Jonathan Wolman, who over more than 45 years in journalism served as editor and publisher of the Detroit News and previously worked as a reporter, Washington bureau chief and executive editor at the Associated Press, died April 15 in Detroit. He was 68.
The cause was complications from pancreatic cancer, his family told the News.
Mr. Wolman had been editor and publisher of the News since 2007, running the newspaper during a financially challenging period that included staff layoffs, a cutback to only two days a week of home delivery, and a relocation from the massive headquarters building that it had occupied for nearly a century.
However, Detroit — even as it went into and then out of bankruptcy in 2013-2014 — has survived as one of a shrinking number of U.S. cities with more than one major daily newspaper. The News has a joint operating agreement with its rival, the Detroit Free Press, in which the newspapers consolidate business operations while fielding separate editorial staffs.
“Jon came to Detroit at a time of incredible uncertainty, not only for the News, but for the industry,” said the News’s managing editor, Gary Miles. Even amid the paper’s austerity measures, Miles added, Mr. Wolman oversaw expansion of the paper’s investigative and projects unit, and maintained a strong focus on national and world news at a time when many regional papers were cutting back.
Mr. Wolman’s tenure in Detroit encompassed one of the most turbulent periods in the city’s history. The bankruptcy filing was preceded by years of plummeting population and tax base; more recently there has been an incomplete but inspiring recovery.
Mr. Wolman came to Detroit from Denver, where for three years he was editor of the Denver Post’s editorial page.
Before his job in Denver, Mr. Wolman had a nearly 31-year career with AP, starting in 1973 as a reporter in Madison, Wis., before moving to the Washington bureau two years later. As an editor, he oversaw coverage of the space shuttle Columbia’s first flight in 1981.
He also spent nearly a decade as Washington bureau chief and moved to New York in 1998 to become AP’s managing editor, and he was promoted to executive editor in 2000. He helped oversee AP’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning report about the 1950 No Gun Ri massacre during the Korean War, as well as AP’s coverage of the 9/11 attacks.
But it was political coverage that was Mr. Wolman’s career-long obsession and his focus as a journalist.
Some colleagues suggest that one of his finest moments came late on Election Night in 2000, when it was clear that the presidential race between Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) and Vice President Al Gore (D) had come down to the closely fought state of Florida. At 2:16 a.m. on Nov. 8, Fox News declared Bush the winner in Florida, and within minutes NBC, CBS, CNN and ABC did the same. The AP said the race was too close to name a winner.
Mr. Wolman, then AP’s New York-based executive editor, was in the Washington office at the time while his successor as bureau chief, Sandy Johnson, faced intense pressure to join the networks in calling the election for Bush.
Based on input from experienced colleagues, Johnson knew the Florida outcome wasn’t clear and stood her ground; Mr. Wolman backed her completely. Many news organizations, including AP, had already had to backtrack once after exit polls and an analysis of early returns wrongly indicated that Gore had won Florida.
“He could have pulled rank on Sandy and called it — but that night he knew he was working for her,” said Ron Fournier, whose byline was on the main election story. “Jon deserved credit for knowing to trust his people.”
AP’s non-call was vindicated as the nearly deadlocked election outcome became entangled in a long legal battle before being decided in Bush’s favor by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Jonathan Paley Wolman was born on Aug. 1, 1950, and raised in Madison, where his father, Martin, was publisher of the Wisconsin State Journal from 1968 to 1984.
Mr. Wolman attended the University of Colorado for two years before transferring to the University of Wisconsin’s main campus in Madison, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1972.
In 1978, he married Deborah Lamm. In addition to his wife, survivors include three children; two sisters; and a brother, according to the News.
— Associated Press