Reflections on a giant of journalism
Commentary By PAT MURPHY
The name Lee Hills wont register outside newspapering, and even
there, todays journalists might ask, "Lee who?"
Hills was to post-World War II newspapering what Edward R. Murrow was to
the early days of television journalism. He pioneered page design techniques,
investigative reporting and specialty journalists that remain as standards today.
For me, Hills, who died last week in Miami at 93, meant more: he gave me
my first job as a cub reporter at The Miami Herald, where I remained for 20 years
in a no-nonsense workplace policed by Hills and his proteges like stern school marms.
Hills took a chance on the strength of a piece I wrote during the Korean
War and sent to The Herald"Sunday on a Hilltop in Korea."
With only one year of college and fresh out of the Army in 1952, I began a
37-year career, thanks to Hills, that took me from cub to publisher of the nations
17th and 18th largest morning and evening newspapers in Arizona.
Hills was amazing. Born on a farm in Egg Creek, N.D., he left school at
age 14 for a newspaper apprenticeship, but later picked up several college degrees in
journalism and in law.
He was dapper and impeccably groomed, never straying from gray or dark
double-breasted suits. His black laced shoes always shined to a high gloss.
Hills took notes in Gregg shorthand. He always thought of himself as a
reporter, despite being the first chairman of the Knight Ridder media group, the second
largest U.S. newspaper chain with 31 daily newspapers, and president of major U.S.
He won two Pulitzers, one personally while executive editor of
Knights Detroit Free Press for reporting on secret talks between Detroit auto
workers and labor unions, another Pulitzer for The Heraldthe first of that
papers 16for an eye-popping 1950s series he directed on South Floridas
growing community of mobsters, "Know Your Neighbors,"that led to the famed
Kefauver U.S. Senate crime investigations.
His newsmans code was rigid: after he caused an auto accident, he
called the city desk and ordered it on Page 1 to show readers The Herald played
Hills forever distinguished himself in the halls of journalism by placing
news first, profits second, the reverse of todays big media conglomerates.
At the height of World War II newsprint rationing, Hills as executive
editor of The Herald ordered advertising sharply reduced. He opened full pages to
The competition, the far larger Cox-owned Miami Daily News, cut
back on newsa strategy that lost readers. In time, Hills savvy tactics drove
the News out of business.
Ironically, in the 1990s, Knight Ridders new chairman, Tony Ridder,
abruptly reversed the long-cherished Hills ethic. Ridder proclaimed, "My job is to
keep Wall Street happy."
Ridder took a hatchet to The Heralds operations, closing its
prize-winning but costly Sunday magazine, Tropic; slashing the news staff; closing
international bureaus that made The Herald a giant in foreign reporting; and
tightened space for news.
Instead of thin single-digit profit margins but great journalism that
Hills championed, Ridder now insists on margins of more than 20 percent at the expense of
the news product.
Its just as well Hills isnt around to see the continued
decline of a profession he served so nobly.
Pat Murphy is the retired publisher of the Arizona Republic and a
former radio commentator.