Steve Isaacs, journalist and professor, dies


Stephen D. Isaacs in 1966. (Charles del Vecchio/The Washington Post)

Stephen D. Isaacs, who became The Washington Post’s city editor at 26, experimented with long-form journalism in a bid to save the old Minneapolis Star as its top editor, and was a demanding journalism professor at Columbia University, where he challenged students to develop 100 story ideas from a soda can of Tab, died Aug. 28 in Austin. He was 76.

The cause was complications from a fall, said a son, David Isaacs.

Mr. Isaacs was groomed for the newspaper business from a young age. His father, Norman, served as top editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal and Louisville Times and was a prominent voice on journalism ethics and prize committees. His mother, the syndicated domestic-advice columnist Dorothy Ritz, was reputedly a first cousin of Bob Dylan.

The younger Isaacs had been a reporter since his teens and joined The Post two years after graduating from Harvard in 1959. In the newsroom, he built a reputation for unbridled confidence and a bulldozing physical presence. A former college football player, he used his height, bulk and palette of off-color language to convey his thoughts on coverage and personnel issues with unmistakable clarity.

He liked, foremost, to shake things up, which was intrinsic to his personality and his sense of what a newspaper was for. (Later, on the Columbia faculty, he would often be the sole dissenting vote as a matter of principle, his son said.)

As The Post’s city editor and then metropolitan editor for much of the 1960s, Mr. Isaacs was instrumental in luring to the local desk a much-younger, aggressively hungry generation of reporters who would gain substantial renown in journalism. In his book about the media, “The Powers That Be,” journalist David Halberstam described Mr. Isaacs as a manager “with a special instinct for talent, who had hired some of the best Post reporters of a generation.”

The so-dubbed Isaacs’s boys included Carl Bernstein, half of the duo who exposed the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation; Jim Hoagland, who would win Pulitzer Prizes for his reporting on apartheid and his foreign affairs columns; Richard Cohen, who became a Post op-ed columnist; and Dan Morgan, an award-winning investigative reporter and author.

“He was like a disheveled general operating at full speed on every front that was within his vision,” Bernstein said. He recalled Mr. Isaacs as an editor in perpetual motion who, once stung by an idea, propelled himself to the nearest typewriter and dashed off paragraphs of thoughts on the topic at hand. Often it was helpful.

He added that Mr. Isaacs, for all his “bombastic” tendencies, had a forward-thinking vision of metro coverage that included investigative stories and regional coverage that downplayed the old divisions of Washington, D.C., suburban Maryland and Virginia. Mr. Isaacs helped marshal the paper’s largest staff to cover the riots that erupted after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

Mr. Isaacs’s mercurial personality led to friction with editors and reporters. In 1970, he briefly edited The Post’s Sunday magazine, Potomac. He was then sent to New York as bureau chief and covered the Attica prison uprising in 1971. He was also a national correspondent for The Post before his final assignment as director of the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service, a wire service.

Then 39, Mr. Isaacs left The Post in 1978 to become editor of the Minneapolis Star, an afternoon newspaper whose bleeding circulation he was brought in to stanch. He tried to emphasize in-depth reporting, creating what he considered a daily magazine of local news.

But saving the Star proved a fruitless battle. Mr. Isaacs quipped that the competition in Minnesota was too great from “ice fishing to lovemaking” to prevent the inevitable closing of afternoon papers.

The Star merged in 1982 with the morning Minneapolis Tribune, and Mr. Isaacs decamped for New York, where he had a short stint as a producer with CBS News before settling on a career in academia.

Stephen David Isaacs was born in Indianapolis Dec. 8, 1937, and grew up in Indianapolis, St. Louis and Louisville, where he was financial editor of the Times by age 21. Mr. Isaacs’s books included “Jews and American Politics” (1974).

His marriage to Diane Scharfeld ended in divorce. Survivors include a longtime partner, Suzanne Freeman of Austin; three children from his marriage, Deborah Jacobson of Houston, David Isaacs of Santa Monica, Calif., and Sharon Isaacs of Manhattan; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Isaacs joined Columbia’s journalism school in 1988 and for years was the associate dean of academic affairs, a position once held by his father, Norman E. Isaacs. He co-taught a mandatory ethics seminar with James W. Carey, a communications theorist. Mr. Isaacs, attuned to the practicalities of the business, once brought in the tennis champ Arthur Ashe, who was essentially forced by sports reporters to publicly acknowledge his AIDS diagnosis.

Mr. Isaacs also co-founded in the mid-1990s and co-chaired the school’s Center for New Media to prepare for the rising power of multimedia technology; it was later closed as digital media courses were integrated into the school curriculum.

“For a guy who was a newspaper man at heart, he was really open-minded,” said Sreenath Sreenivasan, the chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a former academic administrator and professor at Columbia’s journalism school. He added that Mr. Isaacs helped start a cyberspace reporting class as early as 1994.

To generations of journalism students, Mr. Isaacs, who formally retired in 2012, will be remembered for his Tab test — meant to show that dozens of stories could be found in the most mundane of topics.

His enthusiasm for the cola rated him a mention in a Tab profile in the New Yorker. He told the magazine that he had a purists’s love for the drink and that it offended him when, throwing a party for students, he spied one pupil contaminating it with Scotch. His observations were unprintable for a family newspaper.

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”

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