For more than 20 years, Mr. Cowles (pronounced “coals”) led two of the most powerful newspapers in the Upper Midwest: the morning Minneapolis Tribune and the afternoon Minneapolis Star. (The papers merged in 1982 to form the Star Tribune, shortly before Mr. Cowles’s ouster amid declining profits and company turmoil.)
Over the years, Mr. Cowles’s family had owned the influential but money-losing Harper’s magazine; the old Look magazine, which his uncle founded to compete with Life; a string of television and radio stations; and newspapers including the Des Moines Register, which his grandfather bought in 1903 — the beginning of the family’s journalism business ventures.
Mr. Cowles succeeded his father as editor of the Minneapolis newspapers in 1961, and in 1968, he became chief executive of their parent company, which became known as Cowles Media Co.
He was known as a liberal-minded community leader, and during his tenure, the newspapers took progressive stances on issues such as civil rights and gender equity.
He embraced a civic role that extended beyond the newsroom. “I assumed it was part of the job when you owned the newspaper in town,” he once told the Star Tribune. “You’re responsible for the town.”
In the early 1960s, when the British theater director Tyrone Guthrie announced his desire to found a classic repertory theater far from the commercial influence of Broadway, Mr. Cowles helped lead a committee that lured Guthrie to Minneapolis. Much like Washington’s Arena Stage, the Guthrie Theater, which opened in 1963, remains a nationally celebrated arts institution.
Later, Mr. Cowles became one of the most visible advocates for the construction of the Metrodome, a sports stadium that opened in downtown Minneapolis in 1982.
Tribune journalists, who were concerned about the appearance of bias in the papers’ coverage of the Metrodome story, placed an advertisement distancing themselves from Mr. Cowles’s role with the stadium.
In response to such criticism, Mr. Cowles said that “it is unrealistic for reporters and editors to expect their other executives to isolate themselves from the community.”
Around the same time, the Star — the afternoon publication — began to experience the circulation and advertising difficulties that now beset most American newspapers. In 1982, after the creation of the Star Tribune, the executive editor resigned to protest staff cuts. Mr. Cowles quickly fired the publisher and took on the role himself.
That incident — plus a $25 million loss over three years on the acquisition of the Buffalo Courier-Express — helped lead to his removal as chief executive in 1983. The board of directors, which included members of Mr. Cowles’s family, appointed Mr. Cowles’s cousin David Kruidenier as head of the company.
Mr. Cowles remained involved in the family business through a family trust that controlled much of the Cowles Media stock. (At one time, The Washington Post Co. owned a 20 percent interest in Cowles Media Co.) The McClatchy Co. bought Cowles Media in 1998 but later sold it.
Mr. Cowles was often described as a free spirit. In the early 1990s, he and his wife, Sage, a former professional dancer, joined a modern dance troupe led by choreographer Bill T. Jones. In “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land,” a provocative exploration of freedom in America, they danced nude in a production that toured internationally.
John Cowles Jr. was born May 27, 1929, in Des Moines and was raised in Minneapolis. He graduated in 1951 from Harvard University, where his roommate was writer George Plimpton, and served in the Army before joining the family business as a police reporter.
Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Sage Fuller Cowles of Minneapolis; three children, John “Jay” Cowles III of St. Paul, C. Fuller Cowles of Shafer, Minn., and Jane Sage Cowles of Gig Harbor, Wash.; a stepdaughter, Tessa S. Flores of Ithaca, N.Y.; a sister; a brother; 10 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
One of his final philanthropic efforts, the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts, opened in Minneapolis last year.