John S. Carroll, former editor of The Baltimore Sun and The Los Angeles Times who became a seminal figure in American journalism and operated on the principle that no detail was too small when it came to producing a great newspaper, died Sunday at his Lexington, Ky., home of a rare, non-treatable disease.
Mr. Carroll, who had previously lived in Baltimore's Poplar Hill neighborhood, was 73.
Mr. Carroll first joined The Sun as a reporter and covered the Vietnam war. During his tenure as editor, The Sun won two Pulitzer Prizes for an investigation into the dangers of shipbreaking and a series about a major league umpire's children who were dying of a genetic disease. He also deployed reporters to Africa, where they reported on slavery in Sudan.
"For a publisher, John was a dream to work with, always trying to improve the paper," said Michael E. Waller, publisher of The Sun from 1997 to 2002.
"He was a genius at spotting small stories that he thought might hide bigger truths. He'd assign a reporter to check it out and often would wind up with a significant investigative project, such as the dangerous ship-salvaging business," said Mr. Waller.
Mr. Carroll died Sunday morning of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a rapidly progressive dementia, his wife, Lee Carroll, said.
"John was a throwback and skilled in all of the newspaper disciplines," said Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times who had been managing editor of The Los Angeles Time from 2000 to 2005 and its editor after Mr. Carroll's departure. "He could line edit, write and had a good eye for design."
William K. Marimow, a former editor of The Sun and current editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, said Mr. Carroll "was as good a friend as I could ever have had." Marimow had been managing editor of The Sun during Mr. Carroll's tenure and worked for him earlier as a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer.
"He was my partner and mentor," Marimow said. "He was a terrific editor and an equally excellent person."
John Sawyer Carroll was born in New York City into a newspaper family. His father, John Wallace Carroll, had been news editor in the Washington bureau of The New York Times from 1955 to 1963 and was editor of the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel from 1963 until 1973. His mother, Margaret Sawyer Carroll, was a homemaker.
Mr. Carroll was raised in Winston-Salem and Bethesda and after graduating from high school, he earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1963 from Haverford College.
He began his career as a staff reporter in 1963 at the Providence (R.I.) Journal-Bulletin, and a year later, was drafted into the Army. He served two years in Alaska editing the Yukon Sentinel, an Army weekly, at Fort Wainwright.
Mr. Carroll joined The Sun's city staff in 1966, where he wrote obituaries and covered crime and City Hall.
In a 1991 interview with The Sun when he was named senior vice president and editor of the newspaper, he said, "I really felt that I learned reporting working for The Sun. … I always had a fondness for the paper, and I thought in the back of my mind perhaps some day I would be qualified to be its editor."
After being named a war correspondent in 1967, he left Baltimore to cover the Vietnam War, and subsequently covered the Tet offensive, Battle of Hue and the diplomatic meetings that led to the Paris cease-fire talks.
He was the first correspondent to report the Marines' withdrawal in 1968 from Khe Sanh, earning Mr. Carroll the enmity of military officials who suspended his correspondent's accreditation for 60 days for violating a ground rule prohibiting public discussion of coming troop operations. He was unaware that U.S. military officials in Saigon had embargoed the news about the withdrawal.
"He was 25 when we were in Vietnam, and he was clearly one of the best of the foreign correspondents," said Eugene L. "Gene" Roberts Jr., who was also a war correspondent. "John broke one of the most important stories of the Vietnam War."
Mr. Carroll left Vietnam in 1969 and spent the next eight months covering the Middle East. Then he joined The Sun's Washington bureau, where he covered the White House and President Richard M. Nixon.
He left The Sun in 1971 when he was named a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, and after completing the fellowship, took a job as night editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Two years later, he was appointed metropolitan editor.
Mr. Carroll worked under Mr. Roberts, The Inquirer's executive editor, from 1972 to 1990.
"I hired John for The Inquirer because he had been most persistent as a reporter and I thought he would add greatly to the quality of The Inquirer and he turned out to do just that," said Mr. Roberts. "He had very high standards and got stories out no matter what the obstacles."
In September 1979, Mr. Carroll became editor of the morning Lexington Herald and Sunday Herald-Leader in Kentucky.
In 1986, the paper won a Pulitzer Prize for a series on the University of Kentucky basketball players who allegedly received improper payoffs in violation of NCAA regulations.
Despite death threats, a bomb scare and gunfire that landed in the paper's pressroom, Mr. Carroll was not intimidated, and urged his reporters to press on and get the story.
By the time he left Lexington for Baltimore, he had transformed the paper into one of the best midsize newspapers in the country. He also acquired a reputation as a great renovator of newspapers.
After arriving in Baltimore in 1991, Mr. Carroll oversaw news operations of both The Sun and The Evening Sun, becoming the first executive editor since 1954 to do so.
Eventually, the news staff of The Evening Sun was incorporated into the morning paper. It ceased publication in 1995.
Mr. Carroll led a redesign of the morning paper in 1995, and another three years later for the Sunday paper, which resulted in The Sun being named in 1999 one of the best-designed newspapers in the world by the Society for News Design.
"We wanted a very readable product that reflected the rich history of this newspaper," Mr. Carroll told The Sun at the time. "And we wanted it to be unique among American newspapers."
Mr. Carroll entered the newsroom at precisely 9 a.m. each day. Carrying his briefcase tucked neatly under his right arm, he would ask reporters and editors as he made his way to his fifth-floor corner office in The Sun's Calvert Street building, "Whaddya know?"
"I used to tease John that with his white hair and tall and slender build, he looked like a U.S. senator from Kentucky," said Mr. Baquet. "As an editor, he looked as though he was out of Central Casting."
Stephen R. Proctor, a former Sun editor who later became managing editor of The San Francisco Chronicle and The Houston Chronicle, called Mr. Carroll "the perfect gentleman," and with his death, "a bright light has gone out in the world of journalism."
"I worked for him for nine years and never once did he raise his voice at me, despite extreme provocation," said Mr. Proctor with a laugh. "The most you ever got out of John was this: 'Would you mind explaining to me how …' This was when you knew he was truly steamed."
In 1998, Times Mirror Co., owners of The Sun at the time, promoted Mr. Carroll to vice president, and a year later, he was named National Press Foundation Editor of the Year.
Wherever he went, Mr. Carroll brought a passion for investigative reporting. He encouraged reporters when pursuing such stories to "tell me something I didn't know."
"I had done a long Sunday piece on shipbreaking in Baltimore and at an editor's meeting on Monday, John said it was a good story but we could do a whole lot more with it," said Mr. Englund, who is now an editor on The Washington Post's foreign desk.
"He teamed me with Gary and we began talking to workers around Baltimore and eventually across the country and world. He had the vision to see that and that really impressed me," said Mr. Englund. "He gave us 18 months to do the story and there was no daily pressure to do anything else. He really liked stories that got people talking around the office watercooler."
Rebecca Corbett, now assistant managing editor for the New York Times, said what distinguished Mr. Carroll was his particular eye for the big narrative, investigative stories. While an editor with The Sun, Corbett handled the shipbreaking story, which she says was completely rewritten 20 times.
"He was totally willing to commit the necessary resources to do it," she said.
Mr. Carroll didn't do the rewriting himself, but he gave the editors and reporters the space to do it and engaged in the construction of it, Corbett said.
"He was passionate about telling stories in the most compelling way," she said.
Candy Thomson, a former editor and reporter at The Sun, recalled that Mr. Carroll loved what he called "a good yarn."
"As an editor, he had a wonderful touch improving copy, whether it was to unclutter a sentence or tease a great detail or piece of color from a reporter's notebook or memory," she said.
Mr. Carroll had a reputation for being able to quickly write or suggest meaningful descriptive headlines in a matter of minutes or on the cusp of a deadline.
"When I was in Los Angeles, a reporter had done a piece on how Viagra had transformed the porn film business, and being somewhat worried, I wrote a headline: 'New Drug Changes Local Industry,'" said Mr. Baquet. "John took a look and said, 'That's a lousy head,' and dictated 'Lights, Cameras and Viagra.'"
In 2000, after Tribune Co. had purchased The Los Angeles Times, he accepted an offer to become its editor.
"I think he is one of the very best editors and newspapermen in the country," Mr. Roberts told The Sun at the time. "He has a firm set of values, he does not blow with the wind or go from fad to fad and fashion to fashion."
At The Los Angeles Times, he was credited with raising the standards of the news operation, while the paper received 30 Pulitzers nominations and won 13.
Mr. Carroll resigned in 2005 in a celebrated breakup with Tribune, which had ordered a newsroom reduction in staff.
But Mr. Carroll couldn't stay away from the business he loved, and in 2006, was named the first Knight Visiting Lecturer at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard.
Mr. Carroll moved to Lexington in 2007 with his wife, the former Lee Huston Powell, whom he married in 1985.
In recent years, Mr. Carroll had spent his time researching and writing a book on the University of Kentucky basketball scandal.
Mr. Carroll served on the Pulitzer board from 1994 to 2003 and was chairman in 2002.
An accomplished sailor, Mr. Carroll enjoyed sailing aboard his boat the Snow Goose.
In addition to his wife, an educator, Mr. Carroll is survived by two daughters, Kathleen Louise Srathman of Chevy Chase and Margaret Adriane Vaughan of New York City: two stepsons, Griggs Powell of Lexington, Ky., and Huston Powell of Austin, Texas; a stepdaughter, Caroline Powell of Lexington, Ky.; three sisters, Margaret Powell of Appleton, Wis., Patricia Carroll of Arlington, Va., and Posi Carroll of Kentfield, Calif. An earlier marriage to the former Kathleen Kirk ended in divorce.
Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell and reporter Catherine Rentz contributed to this article.