Australian-born Maxwell McCrohon was a journalistic visionary whose innovations in design, story-packaging and feature writing changed the face of the Chicago journalism and had a wide impact throughout the U.S. newspaper industry.
McCrohon, a former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Today newspapers and a courtly man known for his kindness and gracious praise to colleagues, died Wednesday at the Community Hospice of Washington in Washington, D.C., at the age of 76. The cause of death was cancer, his son Craig said.
As managing editor of the now-defunct Today in the early 1970s, McCrohon broadened the definition of news to include social shifts and cultural trends, transforming a stodgy afternoon publication into what one critic described as "essentially a daily magazine."
Later, in the same post at the Tribune, McCrohon worked closely with editor Clayton Kirkpatrick to create a brightly illustrated, highly organized and enticingly written newspaper that was a far cry from its long-dowdy traditions. In 1979, he was Kirkpatrick's successor as editor.
During a career that spanned half a century, McCrohon also served editor in chief of United Press International wire service, editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner newspaper, and U.S. editor of an experimental American-Russian publication, We/Mbl.
"It was Max who saw ahead. He was one of the best editors I worked for, and it was because he was a visionary," said Colleen "Koky" Dishon, a pioneer, with McCrohon, in conceiving and designing feature sections at the Tribune to serve reader special interests. "He was always ready to do something different."
James Hoge, who, as editor of the Chicago Sun-Times during the 1970s, competed against McCrohon, said, "Max had a kind of flair to him how you package the news, how you present it that we hadn't seen over at the Tribune. As a practitioner [of a more reader-oriented journalism], Max was certainly in the forefront nationally."
"It was never just going to work," McCrohon said of his journalism career during a 1999 interview. "I enjoyed editing making things better. I felt I had a grasp of what people wanted in a newspaper. I was always happiest when I could roll up my sleeves and take part."
Bernard Judge, who served as Tribune city editor under McCrohon and is now editor and publisher of the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, said, "He was a first-class newspaperman. I remember he used to tell me that a newspaper should always have a slightly unfinished quality to it, so it looked immediate, so it looked fresh."
McCrohon, who was born on June 19, 1928, began his journalism career in his hometown at the Sydney Morning Herald, and he credited that early experience with giving him a deep understanding of what readers wanted and needed from a newspaper.
With five daily newspapers in the city, "there was a sense of competition a sense of how do I look better, read better, than the other guy that was part of the ethos of the time," McCrohon said.
After a year of seasoning, McCrohon was dispatched to the United States in 1951 for a tour of duty in the Herald's New York bureau. And one of his earliest stories took him to Soldier Field in Chicago where he covered a prizefight the first ever broadcast nationally on television in which Dave Sands, a top Australian boxer, trounced Carl "Bobo" Olson for the world middleweight title.
Although young Herald reporters usually spent only two years in the States, McCrohon was so enamored of America that he wheedled a two-year extension at the end of which, just before returning to Australia in late December, 1955, he married a woman he'd met in New York, Nancy Wilson.
A little more than three years later, he was back in the U.S., working as a reporter for the Chicago American, a sister newspaper to the Tribune since being purchased by Tribune Co. in 1956. He would remain with the paper for the next 13 years, during which its name was changed to Chicago's American and, later, to Chicago Today.
At first, McCrohon handled a variety of assignments at the American, including a posting to the newly Communist Cuba which, unlike U.S.-born reporters, he was able to enter with his Australian passport. "Our man in Havana," the American trumpeted.
He also was a fill-in movie reviewer. A sample lead from one of his reviews: "The Frenchmen who produced the film version of Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible' have spread the rather bitter bread of his play with a heavily spiced syrup of sex."
Over the next decade, McCrohon worked in nearly every important editing job at the American and had a major hand in redesigning the paper from a broadsheet to a tabloid and in rethinking its approach to news and story-writing. The result was Chicago Today, which premiered in 1969. And, less than a year later, McCrohon was named its managing editor.
"I found him to be a very charismatic guy, the kind of editor you wanted to please on a personal level as well as a professional level," said Charles Leroux, who worked under McCrohon as a writer and editor at Today and later the Tribune. "He was also good at telling reporters when they'd done something well which is not something every editor does."
McCrohon, known for his relaxed demeanor, often used the word "fun" when talking about the challenges of putting out a newspaper.
"Journalism isn't life and death stuff," he said in the 1999 interview. "It always seemed to me silly to get into a rage about a bad lead or a poor headline. We weren't doing brain surgery."
Nonetheless, the late Scott Schmidt, a colleague of McCrohon at Today and the Tribune, once said, "Max very well may have been the most creative newspaper man I've met in my life."
The transformation of the American into Chicago Today had been an attempt to breathe life into a sleepy afternoon daily, and it worked but only partly. Readers liked what they saw, and Today's circulation went up. But, ominously, it still ran a distant fourth in ad lineage among the major Chicago papers, and, in January, 1973, the paper ceased publication.
One key reason behind the closing of Today was that it was gaining circulation among young, affluent readers the same market the Tribune was attempting to reach. In fact, even while running day-to-day operations at Today, McCrohon was also heading a task force to carry out a similar redesign at the Tribune. And, in January, 1972, he was named managing editor of the Tribune by editor Clayton Kirkpatrick.
In his three years as editor, Kirkpatrick had already carried out a radical change at the Tribune, purging political partisanship from news stories and toning down its previously shrill editorial page. And, in line with a readership study in the early 1970s, he had begun looking for ways to make the Tribune easier to read.
McCrohon, as Kirkpatrick's right hand man, did that by making the layout of pages more flexible and less dense and by playing photos and other illustrations large and running them with the text of stories (rather than segregated to a back page as had been done for many years). McCrohon did it by grouping all the national and international news in one part of the paper and all the local news in another, and by extensive use of front-page "reefers" that alert readers to stories inside the paper.
"His strongest qualities were in design and arrangement of news," Kirkpatrick, who died earlier this year, said in an interview after his retirement. "The page one promotions for [stories in] the interior of the paper were a great design improvement. They did a lot to bring the reader into the paper."
Anton Majeri, who, after working closely with McCrohon on the Today and Tribune redesigns, is recognized nationally as an expert in newspaper graphics, explained, "This was a very reader-unfriendly newspaper. It was spinach journalism: 'You're going to read this paper whether you like it or not.' Max was the guy who had the vision of what to do, and what that vision was was to remember the readers."
But McCrohon's impact on the Tribune extended far beyond the look of the paper. It was McCrohon who recognized the limitations of the strict diet of straight-forward, often government-related news stories that had long filled American newspapers, and who pushed for a new sort of feature writing one that was bright, analytical, explanatory and entertaining and could be employed as much for serious news on the front page as for lighter subjects inside the paper.
"Max's principal contribution was making us a paper full of features and thank heavens!" said Michael Kilian, an editorial board member under McCrohon and now a Washington correspondent. "He thought that you give your readers something to read, and the more somethings you give them, the more readers you get."
In line with that, McCrohon brought in Dishon to revamp the Tribune's feature section, Tempo, and later to create a series of regularly published special interest sections, geared to meet the needs of individual readership groups and allow businesses to target their advertising. The effort, which continues today, was dubbed "the sectional revolution" by the Tribune promotions department.
"Max was the architect of the sectional revolution in newspapers," said Howard Tyner, who served as Tribune editor from 1993 to 2001.
As a boss, McCrohon's "leadership was collegial," said Judge. "The negative aspects of normal human politics weren't evident during his reign. There was a lot of trust."
The same was true of McCrohon as a father, said his son Craig. "He was somebody who always saw possibilities. He had a bedrock of optimism, an infectious optimism."
When Kirkpatrick was promoted to president of Chicago Tribune Co. in 1979, McCrohon, who had become a U.S. citizen in the mid-1970s, was named the newspaper's editor. And, two years later, he was appointed vice president for news for Tribune Co.
In August, 1983, after nearly a quarter century with the Tribune organization, McCrohon left to become editor in chief of United Press International. In 1987, he was appointed editor of the Los Angeles Herald [Examiner], a Hearst Corporation newspaper, and remained in that post until the Herald [Examiner] went out of business in late 1989.
He continued as a consultant with Hearst Corp., and, in 1992, was appointed the U.S. editor of an American-Russian newspaper that was a joint venture of Hearst and the Russian daily Izvestia. The paper, called We/Mbl Mbl means "we" in Russian published separate English- and Russian-language editions but had to cease publication in 1994 because of exorbitant Russian taxes.
Other survivors include another son, Sean; a daughter, Regan McCrohon-Hoff; and 2 grandchildren, Carly and Taylor. Services are pending.