Oral Histories

John Curley

Interview Segments on Topic: Characteristics of Professional Journalists

John Curley Biography

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.


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 instead 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 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: 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.