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For the week of Feb. 9 through Feb. 15, 2000

Reflections on a giant of journalism

Commentary By PAT MURPHY


The name Lee Hills won’t register outside newspapering, and even there, today’s 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 nation’s 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. newspaper associations.

He won two Pulitzers, one personally while executive editor of Knight’s Detroit Free Press for reporting on secret talks between Detroit auto workers and labor unions, another Pulitzer for The Herald—the first of that paper’s 16—for an eye-popping 1950s series he directed on South Florida’s growing community of mobsters, "Know Your Neighbors,"that led to the famed Kefauver U.S. Senate crime investigations.

His newsman’s 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 no favorites.

Hills forever distinguished himself in the halls of journalism by placing news first, profits second, the reverse of today’s 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 news.

The competition, the far larger Cox-owned Miami Daily News, cut back on news—a strategy that lost readers. In time, Hills’ savvy tactics drove the News out of business.

Ironically, in the 1990s, Knight Ridder’s 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 Herald’s 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.

It’s just as well Hills isn’t 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.

 

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