Citizen Craig: A newspaper editor leaves his mark on Pittsburgh

Written by Susan Mannella on .

Since 1786, when John Scull and Joseph Hall founded the first newspaper west of the Allegheny Mountains, many great publishers and editors have brought distinction to what today is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

John G. Craig Jr., who died at his Sewickley Heights home on Wednesday at age 77, deserves to be counted in that historic company. He came to the Post-Gazette in 1976 and served fearlessly and effectively for 26 years as editor.

He was from the classic mold of editors, someone with the strength of character to bring a sense of fresh purpose to his newsroom and by extension to the greater community. Intelligent, passionate about the issues and supremely self-confident, he was at ease in the presence of presidents or paupers.

Although transplanted from Delaware, he was always the friend of the Pittsburgh region, its adopted champion. Many sensible regional improvements over the years bore the imprimatur of John Craig. Some might not have happened without him.

He saw the Regional Asset District and its 1 percent county sales tax as a practical way to fund community assets; he thought new stadiums on the North Shore would anchor Pittsburgh's greatest sports teams and be the city's lasting glory; he saw that the city needed to embrace its rivers and to that end helped found the Riverlife Task Force. Even that hardest of nuts, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, cracked just a little to allow some customer benefits in the face of editorials that wouldn't tolerate politicians and bureaucrats vested in a state-monopoly status quo.

A lot of this agenda, of course, was controversial, but John Craig never thought life was a popularity contest. In doing what he thought right without fear or favor, he made enemies, but that never worried him. He accepted the criticism that naturally came with his job and always supported the right of his critics to have the last word in published letters to the editor.

Like many great men and women, he was not without faults. He was a contrarian; the conventional wisdom was not his wisdom. His way of independent thinking gave rise to great insights and some misjudgments.

But as Post-Gazette Publisher John Robinson Block noted, "He understood that journalists were more important, and more valuable, to a newspaper than were the printing presses. His insight on people approached genius. He was deft in selecting the best reporters and editors, and he fully stood behind his staff."

John Craig's previous life had prepared him well to sit in the editor's chair. He bore the sensibility of schools like Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston, but also the imprint of invaluable life lessons learned in military service in the U.S. Army in West Germany and a newspapering career in Delaware. He was editor there until a matter of principle made him walk away.

When he became editor of the Post-Gazette in the late '70s, he inherited a good newsroom going about its duties, but one that was not particularly challenged to assert its influence in the face of the more widely read Pittsburgh Press.

John Craig would have none of that. Through sheer force of will and personality, he challenged the old and welcomed the new. He restored pride and purpose to reinvigorate the Post-Gazette. At the same time, he was trying to work the same trick with Pittsburgh itself, championing good government in all its forms.

As a taskmaster, he wasn't always an easy character, challenging everyone to do better and to care more -- not only the journalists who worked for him, but also the public officials he held accountable.

When against all odds the Press ceased to exist after a strike in 1992, John Craig helped reinvent the Post-Gazette once more, this time absorbing talented people from the competing newsroom and smoothing the way of a difficult transition. All the time, he never gave up his love affair with Pittsburgh. After retirement, he set up a project to measure the city's progress against comparable statistical benchmarks.

To the last, John Craig, an editor of the old school for whom journalism was not a job but a vocation, was courageous, curious and engaged. He died feeling optimistic for the Post-Gazette and the region it serves. Those of us who labor now in his shadow will try to justify that optimism.


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