John G. Craig Jr., former Post-Gazette editor, dies at age 77
John G. Craig, Jr. -- The former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor was a leading media and civic figure in the Pittsburgh region for more than three decades.
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Former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor John G. Craig Jr., a probing, unconventional, forward-thinker who was a leading media and civic figure here for more than three decades, died Wednesday of metastatic melanoma at his home in Sewickley Heights.
He was 77, and until several weeks ago resembled the energetic, sometimes acerbic, idea-pusher who took the reins of the city's morning newspaper in 1977.
During his 26-year tenure which included major expansion of the Post-Gazette, he made it much more aggressive, creative and broadly focused -- emblematic of his own personal traits. He also oversaw a major expansion as a result of the Block Communications Inc. acquisition of its rival, The Pittsburgh Press, in late 1992.
In his later years, both as editor and after departure from the newspaper, Mr. Craig played a more visible public role spearheading creation of the Riverlife Task Force and directing efforts to objectively measure how the Pittsburgh region was faring compared to its counterparts.
Through his various roles, which included his weekly newspaper column and more recently articles in Pittsburgh Quarterly magazine, he could be among the biggest boosters of the region and at the same time one of those most likely to cogently explain its flaws.
Mr. Craig prided himself on his ability to think outside the box, provoke others to do their best work and to size up the potential of people, and his associates inside and outside of journalism recognized those attributes as well.
Post-Gazette publisher John Robinson Block noted Mr. Craig was his closest associate for more than 16 years. "He understood that journalists were more important, and more valuable, to a newspaper than were the printing presses," Mr. Block said.
"His insight on people approached genius. He was deft in selecting the best reporters and editors, and he fully stood behind his staff."
David Shribman, who became Post-Gazette executive editor in 2003, recalled Mr. Craig graciously introduced him around Pittsburgh and assured there would be a smooth transition to a new editor.
"John fought for and loved the Post-Gazette more than anyone could fight for and love an inanimate object, because for him the Post-Gazette represented vitality and life itself," Mr. Shribman said. He added that Mr. Craig created a Post-Gazette that "was not only alive but also lively."
Mr. Craig's arrival in Pittsburgh in 1976, initially to serve as assistant to Post-Gazette then-publisher William Block Sr., came after a falling out with his superiors at the newspapers he ran in his hometown of Wilmington, Del.
He had risen over 17 years there to executive editor of the jointly owned and jointly anemic News and Journal, and he won recognition for turning them around in the early 1970s.
But the ownership of the papers was connected to Delaware's powerful Du Pont company, and its business representatives became unhappy with aggressive coverage of the Du Pont interests. Rather than kowtow to their demands, which included dismissal of editors beneath him, Mr. Craig resigned in protest.
It was part of a scrappy demeanor that contrasted with a sometimes-elitist reputation, as he was from a well-bred background and tended to favor those with Ivy League credentials and worldly experiences.
One of the things that struck him about the Post-Gazette upon arrival was how much it seemed in the mid-1970s like Pittsburgh itself: rather insular, set in its ways, lacking vision.
"He made it clear -- not necessarily diplomatically always -- that he wanted to shake the place up. He was a really formidable presence in the newsroom," recalled Michael McGough, a Los Angeles Times senior editorial writer who worked closely with Mr. Craig overseeing the Post-Gazette's editorial pages.
Within a short matter of time, the Post-Gazette had a lot more people with non-Pittsburgh accents, some of them foreign. It had more minorities. Different departments of the newspaper were forced to plan and discuss with one another in a way they never had.
And importantly for readers, it meant more ambitious local news coverage, including investigative journalism on powerful figures such as Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen and Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, whom he relished taking on when they filed libel suits against the newspaper.
Business reporting no longer was tied to press releases. The "women's pages" took on a more modern, lifestyle-oriented tone, as had become the norm at newspapers in bigger cities.
Mr. Craig had the newspaper begin running real estate listings that showed the price of every home sold. Some people in well-to-do areas such as Fox Chapel and Sewickley called him to complain, not wanting others to know their business. He rebuffed them, uninterested in their pronouncements of how important they were.
At the same time, he was keen on the goings-on of high social circles, and had the newspaper launch its Seen column to chronicle those.
More than anything, he was more of a creative risk-taker than many peers in his industry.
He took a chance on hiring people if he found them to be smart, regardless of their journalistic background. He put the newspaper into ventures tied to television and radio, when contemporaries mistrusted those other media as competition. During a labor dispute that shut down Pittsburgh's two newspapers in 1992, he had a skeleton staff disseminate information by fax and even town crier, instead of remain silent.
"He was thinking out of the box before people knew there was a box," said Post-Gazette columnist Reg Henry, an Australian hired by Mr. Craig in 1978. "He was a contrarian, and very challenging -- and therefore irritating -- but all in the pursuit of excellence."
The Post-Gazette's acquisition of The Pittsburgh Press to resolve the work stoppage represented a large expansion, as the newspaper grew in staff, pages and a Sunday edition. Irritating some of his Post-Gazette staff, he reached out not just to hire scores of Press employees, but placed them in key supervisory positions.
"As smart as John was, he realized we needed the experience of people who had put out a Sunday paper," said Ray Burnett, who was the Post-Gazette's director of employee relations.
The personnel moves weren't the expected decision, but the right one -- often a characteristic of Mr. Craig. Sometimes, though, in meetings with his staff or others, he just liked playing devil's advocate to jolt people a bit. He liked intellectual arguments, which were perhaps more of a hobby for him than anything else.
He did not bow to anyone who came into his office, whether mayors, corporate titans or impressive officials of another stripe. He was a voracious reader and relied on facts rather than emotions, stereotypes and suppositions.
"He had a lot of self-confidence," Mr. McGough observed. "I think he often thought -- and was completely right about it -- that he was the smartest person in the room."
That attitude led to one of his more controversial decisions in the view of more traditional journalists, but one for the betterment of the region. He had been writing for years about beautification and development issues in Pittsburgh, and he was no longer content merely to observe and opine about the neglected potential of the city's expansive riverfronts.
He was a linchpin in creation of the Riverlife Task Force in 1999 and became its co-chairman from the outset, twisting arms around the city to help build an impressive 44-member array of civic leaders as its board.
The private group, now called simply Riverlife, began working to promote and protect the riverfronts. Mr. Craig took a key role personally in design issues affecting traffic barriers on the Fort Pitt Bridge and the appearance of the city's North Shore Garage. When he viewed government proposals on the projects as unacceptable, he found experts to challenge those plans and lobbied successfully through the task force for changes
"As far as I was concerned, John was the driving force," said his first co-chairman, Paul O'Neill, whom Mr. Craig recruited. "I think John's been a guy who saw things he didn't think were right, and he responded to the question, 'Why not me?'"
Doug Heuck, a former Post-Gazette reporter, said Mr. Craig knew there would be criticism by some that he overstepped the bounds of impartiality that journalists traditionally abide by.
"It was an eyebrow-raiser, but the fact is John thought [becoming involved] was more important for the region, and he was not one to be bound by those kind of doctrinaire rules," said Mr. Heuck, now publisher of Pittsburgh Quarterly.
He and Mr. Craig worked closely before Mr. Craig left the newspaper on "benchmarks" measurements of the region, assessing its strength and weaknesses economically, educationally, demographically and in other forms through statistical analysis.
Mr. Craig has directed the Pittsburgh Regional Indicators Consortium and Pittsburgh Today project in that effort, which has been supported by foundations and universities and is based today at 3 Rivers Connect, a nonprofit group Downtown.
The benchmarking has meshed Mr. Craig's overlapping interests in Pittsburgh's evolution, future trends, hard data, creative thinking and provocative writing.
He started his most recent article, published in Pittsburgh Quarterly's Summer 2010 edition, by writing, "I am sticking my neck way out ... but I bet that when we look back 10 years from now, the last two years will be seen as the tipping point for the Pittsburgh region, a time when we finally got four decades of negative history behind us."
Mr. Craig was a graduate of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and also had a master's degree from the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Mr. Craig won numerous awards over the course of his newspaper career. In 2003, the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania gave Mr. Craig its annual award for lifetime achievement.
Mr. Craig is survived by his wife, Candace; daughters Eliza Craig of Tucson, Ariz.; Landon Craig, of Georgetown, Del.; Emily Craig, of Sewickley Heights; a son, Peter Craig, of Heidelberg, Germany; a stepdaughter, Lindsay Jackson, of University Park, Md.; and six grandchildren. Mr. Craig also had a son, John, who was born severely disabled and died in the 1980s at the age of 16.
There will be no visitation. A memorial service will be held at Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside at a time to be determined.
First Published May 27, 2010 3:03 am