Wolman remembered as fair, calm journalist who championed diversity

Nora Naughton Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Friends and colleagues of Detroit News Editor and Publisher Jonathan Wolman, who died Monday at 68, remembered him as a dedicated journalist committed to his people and the craft he spent nearly a half-century refining at the Associated Press and The Detroit News. 

Detroit News editor and publisher Jonathan Wolman addresses the honorees and guests on June 28, 2018, at The Detroit News Michiganians of the Year dinner in Detroit.

Wolman's former colleagues remembered him as a supportive editor and competitive journalist with a particularly intense passion for politics. The impact of his 46-year news career extended far beyond the newsroom, with politicians and business leaders paying tribute to the journalist who left a lasting impression on colleagues now working at the highest levels in the news media.

"Jon was unfailingly fair and supremely calm," John King, CNN's chief national correspondent who worked with Wolman at the AP in Washington, wrote in an email. "Big election nights, presidential summits — when everyone was stressed and on edge and trying to sort the chaos, he would always find a way to slow things down. Just his presence did that. He would just lean in, ask a simple question or two, and from the clutter came clarity. It was an understated gift."

During his 12 years at The News, Wolman managed the paper through a period of uncertainty for the newspaper industry. His dedication to traditional newspaper journalism would prove a guiding light through years of tough budget cuts and downsizing, his colleagues remembered.

"Nobody goes into journalism to manage" decline, tweeted Bridge Magazine Managing Editor Joel Kurth, a former reporter at The News. "Jon Wolman was a reluctant master of the dreary art. His budget skills saved scores of reporters' jobs and kept Detroit a two-paper town. Not the legacy he wanted. But a hell of one anyway."

Laura Berman, a retired Detroit News columnist, remembered Wolman as "encouraging to me but, more importantly, he had a compassionate heart that was reflected in his political views and in the way he treated his friends and employees.

"As a three-times-a-week columnist, I never felt that I had enough time to perfect any piece of writing. But when I latched onto a promising tale about a nefarious cancer doctor, he gave me that most precious commodity — time — to work on it."

Wolman also forged strong relationships with many of the leaders his reporters and columnists covered, leaving a legacy of mutual respect among politicians, civic leaders and titans of business in one of America's leading business towns.

"Jonathan came to Detroit prepared to dig in. The way he cared for and fought for Southeast Michigan, you would have thought he’d been here his entire life," U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said in a statement. "He encouraged the best in people, shined a light on what was wrong, and was fair and objective in a non-partisan way to bring people together to solve problems."

"Jon Wolman was a dear friend, a journalist extraordinaire and an integral part of our community," said Beth Chappell, former CEO of the Detroit Economic Club, a favorite organization of Wolman's. He highly valued the paper's coverage of Detroit's Big Three automakers, earning the respect of auto industry leaders in the Motor City.

"Jon was not only an excellent journalist, but a leader who cared deeply about the Detroit community and our collective success," Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Co., said in a statement. "Through challenging times for our region, and in the newspaper industry, Jon was a strong voice for progress and set a high standard for fairness and accuracy. He will be deeply missed."

Tony Cervone, General Motors Co.'s senior vice president of communications and a special adviser to CEO Mary Barra, remembered Wolman as "as steadying influence at The News during an incredibly transformational period for our city, the industry and for the journalism profession."

"It's a sad day for Detroit and a sad day for journalism," Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV said in a statement. "Jon was a strong and thoughtful leader who genuinely cared about truth, fairness and accuracy. Our condolences go out to his family both inside and outside the newsroom."

Wolman's love of politics and background as a Washington reporter put him ahead of other editors in Detroit throughout the auto industry crisis of 2008 and 2009, said Reuters reporter David Shepardson, former Washington bureau chief of The News.

"With his background as AP's (Washington) bureau chief, there was no editor who more quickly grasped how important Washington, D.C. was to Detroit and Michigan readers," Shepardson said. "During auto crisis in 2008, we did not shy away from calling it a bailout. He wanted us to play it straight down the middle — not to bend to pressure from others."

Colleagues also remembered Wolman as an early champion of diversity in the newsroom, a practice he continued during his years in Detroit. Said CNN's King: "He empowered women in the newsroom back when that didn’t happen in the normal course of things." 

Felecia Henderson, a former assistant managing editor for The News, on Facebook called Wolman "a champion of diversity."

Felecia Henderson, a former assistant managing editor for The News, on Facebook called Wolman "a champion of diversity. If it were not for him, I and many other people of color in the newsroom wouldn't have had the opportunity to grow and advance. Jon saw our value and appreciated it."

Fred Sweets, former chief of bureau for photos in the AP's Washington Bureau, remembered Wolman as an "unbelievably strong and solid" journalist who "believed in diversity before it was popular.  Loved him as a man and as a journalist."

Wolman also was remembered by former colleagues and sources as a man of intense curiosity. He could be a tough interviewer: "I have to admit over time I went from being anxiously uncertain before ed boards about what (Nolan Finley) and (Ingrid Jacques) would ask to what Jonathan Wolman would throw at us," tweeted John Sellek, former spokesman for former Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.

The News' local editor, Kevin J. Hardy, recalled on Facebook a long 48-hour slog in 2016 to uncover "who knew what when about Flint's water crisis. We had been sleeping in the newsroom, killing ourselves to break two important stories."

Hardy wrote: "Jon had cautioned me several times that if we didn’t have the story, we shouldn’t rush to publish. I kept saying we were trying our best. He pulled me into a side room an hour before deadline. 'So?' he asked.

"'We’re prepared to publish,' I told him. 'Then run it,' he said and walked out. That’s about as Bradlee of a moment I’ve had in journalism." But it was Jon Wolman.