr. Carroll pushed his reporters to dig for stories that were not always popular.
One, which "took courage," Roberts said, was a 1985 series of reports in the Lexington Herald-Leader on widespread cheating in the University of Kentucky basketball program. The investigation won a Pulitzer Prize for its writers, Jeffrey Marx and Michael York.
"College basketball in Kentucky is about as big a thing as it gets," Roberts said. "And to write and order a probing series about the excesses of big-time basketball in Kentucky took a lot of nerve as well as skill as a journalist. That was a major story."
Part of Mr. Carroll's magic was the hunches he got about news, said Marimow, who served as managing editor under Mr. Carroll at the Baltimore Sun in the 1990s. One such hunch came from a brief item he had read about the dismantling of "an old rust bucket" in the Baltimore Harbor, Marimow said.
Mr. Carroll wondered where else such dismantling was occurring. Marimow said the resulting series of articles on the environmental and workplace hazards of breaking down old aircraft carriers won Gary Cohn and Will Englund the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.
Another "really strong story" Mr. Carroll shepherded into print, this one in the Los Angeles Times, was about the plight of young Latinos fleeing poor conditions in their home countries to risk crossing the border from Mexico into the United States, Roberts said.
Many youngsters became victims of financial predators and an inadequate immigration system as they tried to reach their parents who had already settled in America. Mr. Carroll's reporters "were well ahead of later stories when large numbers of children were congregating at the Mexican border," Roberts said.
Mr. Carroll became Los Angeles Times editor in 2000, as the paper was reeling from disclosures involving a profit-sharing deal between the paper and Staples Center. Collaboration between the two entities on a 168-page magazine debuting the center had been harshly criticized for violating the separation between news and advertising. The paper's newsroom staff was dismayed. Morale plunged.
With that as backdrop, Foreman termed it "an amazing accomplishment" for Mr. Carroll to urge the newsroom on to multiple prize winners between 2000 and 2005.
One key was savvy recruiting. Mr. Carroll hired Dean Baquet, now New York Times editor, but then the national editor at the New York Times. Baquet became the Los Angeles Times' managing editor.
A second key was that he let the people he hired alone so that they could "do good work," Foreman said.
A third factor was that Mr. Carroll, while driven, was at the same time "a decent person," Foreman said.
It was no surprise, then, that Mr. Carroll inspired those around him; he was the product of a journalistic family. His father, Wallace Carroll, spent eight years as news editor of the Washington bureau of The New York Times under James Reston, followed by a decade as editor and publisher of the Winston-Salem Journal.
"He grew up around newspapers," said Foreman. "His early life was filled with fascination with journalism because of the life of people associated with his Dad."
During a Ruhl lecture delivered in Oregon on May 6, 2004, Mr. Carroll explained the appeal of his father's news buddies.
"The people he worked with seemed more vital and engaged than your normal run of adults," Mr. Carroll said. "They talked animatedly about things they were learning - things that were important, things that were absurd. They told hilarious jokes... I felt I'd like to hang around with such people when I grew up."
Fresh out of Haverford College, Mr. Carroll signed on as a fledgling reporter for the Providence Journal, but left to join the Army. In 1966, he was deployed by the Baltimore Sun to cover the Vietnam War.
"He was one of the youngest reporters at the time, 25 or 26, and he was doing some of the finest reporting out of Vietnam," Roberts said.
Roberts said Mr. Carroll broke a story in 1968 about the dismantling of the U.S. military base at Khe Sanh which contradicted military officials' statements that it was strategically important for the U.S. to keep the base open.
Miffed at the report, the officials revoked Mr. Carroll's credentials, but Mr. Carroll fought back and had them reinstated with a small penalty.
"It was typical of John's willingness to go after the story and and fight, if necessary, to get the news out to the public," Roberts said.
Later, when he returned as the Baltimore Sun's editor from 1991 to 2000, Mr. Carroll was a generous mentor. But he knew what he wanted in the newspaper and he pushed his underlings to provide it.
"He would say he wanted a story above the fold every day that had not been on TV or radio," said Tony Barbieri, then the paper's managing editor for news. "After a while, I realized he was serious, so I started to plan ahead. I would go 100 days and on the 101st, I would miss one.
"He would say, 'Every day, we've got to have one.' With John, you never wanted to make excuses," said Barbieri, now the Larry and Ellen Foster Professorship in Writing and Editing at Pennsylvania State University.
No detail was too small to ignore, Mr. Carroll taught Barbieri. "Headlines have to be sharp, photos have to be sharp," Barbieri said.
Over the years, Mr. Carroll's attention and time was more and more taken up by the declining economics of the newspaper industry.
In 2003, midway through his tenure as Los Angeles Times editor, Mr. Carroll began to battle with the Tribune Co., the paper's owner, over austerity measures, including staff reductions in the Los Angeles Times newsroom. On his watch, 200 jobs were eliminated, although he opposed them. In August 2005, Mr. Carroll stepped down to become Knight Visiting Lecturer at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
In retirement, he lectured and wrote widely on why he believed newspapers still matter.
"What will the public know – and what will the public not know – if our poorly understood, and often unappreciated, craft perishes in the Darwinian jungle?" he asked a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in April 2006.
"Who will inspect the tens of thousands of politicians who seek to govern? Who .. will tell us in plain language what's actually going on?"
Mr. Carroll is survived by his wife, Lee Carroll; two daughters, Maggie Vaughan and Katita Strathmann; stepchildren Huston, Griggs and Caroline Powell; three sisters, Margaret, Posie and Patricia Carroll; and nine grandchildren.
Services are being planned for Monday, June 22, in Lexington.