Bob Giles: Detroit News Editor and Publisher Led the Paper to a Pulitzer Prize

From a Detroit News obit by Mark Hicks headlined “Former Detroit News editor and publisher Bob Giles, who led the paper to a Pulitzer, dies at 90”:

Former Detroit News editor and publisher Bob Giles ― who led the paper to a Pulitzer Prize and spent decades shaping newsrooms across the country ― died Monday.

“My dad loved The Detroit News and all his colleagues,” Mr. Giles’ daughter, Megan Cooney, said. “In fact, he asked to wear his Detroit News watch at the end.”

Mr. Giles spent 11 years at The Detroit News, from 1986-97, and left an indelible mark as well as having an impact on hundreds of journalists across the country and world after he left the newspaper and led nonprofit free speech and journalism programs.

In 1994, Lansing Bureau reporters Jim Mitzelfeld and Eric Freedman won the Pulitzer Prize in beat reporting for exposing embezzlement and nepotism in the Michigan Legislature’s House Fiscal Agency. The scandal led to 10 criminal convictions in state and federal court.

Detroit News stories revealed political influence in the award of state contracts and led to tougher oversight of the nonpartisan agency that analyzes tax, budget and other issues for the state House of Representatives.

After the Auditor General’s Office audited the agency’s books for the first time in more than a decade, it found at least $1.8 million in taxpayer money had been stolen, couldn’t be accounted for or was improperly spent. While House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dominic Jacobetti was not criminally charged, the Upper Peninsula Democrat was forced to resign his powerful post.

“Bob was a real champion of great journalism,” said Mitzelfeld, who worked under him as an intern in Rochester, New York, before Mr. Giles hired him at The News in 1988. “Although soft-spoken, Bob worked quietly behind the scenes to assemble an amazing team of top editors and reporters, and then let us loose with his full support to go after the big stories that needed to be told. He took our rivalry with the competing Free Press as serious as anyone, and always got a huge grin when we took the Freep to the cleaners.”

Mitzelfeld, who became a federal prosecutor after winning the Pulitzer, recalled fondly the night when Mr. Giles called him and told him he was a finalist. Then a first year law student at the University of Michigan, he had to keep the secret for a month but was invited back to the newsroom the day the Pulitzers were announced.

“I think he must have had an inkling we were going to win, because seconds after the news came over the AP wire, Bob rolled out a cart of champagne for everybody in the newsroom,” Mitzelfeld said. “I’d never seen him happier.”

At the Akron Beacon Journal, Mr. Giles was managing editor and directed coverage of the Kent State University massacre in May 1970, when members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire on campus Vietnam War protesters, killing four students and wounding nine others. The Beacon Journal won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage.

In 2020, Mr. Giles wrote a book titled “When Truth Mattered: The Kent State Shootings 50 Years Later,” which chronicled the fatal shootings and how the Beacon Journal covered an event that led to a nationwide student strike that closed hundreds of colleges and universities.

“Robert Giles has crafted an absorbing and meticulous story of how one newspaper –– The Akron Beacon Journal –– told the truth about a national tragedy in a time, like our own, when Americans were deeply divided. I’ve never seen a better demonstration of why good journalism matters,” said James Tobin, a former Detroit News reporter, author of “Ernie Pyle’s War: America’s Eyewitness to World War II” and a professor of journalism at Miami University, in a review when it was released.

Mr. Giles also offered readers a “toolbox” of tips for understanding current news events. Among his advice, he wrote: “Careful news consumers should be prepared to watch and listen with some degree of skepticism — even if those sources routinely reinforce your values and beliefs.”

How his career evolved

That insight followed a lengthy, esteemed career in the news business.

The Ohio native attended DePauw University, where he played on the baseball team and became editor and chief of the newspaper, according to the school.

Mr. Giles later earned a master’s degree at Columbia University and served in the Army before joining the Akron Beacon Journal in 1958.

He went on become the executive editor and then editor of the Democrat and Chronicle and the Times-Union in Rochester.

Mr. Giles joined The News as executive editor in May 1986, arriving two weeks after a controversial Joint Operating Agreement was announced between The News and its rival, the Detroit Free Press following Gannett Co.’s purchase of The News. The agreement was approved in late 1989.

“There was a strong sentiment about the JOA in both newsrooms,” he said in a 1997 News article. “The reporters and editors didn’t like the JOA. They didn’t like the compromise. But the real point of the JOA was to ensure the survival of the Free Press. In the sense that it preserved two independent voices, it was a good thing.”

Embracing diversity

At The News, Mr. Giles created a more racially diverse newsroom in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the newspaper hired more Black reporters and editors.

“For me personally, he gave me opportunities to advance along the management track at The Detroit News,” said Luther Keith, a former assistant managing editor who now directs the nonprofit Arise! Detroit. “I never planned to get into management at all. But he really solved some of that tension with me.”

He also was responsible for Deb Price becoming the first newspaper columnist in America to write about gay rights. As a deputy bureau chief in the Washington Bureau, Price began a column in 1992 after she proposed the idea to Mr. Giles and went on to write 900-plus columns over the next 18 years.

“I said, ‘Why don’t you show us some sample columns?’ She gave us a stack that were really well done and they seemed to fit into the idea that it was a changing world, and Deb had a capacity for expressing that,” he told The News after Price died in 2020.

As Mr. Giles wrote in an explanation introducing readers, the column was considered “the first of its kind in daily metropolitan newspapers. While newspapers across America, including our own, have increased news coverage of gay issues, no voice is regularly heard that looks at life from a gay perspective. … I think you will find her column provocative and enlightening.”

Some readers immediately agreed. As recounted in the book Price wrote with her partner, “Say Hi to Joyce: America’s First Gay Column Comes Out,” the publication resulted in enormous attention and some subscriber cancellations.

“I clearly remember that he was unwavering in his support. Even though the paper initially lost subscriptions because of Deb’s column, he just doubled down on supporting it,” said Price’s wife, Joyce Murdoch. “The vitriol with which some people reacted made Bob feel all the more certain it was important to have a calm, reasonable, often funny openly gay voice out there in the world for his readers to read. He took that step when other publishers around the country weren’t ready to.”

Nolan Finley, The News’ editorial page editor, remembers Mr. Giles as “an innovator, who pushed the envelope, including adding the first regular newspaper column on gay issues. He took a lot of heat for that, but stuck to his belief that The News must serve the entire community.”

Mr. Giles also was remembered for pushing The News to focus more on local coverage and find new ways to reach readers. He introduced a weekly insert, OnDetroit, geared toward the city.

“Nothing made Bob happier than when we trounced the Free Press on a big story. He’d grin all day. More than once, when I was metro editor, I’d get an early morning call from a very happy Bob when we landed a big scoop,” said Judy Diebolt. “He also let his displeasure be known if the situation were reversed. He’d call me at home and ask: ‘What’s our plan to get back in the game?’ And you knew that you damn well better have a plan.”

Mr. Giles was known for how he navigated the newsroom.

“He always seemed to be very even keeled and remained calm, unlike some others,” Keith said. “He was a very good listener.”

That touch extended beyond the workplace.

“Bob and his wife, Nancy, were legendary hosts, and their annual Christmas parties, back in the day when companies held lavish spreads, were the most sought-after event of the season,” said Chris Rizk, assistant city editor at The News. “Nancy would greet you at the door of their lovely home in the Grosse Pointes and hold your hand as she walked you into her home. Bob was my first big-city newspaper publisher, and I’m forever grateful he took a chance on me.”

Diebolt recalled him as a gracious manager adept at recognizing staffers’ professional and personal needs.

“I saw numerous instances of his compassion and generosity when someone on the staff was seriously ill or caring for a dying relative,” she said. “More than once I heard him say: “Don’t worry about the paper, this is the most important thing in your life right now. Do what you need to do. For me, he was a great boss and a great friend.”

Mr. Giles was publisher and editor when six labor unions struck The News and Free Press in July 1995 as the newspapers pushed to get more than modest profits after the joint operating agreement took five years to get them in the black.

As he pushed for merit pay, where raises would be awarded based on merit instead of given out automatically as part of a contract, Mr. Giles become the public face of Detroit News management in a labor-friendly town.

In 1997, three months after the unions agreed to end a 19-month strike against the newspapers, he left to become executive director of the Freedom Forum’s Media Studies Center in New York.

“Everything Bob did grew out of his belief in the value of good, honest journalism, both to the individual reader and to society as a whole,” Tobin said.

Post-newspaper career

In 2000, he became curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, where he served until 2011. He expanded programs and launched the Nieman Storyboard to help narrative journalists and the Nieman Journalism Lab, which led experiments in new forms of journalism in the internet age.

“Bob leaves behind a community of devoted Nieman Fellows who treasured him for his grace and generosity,” said Nieman Foundation Curator Ann Marie Lipinski. “He cared deeply about the fellows and their families and together with Nancy placed a high value on building support for each year’s fellowship cohort. He well understood the pressures the journalists had been laboring under, and worked hard to create a program that offered inspiration and a path forward.”

Some of his most lasting impact at Nieman was on the annual fellowships he granted to journalists trying to expand their skills and reimagine their places in a turbulent industry. Mr. Giles was a Nieman fellow himself in the 1960s, according to the foundation.

“In 2008, many of us in my class entered the program in the midst of tremendous media turmoil, particularly in print,” said Ernie Suggs, a senior reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who was a Nieman fellow. “While the fellowship gave us a place, Bob provided us a lifeline and relief from the trauma with his calm, quiet and reassuring leadership. He became a greatly valued and loved part of all of our families and lives, and many of us still talked to him regularly, even years after our fellowships ended. He will be missed.”

Tommy Tomlison, a former columnist for the Charlotte Observer and a 2008-09 Nieman fellow, agreed.

“Bob changed the lives of so many journalists just by choosing them for a Nieman,” said Tomlinson, author of the memoir “The Elephant in the Room.” “And once they got there, he and Nancy were the perfect hosts — warm and wise and charming. He made the fellowship a dinner party you never wanted to leave.”

Even in his later years, Mr. Giles kept in touch with Detroit News leaders.

““Bob continued to be a friend to The News even in retirement,” said Gary Miles, editor and publisher of The News. “He offered thoughts when I called for his perspective, and I will miss his wisdom and grace.”

In 2012, he received a Yankee Quill Award from the Academy of New England Journalists and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Outside the newsroom, Mr. Giles led numerous newspaper organizations, including the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Associated Press Managing Editors.

He also was president of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications and authored a textbook, “Newsroom Management: A Guide to Theory and Practice.”

During his retirement in northern Michigan, Giles was active as a volunteer in civic and cultural groups, including the National Writers Series and the International Affairs Forum.

Staff Writer Kara Berg contributed.

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