Creed Black, 86; newspaper executive unearthed scandal

By Douglas Martin
New York Times / August 19, 2011

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NEW YORK - Creed Black, a peripatetic, pugnacious newspaper executive who enraged his native state by printing a series of articles exposing corruption on the University of Kentucky basketball team, died Tuesday in Miami. He was 86.

The cause was complications of strokes, said David Lawrence Jr., a former publisher of The Miami Herald.

As publisher of the Lexington Herald-Leader, Mr. Black in 1985 gave the go-ahead for reporters to investigate shady practices involving one of Kentucky’s most beloved institutions, its university’s basketball team. The paper’s editor at the time, John S. Carroll, wrote in an essay that Mr. Black “simply said pursue the story, and if you can verify it, let’s publish it.’’

The result was a series providing credible evidence that players were receiving cash payments, that their coaches were involved, and that this practice had been going on for years. Jeffrey A. Marx and Michael M. York won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for the series, “Playing Above the Rules.’’ It was the first Pulitzer for the Lexington paper.

The reaction of Kentucky Wildcats loyalists was fierce: circulation and advertising boycotts, protest rallies, and daily attacks on talk radio. A letter to Mr. Black read: “Dear Sir: May the sprays of a million polecats fall upon your presses and linger there through eternity. Go Big Blue!’’

In 1999, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported on the outrage over its own investigation of similar abuses by the University of Minnesota athletic program, and spoke with Mr. Black, who said: “We had bomb threats, had to evacuate the building once or twice, had to put security on my home for a time. A few people canceled. One of the first was a man in the mailroom who saw the papers coming off the presses and canceled his free subscription.’’

During his decade in Lexington, starting in 1977, Mr. Black increased daily circulation nearly 30 percent and Sunday circulation by more than 60 percent, and combined the company’s two newspapers, The Herald and The Leader, into The Herald-Leader in 1983.

Journalistically, he took on another Kentucky sacred cow, the coal industry; sharpened the editorial page so much that a Republican politician called it “the fang and claw’’; and exposed wrongdoing in used-car businesses at the expense of lost advertising.

Earlier, in 1964, he had resigned in protest as vice president and editor of The News-Journal Newspapers in Wilmington, Del., after the papers’ owner brought in a public relations executive from the DuPont Company to help manage the news department. DuPont was by far the most important company in town, and Black accused the owner of the newspapers, a securities firm controlled by the DuPont family, of wanting to make the papers, The Morning News and The Evening Journal, DuPont “house organs.’’

Mr. Black was also a top news executive at The Nashville Tennessean, Savannah Morning News, and the Savannah Evening Press in Georgia, the Chicago Daily News, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. In the first 18 months of the Nixon administration, he was assistant secretary of health, education, and welfare for legislation.

Mr. Black also served as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, and the National Conference of Editorial Writers.

From 1988 to 1998, he was president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

At the Lexington paper, Mr. Black kept a framed copy of a statement by Herbert Bayard Swope, who won three Pulitzer Prizes for reporting and sat at the legendary Algonquin round table in New York. It read, “I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure - which is: try to please everybody.’’