Gene Roberts (1932-)

Written By Will Schultz

Gene Roberts (1932-) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaperman who began his career as a writer with the Goldsboro News-Argus and ended it as editor of the New York Times. Described by one employee as “the ideal editor that reporters dream about,” Roberts transformed the Philadelphia Inquirer from a laughingstock into one of the nation’s top newspapers.

Eugene Leslie Roberts Jr. was born in Pikeville, North Carolina on June 15, 1932. His father was a minister who printed a small weekly newspaper, the Goldsboro Herald. The young Roberts sold copies of the Herald to Wayne County farmers. He sometimes exchanged subscriptions for chickens and livestock. Roberts also sold Bibles to pay his tuition at Mars Hill College and the University of North Carolina.

After a short service in the Army, Roberts became a reporter for the Goldsboro News-Argus in 1956. His column “Rambling in Rural Wayne” featured offbeat stories like “a sweet potato that looked like Gen. Charles de Gaulle.” From Goldsboro he moved to the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot in 1958 and to Raleigh’s News & Observer in 1959.  Roberts spent a year as city editor for the Detroit Free Press before succeeding Claude Sitton as chief Southern correspondent for the New York Times in 1965. Roberts was an enterprising reporter; to visit black schools undetected while working for the Times, he traveled in the back of a hearse.

Roberts seemed to have reached his peak in 1972, when he was named national editor of the New York Times. But then came an unexpected challenge: the Philadelphia Inquirer, regarded as one of America’s worst newspapers, offered him the position of executive editor. Roberts took the job. Over the next eighteen years, the Inquirer won seventeen Pulitzer Prizes; prize-winning articles included an investigation of Philadelphia’s K-9 Unit and an expose of corruption in the city’s courts. The paper became known for its in-depth articles, sometimes on peculiar subjects. One Inquirer reporter spent seven months researching the black rhinoceros.

Though Roberts was hardly a dashing figure—his squat, jowly face earned him the nickname “the Frog”—he nonetheless inspired devotion among his employees. Many reporters referred to themselves as Roberts’s “disciples.” Roberts took a hands-off approach to stories and allowed young reporters to choose their subjects. And if a reporter needed petty cash for research, they could turn to Roberts, who kept a stack of hundred dollar bills in his desk for that very purpose. The Inquirer newsroom became known for its wild pranks. One time, a reporter celebrated Roberts’s 46th birthday by releasing 46 frogs into the editor’s office.

The Inquirer seemed like a success story. As of 1990, it had driven the rival Evening Bulletin out of business and had expanded its circulation to over 500,000. But advertising revenue was declining, and Knight Ridder, the company that owned the Inquirer, wanted the newspaper to reduce expenses. Roberts resisted. In 1990 he left the newspaper, explaining, “In the final analysis, I didn’t want to undo what I spent 18 years doin’.”

From journalism, Roberts moved to academia. He began teaching journalism at the University of Maryland and—except for a stint as managing editor of the New York Times from 1994 to 1997—has remained there since. His 2007 book The Race Beat, co-written with Hank Klibanoff, was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for History. Roberts has received numerous other awards, including an honorary doctorate from the 0University of North Carolina in 2010.