Finley: Jon Wolman gave journalism his all right till the end

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
Detroit News Publisher Jonathan Wolman, left, Wolfgang Bauer from BMW and Editorial Page Editor Nolan Finley.

My first impression of Jon Wolman had nothing to do with newspapers or journalism.
Rather, I was struck in that initial conversation by the deep admiration our then-new publisher expressed for his wife, Debbie Lamm. He spoke of her so earnestly that I thought they must be newlyweds. But they’d been married for decades and had raised three children together. 

I felt a man who could so openly proclaim his devotion for a woman couldn’t be all bad.

Jon, 68, died Monday, April 15, 2019, of pancreatic cancer. He had led The Detroit News since 2007.

Over those 12 years, I came to understand the complexities of Jon Wolman.

He was not at all gregarious. In fact, he often didn’t seem particularly friendly. He could present as brusque and irritable, a bit hard crusted. He was smart, and he liked smart people — mostly because he liked to argue with them. If a conversation with Jon turned into a debate, as it often did, you’d better be armed with a headful of facts and ready for a war of attrition. And even then, you probably wouldn’t win. He didn’t readily concede defeat.

Still, there was a surprising softness to Jon that extended beyond his wife and family. He had a sincere interest in the people who worked for him. If you had trouble in your life, Jon wanted to hear about it and offer whatever help he could. Even during his own illness, he without fail would ask me about a beloved cousin who is also battling cancer. 

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He loved journalism, but not so much the upheaval the industry is going through. The process of downsizing this newspaper grieved him. He hated slashing news budgets, hated even more letting go of journalists. He pulled out every budget trick he could find to minimize layoffs.

Editorial Page Editor Nolan Finley, left, and Publisher Jon Wolman grab a selfie at a chilly Tigers game alongside former UM Regent Andrea Fischer Newman.

For Jon, shrinking staffs and resources were not an excuse for a diminished news product. He pushed us to find creative ways to do more with less. He championed hard news coverage and investigative reporting and took great pride in keeping The Detroit News among the best regional newspapers in the country.

Jon’s passion was politics; he had a robust appetite for political coverage and could spend hours handicapping campaigns and reminiscing about past elections. 

He held strong personal views. As a conservative editorial page editor working for a center-left publisher who had run an editorial page himself, we spent a lot of time scrapping over the newspaper’s positions. Usually he deferred to The News’ place in the market, but he relished the scuffle. His challenges sharpened me and made my arguments stronger.  

Jon was an advocate for opinion journalism in an era when that is disappearing from too many newspapers.

But here’s what I really want you to know about him and something I didn’t fully get until the end: He had courage. He may not have looked it, but he was a fighter. He was tough. 

Detroit News Editor and Publisher Jonathan Wolman, left, talks with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder after Snyder met with the newspaper's editorial board  on January 24, 2018.

Everyone knows what a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer means. Yet Jon seemed unfazed by his. For the first year of the disease he marveled at how well he felt, and even joked that the chemotherapy was energizing him. He talked about the cancer easily and without a sign of fear.  

He felt he could beat it. That wasn’t denial, but determination. But he was also pragmatic — he entered a National Institutes of Health experimental program with the hope of being cured, but if he wasn’t, he said, at least his contribution might help future patients.

He could have retired when he got the bad news and set about checking items off his bucket list.

Instead, he kept coming to work. Not to wrap up loose ends, but to make plans for future coverage, to keep stretching the budget, to keep chasing big stories.

He must have decided that there was nothing he’d rather do with the time he had left than put out a newspaper.

Every day of his working life was spent as a journalist, and he gave the profession his best right till the end.

I’ll pay him what I’ve always considered the highest compliment you can offer someone in this business: Jon Wolman was a hell of a newspaperman.