Oral Histories

John Curley

Interview Segments on Topic: Journalism Education

John Curley Biography

John Curley retired from Gannett in January 2001 after more than 30 years with the company. During that time, he served as an editor at the Rochester (N.Y.) Times-Union; as editor and later publisher of the Courier-News in Bridgewater, N.J.; and later as publisher of the News-Journal in Wilmington, DE. He was head of Gannett News Service, during which time the news service won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The first editor of USA Today, Curley was a member of Gannett's Board of Directors from 1983 until his retirement. In May 1996, he was selected as chairman of the Newspaper Association of America and in 1999 he was made an honorary alumnus of Penn State.


INTERVIEWER: And why did you decide to go to Columbia?

CURLEY: Columbia was said to be the best school in the country for journalism—the Masters level—and I was in New York. Besides, I like New York and basically I also got a full scholarship.

INTERVIEWER: But you were already up and running in a way, in terms of your journalism career. You probably could have just kept going from job to job.

CURLEY: I didn’t need to do that. I kept working when I was in school. I worked nights for AP so I left nothing on the table in terms of experience. I just kept going and some weeks it would be four nights instead of five, others it might be three depending on what was going on at Columbia. But I just stayed with it. But I thought I would teach one day because my parents taught and I thought a Masters degree would be desirable.

INTERVIEWER: So that’s why they hired you here [laughing].

CURLEY: Because I had a Masters from Columbia [laughing]! But in the long-term scheme of things, I thought that might work.

INTERVIEWER: So we’re talking about the early 60s at Columbia, so one of the things I’m really curious about is to what extent did they talk about ethics as part of the journalism curriculum…it probably wasn’t a stand-alone course. Was it built into things at all? To what extent?

CURLEY: It wasn’t built-in to the extent that it’s built-in today. I think it’s been an evolving thing because the old-time reporters—I’ll say particularly in New York because there were probably 6-8 papers at one time—went back and forth and had newspaper wars and probably tested the ethics of the people at those papers. There was a textbook we had by John Hohenberg who was a major figure in the field and was a Pulitzer Prize administrator and who I also had for several courses, and John had a lot of thoughts on the fact that the professional journalist is ethical, does the right thing all the time, has high standards, and is expected to maintain those standards. We didn’t have a lot of issues to talk about. There wasn’t a lot that was going on in terms of ethical problems that came to light. There was only one that I can recall. The old Brooklyn Eagle, which was Brooklyn’s newspaper, had been revived the year that we were in school and one day there was a front page headline, a major headline, 72pt that said, Death Threat Bared to Union Leader. When you read the story somebody was clearly saying, ‘sit down you idiot or you’ll have a heart attack. And we all thought that was a little…even for a paper trying to be rehabilitated that went way too far. That’s the only one I remember from that era particularly.

INTERVIEWER: So, if he was calling on journalists to be ethical and maintain standards but, how do you know what that means? How do you know what the standards are and what it means to be ethical?

CURLEY: I think the assumption was, you would know that you should do everything that made sense and was right in the context of the time—and they did talk about things like that. When you handed in stories you had to edit the content and so on and we had people from the New York Times and Herald Tribune who were on the staff and of course, they edited the copy and we got to talk to them about some of the things going on. There were no major problems in New York that year that came to light as a result of an ethical situation. I might hasten to add there was a newspaper strike too. As a result many, many days that year were without newspapers. It was one of those, trying to get the printers to agree to better terms so that they wouldn’t have to have bogus type set. That took a long time to resolve.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think the expectation was that people would just kind of inhale the sense of journalism standards and ethical standards just by being in the newsroom and being around professionals, that you didn’t really need to talk about it and explain it?

CURLEY: I would say probably just because it was the era and most people thought that that was the thing to do. I can’t tell what the thinking of Columbia was, but I don’t think they were pushed to go into that particular field because there were no issues on the table to deal with.

INTERVIEWER: So why do you think, in terms of the education of journalists, why do you think that has now become an important component? What’s changed?

CURLEY: To be honest with you, I think some of it became fashionable, just because a school could get a leg up on another school. I also think there were enough cases building over the years that you could have case studies and I think that people became more serious about maintaining standards. You see books on the subject, The Freedom to run & Poynter Center put one out on principles of ethical coverage, Robert Hayman who had been the editor of the St. Petersburg newspaper was the author of that and there have just been more efforts to do work like that.

INTERVIEWER: So I don’t get the sense that you think that in the days before formal training in ethics that journalism was some kind of cesspool of shady activity and then finally people reached the point where they said, hey we better get our house in order and start training.

CURLEY: I didn’t get that sense. But I worked in small to mid-sized markets. While I worked in New York for the Associated Press, I didn’t come across situations that came up that looked like there was something going on.

INTERVIEWER: Well, were there young guys coming into the business in the 1960s who had a much more activist and sort of antiestablishment streak and there was sort of a cultural shift from sort of the old guard that might have been more go-along get-along with the power structure?

CURLEY: There probably were after the Woodward-Bernstein situation but it probably had more to do with the fact that the universities were probably ramping up their programs with investigative reporting and lots more how to do it with records and things like that, and I suspect that triggered the information base of new reporters getting hired.

INTERVIEWER: So just to jump back to Columbia, how valuable was that experience for you anyway in terms of what you learned there in terms of what you would have learned if you had just stayed working on the streets?

CURLEY: Well, I was working on the streets. The reason I went to Columbia was because I didn’t have to work that up. And if it was a call between one or the other, I would not have given up the Associated Press. So I would rate it neutral. I got the degree, I met a lot of people who were sharp in the industry, I met a lot of people who were good at Columbia, as in students, and it was a good experience. But realistically, I wasn’t going to trade one for the other.