Remembering Jack Fuller: An Editor Who Elevated Most Everything Around Him

Jim Warren, Poynter’s media columnist, had some good words today about the late Chicago Tribune editor Jack Fuller:

Fuller, who was as close as the newspaper industry will get to a philosopher-king, was celebrated Friday at a Chicago gathering attended by many former Chicago Tribune and Tribune Co. colleagues and media luminaries such as Donald Graham.

He was son of a newspaper reporter who worked for Stars & Stripes in Saigon during the Vietnam War, was a Yale Law classmate of Bill and Hillary Clinton, worked in the post-Watergate Justice Department for the mythic Attorney General Edward Levi, rose to be a Pulitzer Prize editorial writer and, then, editor and publisher of The Tribune. Eventually, he became president of Tribune Company’s publishing division. All along, he wrote novels and played jazz piano.

There was wonderful jazz played and his writings read aloud. My favorite moments included Seth Lipsky, editor of The New York Sun, remembering a Saigon farewell party for a colleague when Fuller, their boss, punctured the conviviality with, “Men, we must never think of the war as the ‘good old days.'” Another favorite: Close chum Mike Conway, a lawyer, recalling Fuller being threatened with expulsion if he didn’t reveal his sources for a story in the Northwestern student paper. Fuller replied, “You’ll throw me out for not revealing my sources? You’ll make my career!”

Tribune columnist John Kass read from the non-fiction News Values: Ideas for the Information Age, where Fuller reminded that “a newspaper’s voice isn’t a solo. It’s more like a chorus, but still unmistakable. Like Georg Solti’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra or Miles Davis’s great quintet.

“Readers expect personality (‘I don’t mean celebrity’) and a sense of character, to stand for something that starts with honesty and news values. But it may also include such qualities as compassion, tough-mindedness, moral courage and even perhaps a bit of stubbornness. A little civility would be welcome these days, too.”

Yup. And those virtues applied to Jack Fuller in full.

Warren was Washington bureau chief for the Tribune from 1993 to 2001, then Tribune managing editor until 2008. Fuller, who died June 21 at the age of 69, started as a copy boy at the Tribune and was editor of the paper from 1989 to 1997 and president of the Tribune Publishing Company until 2005.

Here are excerpts from a June 22 post about Fuller:

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

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.”
Jim Warren, former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune:

“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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