John Craig and the Future of Pittsburgh

The passing last week of John Craig, long-time editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, called out all kinds of poignant memories of the man and his work. What a great man he was, etc. etc. I had the good fortune to have lunch with him, just once, not long after we tangled on this blog over a P-G piece that he wrote on public art in Pittsburgh. My initial critique of his op-ed is here, his last word on the subject is here, and be sure to check the comments to both posts.

From limited experience, I can confirm that John Craig was a handful of a personality, full of knowledge, opinions, and the wit and courage to share them without calculating too much, outwardly, over what other people thought. In a nutshell, John Craig was a newspaperman of the old school, sort of a real-life and bigger-than-life version of the fictional Lou "I hate spunk" Grant. At our lunch, we didn't talk about public art; we talked mostly about the Internet and social media. He wanted me to help explain to him how to use it in connection with the Regional Indicators project.

That conversation, now three years old, reminds me that John Craig's most important legacy may not be his record in hiring and supporting the people who built the Post-Gazette and other papers over the last 30 years, or his work behind the scenes in supporting some of the better public initiatives around the city. His legacy may lie in how he viewed the community where he lived, and how is vision is sitting there -- waiting to be picked up and extended. The following passage in the P-G's obit caught my eye:

One of the things that struck him about the Post-Gazette upon arrival was how much it seemed in the mid-1970s like Pittsburgh itself: rather insular, set in its ways, lacking vision.

"He made it clear -- not necessarily diplomatically always -- that he wanted to shake the place up. He was a really formidable presence in the newsroom," recalled Michael McGough, a Los Angeles Times senior editorial writer who worked closely with Mr. Craig overseeing the Post-Gazette's editorial pages.

Within a short matter of time, the Post-Gazette had a lot more people with non-Pittsburgh accents, some of them foreign. It had more minorities. Different departments of the newspaper were forced to plan and discuss with one another in a way they never had.

And importantly for readers, it meant more ambitious local news coverage, including investigative journalism on powerful figures such as Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen and Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, whom he relished taking on when they filed libel suits against the newspaper.

Business reporting no longer was tied to press releases. The "women's pages" took on a more modern, lifestyle-oriented tone, as had become the norm at newspapers in bigger cities.


"He was thinking out of the box before people knew there was a box," said Post-Gazette columnist Reg Henry, an Australian hired by Mr. Craig in 1978. "He was a contrarian, and very challenging -- and therefore irritating -- but all in the pursuit of excellence."

The not-so-hidden heroes of this story are the members of the Block family, who hired John Craig and backed him up; they let John Craig run with his vision. But if the Blocks were the backstop, John Craig provided just about everything else. John Craig was the very model for what Pittsburgh needed then, when he arrived, and what it still needs today: leaders with knowledge, opinions, and the courage to share them. Not (just) in the mainstream media, but throughout Pittsburgh's public life - media, education, business, government, nonprofits.

Is Pittsburgh less insular, less set in its ways, and more "visionary" than it was when John Craig arrived? Sure. But by how much? How much of Pittsburgh's new vision (can cities really have vision?) is the corporate/statist product of city government, the Allegheny Conference, and VisitPittsburgh? How much of the vision is the Kumbaya output of "regional visioning" projects and collective conversations? It is right and fun to talk about ourselves (the latter two groups), and a lot of tangible good can come out of the CEO-culture (the first three groups), at least when you have the right kind of CEOs. But the John Craigs of the world, individuals who inspire the rest of us to work better and contribute more, don't fit into either category.

You might call them Pittsburgh's new leaders, as I tried to here about six months ago. From the Cupcake Class to the head of the class, one might say. I don't know whether or John Craig enjoyed a good cupcake, but he was no member of the Cupcake Class. Or you might call them Pittsburgh's new "characters," who were the subjects of a different recent post. Calling John Craig a "character" significantly undervalues his contributions. John Craig had spunk. The Pittsburgh region is missing those people right now.


1 Response to "John Craig and the Future of Pittsburgh"

audrey said... 5/31/2010 4:56 PM

John Craig reached out to me within 3 weeks of my appointment to the position I hold now, Pres & CEO, Pittsburgh Tech Council. He and I became fast friends, resorting to rabid disagreements to passionate agreements about the region, the city of Pittsburgh, the role of tech and metrics. He was ferocious in his passion and he demanded me to hold a strong leadership role to ensure the voices of the region were not held to suboptimal standards.
We talked regularly except for the last few months. He would call my cell demanding me to solve an issue or answer a pointed question. He commented on everything I wrote. He urged me to be vocal and drive change.
I doubt that I ever satisfied John. One thing for sure, he cared, he knew what mattered and he found the diamond in those he connected with. I promise to hold his energy and vision dear to me.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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