1928 -- 2004
`Visionary' talent reshaped Chicago Tribune Newspaper
By Patrick T. Reardon
Chicago Tribune staff reporter
December 10, 2004
Australian-born Maxwell McCrohon was a journalistic visionary whose innovations in design, story packaging and feature writing changed the face of Chicago journalism and had a wide impact throughout the U.S. newspaper industry.
As managing editor of the now-defunct Chicago Today newspaper in the early 1970s, McCrohon broadened the definition of news to include social shifts and cultural trends, transforming a stodgy afternoon publication into what one critic described as "essentially a daily magazine."
Later, in the same post at the Chicago Tribune, McCrohon worked closely with editor Clayton Kirkpatrick to create a brightly illustrated, highly organized and enticingly written newspaper that was a far cry from its long-dowdy traditions. In 1979, he succeeded Kirkpatrick as Tribune editor.
McCrohon, a courtly man known for his kindness and gracious praise to colleagues, died Wednesday in the Community Hospice of Washington in Washington, D.C., at age 76. The cause of death was cancer, his son Craig said.
"It was never just going to work," McCrohon said of his journalism career during a 1999 interview. "I enjoyed editing--making things better. I felt I had a grasp of what people wanted in a newspaper. I was always happiest when I could roll up my sleeves and take part."
During a career that spanned half a century, McCrohon also served as editor in chief of United Press International wire service, editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner newspaper, and U.S. editor of an experimental American-Russian publication, We/Mbl.
"It was Max who saw ahead. He was one of the best editors I worked for, and it was because he was a visionary," said Colleen "Koky" Dishon, a pioneer with McCrohon in conceiving and designing feature sections at the Tribune to serve readers' special interests. "He was always ready to do something different."
James Hoge, who as editor of the Chicago Sun-Times during the 1970s competed against McCrohon, said, "Max had a kind of flair to him--how you package the news, how you present it--that we hadn't seen over at the Tribune. As a practitioner [of a more reader-oriented journalism], Max was certainly in the forefront nationally."
"He was a first-class newspaperman," said Bernard Judge, who served as Tribune city editor under McCrohon and is now editor and publisher of the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. "I remember he used to tell me that a newspaper should always have a slightly unfinished quality to it, so it looked immediate, so it looked fresh."
McCrohon began his journalism career in his hometown at the Sydney Morning Herald. After a year of seasoning, McCrohon was dispatched to the United States in 1951 for a tour of duty in the Herald's New York bureau.
Although young Herald reporters usually spent only two years in the States, McCrohon was so enamored of America that he wheedled a two-year extension at the end of which, just before returning to Australia in late December 1955, he married a woman he'd met in New York, Nancy Wilson.
A little more than three years later, he was back in the U.S., working as a reporter for the Chicago American, a sister newspaper to the Tribune since being purchased by the company in 1956. He would remain with the paper for the next 13 years, during which its name was changed to Chicago's American and, later, to Chicago Today.
Over the next decade, McCrohon worked in nearly every important editing job at the American and had a major hand in redesigning the paper from a broadsheet to a tabloid and in rethinking its approach to news and story-writing. The result was Chicago Today, which premiered in 1969. And, less than a year later, McCrohon was named its managing editor.
"I found him to be a very charismatic guy, the kind of editor you wanted to please on a personal level as well as a professional level," said Charles Leroux, who worked under McCrohon as a writer and editor at Today and later the Tribune. "He was also good at telling reporters when they'd done something well--which is not something every editor does."
McCrohon, known for his relaxed demeanor, often used the word "fun" when talking about the challenges of putting out a newspaper. "Journalism isn't life-and-death stuff," he said in the 1999 interview. "It always seemed to me silly to get into a rage about a bad lead or a poor headline. We weren't doing brain surgery."
The transformation of the American into Chicago Today had been an attempt to breathe life into a sleepy afternoon daily, and it worked--but only partly. Readers liked what they saw, and Today's circulation went up. But, ominously, it still ran a distant fourth in ad lineage among the major Chicago papers, and in September 1974 the paper ceased publication.
One key reason for the closing of Today was that it was gaining circulation among young, affluent readers--the same market the Tribune was attempting to reach. In fact, even while running day-to-day operations at Today, McCrohon was also heading a task force to carry out a similar redesign at the Tribune. In January 1972, he was named managing editor of the Tribune by Kirkpatrick.
In his three years as editor, Kirkpatrick had already carried out a radical change at the Tribune, purging political partisanship from news stories and toning down its previously shrill editorial page. And, in line with a readership study in the early 1970s, he had begun looking for ways to make the Tribune easier to read.
McCrohon, as Kirkpatrick's right-hand man, did that by making the layout of pages more flexible and less dense. He played photos and other illustrations large and ran them with the text of stories (rather than segregating them to a back page, as had been done for many years). He grouped all the national and international news in one part of the paper and all the local news in another, and made extensive use of front-page "refers" that referred readers to stories inside the paper.
"His strongest qualities were in design and arrangement of news," Kirkpatrick, who died earlier this year, said in an interview after his retirement. "The Page 1 [refers] for [stories in] the interior of the paper were a great design improvement. They did a lot to bring the reader into the paper."
But McCrohon's impact on the Tribune extended far beyond the look of the paper. It was McCrohon who recognized the limitations of the strict diet of straightforward, often government-related news stories that had long filled American newspapers, and who pushed for a new sort of feature writing--one that was bright, analytical, explanatory and entertaining and could be employed as much for serious news on the front page as for lighter subjects inside the paper.
In line with that, McCrohon brought in Dishon to revamp the Tribune's feature section, Tempo, and later to create a series of regularly published special-interest sections geared to meet the needs of individual readership groups and allow businesses to target their advertising. The effort, which continues today, was dubbed "the sectional revolution" by the Tribune promotions department.
"Max was the architect of the sectional revolution in newspapers," said Howard Tyner, who served as Tribune editor from 1993 to 2001.
As a boss, McCrohon's "leadership was collegial," said Judge. "The negative aspects of normal human politics weren't evident during his reign."
The same was true of McCrohon as a father, said his son Craig. "He was somebody who always saw possibilities. He had a bedrock of optimism, an infectious optimism."
When Kirkpatrick was promoted to president of Chicago Tribune Co. in 1979, McCrohon, who had become a U.S. citizen in the mid-1970s, was named the newspaper's editor. Two years later, he was appointed vice president for news for Tribune Co.
In August 1983, after nearly a quarter-century with the Tribune organization, McCrohon left to become editor in chief of United Press International.
Other survivors include his wife, Nancy; another son, Sean; a daughter, Regan McCrohon-Hoff; and two grandchildren, Carly and Taylor. Services will be private.
Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune
Note: Thanks to Ed Ahern for sharing this with us