DAVID LAWRENCE, JR.
David Lawrence was born March 5, 1942, the second oldest of nine children. His father
was a newspaperman working for The New York Sun. When his parents decided to
move to a warmer climate in 1956, Florida was chosen in part because it was the winter
broadcast home of a television show they liked to watch, Arthur Godfrey. In Florida, his
father sold real estate, and later was employed on a Sarasota newspaper. He ending
up working for The Orlando Sentinel for the last seventeen years of his life, was dean of
the Florida Press Corps in Tallahassee and earned a spot in the Florida Journalism Hall
of Fame. Lawrence admired his father and decided to go into journalism.
After graduation from the University of Florida, where he was editor of the
Alligator, David Lawrence went to The St. Petersburg Times, where he had worked as a
summer intern. After three and a half years at The St. Petersburg Times, he went to
the news desk at The Washington Post and became news editor of Style. He next
accepted the position of managing editor of The Palm Beach Post from 1969 1971. In
1971 he migrated to The Philadelphia Daily News as assistant to the editor and then
became managing editor. In 1975 he became executive editor at The Charlotte
Observerfor three and a half years before moving on to Detroit as the executive editor
for The Detroit Free Press. Promoted to the job of publisher of the Free Press in 1985,
Lawrence left in 1989 to come to Miami, as Knight-Ridder Inc. wanted him to run The
Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. After ten years at The Miami Herald and thirty years
in the newspaper business, Lawrence decided to leave the profession as he felt that it
had become far more of a business than it should. He became interested and involved
in early childhood development and education after Governor Lawton Chiles asked him
to be on the governor's Commission on Education. His friends formed a foundation that
allowed him to remain in Miami, and The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation was
Mr. Lawrence describes the newsrooms that he inhabited at a young age, and the
feeling he got when he saw his first by-line in print. As editor of the Alligator at the
University of Florida, he talks about conflicts with President J. Wayne Reitz about his
views on student unrest, the Johns committee and the civil rights movement. He
describes in detail, and with great feeling, his work as editor of the Style section of the
Washington Post, and his experiences and co-workers at the Charlotte Observer,
Detroit Free Press, St. Petersburg Times, Palm Beach Post and Miami Herald. He also
discusses the role of women in journalism, the impact of ethnic minorities in Florida,
and the need of newspapers to understand their audiences.
David Lawrence was interviewed by William McKeen on August 7, 1999, in Miami,
M: Were you from a large family?
L: A large family. One of nine children. I am the second oldest of nine. Eight are still
living. All of us graduated from either the University of Florida or Florida State....
M: Could you tell us a little bit about your parents?
L ... My mother came from, really, a New York Social Register family, one of ten
children. My father came from a Long Island real estate family, the youngest of eleven
children. My mother's family came over in the Mayflower, originally. My father's family
came over in the wake of the Irish potato famine in the 1840s. As a little boy, I was
living in New York City and on Long Island. My father was a newspaperman at the then
New York Sun, now defunct.... [O]n my sixth birthday, on March 5, 1948, our family,
then five children and a mother and father, moved to a farm in upstate New York.... My
father's vision was that he would work on the farm and have a vegetable garden and a
cow and maybe a goat...and then work on the weekly newspaper.... Of course, farming
did not work like that and ... my father never did go to work for the Sandy Creek News.
But, for the next eight years, we lived on a farm in the least glamorous form of farming,
which is chicken farming. So, if I know anything about hard work and doing it with other
people, it is from growing up on a farm.... I literally drove the tractor when I was nine
years old and sold vegetables to neighbors. It was a wonderful way to grow up.... Well,
in 1956, when I was fourteen, this is eight years after this grand experiment, my parents
decided that farming was none too profitable.... My parents decided. "Let us move to
somewhere warm; we are tired of these frozen winters, and let us go somewhere else
and make our fortune."
So, we literally used the 1952 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia and looked
up Arizona, New Mexico, and Florida, none of which any of us had ever been to... We
looked them up, and I think the final telling thing was that my parents were great
watchers of Arthur Godfrey on Sundays. Arthur Godfrey, in the winters, brought the
show to Miami Beach, and that is how Florida came to be selected. So, toward the end
of the winter in 1956, we moved to Florida.... So, my father ended up selling real estate,
subsequently going to a paper now dead, a daily newspaper in Sarasota, Florida
[Sarasota News].... [M]y father worked there for several years... [and] then ended up
the last seventeen-plus years of his life working for the Orlando Sentinel, ... most of the
time in Tallahassee, where he became the dean of the press corps. The House press
gallery is named for him today, and he is in the Florida Journalism Hall of Fame. So, I
ended up going into journalism, purely and simply, because I admired my father and I
wanted to be in the same business that he was. When I was fifteen years old, I started
working in the composing room during the summers, at the Sarasota News.... Then I
was sort of off to the races from there. I was editor of the high school newspaper. I
worked summers during college at The St. Petersburg Times.
M: Describe what the Sarasota News was like.
L: Well, it is almost certainly idealized in my mind.... at... age fifteen, I would go into
the newsroom and I would beg to rewrite press releases. So, I rewrote those while I was
waiting for my father to go home. He was then the managing editor and the general
manager of the newspaper. The back-shop... was a hot lead operation in which there
are terms like "bank" and "turtle" and so forth. We have a whole generation of
journalists now who have never heard any of these terms. The printing craft was a very
peripatetic kind of profession. These folks had worked at lots of different places....
FNP 38 page 5
They were sort of crude and loud and tellers of dirty jokes, but they were warm people
at the same time....
M: You were able to go from the back-shop to the newsroom and do some rewriting.
Do you think that technology has changed so much that there are none of those early
types working in the business?
L: These days, it would be unusual for a newsroom to hire a person who did not
graduate from college. That was not true back then. Of course, pay was slightly less
than mediocre, but the cliche was sort of true, that you were not doing this for the
money, anyway.... You just paid your dues and when somebody gave you a chance to
write something or report something, that was a huge deal. I can still remember as an
intern for The St. Petersburg Times the first byline I ever got. I was in the Bradenton
bureau of The St. Petersburg Times that first summer. It had a two-column headline,
and it was about the tomato crop in Palmetto, Florida. Why should I remember that all
of these years? It was that big a thrill.... To this day, I think it is a thrill to have your
byline in the paper or your column to go in the paper.... It is still very personal.
M: Since we have you in a reflective mood, do you want to make any other
observations about the changing nature of the species journalist? Are they too elitist?
L: It has some tendency toward that.... Too many [newspaper people] are out of
touch with most people.... I always thought one of the big perils in the newsroom was
that too many had all their friends in the newsroom. You do not learn an awful lot from
people like you. You have to learn from people with different ideas and different ways of
working.... For all the good I still see in newspapers, there is real peril in being out of
touch with most people around you.
FNP 38 page 6
M: Something else that you have probably noticed in your career is that all of a
sudden, a journalism degree became something like a union card, as the entree
to the business.
L: As much as I love, which I truly do, the University of Florida, if I could do it over
again, I wish I had majored in history.... I actually was in political science. Because I
was expending so much of my energy on the Florida Alligator, night and day, I said,
"well, let me go over to journalism, which will be easier than political science." And that
is how I came to graduate in journalism....
M: Prior to you matriculation at the University of Florida, you worked on the high
school paper in Vincennes, Indiana, did you not?
L: ... I had a remarkable journalism advisor, a woman named Jo Berta Bullock, a
legendary figure. A tiny woman, badly crippled. A beloved figure, not a softie. A person
of great intensity. The paper was printed offset.... A young woman classmate of mine
worked in the newspaper, and did something really dumb.... In those days, it was not
unusual for even "good kids" to pen swastikas on their hands.... It was not that many
years after World War II, and, clearly, the swastika stands for the ugliest form of racism
and hatred. I can remember kids who did that, and other kids would not say, "Ah, they
are anti-Semitic or haters" or whatever else.... Anyhow, this young woman ends up
doodling a swastika on the flat, which therefore, because this is photographic process,
ends up appearing as an ad. I remember Jo Berta Bullock, who was 4 feet-8 or
something like that, a very small person, taking her crutch..., swinging it up over her
head atop our worktables and saying, "My god, do you know what you have done? Do
you know how many people died because of this symbol?" It was an extraordinary
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moment. And so, the power of symbols, and the power of the press, your enormous
power to damage--has been a lesson that has always stayed with me....
M: What was the University of Florida campus like when you got there, in terms of
L: ...Very white. The university was not desegregated in its undergraduate divisions
until the fall of 1962 and, in my recollection, the university's student body was sort of
divided between pro- and anti-civil rights.... I remember vividly the university being
segregated. I remember being active in the Alligator and covering it. I remember taking
pictures. I remember writing about it. I remember asking the state NAACP to write a
column, which got me into significant trouble with the university at that time because J.
Wayne Reitz [University of Florida president, 1955-1967], whom I came to respect a
great deal, was not particularly fond of the student newspaper telling him what to do.
Remember, again, this was the time when some people thought the ADA [Americans for
Democratic Action] might be a Communist organization, however ludicrous it looks now.
So, this was a very divided campus on that subject. You know, I did not tell you an
enormous strength in my parents, which was in imparting a sense of fairness. So, I have
always instinctively pushed civil rights, and lot of other rights, because this seems to me
a fundamental matter of fairness.
M: Did you not feel odd coming from a fairly liberal family and going to a segregated
L: Remember, everything was segregated. We would go into major grocery stores,
and there would be "Colored" and "White" drinking... fountains. My high school was...
totally white.... So, while the University of Florida was essentially an all-white institution,
FNP 38 page 8
it was also an institution trying to, sort of, come to grips with itself. This is in the
immediate wake, you recall, of the Johns Committee, the sickness of Charley [E.] Johns,
senator [Florida state legislature, 1934-1966] and governor [of Florida, 1953-1955] for a
while, trying to figure out who the homosexuals were at the University of Florida....
M: When you arrived in the fall of 1960, you saw yourself as a political science major
who would work on the Alligator. Would that be your pathway to a career?
L: I did not actually even contemplate working on the Alligator.... In the second
semester, I sort of wandered over to the Alligator and wandered in. I was quite sure that
something as important as the Alligator would not accept second-semester freshman. It
turns out, of course, they were looking for anybody they could get....
M: How long did it take for you to assert your authority and declare yourself editor?
L: Well, I... started in my freshman year, and the paper moved from twice a week to
five times a week in my time. By the second semester of my junior year, I was editor of
M: Did you serve one or two terms as editor?
L: I served two terms, the second one cut short. I was editor the second half of my
junior year and then all my senior year, except for the last month. I was frequently in
trouble. Part of it had to do with civil rights, and the university administration seeing me
as being intemperate and radical. Part of it was I had run a letter to the editor that really
pissed off the university president. A student had written advocating free love. It all
sounds relatively stupid now, or at least that part does. So the university was not
particularly pleased with me. And the Board of Student Publications was controlled by
FNP 38 page 9
the administration and faculty. Anyhow,... I had written a front-page editorial that feels
appallingly stupid now, an editorial that criticized the choice of my successor as
"political." The person chosen is now the first-rate editor of a Knight-Ridder paper in St.
Paul. The editorial appeared on the same day [President John F.] Kennedy was shot
[ November 22, 1963], so we put out an extra on the assassination. The Board of
Student Publications calls a meeting for the following Monday, which would have been
the 25th, to consider this action on my part. I almost certainly knew that my goose was
cooked. I refused to come to the meeting on the basis that, I would not dignify their
proceeding by being there on a day that the president of the United States was being
buried. The assassination was the one extraordinary event in my lifetime that everybody
remembers where he or she was. So they simply fired my ass. I... spent the next month
getting married, going off on a honeymoon, and then December 30 that year, I went to
work for The St. Petersburg Times....
M: Did you leave the newsroom much the weekend that Kennedy was shot? Did you
have a television in the newsroom that you were watching?
L: ... I do remember being absolutely glued to the television, watching Jack Ruby
shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. It was extraordinary.I remember Howard K. Smith [ABC
newscaster] and all these folks with mournful intonations. I have a fairly good size less
respect for many of the people on television now than I did then. These were very
somber journalists who knew that something terribly tragic had happened to the whole
country. I do not remember a more serious time.
FNP 38 page 10
M: Let us backtrack a little bit to your relations with university administrators during
your time as editor. You said that J. Wayne Reitz was not a big fan of yours. Do you
want to talk a little bit about that?
L: Well, remember that the university was sort of under siege then. Desegregation
was coming about. And what is a university president's job? To some degree, keep... a
lid on it. Then, you have the student newspaper which, remember, was a creature of the
university so, at least in theory, Dr. Reitz is the publisher of the paper. In subsequent
years, the university resolved this by saying, in effect, "let us get this paper off the
campus, and they can have their own independent structure".... Anyhow, 1963 on
campus was a contentious time and a tough time for him and the university. I say with
sweetness in my voice now that Dr. Reitz was not looking for help from me, and he
certainly did not want the kind of help I was giving him in what the university ought to do.
A big word used then in Florida was "agitator." What many even good-hearted people
wanted was that people not talk about this. Maybe then the problem will just go away.
There is probably a lesson for us in all of this, because if we did not have people
speaking up, society simply would not make the kind of progress it should. It was just a
very tough time and Dr. Reitz was not looking for troublemakers, and I was perceived as
a troublemaker, an agitator.
M: You had some journalism courses which, when you talked about them earlier,
sounded like a necessary evil to get out of college?
L: Oh no, and I do not want to give you that impression. I came to have, incidentally,
an enormous affection for Rae [O.] Weimer [dean emeritus and professor of journalism
and communications, UF, 1949-1973]. I never had him as a teacher, but I came to
FNP 38 page 11
believe that he was one of God's decent people.... I had two exceptional teachers. By
legend, they disliked each intensely and competed with each other--Hugh [W.]
Cunningham [professor of journalism and communications and director of university
information, UF, 1955-1990] and Buddy Davis [Horance Gibbs Davis, Jr., distinguished
service professor of journalism and communications, 1954-1986]. They were both
extraordinary teachers in my opinion....
M: Buddy Davis was legendarily punitive. Did you ever suffer any of his wrath in
L: If I did, I do not remember it. He was in charge, so he was not going to take any
smart lip from anybody. Also, in my view, he was somewhat of an actor playing a game.
Part of it was exerting control. Part of it was to teach. If he thought you gave a damn
and worked hard, you were just fine. He could spot a shirker, though. He could spot who
did not care that much about journalism, and you were in deep doo-doo then....
M: What was the newsroom at St. Petersburg Times like when you entered it as a
L: The St. Petersburg Times was a fabulous place for a young person to work as a
reporter. Making $95 a week, I was taking home something considerably less than
that.... Our dream was, if we make $10,000 a year by the time we are thirty, we are
going to be just fine. The Times was a place where you could have all kinds of
responsibility at a very young age, and it was a place that, while it had a pretty sizable
newsroom staff, you certainly knew everybody there....
M: Comment on Nelson Poynter's [president, Times Publishing Co., 1953-1969, and
chairman of the board, 1969-1978] impact on the paper.
FNP 38 page 12
L: .... I do remember Nelson Poynter vividly, and his then wife, Henrietta, as well. At
one point, I succeeded Bob Haiman as telegraph editor. Telegraph editor now sounds
beyond antiquated. Ultimately, they changed the title to news editor. But the A section of
The St. Petersburg Times was not for local news. It was for national and international
news, which deeply reflected Nelson Poynter's feelings about what was news and what
was not, and what was most important and what was not.... I remember Henrietta
Poynter who was an interesting, intimidating, and somewhat fabulous figure in her... own
right.... I can remember her going down the bank of wire machines; the New York Herald
Tribune wire, the New York Times wire, the AP wire, the UPI wire, the state wire.... She
would look at each of them, rolling up the wire stories in her hands. It was pretty
intimidating, because here is one of the owners, making up her own mind about what is
news.... Meanwhile, Nelson Poynter used to call every night, about 8:30 or so, to ask,
"what is going on?" And you better know what was going on. If you said, "not much, Mr.
Poynter," it would not have been smart. He would start a conversation, "do you know
about such and such; have you heard about such and such;" have you thought about
such and such? This was a man who breathed for his company, a visionary man. He
was a man of total integrity, a man who had the newspaper foremost at heart, a man
who had taken a lot of crap himself. People referred to him, which he was not, as a
communist in conservative St. Petersburg. He was a man who I thought had all the right
values and cared deeply about the newspaper. He was ... a man of the world, not just
St. Petersburg, not just Pinellas County, not just the State of Florida, not just the United
States of America but of the world. A great man of business, too. He was the man who
FNP 38 page 13
set up the process that keeps the paper in its rare and independent status. He is the
man who had profit sharing before people were talking about profit sharing....
He was a man who was not provincial in any way. He understood the importance
of local news but, he also understood the news in a global context, which is exceedingly
rare. Look at how the paper did over the years which I think, in part, is because it had a
larger view of its mission in the world. At the time I was there and, I think, always since, it
was one of Florida's best newspapers.
Florida has been particularly blessed because of the economic underpinnings to
the particularly good newspapers. If you go around the state and you look at
newspapers today, then I think we have some pretty darn good newspapers. I could
easily name ten good newspapers in this state and others that would not fall that far
behind. What other state could do that? I am not sure there are any other states that
could do that. Part of it was fueled by Florida [being] such a boom place, a relatively
easy place to make money....
M: We have not really talked about the role of women in journalism. You have
mentioned Henrietta Poynter, who was a very strong-willed person. Would you say The
St. Petersburg Times was ahead of its time in treatment of or regard for women?
L: Well, I would say yes, but not so far ahead of the time that it was a world-beater.
There were people there who were women who had substantive responsibilities but for
many years their responsibilities were very much connected, most of them, to women's
news, softer kinds of things.... A very smart woman named Anne Rowe, later Anne
Rowe Goldman, was in charge of the women's and feature sections. She clearly could
have been the editor of the paper.... The whole business was sort of shabby on the
FNP 38 page 14
subject. Women made distinctly less, had lesser jobs, and did not have much of a path
to get more responsibility and more money....
M: Aside from the nightly phone calls, what were your dealings with Nelson Poynter?
L: ... I always felt enormous warmth about him, particularly because when I left for
Washington, which is where I went to from St. Petersburg, I was a member of the
Newspaper Guild, and Washington was frightfully expensive.... We then had two
children. There was a strike. Benefits were then something like $30 a week. This was a
big deal in our house. How long would the strike last...? I went over to see Nelson
Poynter at CQ [Congressional Quarterly, a periodical owned by Poynter's Times
Publishing Company] and he said, essentially, whatever you are making at the
Washington Post, I will match that for the duration of the strike. Now, I actually never
exercised this because the strike was over quickly, but that was a remarkably decent
M: Discuss some of the most important and interesting experiences in your career.
L: I would say that one of the interesting experiences that I had in my working life
was being managing editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, the No. 3 newspaper facing
the Bulletin and the Inquirer. Each of them had hundreds of newsroom people. At the
Daily News we had fewer than 100 people. It tests every competitive part of you as to
how use your resources wisely when somebody has three, four, five times more people.
And who are your readers, really your readers, and how do you genuinely reach
Another important moment for me was going to the advanced management
program of the Harvard Business School, not because I learned a lot about finance, but
FNP 38 page 15
because I was in a class with people from thirty-three countries, not counting the United
States of America. That was in 1983. Ever since I have made it a practice every year to
go somewhere else in the world to learn. Ours is a frequently isolated country because it
is so big, so powerful, so self-sufficient in many ways, though much less than it used to
be, of course. It is very easy to have your whole life in this old American prison....
M: How did you see your career developing? Did you eventually want to be a
L: Well, I never said to myself, I want to be publisher. I was twenty-seven years old
when I was a managing editor of a newspaper. So, I... woke up when I was thirty and
said, "well, I have done this; what do I do now?" So, I had a good deal of responsibility at
a very young age. I left St. Petersburg when I was twenty-five, worked two years in
Washington, first on the news desk and then, when Style was formed, I became the
news editor of Style.... Then, I became managing editor of the Palm Beach Post,
because I really wanted to run something. Cox [Enterprises, Inc.] had just bought it from
Perry Publications.... I only worked there for a couple of years, from 1969-1971, and
went to the Philadelphia Daily News for a couple of months as assistant to the editor and
then became managing editor. I worked there until 1975. Then I went to Charlotte to
succeed Jim Batten as executive editor [at the Charlotte Observer], and I was there for
three and a half years. Then, to The Detroit Free Press as executive editor in 1979.... I
then become publisher of the Free Press in 1985, leaving there in 1989 to come to
FNP 38 page 16
M: So, you were there for the creation of Style at the Post. What do you want to say
about that? That is considered such a defining moment.
L: Well, I had been asked in 1968 by Ben Bradlee [executive editor of The
Washington Post] to go back and work as the night women's editor, because he had a
lousy leadership struggle there, and give him a sense of what was going on and what he
needed to do. So, I went back there and worked for six or so months. That was a time in
this country when newspaper people were reconsidering women's pages. A lot of people
were joking about the feminist movement, but there clearly was a serious feminist
movement. Starting up Style was an extraordinarily intense time.... It had a collection of
really bright people, people [like] Judith Martin ["Miss Manners," syndicated columnist] a
writer for that section. I remember editing Sally Quinn, who was a brand new reporter
there covering the embassy beat.... Later in 1969, Nick Von Hoffman, the columnist, was
sent to Haight-Ashbury [the then-hippie district of San Francisco, California] to do a
series. Haight-Ashbury was a big deal then. He did not like my editing, and he quit. I do
remember Bradlee saying, "oh, do not worry about that; that is Nick, he will be back, no
big deal," and that is exactly what happened. But, it was a very heavy time for me, as a
young person working with a star columnist.
M: What did you do after that?
L: I left in the summer of 1969 to become managing editor in West Palm Beach.
M: What was the Palm Beach Post like when you joined it? Was that before its
Pulitzer for the migrant workers?
L: It was a paper that would not have dreamed of winning a Pulitzer. It made a great
deal of money, as a monopoly of sorts.... Here I was twenty-seven. The editor of the
FNP 38 page 17
paper was, maybe, thirty-four, Gregory Favre. We practically hired the staff new, added
an awful lot of people. We were so young that we did not know all the normal road-
blocks to doing good things. We hired people like Dallas Kinney [Pulitzer Prize recipient,
1970, for "Migration to Misery"] and Kent Pollock that led to the Pulitzer with the
migrants. But, there were lots of other awards and lots of other things done.... But for an
extraordinary number of people, it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Enormous
energy, enormous enthusiasm, a sense you can do anything and, again, the economic
underpinnings to do a bunch of things....
M: At the Palm Beach Post, now that you were the managing editor, what policies
did you institute that had not been in place before?
L: Remember, this was a newspaper owned by a man named John [Holliday] Perry
[Jr., owner of Perry Publications], a legendary figure who was deeper into miniature
submarines than he was into newspapers. There was not a good paper in the lot, and
Perry newspapers were money machines all over the state. I had never been an editor
or a managing editor for a newspaper before so... I had to learn on the job.... Remember
that this was not your normal situation. You have a lot more money to spend, maybe not
enough but a lot more money to spend, and you have a good market to do it. It is a
place with plenty of good stories, most of which have not been touched for years and
years and years. The paper had not been aggressive about anything.
M: For example?
L: The migrant labor movement was in the paper's backyard.
M: Palm Beach is such an odd county. Such wealth. Such poverty.
FNP 38 page 18
L: And migrant laborer conditions that were the modern equivalent of slavery. The
paper's new aggressiveness made a lot of people nervous. Nor had the paper traveled
anywhere to do stories. We did some extraordinary projects. I remember one on drugs,
a very sophisticated, tough piece of reporting on a vital subject. We did not hesitate to
do things like sending Kent Pollock to Vietnam....
M: After a couple of years there, was there an irresistible offer from Philadelphia, or
did you just want to get out?
L: ... The Philadelphia Daily News was just an awful paper at the time, a tabloid,
principally street-sold. I ended up going there far more for reasons of the quality of
Knight newspapers [Knight-Ridder, Inc] than I did because of the Philadelphia Daily
News.... The paper had a wonderful sports section, but nothing much else that was self-
respecting. The paper improved dramatically over the next several years. Its crucible
came at a time when Frank Rizzo was the mayor [of Philadelphia, 1971-1979], a
legendary figure in American mayoral politics, larger than life, former police chief. Rizzo
was in a terrible feud with a guy named Pete Camiel, who was head of the Democratic
Party, about who was lying about something. I have forgotten the issue. Rizzo, who was
very charismatic, was headed toward potentially being governor of Pennsylvania. People
either hated him or loved him, but he had a big "love him" backing. We convinced Frank
Rizzo to take a lie detector test with Pete Camiel. Rizzo, a long-time and tough cop, was
pretty sure he could beat it, but he clearly ends up failing it. The headline was, "Rizzo
Lied," with a picture of Rizzo strapped to the lie detector machine with a quote alongside
that says, "'If this machine says a man lied, he lied'--Frank Rizzo." Of course, it blew him
up. He never was a significant political figure subsequently. Over those few years, the
FNP 38 page 19
paper became far more aggressive, far more into real coverage in the community,
including people who frequently never got covered. It was a paper that stood up for
people. It was known as the People Paper. It was a tabloid and willing to have
outrageous headlines, but, it was a tough, aggressive, straightforward newspaper in
everything it did.
M: Did you see that as a key moment in your career?
L: It was significant in my beginning to understand what newspapers needed to do to
get close to readers and keep your own soul.
M: What drew you away to Charlotte?
L: Jim Batten, the executive editor in Charlotte, was going to headquarters in Miami.
He was one of the sainted people in my whole life. If I had to pick the single best person
I have known in this business, it would be Jim Batten. He was a man of instant integrity
and the fullest decency and the greatest possible human and journalistic values. Jim
was leaving to go to Miami because Knight-Ridder wanted him to play a larger role in the
company. He eventually became chairman and CEO [of Knight-Ridder, Inc.]. They
needed his success as executive editor.
M: At this time, did you think of yourself as still an independent, or did you see
yourself as more of a Knight-Ridder man?
L: I have never felt [like] a company man in the way that some people do. While the
attraction to go there was, then, Knight-Ridder and its quality....I never thought that I
worked for Knight Newspapers or Knight-Ridder. I always thought I worked for the
Philadelphia Daily News, The Charlotte Observer, The Miami Herald, the Detroit Free
FNP 38 page 20
M: In Charlotte you went from managing editor to executive editor. What does an
executive editor do?
L: The definition changes from place to place. Generally, the managing editor is the
day-to-day operational boss of the newsroom. The executive editor might be the person
who is the managing editor's boss and the person who is ultimately in charge of the
newsroom, or it could be the person who is in charge of the newsroom and the editorial
page. In Charlotte, as executive editor, I was ultimately in charge of the newsroom.
Later, as editor, I was in charge of the newsroom and the editorial page.
M: What changes did you institute in Charlotte?
L: One of the things we did, in my estimation, was to try to get a far fuller picture of
what existed in that part of the world. Most of the people who worked for the Charlotte
Observer had never been in a textile mill, which was the principal industry in that part of
the country. I dragged people all around the Piedmont of North and South Carolina,
trying to understand the small towns surrounding Charlotte, from where an enormous
number of readers had come. You have to get out of the office. You are not learning
anything at the office. You better get out and see who is out there, who the readers are.
You have to walk around a lot. You have to go see a bunch of different people in
M: What impact did you have on the Detroit Free Press?
L: The newspaper, when I came there, had a total of four minority professionals on
the staff, one of whom insisted he was not a minority. I insisted that the paper move
toward being representative of the community it served--not for a social engineering
experiment but to be able to cover and reflect the community far better....
FNP 38 page 21
M: What did you come up with to retain good workers?
L: Well, what you come up with is some monetary incentives but beyond that, people
want to be where they trust you, where they think you care about them, where they think
you care about their careers....
M: What persuaded you to move to Miami?
L: ... Knight-Ridder wanted me to do something else. They wanted me to run the
Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. I was significantly skeptical about it, because why
would I want to be in the headquarters city?
M: You felt they would be breathing down your neck?
L: Even good people would be breathing down your neck. Mine would be the paper
they get at home.... It is their community. They have their ideas. I would always rather be
1,500 miles away, even with good people. I emphasize that these are good people, and I
was never asked to do anything immoral.
M: The staff at the Herald, when you joined it, was a pretty amazing group of people.
Would you talk a little bit about it?
L: The Herald had so many strengths. It was very aggressive in what it covered and
did. It had wonderful writers. It had as good a set of columnists as exist in the country,
and that only got stronger over the years. On the minus [side], it also had a reputation
for being unfriendly to minorities and as a newspaper pretty significantly out of touch with
a changing community. During the 1990s, the Heraldwon five Pulitzers, in as changing a
community as there exists in the United States of America. This is a community here
that is fifty-five per cent Hispanic, twenty-two per cent or so African-American and/or
FNP 38 page 22
black, and the rest non-Hispanic-white. So folks like you and me are a pretty distinct
minority. It is also a community with enormous promise to people in the Americas. It is
also significantly under-educated and under-skilled and, in many ways, growing poorer.
It has had a significant problem of corruption, some of it petty and some of it big. The
Herald won a Pulitzer in the past year for coverage of exactly that.
Change is very threatening to people, so change over the years has been very
threatening to people at the Herald. For years the Herald was, to some degree,
inattentive to its own community and quite attentive to, oh, 'people like us,' who are up in
the Treasure Coast, who are in Palm Beach County and Broward and wherever else.
Meanwhile, the community continued to change, and the Herald was relatively ill-
positioned for this. Today, for instance, there are a half-million people in Miami-Dade
County who either can only deal in Spanish or much prefer to deal only in Spanish. The
Herald comes in the English language, the last I looked, and that is a significant
problem.... Remember, as well, that the exile population that came here from Cuba in
the early 1960s is significantly different from the refugee immigrant community coming
here now. The people who came here in the 1960s from Cuba were generally educated
people who once had money even if they did not have it now. They were often educated
people, prepared for success. And, they had a newspaper reading habit. Havana had a
half-dozen daily newspapers, in the 1950s. Today there are no real daily newspapers in
Cuba.... The Herald made its... first foray into Spanish language journalism in the early
1960s in translating a couple of columns one day a week. Not until 1976 did El Miami
Herald come about, and that was, more or less, the translated version of The Miami
FNP 38 page 23
Herald. To use the vernacular, we 'just did not get it.' These people wanted "my own
newspaper." Anyhow, it was not until 1987 that El Nuevo Herald came to be. My point is
that it was not until 1987, when we began to say, these folks need their own newspaper
with their own set of editors and reporters, thinking their own way.... To this day, people
are struggling with, what is the smart way to do this and what are we willing to do?
M: After nearly ten years at The Herald, you chose to leave the paper, but you
stayed in Miami.
L: It is interesting. Increasingly, after more than three decades in newspapering, I
came to want to do something in public service. But, I never could figure out what to
do.... About three years ago, I got involved in early childhood education and
development, and started to understand it. Governor [Lawton] Chiles asked me to be on
the governor's Commission on Education, and then I was asked to chair its readiness
committee. That is how I came to be involved in this issue.... And I wondered whether I
could psychologically survive not being a big shot and not making a whole bunch of
money. And there are other things involved in this [decision to leave the paper] including
that the [newspaper] business became far more of a business--inexorably over the years
and, thus, a lot less fun to me. I never missed a day of work, so I would always be up for
the next day. I just needed to do something else. So, I resolved, the only way to do it
was to leave. Now, because I had no other "job," I simply announced on August 4 of
1998 that I would leave at the beginning of the following year, which I did, and that gave
me some time to look....
The following Saturday, a man named Jerry Katcher calls. Jerry Katcher is a man
in his seventies. He owned a bank in town with a number of branches and therefore had
FNP 38 page 24
a lot of money. I have known Jerry over the years... and he called up from Aspen,
Colorado, and said, "some of us have been talking, and we do not want you to leave
town; if you want to work full-time on children and readiness, in which I know you are
interested, we are willing to set up a foundation [The Early Childhood Initiative
Foundation] so you can do it." This was, and is, terribly humbling to me, so I have sort of
committed myself that I will work hard on this for at least the next couple of years, and
see what comes to pass and what difference we can make.
M: Do you miss the newspaper business?
L: I never look back. I love newspapers, always will, and think they are important, but
it was time for me to do something else. How many years do we have in this world? My
father was sixty-four, and he gets cancer. He ends up retiring early and dies at sixty-six.
He had all sorts of plans, and he got to do none of those.... I do not know how much
time I have, or how many years, and I do not know what I will end up doing. Maybe I will
do this for years. Maybe I will do this for a while. Maybe I will do something else. I do not
M: Do you think that your work in this area is going to send you into politics, as a lot
of people thought you might?
L: There was a moment there where it was sort of heady to be asked by a bunch of
people, including the attorney general of the state of Florida and other people, to please
consider this and so forth.
M:You are speaking of running for governor?
L: Right. But, it never really seemed real to me. I raised a lot of money for other
causes, but I do not really want to raise money for myself if I can avoid it. Part of me
FNP 38 page 25
says, this is a job you could do; you care a lot about the issues; you know how to get
people together; you are an inclusive person; you would be fair. But, the timing made no
sense. I do not say 'never' to anything, but I do not focus an ounce of my energy on that
subject. What I do know is, that if we could ever get children started off better in this
world, we would have a profound impact on society. I am excited about all of this. I love
my new life....
[End of Interview.]
SUM FNP 38
This is an oral history of David Lawrence given August 7, 1999. The interviewer is William McKeen. Not
only is the purpose of the interview to record part of Florida's newspaper history, but to record the life
story of David Lawrence for the Florida Press Association.
Lawrence was the second oldest of nine children born to his mother, herself one of ten children and
member of a New York Social Register family, and his father, youngest of eleven children from a New
York Real estate family. His father was a newspaper man working for The New York Sun, of "yes,
Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" fame when his parents in 1946, inspired by living the rural life, moved to
upstate New York near Syracuse to farm a thirty-three acre chicken farm.
Lawrence states he so admired and respected his father he had intentions of an agriculture degree and
becoming a farmer. His plan was altered, however, when his parents decided farming was not that
glamourous, and wanted to move to a warmer climate. Florida was chosen in part because it was the winter
broadcast home of a TV show they liked to watch, Author Godfrey. In 1956 the family moved, with his
father having no definite plans for employment. In Florida, his father sold real estate, and later was
employed on a Sarasota newspaper, ending up working for The Orlando Sentinel the last seventeen years
of his life. He earned a spot in the Florida Journalism Hall of Fame. Lawrence stated he so admired his
father that he decided to go into journalism. He was editor of the Manatee High school newspaper, and at
fifteen worked in his father's newspaper office rewriting press releases and working in the composing
room. Lawrence describes how newspapers have changed, and discusses the changing nature of the
Lawrence talks about his years at the University of Florida. He describes how he came to be editor of the
Alligator, and how he lost his position. He was the Alligator editor when President John Kennedy was
assassinated, and talks about that.
Lawrence talks more about the role of Dr. J. Wayne Reitz and the item Lawrence printed that got him fired
as editor of the Alligator. He adds the Alligator offices were in the basement of the Florida Union., and
talks more about the times of 1963, including his days at the University of Florida and some his
outstanding teachers, Hugh Cunningham and "Buddy" Horace Gibbs Davis, Jr. After graduation
Lawrence went to The St. Petersburg Times, where he had interned summers. He describes both his life at
this point and his job at The St. Petersburg Times, along with some of the people he worked with. He
expresses good feelings about Nelson Poynter [president 1953-1969 Times Publishing Co., and chairman
of the board 1969-1978]. Lawrence says he believes Florida has many good newspapers because of the
economic boom, allowing a good financial base for newspapers. Lawrence describes The St. Petersburg
Times as an elitist newspaper with a soul He believes that people in the newspaper business know little
about the communities they serve. Important events in his life include the four years he worked for The
Philadelphia Daily News and going through the advanced management program of the Harvard Business
School. Lawrence recites his list of jobs from the time of his three and a half years at The St. Petersburg
Times at the end of 1963: he worked the news desk at The Washington Post, became news editor of Style,
and then managing editor of The Palm Beach Post from 1969 1971, then went to The Philadelphia Daily
News as assistant to the editor and later managing editor until 1975. He became executive editor for three
and a half years at The Charlotte Observer, then executive editor at The Detroit Free Press in 1979. He
was publisher of the Free Press in 1985, leaving in 1989 to come to Miami.
He describes his return to Florida in 1969 as the time he began to get a "sense." He talks about the
governors he knew; Ruben Askew, Claude Kirk, Bob Graham, and Lawton Chiles.
Lawrence talks about his experiences at The Palm Beach Post. After he came to the paper, he mentions the
paper's new aggressiveness caused a lot of people to be nervous. He learned on the job, and notes they
hired a lot of people new and they were all so young they did not know the normal roadblocks to doing
good things. They won numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for "Migration to Misery,"
by Dallas Kinney. Lawrence compares his father's career with his and notes they followed different paths
in the newspaper business: his father spent the majority of his life as a reporter rather than editor.
Lawrence talks about his days at The Palm Beach Post in a county with both wealth and poverty. He
mentions projects they tackled, including one on drugs, and sending a reporter to Viet Nam.
He left the Palm Beach Post for The Philadelphia Daily News, then left for The Charlotte Observer where
he worked first as executive editor and later editor. His influence there was to present a fuller picture of
how life was in that part of the world. Part of his strategy for accomplishing this was to send reporters
inside textile mills all around the Piedmont of North and South Carolina.
From The Charlotte Observer he left for The Detroit News. He moved that paper to better represent the
community it served by hiring minorities. Competition between The Free Press and The Detroit News
caused both papers to teeter on the verge of bankruptcy. A proposed merge would have combined business
operations, but left separate the newsrooms. Lawrence mentions it took four years in a decision by the
United States Supreme court to get the Joint Operating Agreement. The competition between the two
papers inspired good journalism, he felt. It also promoted a tendency for each to copy the other, rewriting
stories in the hope of doing it better, which was a handicap to original material.
Lawrence left Detroit because the JOA [Joint Operating Agreement] between the two newspapers, which
would mean a position of lesser responsibility for him. He mentions he is a very competitive person and
did not want to be a part of combined operations. Knight-Ridder Inc. wanted him to run The Miami Herald
and El Nuevo Herald. He accepted this position. Lawrence discusses The Miami Herald in some depth,
talking about its problems and strengths, and talks about the many changes ongoing in Miami.
After ten years at The Miami Herald and thirty years in the newspaper business, Lawrence decided to
leave. He felt the newspaper business had become far more of a business than it should. He became
interested and involved in early childhood development and education after Governor Chiles had asked
him to be on the governor's Commission on Education. His friends formed a foundation that allowed him
to remain in Miami, and The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation was born.
Today, Lawrence says he never looked back. He was asked to run for public office, but declined, saying
the timing was not right.