We barely knew each other at that point. Afterwards, he occasionally sent me a note if I did something unusually noteworthy, which was not often. My interest in writing dramatic series about depressing social ills was waning. In one staff meeting, he said, “There are some of you who are capable of doing much more than you’re doing.” I felt it was directed at me.
Shortly afterwards, in 1995, I knocked on his door with an idea. With our staff and circulation, we had the power to help get Pittsburgh on the right track. I suggested using the beat writers to examine regional problems in their fields and then convening leaders to solve the problems. John considered and replied that he’d long thought about a statistical project comparing Pittsburgh to other regions. If the region had good information, it could make good decisions. The project, which we called PG Benchmarks, blended both ideas and marked the beginning of my voyage with John.
I interviewed experts to learn what we should measure, and reported my findings to John. The project became my full-time job and his chief interest. I gained the privilege of being welcome in his office any time, which was a big deal. One day early on, though, we were discussing whether to create a stat about college students as a percentage of the population. John didn’t like it, but I persisted, saying it showed our strength in education. He dismissed it: “I don’t give a rat’s ass about that.” I responded slowly: “You may not give a ‘rat’s ass,’ but a lot of people around this city think it’s pretty important.” He erupted, slamming his fist on his desk and raising his voice: “I’m the editor of this newspaper, and as long as I am, what I say goes!”
It was the only time I ever saw him lose his temper. The next day, our conversation continued, both of us tacitly regretting the day before. John said it was fine to use the measure. And from then on, for the next 15 years, we became very close in a largely unspoken way.
Five times a year, we invited a handful of key leaders in for Benchmarks round table discussions about Pittsburgh problems and solutions. It would be John and myself and, for example, the four top CEOs and the governor. I followed his lead and learned how to feel comfortable with, as well as question, these leaders. Former Post-Gazette Editor John G. Craig Jr. died in May, but not before imparting lessons on the civic role of a journalist.
John taught me how to wield the paper’s power. For a discussion on transportation, we had a strong group lined up, including Bud Shuster, the powerful head of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. But US Airways CEO Stephen Wolf had declined. John told me to a write a letter he would sign to the effect that the Post-Gazette was Pittsburgh’s leading newspaper, and we expected Wolf to be there. After a couple of drafts, which he strengthened both times, the letter went out. Wolf came. And he taught me how not to wield it. At one editors meeting, I suggested a story on people who donate money and then get their names put on multiple facilities. John looked at me and said, “Who are you trying to embarrass?”
When I got an interesting job offer in politics, we discussed its pros and cons. “Is it what you want to do?” he asked. A few days later, John suggested I become business editor. “I don’t have any experience in business,” I said. “I know,” he replied, “But you’re going to need some.” I took the job and learned to navigate between the often-conflicting interests of the readers, the business community, the union and the paper’s management. John was the master of sticky situations, and as editor of the paper, he faced them all the time. Instead of following proscribed rules, he considered the particulars. Who was involved? What were their motivations and needs? Where was the path between the thorns that would solve the problem? He generally found it.
In 2004, John retired, and I was approaching 20 years at the paper, which I’d never planned. It was time for a change. And so I left to start this magazine. I planned to include a Benchmarks-like feature but, in talking with John, learned he was planning to do the same thing. So he started the Regional Indicators project, and I agreed to publish it. In a reversal, I became his editor.
John, however, remained a guide and teacher, suggesting certain things and being a sounding board on others. Aside from email and telephone chats, we regularly met for breakfast at Ritter’s Diner. And over six years, the former boundaries fell away. We talked strategies, people and business. We swapped stories ranging from our upbringings to ridiculous college pranks that left us in stitches.
The last time we had corned beef hash and eggs at Ritter’s was two weeks before his unexpected demise at the end of May. I told John he was the Socrates of Pittsburgh. He looked at me for a moment, considering it. “It’s true,” I said with a laugh. John pricked Pittsburgh’s conscience with bits of truth that were often inconvenient. He was both the city’s gadfly and its advocate. And while he wasn’t put to death as Socrates was, John was cast as an outsider. Of course, he was also the ultimate insider, pulling strings and making things happen. But he was never part of Pittsburgh society, never a glad-hander at events and parties. And despite all he did for the region — as P-G editor for 26 years, as the first co-chair of Riverlife, as the founder of the Regional Indicators — he never received civic awards such as “History Makers” or any others of which I’m aware.
Some people didn’t like dealing with John. He was not a “process person.” He was both well bred and street smart. But the rituals that are part of making things happen in a lot of circles were boring time-wasters to him. John expected people to deal with him as he dealt with them, candidly and getting right to the point. But many people aren’t made that way, aren’t as comfortable with intellectual shoot-outs as he was.
The newspaper made John an outsider, and he was perfectly comfortable with it. John’s allegiance was not to shareholders or customers. It was to the truth and what was best for Pittsburgh, as he saw it. It’s likely that he’s the last Pittsburgh editor who will ever wield the great power that newspapers once had. And he wielded that power with wisdom, nuance and some cunning for what he believed in — our city.