August 17, 2012
Burl Osborne, former executive editor and publisher of The Dallas Morning News, dies at 75
Burl Osborne, who led The Dallas Morning News to national prominence and a string of Pulitzer Prizes during 21 years at the newspaper, died late Wednesday at UT Southwestern University Hospital-St. Paul. He was 75.
Under his guidance, The News set a benchmark for profitability in the newspaper industry and won a come-from-behind victory in one of the nation's last great newspaper wars.
He devoted his adult life to journalism in positions from reporter to managing editor at The Associated Press and from executive editor to publisher at The News . He was chairman of the AP board after leaving The News in 2001.
In 1966, when he was 29, Mr. Osborne made news by being the third recipient of an experimental anti-rejection technique for a kidney transplant.
Mr. Osborne woke up not feeling well Wednesday. His death was not related to his kidney transplants, his family said.
"Burl Osborne was one of the finest journalists of his generation, in this country or anywhere," said Robert W. Decherd, chairman, president and chief executive officer of A.H. Belo Corporation. "He reinvigorated The Dallas Morning News as its executive editor in the early 1980s and as publisher, Burl charted The News' emergence as one of America's truly distinguished newspapers.
"As chairman of The Associated Press beginning in 2002, Burl led the AP's transition to becoming one of the world's most influential Internet media organizations. Most importantly, Burl was a person of unquestioned integrity whose determination and personal strength set the standard for colleagues and friends throughout his life."
Mr. Osborne was "a spokesman for excellence in journalism," said Gregory Favre, distinguished fellow in journalism values at the Poynter Institute and retired vice president/news for McClatchy Newspapers.
"I admired him greatly, he was a leader in our profession," Mr. Favre said. "He was obviously recognized by his peers both editors and publishers for leadership positions in those organizations."
Mr. Osborne was born in Jenkins, Ky., a coal town with fewer than 700 people near the Virginia border. His father strung communications lines between mine shafts and the coal-company operation on the surface. When he was 6, Mr. Osborne moved with his family to Ashland, Ky., where his father became a line supervisor for General Telephone.
He was diagnosed as having kidney disease when he was an elementary school student. He believed the condition destined him to die prematurely.
The first member of his family to attend college, Mr. Osborne began studying engineering at what is now Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., across the Ohio River from Ashland. He soon found a major and a career in journalism.
He worked for the Ashland Independent while he studied journalism. He graduated in 1960 and started his career at the No. 3 television station in what was then the three-station Huntington market.
Later in 1960, Mr. Osborne became The Associated Press' one-man bureau in Bluefield, W.Va.
Mr. Osborne said he learned the power of the press while covering the story of a hound dog trapped in a mine shaft buried under half a mountain. The dog had fallen into the open shaft and was being kept alive by its owner, a boy who threw food to the trapped animal.
The dog had been in the shaft for about a month when Mr. Osborne started covering the story for the AP in November 1961. The cub reporter captured the nation's attention with his reports on the hound's plight.
As Christmas drew near, Mr. Osborne was told he wasn't leaving Bluefield until the dog was out of the shaft.
"That suggested the next day's lead on how to get the dog out," Mr. Osborne recalled in 1980. "I wrote a story saying that unless this boy got the services of a bulldozer, his dog wasn't going to be home for Christmas."
The next morning, six or eight bulldozers were moving the mountain to get to the hound the solution he had suggested.
"It was then that I began to understand the power of the newspaper story," Mr. Osborne said.
In 1964, Mr. Osborne was named head of the AP bureau in Spokane, Wash., a chance assignment that would soon save his life.
A few weeks after he arrived in Spokane, Mr. Osborne became ill. He was told he had end-stage renal disease. But Spokane was one of the few places where researchers were experimenting with dialysis treatments. Dr. Peter Ivanovich, medical director for the Spokane dialysis center, oversaw Mr. Osborne's treatment, including reviving the young journalist from cardiac arrest one night.
By 1966, Mr. Osborne's condition was worsening under dialysis. Dr. Ivanovich happened to know Dr. Thomas Starzl, a Colorado doctor now considered the father of modern transplantation.
"I reached the conclusion that I'd rather risk a transplant," Mr. Osborne later recalled. "I thought, 'Really there's not much hope, so why don't I do this?'"
On July 27, 1966, Mr. Osborne received a kidney from his mother, Juanita Osborne. Mrs. Osborne died in 2009.
In 1994, doctors recommended that Mr. Osborne supplement the aging kidney he had received from his mother as a preventive measure. His brother, David Osborne of Ashland, Ky., gave him a kidney and a bone marrow transplant to reduce the need for anti-rejection drugs. Mr. Osborne was the first patient to receive both a kidney and bone marrow from a living donor.
In 1997, Mr. Osborne received the first Organ Transplant Pioneer Hero Award from the International Society of Artificial Internal Organs. The award has since been renamed in his honor.
Career at The News
His health restored by the first transplant in 1966, Mr. Osborne resumed his career, which took him rapidly up the ranks at AP. He worked in Denver, led bureaus in Louisville, Ky., and Columbus, Ohio, and was assistant bureau chief in Washington, D.C., before being named managing editor of the wire service's worldwide news operations in 1977.
But in 1980, his career took a dramatic shift. After 20 years with the AP, he was named executive editor of The Dallas Morning News and entered the world of a metropolitan daily caught up in one of the nation's hottest newspaper wars.
Mr. Osborne had little newspaper experience, but liked the idea of building a great newspaper.
"In the late 1970s or early 1980s, you may recall, we were in one of our periodic self-flagellation cycles where we were all worrying about whether newspapers were going to be around another 10 years," he said in an oral history of his life. "To hear a discussion about how to build a great one was, I thought, a very inspiring kind of discussion."
Mr. Osborne said he decided to leave the security of the wire service "and go roll the dice in Dallas."
His move was a bold one. At the time, The News was in a fierce competition with the Dallas Times Herald , owned by Times Mirror Corp., a much larger company with more financial resources.
The News had more total circulation in Texas, but the Herald sold more newspapers in Dallas County. Mr. Osborne led The News to win one of the greatest newspaper battles of the late 20th century. Belo purchased the Herald 's assets in December 1991.
Mr. Osborne was also respected by his competitors, including Tim Kelly, former deputy managing editor of the Herald .
"Anyone who ever underestimated Burl Osborne did so at his or her own risk," said Mr. Kelly, of Lexington, Ky. "Burl was a battler in life, due to his kidney issues, and also in his long and distinguished career.
"Burl was one of my early role models as a fellow Ashlander and journalist," he said. "He was a polite but fierce competitor when we were on opposite sides of the Dallas newspaper war and eventually became someone I saw as a friend and valued sounding board."
George Rodrigue, managing editor of The News , recalled Mr. Osborne's influence on the paper's first Pulitzer Prize for reporting, allowing him and fellow reporter Craig Flournoy the time and resources needed to pursue a story about segregation and discrimination in public housing.
"Craig and I worried about whether the final versions of our stories would be good enough for him. We also worried that he might think we had written the stories too aggressively.
"Burl came down to the newsroom, read the top of the first day's main story, and said, 'Can you make it tougher?'"
Sphere of influence
Mr. Osborne had a broad influence on the newspaper and Dallas. A wine lover, he spearheaded the founding of The Dallas Morning News Wine Competition and a wine and food festival in 1985. The annual competition eventually became one of the largest in the country.
In 1992, Mr. Osborne received the National Press Foundation's George David Beveridge Jr. Award for Editor of the Year. The next year, he received the Pat Taggart Texas Newspaper Leader of the Year Award.
Mr. Osborne was named senior vice president and editor of The News in 1983. He was named president of the newspaper in 1985 and publisher in 1991.
He retired as an executive officer of Belo Corp. on Dec. 31, 2001. In May 2002, he became chairman of the board of The Associated Press, where he served as a board member for a total of 14 years.
Mr. Osborne also was president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1991 and later served as president of the ASNE Foundation.
In July 2009, Mr. Osborne was named interim chief executive officer of Freedom Communications Inc., serving until July 2010. He had served on the board of directors since 2004.
During his career, Mr. Osborne served as a member and co-chairman of the Pulitzer Prize Board, chairman of the American Press Institute, president and chairman of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association, trustee of the Southern Newspaper Association Foundation, and director of the Newspaper Association of America and chairman of its Presstime Advisory Committee.
He was a member of the board of the Southwest Transplant Alliance and the National Kidney Foundation.
Mr. Osborne had served as a director of Plano-based J.C. Penney Co. since 2003, and chairman of the board's human resources and compensation committee since 2004.
"We are all saddened by Burl's death," said J.C. Penney CEO Ron Johnson. "With his vast experience in journalism and communications, combined with his strong business acumen, Burl's contributions to J.C. Penney over the last decade have been enormous. Burl had also become a good friend and colleague of mine, and I found his counsel during my first year at J.C. Penney to be extraordinarily valuable. His leadership will be missed."
Mr. Osborne was a favorite of corporate staffers in Plano because he was approachable and friendly and took the time to stop and talk when he was there for board meetings.
Last year, Penney's directors waived the company's mandatory board retirement age of 74 for Mr. Osborne because of "his extensive knowledge and experience."
Services for Mr. Osborne are pending.
In addition to his brother, Mr. Osborne is survived by his wife, Betty Osborne of Dallas; a son, Jonathan Osborne of Austin and his wife, Brigette; and one grandchild, Harry.