| Home | Interview With Gene Roberts -- Feb. 2001
October 1, 2014

Gene Roberts, 68, a former managing editor of the New York Times (1994-97) and executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer (1972-1991), is a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. He was a reporter and editor with The Detroit Free Press, The Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer, The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and The Goldsboro News-Argus before joining The New York Times in 1965, where until 1972 he served as chief Southern and civil rights correspondent, chief war correspondent in South Vietnam, and national editor. During his 18 years as executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, his staff won 17 Pulitzer Prizes. A North Carolina native, he earned a B.A. in journalism at the University of North Carolina in 1954, and later was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. He spoke to about his experiences as a reporter and editor. Which had more of an impact on you personally -- covering the civil rights movement or the Vietnam War?

Gene Roberts: In my case, the civil rights movement. I covered it longer, off and on over six or eight years. I covered the war in Vietnam for only a year. What were your impressions of both events?

Gene Roberts: I think the civil rights movement and the actions of a handful of southern editors was one of the finest moments in the history of American journalism. The Supreme Court's decision was not popular in the South, and the political establishment in the South -- many senators, congressmen, governors -- all criticized the Supreme Court's decision and many of them implied that the South did not have to comply with it. And it was left to the southern editors, a handful of moderate and liberal editors, to explain to the public that the Supreme Court desegregation decision was indeed the law and would have to be abided by. Without these southern editors -- Ralph McGill, Gene Patterson, Hodding Carter and a good many others -- you could have had almost anarchy in the South. I think they ably filled the leadership vacuum and all of this had an impact on my life. I could see the difference that a stand-up editor could make. What was the biggest story of the 20th century?

Gene Roberts: I think you can make a case for several. But certainly the shift of the black population from being exclusively southern to being spread across the country was largely a phenomenon of the 20th century and was one of the most important stories of the century. It sort of oozed and seeped and took place over several decades. But it nevertheless was a big story and the end of segregation in the South and in the border states was one of the most important stories. These were kind of long-range stories that took place over a period of time. If you took kind of the single shot event, like the Kennedy assassination, that certainly was a big story. World War II, World I, the Vietnam story were all important. I was fortunate enough to cover the civil rights story, the Kennedy assassination and the war in Vietnam. How do you think the recent spate of media mergers will affect news coverage? Will it improve the quality? Should we limit the number of papers that a chain can own?

Gene Roberts: If you had asked me that question 30 years ago, I would have probably said no, that we should not have limited it. But today in retrospect, I feel that we should limit the number of papers any organization should own... It concentrates too much power in the hands of a few companies and a few chief executive officers. To me, one of the most frightening parts of it is that it has gone beyond daily newspapers, which is bad enough. Now, hundreds of weeklies are owned by newspaper corporations. Some of the most local of all newspapers -- the weeklies and small dailies -- are being managed by remote control. This is not good for American communities... You have someone a thousand or two-thousand miles away making a decision that may greatly affect some small or middle-sized town in America and are too distant to fully understand the local consequences of their decisions. So you have too much management by distance. Once, newspapers used to be owned and controlled locally. It's not that there weren't some bad local ownerships. There were some terrible local ownerships. But by and large, a person living and working in the community and having to face the readers every day was a good thing. When you were managing editor of the New York Times, some criticized you for the changes you made. What were your goals? Did you think you succeeded?

Gene Roberts: My goals were really the goals of Joe Lelyveld, who was the editor in charge. But we certainly agreed on them. I think the general goals were better writing, more depth, greater accuracy, and a step-by-step review of each section of the paper. I think especially major strides were made in the arts and business sections. I would like to think that response to breaking news got better and faster and more in-depth. Do you think the paper was better during your three years there?

Gene Roberts: I like to think so, but it's gotten even better since I left. I think today the New York Times is better than it's been at any moment in its history. I think that's a tribute to Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Joe Lelyveld, Bill Keller and a lot of other people who have really pushed the paper forward. What was remarkable about the Philadelphia Inquirer during your time there that helped it win 17 Pulitzers in 18 years?

Gene Roberts: I think we were able to attract and keep one of the most talented staffs ever assembled and once we got it assembled, it was a question of pretty much staying out of the way of the talent and trying to help it function at its very best. How were you able to keep your staff together? Was it coming up with innovative story ideas or projects?

Gene Roberts: The best ideas came from the reporters themselves and the role of the editors was to get behind the story ideas and make sure that the reporters had the time and the resources to bring their ideas into actuality. Which Pulitzer Prize was especially pleasing to you while at the Inquirer?

Gene Roberts: Actually some of the stories that I took the greatest satisfaction in never won Pulitzer Prizes. One of the most important stories we ever did at the Inquirer was in the early to mid-seventies. Donald Barlett and James Steele did the story saying there was an oil crisis developing and it was going to occur but it was going to be phony prices, that there was no real reason for it to occur. It didn't get the Pulitzer because I think people weren't sure at the time all of this was going to prove to be true. But it did in fact prove to be true and Barlett and Steele received the award a year or two later for the story that was a wonderful story but wasn't nearly as groundbreaking as the oil crisis story. That was an investigative story on the Internal Revenue Service. But I think it was a way of a Pulitzer board saying they should have given it to them a year or two earlier. We're there any reporters during the Inquirer era that just amazed you with their writing and reporting?

Gene Roberts: Many, many. Too many to name. Some of course are Richard Ben Cramer, Gilbert Gaul, Barlett and Steele and on and on and on. It just wasn't a handful of reporters who made the Inquirer what it was. It was 50 to 100 and many, many good editors. Do any pieces stand out this year to win a Pulitzer Prize?

Gene Roberts: I certainly am impressed by the New York Times' series on race. There are also a good many other strong stories during the past year. But the Times' race series strikes me as very important. How does today's newspaper coverage compare with coverage when you were a reporter in the 50s, 60s and 70s?

Gene Roberts: The best of it today is better written, more in-depth and reporters are getting better and better over the years. They are better educated. Their aspirations are higher. They have a better sense of various and diverse approaches to stories than they used to. But I think the papers 30 or 40 years ago, the ownership and management of them, had a greater sense of responsibility to their communities by and large than they do today. Partly because they lived in these communities. Today, ownership, the real power in newspaper corporations, tends to be far removed from the local communities. What do you think about the Wen Ho Lee story?

Gene Roberts: I did not come down as critical on the New York Times as the Times on itself. I think the Lee story is a complex story and I don't think it was proven that he sold secrets to China. But on the other hand, I am appalled in reading about all the things that happened to Wen Ho Lee, about how lax the security was around all this information and how many breaches of security that Lee committed. In short, I think it's a very complex story. In 1991 you left the Philadelphia Inquirer to teach at the University of Maryland. Then you joined the New York Times in 1994 for three years. Now you're back to academia. Do you see yourself returning to daily newspapering?

Gene Roberts: No. I think I've had my last fling. I like the life of a university professor. Your life is far more your own than when you're trying to run a newspaper. What do you like more: teaching journalism or running a newsroom?

Gene Roberts: I guess it's different strokes at different times of your life. I'm glad I was able to run a newsroom during my 40s and 50s. But I'm delighted in my 60s to be a university professor... You are free to travel and move around the world. Four months off at the end of spring. Four to six weeks off during the Christmas holiday. I just got back from three weeks in India and a week in Mexico all during the winter break that just wouldn't have been possible if I were still in the newspaper business. David Broder of The Washington Post is planning to join the staff at the University of Maryland's College of Journalism. What's your take on that?

Gene Roberts: I think that's wonderful for the college and for Dave too. I think he's going to like it here. I think it's a wonderful opportunity for Maryland students to study at the feet of probably the most important political reporter of the last century. Are you going to give him any tips, show him the ropes?

Gene Roberts: I'm hoping he's going to show me some.

Copyright © 2001, Inc. All rights reserved.

Other interviews:

  • Sydnie Kohara, anchor, -- January 2001
  • Lowell Bergman, former producer, 60 Minutes -- January 2001
  • Joie Chen, anchor, CNN -- December 2000
  • David Plotz, Washington Bureau Chief, -- November 2000
  • Christopher John Farley, senior writer and pop music critic, Time Magazine -- October 2000
  • Bob Edwards, news anchor, National Public Radio -- October 2000
  • Sharon Epperson, CNBC correspondent -- September 2000
  • David Maraniss, reporter and author, The Washington Post -- April 2000
  • Wolf Blitzer, anchor, CNN -- March 2000