John Curley retired from Gannett in January 2001 after more than 30 years with the company. During that time, he served as an editor at the Rochester (N.Y.) Times-Union; as editor and later publisher of the Courier-News in Bridgewater, N.J.; and later as publisher of the News-Journal in Wilmington, DE. He was head of Gannett News Service, during which time the news service won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The first editor of USA Today, Curley was a member of Gannett's Board of Directors from 1983 until his retirement. In May 1996, he was selected as chairman of the Newspaper Association of America and in 1999 he was made an honorary alumnus of Penn State.
October 5, 2010
Penn State University
Interviewer: Russell Frank
Videographer: Karen Bryan
INTERVIEWER: Let’s just start with a nice softball question about how you got interested in journalism and how you got interested in being a journalist.
CURLEY: I like sports, I played sports and got to know the reporters for the Easton Express—in those days it was the Easton Express, now it’s the Express Times and helped them with high school coverage when they needed it-someone to do statistics and as a result, when they needed people to do the stuff they weren’t going to cover, I was the first guy they turned to. So that’s how I got into it, as a sports stringer who got paid 12¢ an inch. Which was not bad in those days. And as a result, then I got to do more and more, they hired me when I got out of high school and I worked that job for five summers.
INTERVIEWER: And was that doing sports or doing other…?
CURLEY: No, once I did the sports, then I got the internship and I did city, sports, whatever, obits, whatever they needed. Whoever was on vacation the first summer, they went a little more cautiously because they didn’t know whether I could cover meetings. By the third summer or fourth summer, I was covering more council meetings than I ever wanted to see.
INTERVIEWER: So those were summers while you were a college student?
CURLEY: Yeah, the one before, and then up to and following graduation, when I went in the army. And then when I went in the army, I was sent to New York and thanks to their recommendation, I went to the AP and I got hired on the spot so I was able to work for the AP while I was still in the army for two years and then went to Columbia. So I did a lot of night and weekend work for the Associated Press through those three years.
INTERVIEWER: And why did you decide to go to Columbia?
CURLEY: Columbia was said to be the best school in the country for journalism—the Masters level—and I was in New York. Besides, I like New York and basically I also got a full scholarship.
INTERVIEWER: But you were already up and running in a way, in terms of your journalism career. You probably could have just kept going from job to job.
CURLEY: I didn’t need to do that. I kept working when I was in school. I worked nights for AP so I left nothing on the table in terms of experience. I just kept going and some weeks it would be four nights in stead of five, others it might be three depending on what was going on at Columbia. But I just stayed with it. But I thought I would teach one day because my parents taught and I thought a Masters degree would be desirable.
INTERVIEWER: So that’s why they hired you here [laughing].
CURLEY: Because I had a Masters from Columbia [laughing]! But in the long term scheme of things, I thought that might work.
INTERVIEWER: So we’re talking about the early 60s at Columbia, so one of the things I’m really curious about is to what extent did they talk about ethics as part of the journalism curriculum…it probably wasn’t a stand-alone course. Was it built into things at all? To what extent?
CURLEY: It wasn’t built-in to the extent that it’s built-in today. I think it’s been an evolving thing because the old-time reporters—I’ll say particularly in New York because there were probably 6-8 papers at one time—went back and forth and had newspaper wars and probably tested the ethics of the people at those papers. There was a textbook we had by John Hohenberg who was a major figure in the field and was a Pulitzer Prize administrator and who I also had for several courses, and John had a lot of thoughts on the fact that the professional journalist is ethical, does the right thing all the time, has high standards, and is expected to maintain those standards. We didn’t have a lot of issues to talk about. There wasn’t a lot that was going on in terms of ethical problems that came to light. There was only one that I can recall. The old Brooklyn Eagle, which was Brooklyn’s newspaper, had been revived the year that we were in school and one day there was a front page headline, a major headline, 72pt that said, Death Threat Bared to Union Leader. When you read the story somebody was clearly saying, ‘sit down you idiot or you’ll have a heart attack. And we all thought that was a little…even for a paper trying to be rehabilitated, that went way too far. That’s the only one I remember from that era particularly.
INTERVIEWER: So, if he was calling on journalists to be ethical and maintain standards but, how do you know what that means? How do you know what the standards are and what it means to be ethical?
CURLEY: I think the assumption was, you would know that you should do everything that made sense and was right in the context of the time—and they did talk about things like that. When you handed in stories you had to edit the content and so on and we had people from the New York Times and Herald Tribune who were on the staff and of course, they edited the copy and we got to talk to them about some of the things going on. There were no major problems in New York that year that came to light as a result of an ethical situation. I might hasten to add there was a newspaper strike too. As a result many, many days that year were without newspapers. It was one of those, trying to get the printers to agree to better terms so that they wouldn’t have to have bogus type set. That took a long time to resolve.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think the expectation was that people would just kind of inhale the sense of journalism standards and ethical standards just by being in the newsroom and being around professionals, that you didn’t really need to talk about it and explain it?
CURLEY: I would say probably just because it was the era and most people thought that that was the thing to do. I can’t tell what the thinking of Columbia was, but I don’t think they were pushed to go into that particular field because there were no issues on the table to deal with.
INTERVIEWER: So why do you think, in terms of the education of journalists, why do you think that has now become an important component? What’s changed?
CURLEY: To be honest with you, I think some of it became fashionable, just because a school could get a leg up on another school. I also think there were enough cases building over the years that you could have case studies and I think that people became more serious about maintaining standards. You see books on the subject, The Freedom to run & Poynter Center put one out on principles of ethical coverage, Robert Hayman who had been the editor of the St. Petersburg newspaper was the author of that and there have just been more efforts to do work like that.
INTERVIEWER: So I don’t get the sense that you think that in the days before formal training in ethics that journalism was some kind of cesspool of shady activity and then finally people reached the point where they said, hey we better get our house in order and start training.
CURLEY: I didn’t get that sense. But I worked in small to mid-sized markets. While I worked in New York for the Associated Press, I didn’t come across situations that came up that looked like there was something going on.
INTERVIEWER: So when you think about the editors that you worked under, at some of these papers when you were first starting out, and how they handled a situation, you don’t recall—sort of attempts to instruct you, here’s what you need to do to do this job right or to be an upstanding reporter or anything like that? Were there situations that they themselves were dealing with where you were sitting on the sidelines watching how they handled some of these tricky situations?
CURLEY: The only tricky situations I saw is when you had, let’s say, a strike in town. One side wanted more than the other side and the city editor basically—and the reporter covering it—basically told them, it didn’t work that way. And the city editor that I worked for was extraordinarily good, Bob McGiffert by name, he went on to be the faculty advisor to The Daily Lantern at Ohio State and then he went to teach at The University of Montana. And McGiffert by all rights should have been the executive editor but—
INTERVIEWER: This was which paper?
CURLEY: The Easton Express. But there were three people of equal, the publisher thought were equal strength and each one of them got a piece of the pie, if you will.
INTERVIEWER: What about routine practices that were in place then that people frown upon now? Can you recall anything like that? Along the lines of…when we talked to Gene he talked about local fat cats sending cases of booze over at Christmas time and that kind of thing.
CURLEY: I don’t think Easton had any fat cats. Philadelphia was a big city and I think if you worked in major markets…
INTERVIEWER: I think he was talking about Arkansas, Blackwell.
CURLEY: Oh, Blackwell, that would even be a more tempting state I would suspect but no, I didn’t really come across that. There wasn’t even a party given by people that you got invited to or things like that. When I was at the State House, once a year, the governor had a reception or party for the State House press corps but that’s routine at the White House and everywhere else, there was nothing wrong with that. I thought it was good exchange, and the key legislators were there and it was pretty civilized and not contested.
INTERVIEWER: So not a whole lot of over…
CURLEY: I didn’t run into any...
INTERVIEWER: What about pressures involving advertisers and not wanting to run afoul of big advertisers, anything like that?
CURLEY: I think the newspapers in those days were so solid in terms of revenue that I don’t think that kind of stuff would wash. In fact, the few times people, car dealers or real estate people came in and asked for something when I was in Jersey, it had more to do with they wanted their legitimate stores in the paper. That they didn’t think they were getting enough good ink for what they did, and they probably had a good point in some of the things where they had awards and things of that nature. Only once did some real estate person threaten to pull ads and I told them to go ahead, I’d take it out of the paper for them, because I knew they had to advertise to get the returns. But it was an era when newspapers were pretty well off in terms of revenue and that worked well. The flipside is, even though newspapers aren’t especially well-off today, I don’t think it would change the mix much because most editors and publishers are absolute in their determination to be straight. Now, we can probably find one a year that goes off the deep and narrow but I haven’t seen any evidence of that lately.
INTERVIEWER: Okay. But it’s an interesting point to explore though, the idea that…the link between ethics and being so financially robust. The idea that…the era that you’re talking about, the 1960s and 70s lets say, that the newspaper business was so strong that you didn’t have to take any guff from anybody, in a way. You weren’t susceptible or vulnerable to anybody’s pressure because you could just flex your own muscles and just say, back off.
CURLEY: So, nowadays we have a situation where as a result of the net, things have weakened. The only change that I’ve seen or have experienced is, a number of newspapers are running ads on the break pages. In other words, the cover pages of the newspaper. And they’re getting paid premiums for them, simply that they get a percentage higher than the normal rate to run them there and that’s the one exception I think I’ve seen to the way things were. Now, there are fewer ads in the papers too and we all know there have been staff cuts and things like that but I haven’t heard of any bizarre stories.
INTERVIEWER: You said you covered the State House in Trenton and one of the things that, especially from that era, was there a problem of reporters being too cozy with some of these legislators? Were there instances where reporters knew about shady stuff in people’s private lives that they just kept under their hats whereas 20 years later they might have reported it. Can you recall anything along those lines?
CURLEY: When I was there, there were a couple of counties in New Jersey, one was highly Republican, and then one was the opposite – Democratic, where it was said that the political reporters in those counties were paid by the parties to do public relations, in other words to take care of them. But, at the State House I didn’t see any of that, but I suspect it actually did exist because it was always a topic of conversation that these guys were taken care of. But I think it was more of a thing where there was a concentration of one party or another as opposed to the general run of things across the state. No, I didn’t see that really.
INTERVIEWER: What about in general, do you think newspapers were more respectful in people’s privacy than they later became?
CURLEY: I’m certain of that, and I’m certain that if we had pried or looked we’d have probably found some things, but I don’t think anything came across as that obvious. Later, after I was gone from that market and from New Jersey, a governor was said to be involved with his close assistant, or cabinet officer or whatever and papers would refer to her as the governors’ close associate so I think that is as far as it went.
INTERVIEWER: What about, when I think about the history of New Jersey, the 1960s, I think about the way Newark erupted in racial tension and so on, were you involved in any way with editing, maybe as an editor with some of that coverage?
CURLEY: Trenton also erupted and Plainfield also erupted and I was at the Associated Press as the state editor when some of that started and as such, I was called an inside guy. I was running the desk and taking dictation and putting stories together. Was I out covering that, no I wasn’t, but I was there during the process. Later at various papers, you saw smaller riots or smaller flare-ups in some cases where there was picketing but that didn’t rise to the level of Newark.
INTERVIEWER: Because one thing I’m curious about is…a lot of journalism in the 50s and 60s, a lot of people would see the coverage as having been kind of racist. That there’s sort of a kneejerk siding with the authorities and treating the people who are taking to the streets and burning things as just hooligans or thugs or something like that and not sort of recognizing the real grievances of those populations, those kinds of things. Do you have a sense, thinking back to the coverage whether it was even-handed or balanced or were there any problems with it?
CURLEY: I didn’t see any where I worked. I didn’t see any evidence of racial problems or ignoring a faction. We also had in Jersey, a governor at that time—this is not the person I mentioned in connection to the other thing—Dick Hughes who is a highly moral guy and he had, his chief aide was a black fella who was the eyes and ears of some of the things going on and I think because governor Hughes really wanted to make this thing work that he was attentive to any of the situations that might develop. Now once all hell broke loose, sometimes it was just difficult to contain it.
INTERVIEWER: And in general, apart from all those riots, in the paper that you wrote for and as an AP editor, just coverage of minority communities in general, how do you think the coverage was?
CURLEY: I think the coverage really picked up by that point. I think we’re talking about a lifetime where some of that I think was perhaps true 10, 15 years before and manifested itself later because of the fact that people became a little bit more militant, and we’re going to do something about it but a lot of that reflected by what had happened maybe 10, 15 years old before that. And frankly, in Jersey, that state was pretty buttoned down in terms of racial fairness and you know, people in office, different mixes, ethnically and color and you know. I suspect if we went back to the 40s or 50s we’d probably find some stuff in papers and the only thing I remember or somebody telling me that, I asked for a particular file copy of a paper, why a section of a township was called Coontown and the guy said, well that’s because all the black people live there. And I said well, when did you stop that? Well, we stopped that 10 years ago or something like that. So I think there was a lifetime factor. And I think housing was also a problem and it wasn’t a problem just because of our ghettos, it was a problem because people weren’t making enough sometimes to get different housing, so I think there was a little bit of that going on. I don’t think the papers reflected it.
INTERVIEWER: What about those sins of omission kinds of problems? You called the one criticism of journalism in those days, that the newsroom itself wasn’t very diverse, so you have this white reporting staff that just doesn’t notice the problems of inner city neighborhoods very much. So here’s a very real social problem that needs to be reported. Were they or weren’t they kind of ignored?
CURLEY: I think that was probably true. I think there were social problems that people didn’t really know about because the staffs were, if not all white, mostly white. I know that Gannett was committed on USA Today for example, that’s 20 years later, you have a percentage of minorities that reflect the percentage in the country which was at that point, roughly 18-20%. And I don’t think people were doing that much before that, although the American Society of Newspaper Editors began to work toward that goal. But if you see that…a lot of papers, some in the South but not all, did not reflect their communicates so I think that was a problem. I think it varied widely from town to town and state to state.
INTERVIEWER: How much do you think that Watergate and the coverage of Vietnam were the trickledown like the whole…journalists working everywhere in terms of being more aggressive, more adversarial toward whatever officials were telling, whatever the official line was, whether it was coming from local cops, local government, legislators.
CURLEY: I’d say it was a big ramp up just because I think reporters, at any level saw it was so much misinformation that I think they became more alert in their own markets. Now, there may not have been that much to deal with in their own markets, but I think they did step it up. The flipside of Woodward and Bernstein probably was that people saw goblins where they were none so, while it triggered investigative reporting and a lot of people started to put on investigative reporters who hadn’t had them, the flipside is you’re looking for things that may not have been there. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as you don’t put the story in the paper when there’s nothing there. Bernstein was in New Jersey, was at the Journal before he went to Washington and he had won a couple awards covering the town next to Newark, for solid reporting, so he wasn’t somebody who just joined the parade. He was good at it from the get-go.
INTERVIEWER: Well, were there young guys coming into the business in the 1960s who had a much more activist and sort of antiestablishment streak and there was sort of a cultural shift from sort of the old guard that might have been more go-along get-along with the power structure?
CURLEY: There probably were after the Woodward-Bernstein situation but it probably had more to do with the fact that the universities were probably ramping up their programs with investigative reporting and lots more how to do it with records and things like that, and I suspect that triggered the information base of new reporters getting hired.
INTERVIEWER: So just to jump back to Columbia, how valuable was that experience for you anyway in terms of what you learned there in terms of what you would have learned if you had just stayed working on the streets?
CURLEY: Well, I was working on the streets. The reason I went to Columbia was because I didn’t have to work that up. And if it was a call between one or the other, I would not have given up the Associated Press. So I would rate it neutral. I got the degree, I met a lot of people who were sharp in the industry, I met a lot of people who were good at Columbia, as in students, and it was a good experience. But realistically, I wasn’t going to trade one for the other.
INTERVIEWER: And so what about in your career, transitioning from reporting to editing. Why did you decide to go for the newsroom management track instead of just staying…
CURLEY: I decided that probably before I was out of junior high school. I was one of the founders of the Shull Junior High School, maybe even the founder. And in high school I was an editor, I also—because you did everything—wrote too. But I had decided that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to be an editor of a midsized newspaper by the time I was 35ish. To do that you had to become a decent reporter, know what to do in that world and I’ve always told people they ought to be reporters before they become editors and I had no intention of becoming a copy editor. I wanted to be a line editor which is somebody who had a staff and could develop stories and things like that.
INTERVIEWER: So once you were in a position to hire people, what would you look for, in your reporter?
CURLEY: In terms of conversations you could probably determine, I don’t mean in five-minute conversation, but you could probably determine whether those people were ambitious, solid, ethical to the best that you could determine that they were, wanted to do a good job and had some experience. I don’t mean just college experience, but had shown in college that they had had internships done x, y and z and were ready to work for a newspaper size of 50,000. AP, of course, you’ve got people that worked other places so that wasn’t that big a guess as to whether they could do it.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever have to discipline or fire anybody for an ethical lapse or gross ethical violation?
CURLEY: Jesus…we fire people who just didn’t make it because they weren’t strong enough either as writers or reporters. It had nothing to do with ethics but…the only case I recall was an intern, when I was working at the Bridgewater Courier News. An intern from Rutgers who, he was quite good, quite smart and, I think he went into government after he got out of school but he went out on the Republican campaign, we sent him out to cover some republican event and he was going to cover the Democratic and he was going to get those secondary political assignments during the summer, the stuff that went on at night so that the guy that mainly covered the big stuff or the debates, didn’t have to do all that. And this student wanted to do it and he was quite good, he had established that he could do this kind of work. But he went down to a Republican rally and started telling them—I got it backward—he went to the Republican rally, covered it okay, but then went to the Democratic rally and told them what the Republicans were doing and what they were up to, so he got himself involved in the process so because he was an intern, we just told him, you know, you should have known better, we didn’t anticipate he’d do that but he said, he just was more aligned with the Democrats and we said well you just can’t cover politics the rest of the summer. But you know, he was going into government anyway it turned out. That was the only one and perhaps he should have been counseled before he went out but then again, in that era, nobody expected you to go out and cover one and tell the other one what they were doing. That was the only one I can recall.
INTERVIEWER: Can you recall any times when any place that you worked was just a barrage of phone calls of angry readers or letters you know, someplace where the public got really upset with something that you or your paper had done?
CURLEY: The gun lobby was always active and occasionally there’d be an editorial that guns should be controlled, and then you get a barrage of phone calls. But if you really tracked them, most of them came from outside the market so as the campaign from wherever, orchestrated from usually a different county. It was one that was quite funny in Rochester, NY where the Albany paper was a Times Union and the Rochester paper was a Times Union and one night we started getting calls about some story about, you guys are always covering the Italians in a negative fashion and—the mob, etc. As I was going through the paper, I was working nights, I couldn’t find any stories. And finally I asked the next person where they were calling from. And they were calling from a suburb of Albany. So some idiot had told them that the Times Union who was over in Rochester and this group marshaled the calls, but they called their own newspaper. So I tried to convince the next caller of that and ultimately, about the third or fourth one got it but it was one of those that you say hey, you know, get a little smarter.
INTERVIEWER: What about having to print any major retractions or clarifications or stuff that was really sort of embarrassing for the paper.
CURLEY: Well, the one that Gannett was involved with was the Cincinnati Enquirer with the banana company that was involved with treatment of workers and things. You know what, since I wasn’t involved in that, not even indirectly, the lawyers got into that one, the Enquirer got in trouble and I can not recall the specifics except that I knew there were some things done that shouldn’t have been done.
INTERVIEWER: The guy hacked into their voicemail system is what it was.
CURLEY: And though the story may have been true, at least one guy had done that and he had gotten the way to do it from an employer, or ex-employee and basically had worked it. That was the most embarrassing one I think. But other than that, I don’t recall any major, other than routine.
INTERVIEWER: Okay, what else do I want to ask you about, I want to ask you about, these days there’s been a lot of discussion about over-reliance on anonymous sources, that we really need to tighten up on policies and only grant anonymity when it’s a really important piece of information and that there’s no other way to get it from a named source and so the implication is that people have been sort of lazy about it and over relying and so I just wonder if, going back again to the 1960s and the 70s, do you remember what the policies were? Was there a policy or was there a problem? When did it become a problem?
CURLEY: I don’t think it was a problem but again, this is a capital city problem or a major market problem. Outside of Washington D.C. you don’t see a heck of a lot of anonymous sources but every time there’s a new data survey or something, the Washington Post says well, we’ve got to tighten up on this policy and they do for about six months and then it lapses, there’s another study and a new managing editor. I think it’s a function of covering Washington. I think at the state capital, you could get some of that although, I don’t ever recall using an anonymous source. Mainly because Jersey was probably so tight as a market that if you couldn’t get something from one person, you could get it from somebody else. And sometimes they tell you stuff that, don’t say where you got it but if you call so-and-so you know, that kind of thing. So I think that became more of a function about the time of Woodward and Bernstein. It happened before but I think it was a major market situation and it started to ramp up. While the New York Times is involved to a great extent too in some of that. I think they’ve tightened it up and it’s probably helped because they really I think, check down on that.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s go to your Gannett years and USA Today, one of the things I wanted to ask you about was when USA Today first got going and the early criticism…people were very quick to be dismissive of this paper as an experiment people were calling it McPaper, that it was news-lite and so on. So, there’s an ethics dimension to that I think which is that, if you’re trying to put out this colorful, splashy looking, easy to read paper because you think it will sell, the concern was that people are not going to be very well informed who have read this paper and isn’t that the principle mission of journalism - to inform citizens. So, you were right in the middle of all that.
CURLEY: Well, the story coverage is probably a lot broader than the mainstream press simply because USA Today covered the country and while you might say The Times covers the country too, they would pick and choose. So we were in the markets and we had reporters doing trend stories and USA Today did a lot more trend stories probably than they got credit for. And the stories were short, but that’s because you used the cutlines and the captions and the hot corner which was down in the lower corner with information to give to the readers. But we didn’t mind the McDonald’s, McPaper reference because we thought it was funny and it was a rallying cry to say, you know, these people don’t even get the fact that the stories are to be clearer. And that was the case in a lot of papers, they weren’t written well. But no, it didn’t bother us but we had a heck of a lot more in there than you get credit for. On the other hand, because it was a startup, you weren’t going to get people coming from major market cities simply because it was a crapshoot. And until I’d say five years out, that didn’t come about, and then you started to pick up people, I’d say with major credentials and by then you had trained people that had pretty good reputations themselves. Having said that though in the sports field, we broke stuff that nobody else got and forced papers in a number of markets to really change the way they covered sports and that did include the behind the scenes kind of stuff on cultural issues.
INTERVIEWER: That brings me to Arthur Ashe, I hadn’t thought about Arthur Ashe until just this minute. That’s become sort of a classic in the hit parade of journalism ethics case studies. The Arthur Ashe has AIDS and it was USA Today that reported it. Can you recall—
CURLEY: I wasn’t there. I was removed, I was in corporate as they call it. Yes, I knew they were going to cover the story the next day because they called me and told me, but the background was that Ashe had gone public because USA Today was going to cover the story and the story was written actually, by a guy that knew him quite well, the tennis reporter who I also happened to be friendly with, and they thought that because he was a public figure that it was a story. That was their thinking.
INTERVIEWER: What do you think about that just as an observer?
CURLEY: I agree with it. I think that somebody at that level, I couldn’t even conceive today that that story wouldn’t have gotten out before it did.
INTERVIEWER: His argument was, I’m now retired from tennis, I’m less of a public figure than I was before and something that affects me, my family, the people close to me, so personally, how come I don’t get to decide whether or not to make this information public?
CURLEY: Well, if The National Enquirer, I don’t think they’d have held back. I’m just trying to be funny because we had a class today on some of that stuff and the fact is, I think that story was going to be reported and it happened the guy who got it, the tennis reporter got it and went with it and the editor of USA Today decided to go with it so. As I said, I did agree with it, I didn’t give it a lot of thought at the time because I didn’t think it was going to be that controversial.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s go back to the sort of the planning stages of USA Today just because, you know, that paper really was pretty revolutionary in many ways, its use of color and so on and going coast to coast.
CURLEY: The reason the color is revolutionary is because the other people didn’t have color presses. That was the long and short of it. Except in Florida where they had a lot of color in newspaper.
INTERVIEWER: Anyway, it was a real departure in lots of ways; it must have been an exciting thing to be involved with.
CURLEY: Yeah it was. We started the ramp up and the process was sort of organized in the calendar. By this time you’ve got to have this done. The hiring was the big thing and to get the hiring off the ground, we borrowed people from Gannett papers who were not only eager but willing to come to work and you know, get the experience. And the idea was they’d work at USA Today for 3 or 4 months and then revert back to their paper or stay. The decision was theirs entirely, unless they just didn’t work out, which wasn’t the case too often. And so we hired, I’m going to say a dozen planning editors, people who were going to run the sections and maybe a deputy and then we kept going. They’d hire the next wave, these weren’t temps, these were you know, long term. And then by June-ish, before the September 15th startup, then we really ramped up and, we had a lot of applications actually coming in and started to make those decisions when we got started. We realized rather quickly that we needed, I’m going to say another hundred people. Mostly in graphics and photo because that was the new thrust of the paper, we had underestimated what we needed there. The other sections—sports we were pretty much on target we knew what we were doing, the money section we needed to beef up simply because to be competitive in that world you needed more New York staffing and we were able to get some from magazines and also from people that just were a little lower on the curve than people working at the New York Times and so that went together pretty much and by the end of the year, three months after we were into it, I think we would say that we were pretty much at the staff level we needed at that stage.
INTERVIEWER: Refresh my memory, where were you when the planning of it began?
CURLEY: Actually, when the planning of it began, I was the general manager, the VP of news for Gannett News Service, and I was in the Washington Bureau and then they started to plan it.
INTERVIEWER: I should probably know this history but I don’t so, was it one person’s brainchild pretty much?
CURLEY: Yeah, the chairman and CEO Al Neuharth, it was his idea and he, with his lieutenant John Quinn, executive vice president for news, started working on it with others. And then they had a planning team, a research team of 4 or 5 people that happened to include my brother—he was a news guy with marketing and research skills—and a few others, and they started the ramp up. And then, I went to Wilmington’s publisher and then they got to a stage where they were going to make the call, they made the call after Lou Harris did a lot of research and confirmed that there was probably a market. And then they started putting that team in place that I talked about, and that’s when I came back to Washington at the end of ’81, early ’82, along with others.
INTERVIEWER: You know, one thing that strikes me when I’ve taught news writing classes you know, we’ve looked at coverage of major stories comparatively. Here’s USA Today’s lead, here’s the New York Times, here’s The Washington Post and so on and more often than not, USA Today has the best lead and I wonder like, was there somebody who was particularly sort of directing the writing, it had it’s very specific vision about how the paper should be written that was going to distinguish it from some of the other papers?
CURLEY: I would say that everybody on the planning team knew that we had to have the clarity, the shorter sentences if you will. The ‘cover as much information as possible’ in say, eight inches, but it could be fifteen. And that was a concept that we bought into and if people who came in on either loan or as part of the mix, couldn’t get it down, that wasn’t going to work. So I’d say that everybody bought into the concept. It was Neuharth’s idea, but the people editing the paper made it work. Now, having said that, some of the people who were quite good, I mean, good writers from wherever, couldn’t really do that. Because they did a lot of narrative, they were long form writers as we say and it wasn’t going to work, so they went back to wherever they were and we really pushed it. Now, I did that in class too, when the president has his whatever and there’s a major policy speech, I’ll take 3 or 4 leads and put them up and we’ll vote based on what’s the clearest, what’s the—USA Today wins all the time. The Times usually loses all the time.
INTERVIEWER: They do too many clauses.
CURLEY: Yeah, they’re complicated stories and it’s like, by the time you get through it, particularly a Pentagon story—Pentagon stories are, they could really benefit by a little editing there.
INTERVIEWER: Well they just try to pack them with so much information.
CURLEY: McClatchy is even more complex but you know, the Centre Daily uses McClatchy but they tend to go with one extra clause more than the New York Times.
INTERVIEWER: So it must have been a tremendously gratifying thing though, that this paper that people thought, this is not going to last and this is a piece of fluff roundup. First of all lasting, but second of all, influencing the doing of journalism everywhere including the New York Times. One of the things I do in class too is I’ll show them what the New York Times looks like today and how influenced the New York Times is, design-wise by USA Today, how much USA Today pushed the New York Times, first of all to move to color, have bigger photos, nicer graphics, just much more attention to design which the New York Times was just the most boring.
CURLEY: It took them a while to get there though. Actually, it didn’t come easy to them.
INTERVIEWER: Until the 90s I think.
CURLEY: Yeah, it took them years. Some of the other people who jumped on certain things got there fast like Boston, Dallas, Atlanta, they moved more quickly but the Times still fights its way back, depending on who’s on the desk and who’s working but the only question I had in my mind was whether the advertising would be there. I knew we could sell it, I just had that feel, but because we were going to have late sports and we were going to have different stuff and it was going to be appealing. The question was whether the advertising community, New York, the ad people are more conservative than they are given credit for. A lot of people think they’re really creative, on the cutting edge, those people are about the last to get in line on anything. So finally they fell in place about the third, fourth and fifth year. Before there was some, it wasn’t like it was a disaster but it took a while, and in the fifth year, it broke across the line.
INTERVIEWER: So tell me about being a publisher because, when you’ve come out of the newsroom as opposed to coming out of the business side of the paper, you have this strong allegiance to the journalism and the needs of the newsroom and the needs of readers and so on. But once you’re in the publisher’s office, a lot of it involves schmoozing the business community and the finances of the paper. And I’ve had experiences working at papers where the publisher sort of cultivated this sort of image with the business community of deniability. It’s like well you know, if they’re angry, let’s say it’s something that the newsroom has done. The publisher will say well you know those newsroom people, I don’t tell them what to do, they don’t tell me what they’re doing they just are off on their own so it’s kind of a convenient—maybe it’s a fiction but it’s a convenient one so that you don’t incur the wrath of the powers that be, you sort of try to sort of wall yourself off from the newsroom a little bit. I was wondering how that played out.
CURLEY: I would say about 40% of publishers were ‘news types.’ Maybe it was 48, maybe it was 38 but, a lot of them had backgrounds in news, some of course had backgrounds in advertising, a few in business, a few in circulation but because of that background I don’t think it played that way as much but I’m sure if somebody came from advertising they probably used that line—those of us who came out of news probably tried to defend whatever it was, or say, that’s not right you’re wrong. And it depended who you were talking to but somebody that was, well I should go—yeah, you could talk sense to them. They may not agree with you but it was on a higher plain. If somebody just had it in for the paper, no matter what was going on or who was there, you didn’t try too hard, you know you just didn’t try to. I didn’t get a lot of that, I got some of it. The biggest thing I got was because I was around and out and went to things, the line I got basically was, “We see more of you than we saw of your predecessor.” And when you get to the town, and Wilmington is a business town, they invite you to things; you go to things; you meet people. The chairman of DuPont called me, Irv Shapiro was a long-standing big-time name and invited me over to a lunch at whatever club and the last thing he said to me was, you know, you’re going to do okay here because you talk to people, you’re around. So, I didn’t say much after that except I did see a lot of people, I went to games, I went to whatever, bought tickets to the Delaware games. Became friendly with Mike Castle who’ll best be remembered for having lost the last Senate primary, Pete DuPont and Joe Biden lived in the neighborhood we saw each other a bunch, and a lot of people like that. I liked the people, genuinely liked the people, so I didn’t have a lot of trouble. I didn’t get too many complaints. Sometimes you get a legitimate complaint you know, just something went wrong but that was okay, that’s part of the game.
INTERVIEWER: Did you miss the newsroom when you went to the boardroom?
CURLEY: I was still in charge, remember I was in charge so, if you’re in charge you’re in charge of the newsroom too. That didn’t mean you did the story budget or anything like that but if you had a story idea it usually was a good one as opposed to some half-ass scheme that somebody came up with. I never considered myself out of that because I was over here.
INTERVIEWER: Can you recall any time that bottom line considerations had to take precedence over journalistic consideration?
INTERVIEWER: Getting blowback for an editor or anybody?
CURLEY: The closest we came to that was when you had a recession or a downturn, you basically froze it. A level that was probably you know, same as last year and that would be then 3% or so less than the year before. You could cut back on, if you’re using a lot of stringers, if you were using a lot of features or buying a lot that you weren’t using, usually that was the first place to look. You’d get that about every three, four, five, six years. One run was about seven years it was just pretty good. So after 2000 things changed.
INTERVIEWER: But you got out just in the nick of time as it turned out.
INTERVIEWER: So looking at what’s going on in the business now and what’s happened the last few years, what do you think about how the decision makers are handling things? Would you do things any differently?
CURLEY: Yeah, the biggest question for me is I guess, why we don’t try to sell this stuff from the papers—some are trying it, there’s experimental things going on, but I would—easy for me to say now, but I think I’d do an introductory rate that I’d try to get the industry together for—you could get any paper who’s part of this group for $5.95 for three months then you’d go to $5.95 a month. But the hard part in dealing with the industry, the different groups, is to get them to agree on something and when we were trying to get national advertising through consortion; that probably took three years. And usually one company for some reason had to have, and usually personalities, had to have the power and the ego and it was just tough to put together and I think one of the strengths of the newspapers are they’re all different. The other side of that is, if they could work together sometimes it would affect everybody favorably. That’s still out there.
INTERVIEWER: Business decisions, to me, also wind up being ethics decisions and so one of the things that some people—looking at what’s going on in the newspaper business now they say, you’re in this period of declining circulation, reduced advertising revenue and then people’s solution to that is to shrink the staff and therefore shrink the coverage and so like, how do you sell this product to people by making it worse? That if people feel like there’s less news, there’s less in the paper, then they’re going to be even less inclined to do business with you so you have this kind of death spiral thing like the more cuts you make, the crummier the paper becomes and the less it serves—the only reason I say this is an ethics issue is because ultimately if your purpose is to serve the public, you’re not really serving the public when you keep cutting the quality and the amount of news in the paper so what’s your take on that?
CURLEY: It’s true. I don’t know what to tell you. I think it’s true, that’ why I’m not working there. I could not work in this environment. If this started earlier, I’d have been gone. I’d just quit. I couldn’t do it. I sympathize with the people. A lot of people have got to eat, that’s out there too, but I think it’s a real tough…that’s why I’m hoping that the revenue, some of the net stuff, but it’s an issue. A major…you don’t—if a major city paper slows down a little bit you might not see it as much because there’s still a lot going on, say Philadelphia. You and I know that as good as the Harrisburg paper (in State College) is in a lot of ways, I know what’s missing. You know, instinctively, it’s not the paper it was 10 years ago but hey what are you going to do? Up here (in State College) though when you go from, and I might be slightly off by the numbers but you go from 9 reporters to 6, you’re lucky if you see a Monday paper that’s got more than a picture page.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, two or three staff byline stories.
CURLEY: I’m not going to criticize them though because I know what’s going on. And the worst cases, they go under, so I think that’s why they’re fighting and I think, we’ve got to see over the next 2-5 years how this thing plays out.
INTERVIEWER: What do you think is going to happen? What do you think is going to happen in terms of a) you know, size of papers, if they’re ever going to get big again and b) do you think we’re going to get to the point and how soon where everybody stops printing and it’s all just going to be online?
CURLEY: I can’t see that, myself, the stop printing although some have done it. And some have done it just because the markets were small and they were the second paper in the market. I don’t see that as short-term or the mid-term. Twenty years out, it’s hard to know. I wouldn’t have guessed that it would have gotten like this three years ago, because three years ago the trend line was lose a little hang in. Now it’s like, you’re losing 9% circulations that are 3 ½ and 4. You’re not getting more net revenue than you were a year or two ago or if you are it’s minimal, it’s just hard to know. And I’m not sure I’d be able to predict that because I would have guessed more optimistically. Right now I’m cautious for the next year if we get the economy back and the increasing evidence is that the economy is making its way forward rather than backwards. We might see a little shift.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah. But you know, as a person who really likes reading the hard copy of the paper more than he likes reading it on a computer screen but as more and more of us have iPads and things like iPads—I mean the one really enormous advantage to that technology it seems to me is the updateability of it. So you get your New York Times and USA Today at 6:00 in the morning and then big news happens at 10:00 in the morning and you can now have this thing you’re carrying around on the bus or you’re on the subway that’s got the new news in it. That’s a huge advantage.
CURLEY: Yeah it is, the USA Today and the Times are doing a good job on their updates. I know the Times has been criticized for getting on to it slowly sometimes but I think they’re doing a good job. And USA Today really has ramped up in the last four years to do a good job. But yeah, that’s out there so I’m hanging out.
INTERVIEWER: So what about ethical challenges associated with online journalism, do you see anything that’s happened in the last 10-15 years or that’s going to be happening that’s a real mine field for journalism?
CURLEY: Well the mine field is going too fast with information. AP used to have this slogan—probably still does but I don’t work there anymore—get it first but get it right and that’s still a good line. I’ve heard it said to some people say, well put it out there we can correct it. Now I’m not sure that’s a real quote or one of those quotes that comes from somebody who’s attacking somebody but yeah, the danger is slippery journalism and by the way some of the people working in that field are a little less buttoned-down than the people working for the mainstream media so that’s a big issue.
INTERVIEWER: What about people sort of jumping back and forth from being bloggers and tweeting and covering the news and being on TV shows talking about the news—you know all that kind of blurring of boundaries among journalists?
CURLEY: Yeah, it’s hard for me to make a case for that. And I’m not going to.
INTERVIEWER: In other words, if you’re just reporting the news you should just report the news and stay away from commenting.
CURLEY: I wouldn’t write editorial kinds of columns if I’m reporting this, you can’t move from here to here. The public doesn’t understand. Maybe you can mentally because you’re great but the public cant’ figure it out. They think you’re that way all the time. No, it’s an issue.
INTERVIEWER: What about just being you know, unable to distinguish between who’s really a journalist and whose just putting stuff out there that sounds like journalism, sounds like news but they don’t really know anything, they don’t have the sources.
CURLEY: Well the latest trend, I noticed because I was doing a class on it last week is that they’re now listing—some are listing our bloggers or newspapers bloggers, community bloggers so, I think that piece is starting to emerge. Who you’re with and who you’re not with. Now, you’ve got to make your own calls on that.
INTERVIEWER: I just noticed the way like, somebody will blog about something you know and just in effect start to spread rumors and then it sort of takes on a life of its own.
CURLEY: It becomes fact.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah. I mean, think about Raul Ibanez when some blogger says you know, his homerun totals have sure gone up he must be on the juice, and next thing you know he’s having to answer questions from Philadelphia Inquirer sports reporters about whether he’s juicing.
CURLEY: Yeah well, I think the web’s got a lot of pitfalls. I’m not a guy that thinks that’s the place to get your solid news.