Jonathan Wolman, editor and publisher of The Detroit News for the past 12 years, died Monday of complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 68.
In a career spanning 46 years, the Madison, Wisconsin, native covered and managed some of the biggest stories of his time — as longtime Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press, as the wire service’s executive editor in New York and, finally, as editor and publisher of The Detroit News, the city where he had his first AP posting outside his hometown.
In his dozen years leading The News, he edited and directed coverage of some of the region’s most consequential stories in the past half century: the bankruptcies of two automakers and later the city of Detroit, the public-corruption conviction of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, the Flint water crisis, the continuing revitalization of Detroit, the improbable victory in Michigan of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race.
“He found a profession he was sort of made for,” said Bridget Mary McCormack, chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court and a close friend of Mr. Wolman and his wife, Deborah Lamm, for the last decade before his death on April 15, 2019. “He’s a metaphor for the Washington we wish for.”
He evinced the values of a bygone Washington, friends and colleagues say, an ability to disagree without being disagreeable, a keen interest in policy less freighted with politics than the archly partisan capital of today. In Detroit, he worked the back channels of power, Republican and Democrat, business and philanthropy.
"Born to the craft of journalism, he ennobled the profession by his unflinching pursuit of truth," said Reed Hundt, a friend of three decades who chaired the Federal Communications Commission during the Clinton Administration. "He taught me about how to write a book, how to raise a child and how to face facts."
It was the AP that most shaped the arc of Mr. Wolman’s career, earning him partial credit for at least one Pulitzer Prize and a place among the journalistic elite of his generation. His was a long run in an industry dealing with momentous change as the pace of news quickened, priorities changed and news values evolved.
Before his final stint in Detroit, he directed AP’s coverage of the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979, despite the risks, and witnessed the Reagan years and the fall of the Berlin Wall as a vital cog in AP’s Washington bureau. He and his team covered the Clinton era, culminating in the president’s impeachment, and he helped guide the AP's coverage of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
“As a reporter and editor, Wolman was always charging forward, running toward the fire,” longtime AP White House correspondent Terence Hunt, now retired, wrote in an email. “He was a powerful, demanding, thoughtful newsroom leader. Very competitive. Long after he left Detroit, he still chased leads about what happened to Jimmy Hoffa.”
Later, as AP’s New York-based executive editor, Mr. Wolman was editing in the Washington bureau on the night when his successor resisted fierce lobbying to call the 2000 presidential race between George Bush and Al Gore Jr.
“There was tremendous pressure from AP members on the night of the 2000 presidential election after the TV networks all called the race for George W. Bush,” Sandy Johnson, Mr. Wolman’s successor as Washington bureau chief, recalled in an e-mail. “Jon absorbed every anxious phone call and email message, allowing me and the projections team to do our jobs and analyze the vote count.
“He would occasionally come to my desk and ask, ‘What do you think?’ No pressure, just asking. I didn’t realize until later how much stress he was under. It was indicative of his trust in us to get it right.”
The Madison years
Jonathan Paley Wolman was born on Aug. 1, 1950, and raised in Madison, Wisconsin, one of five children to Anne and J. Martin Wolman. His sister, Jane, died in a two-car accident in central Nebraska on a snowy Dec. 30, 1967, according to a local press report.
Jon saw journalism up close, at home. His father, nicknamed “Murph,” spent his entire professional career at the Wisconsin State Journal, starting in 1932 as a newsboy. He rose to publisher, according to his obituary, retiring in 1985 at age 65.
After two years at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Mr. Wolman returned to Madison and his beloved University of Wisconsin. There he majored in philosophy, earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1972.
In January 1973, the AP hired Mr. Wolman as a “newsperson." The assignment in the Wisconsin state capital pointed him exactly where he would belong, judging by his 40-plus years in journalism — to politics and campaigns. His lead, published on June 27, 1973, under an AP byline in his father’s paper, offers a clue to the direction his career would take: “It may be way off, but vibrations out of the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday foretell a substantial change in Wisconsin’s campaign laws.”
A month later, he shared the front page of the Sheboygan Press with two other AP writers. As a ranking AP editor years later, Mr. Wolman would describe one of them — Donald M. Rothberg — as “an unerring witness to the machinery of Congress” who “had an instinctive feel for politics — not just inside the Beltway, but across 50 states.”
Detroit and beyond
The Motor City beckoned.
Just seven months later, the AP sent a young Mr. Wolman to Detroit. Coleman Young would be elected mayor a few months later, the first African-American mayor of a majority-minority city scarred by civil unrest, deindustrialization and disinvestment. And the auto industry’s biggest troubles lay ahead.
His run in Detroit lasted just two years. On Aug. 1, 1975, the AP promoted Mr. Wolman to “newsperson” in its powerful Washington bureau, where he became a national urban affairs writer at a time of deepening stress in the nation’s most significant cities, including Detroit.
“No, I wasn’t so interested in making the move,” Mr. Wolman said in a 2008 interview, cited in “Whatever Happened to the Washington Reporters” by Stephen Hess. “That was more AP’s idea than my own. I was enjoying my assignment in Detroit and had really just started an assignment as Michigan news editor when Washington came calling.
“I was there in one way, shape, or form from 1975 to 1998. Long time. But it was a terrifically interesting period to be doing Washington journalism. As is so often the case, I was a reporter and enjoying that and was asked to come into editing, and it turned out I enjoyed that too.
“And I did the back and forth a couple of times. In 1979, I made the turn for what became the rest of my career, which is I had been a national writer based in Washington at that point and I came into the bureau as assistant news editor, and I’ve been an editor ever since.”
Big stories, tough calls
Talk to just about anyone who worked closely with Mr. Wolman at the AP or The News, and a consensus emerges: he breathed politics; he loved campaigns in all their detail and drama; and he shaped the newsrooms he led around those priorities, sometimes to the consternation of others.
“He was completely obsessed with politics,” said Sally Buzbee, vice president and executive editor of AP who also served seven years as Washington bureau chief long after Mr. Wolman left the AP and landed in Detroit.
“He made the bureau a competitive force in campaigns. He had a great eye for raw political talent. Jon walked around the bureau. He talked to people. He was just really engaged.”
Said Johnson, his successor in the Washington bureau and now CEO of the National Press Foundation: “Jon groomed a generation of Washington journalists. He took a chance on people, putting them in roles that perhaps they weren't obviously ready for, including me. He created an esprit de corps in Washington that in turn set the bar higher for all of us.”
Him included. Promoted to AP managing editor and then executive editor in New York, Mr. Wolman chose to take at least one calculated risk his predecessor wouldn’t: he revived the No Gun Ri project, an explosive story about a 1950 massacre by U.S. troops of hundreds of South Korean nationals during the Korean War.
“AP had shelved the series, because it was so explosive,” Johnson recalled, echoing outside press accounts and the recollections of others familiar with the situation. “Jon resurrected it, edited it, got it lawyered up, and shepherded it to the wire.”
The lead: “It was a story no one wanted to hear.” The work won AP the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2000. In the controversy that followed amid questions about the credibility of three witnesses, The New York Times quoted Mr. Wolman in its May 14 editions of that year:
“We needed to satisfy our standards for accuracy, context, fairness and thoroughness, and we wanted to provide a multimedia account as well as a newspaper story. It can be a bumpy process, and it was, but the story will stand up.”
Heading out West
After a two-year tour as senior vice president of AP, Mr. Wolman left the wire service on March 1, 2004. His next stop: editorial page editor of the Denver Post, a Media News Group paper published by William Dean Singleton, then a board member of the AP.
Later the next year, MNG bought The Detroit News from Gannett Co. Inc. in a transaction that transferred ownership of the Detroit Free Press to the publisher of USA Today. In the spring of 2007, Singleton named Mr. Wolman editor and publisher of The News, completing a full journalistic circle for the editor who jump-started his long career in Detroit.
“Jon came to Detroit at a time of incredible uncertainty, not only for The News, but for the industry,” said Managing Editor Gary Miles. “He was a steadying, calming influence who put a priority on the big picture: the accuracy and fairness of our news report.
“He was a man of impeccable fairness. He was highly analytical. He had a critical eye for compelling detail and for BS, no matter its source. He refused to play favorites in news stories. Oftentimes he’d ask questions about a subject that belied any personal feelings, but which forced a more critical analysis of the story at hand.”
After Mr. Wolman’s arrival in Detroit, two things didn’t change — his obsession with politics in a state that would be wracked by bankruptcy, partisan shifts after the 2010 election and more. And, second, expanding an already wide circle of friends that included politicians of both parties, federal and state judges, influential thought leaders, fellow editors and reporters, and more.
"He just exuded old-school honor," said Merrick Garland, a longtime friend and neighbor who is chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. "We never talked about my work or his work, except his excitement about newsgathering. He had what seemed like an encyclopedic knowledge of current events."
Established in Detroit, Mr. Wolman maintained close contact with the Washington scene, reading widely, working the phones, hopping a plane to attend the Gridiron Club, often with a familiar guest who might be equal parts Michigan and Washington.
“He loved the Gridiron Club,” said Andrea Fischer Newman, retired Delta Air Lines Inc. government affairs executive and a former regent of the University of Michigan. “Literally, I went with him seven or eight years in a row. I found him kind, a real stand-up, ethical journalist. You couldn’t convince him of something.”
David Shribman, the recently retired editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a former political reporter for The Wall Street Journal, said Mr. Wolman “knew our business like no one else did. Jon was always the smartest person in every room he was in, but never acted as if he was the smartest person. He was a great companion, knowledgeable in a million areas.”
Years after they met, the two would vacation with their wives in places like Petoskey, walking nearby beaches and enjoying leisurely dinners — long after they bonded over beverages. But not that kind. Shribman recalls meeting Mr. Wolman for the first time at the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta. Along with the AP’s David Espo, they sucked cherry juice out of child-sized boxes, laughing.
And, later, apparently came Mr. Wolman’s favorite: “He drank more chocolate milk than anyone in the world,” Shribman said, liberating the rest of them to indulge a memory most could be forgiven for associating with childhood.
“Jon dug into community,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn. “He cared about how people felt. He cared about fair and balanced. He cared about mentoring people. He’d try to find common ground. But if he thought somebody was doing something wrong, he’d shine a harsh light on it.”
Like calling the 2016 presidential race in Michigan too soon for Hillary Clinton. On Election Night, state exit polling showed a dead heat between the Democratic nominee and Republican nominee Donald Trump in a state where Clinton had been expected to win.
Less than a half-hour earlier, the Free Press erroneously had called Michigan for Clinton. Years of experience — particularly the pressure cooker of Bush v. Gore in 2000 — had taught Mr. Wolman that being accurate was more important than being first. Less than 2 percentage points separated the two candidates with a little more than half of the precincts in the state reporting.
Trump was ahead. As The News’ election staff assembled in the conference room around 10 p.m., Mr. Wolman urged restraint. He told the staff to ensure the newspaper’s coverage reflected the closeness of the race and the possibility of a historic event — a Trump victory that would be the first Republican presidential win in Michigan since 1988.
The News reported that Michigan was “poised to play a deciding role in the presidential election Tuesday as Republican Donald Trump sought to break through Democrat Hillary Clinton’s firewall in the Great Lake State.” The Michigan contest was too close to call, and the Associated Press wouldn’t call it until Wednesday, when the unofficial margin was 13,107 votes. After review and certification, Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes — his closest victory in the 2016 election.
“It was clear being first mattered to him,” recalled Assistant Managing Editor Kelley Root, who was in the room. “But being accurate mattered more.”
Mr. Wolman is survived by his wife, Deborah Lamm; son Jacob; daughter Emma and her husband, Ian Irvine, and daughter Sophie. Mr. Wolman was one of five children to J. Martin and Anne Wolman. He is survived by two sisters, Nicky Wolman and Ruth Henderson, and a brother, Lewis Wolman.
A service will be held Wednesday, April 17, at 11 a.m. at Temple Beth El, Bloomfield Hills. Donations may be made in Mr. Wolman's name to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism, and Jewish Family Services of Metro Detroit.