Jack Fuller RIP: An Editor Other Editors Listened to and Admired

By Jack Limpert

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Jack Fuller: “News values do exist and can continue to guide journalists.”

Longtime Chicago Tribune editor Jack Fuller died Tuesday at his home in Chicago. Here’s the Chicago Tribune obituary, and a tribute, “Jack Fuller—mentor, newspaperman, hero,” by longtime Tribune columnist John Kass.

Fuller, in his 1996 book News Values:Ideas for an Information Age, made the case that editors should continue to play a crucial role as journalism enters the digital age and readers can more easily pick and choose what they want to read. From the book:

At the MIT Media Lab, they think the future of newspapers is something they call The Daily Me, an electronically delivered collection of articles that fit the individual reader’s interests and that are selected by computerized “intelligence agents” that take material from all sorts of sources (newspapers, official documents, individual comments, anything at all that flows digitally down the electromagnetic pipeline)….

But as we have seen, readers expect newspapers to deliver more than useful bits and bytes, and we’d better be careful not to lose sight of this as we try to navigate the changes ahead.

Newspapers have a human character. The first problem with The Daily Me is that it does not. On the most basic level, it does not offer any serendipity. Because a human being as unique and complex as the reader chooses what a traditional newspaper includes, the reader always stands the chance of finding in it things that satisfy an interest he did not know he had….

People come to newspapers craving a unifying human presence: the narrator in a piece of fiction, the guide who knows the way, or the colleague whose views one values. They want a synthesizer who can pull a world together from the fragments….

As we have seen, readers don’t just want random snatches of information flying at them from out of the ether. They want information that hangs together, makes sense, has some degree of order to it. They want knowledge rather than just facts, perhaps a little wisdom.

They expect personality, too. I don’t mean celebrity. Big-name columnists have something to do with the personality of a paper, but they’re only one part of it. A newspaper’s voice isn’t a solo. It’s more like a chorus, but still unmistakable. Like Sir Georg Solti’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra or Miles Davis’s great quintet.

They want a sense of character. They want their newspaper to stand for something. This begins with honesty and the related news values. But it also may include such qualities as compassion, tough-mindedness, moral courage, and even perhaps a big of stubbornness. A little civility would be welcome these days, too. Character is vital to the future of newspapers.

And people want leadership. The Daily Me can’t provide it, because it does not reach any community. It is Private. Inward-looking. Lonely….

Ultimately, readers will probably want the choices of people who make interesting choices. These we will call editors.

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In July 1996 Fuller spoke at a Freedom Forum Author Series luncheon in Washington, D.C. He inspired other editors and I saved some notes from his talk—fragmentary as luncheon notes tend to be:

“What a newspaper should be: Useful. Informative. Entertaining. Ahead of the curve.  Help readers be the person they want to be.”

“Role of a publication: Character. Compassion. Moral courage. Tough-mindedness.”

“Reporting by leaks is cheap, lazy investigative reporting.”

———-
Don Graham, former publisher of the Washington Post, said of Fuller on Facebook:

“The world is a poorer place today. If you knew Jack Fuller, you know what I mean. If you didn’t know Jack, I’m sorry for you.

“Lucky newspapers are edited by people who love the place they live, the news they cover, and the people they work with. Jack had all of that and—no other word will do—wisdom. He got it from service in Vietnam, a lifetime reading (and writing) great books, a love of music (as listener and performer) and a great teacher in former attorney-general Edward Levi.

“What a man. Every day in his company was something to treasure.”

———-
Jim Warren, former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, in today’s media column for Poynter:

“Jack Fuller, who passed away Tuesday of cancer at age 69, was a journalist, lawyer, prolific author-novelist, musician, Chicago Tribune editor and publisher, corporate CEO, jazz aficionado, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer, promoter of women, skeptic of the politically correct, a rigorous thinker and all-around decent guy.

“He was Chicago-grounded and Ivy League sophisticated (Yale Law classmate of Bill and Hillary). He covered fires, the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court and segued seamlessly from newsroom to corporate boardroom. He could discuss the Constitution with Antonin Scalia, a onetime Justice Department colleague under Attorney General Edward Levi, or Wynton Marsalis riffs with Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich. As a Pulitzer board member, Fuller launched a personal crusade to expand the music category, which had been dominated by classical, and it resulted in the 1997 first-time win by Marsalis….

“He had a strong foundation as the winds of changes shifted, as Bob Dylan would put it. He did well by doing good and maintained an admirable integrity and sophisticated, cerebral intellect that mixed the playful and self-effacing. He had a great laugh. On the precipice of a new age of media pandering, he wasn’t flawless but elevated most everything around him. It’s a pretty good legacy.”

———

Dick Babcock, former editor of Chicago magazine, and, like Fuller, a lawyer-turned-journalist, adds:

“I used to kid that he had the best resume in the Midwest, and I wasn’t really joking. But Don Graham is right, there was a solidity and confidence to him that was immediately apparent, and yet he was good fun—quick with a smile, never pompous, wonderfully informed across a range of subjects.”

 

 

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