Former San Jose Mercury News editor Jerry Ceppos dies at 75

Jerry Ceppos, who as editor of the San Jose Mercury News led the publication as it became the official newspaper of Silicon Valley during the tech boom of the 1990s, distinguishing itself for its ethical clarity when the newspaper excelled as well as When Failed, died July 29 at his home in Baton Rouge. He was 75 years old.

The cause of death was sepsis, said his wife, Karen Ceppos.

Mr. Ceppos has devoted half a century to practicing and teaching journalism, spending most of his career at Knight Ridder when it was the second largest newspaper chain in the United States. He was an editor at the Miami Herald before joining the Mercury News in 1981, serving as editor and then editor from 1995 to 1999.

“He was a great editor who transformed the San Jose Mercury News from what I would call a respectable newspaper into one of the top 10 newspapers in the country,” said Bill Marimow, former editor of the Baltimore Sun. and the Philadelphia Inquirer, said in an interview.

Mr. Ceppos then served as Knight Ridder’s vice president for news, with a portfolio that included overseeing news operations at all of the chain’s newspapers as well as its Washington office, from 1999 to 2005.

Mr. Ceppos’ tenure at Mercury News coincided with the phenomenal early growth of the tech industry in Silicon Valley. He considered “the history of Silicon Valley…nothing less than Florence in the Medici era,” journalist Michael Shapiro wrote in an article on the Mercury News published in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) in 2011.

“When Jerry became editor, he realized how important coverage of technology history was to the paper, including what was then the very beginning of Washington’s interest in technology,” said Rory O’Connor, who at the time was Washington correspondent for the Mercury. News, written in an email. “Watch what happens today to see how he could see how important this story would become.

Under Mr. Ceppos’ leadership, the Mercury News produced significant coverage in other areas as well, winning two Pulitzer Prizes while he was editor.

Three Mercury News reporters—Lewis M. Simons, Pete Carey, and Katherine Ellison—received the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for a series on the autocratic Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and his massive transfers of wealth abroad. The series was widely considered to have helped precipitate his ousting soon after.

Mercury News staff later received a Pulitzer Prize for General Current Affairs Reporting recognizing their coverage of the Loma Prieta earthquake on October 17, 1989, which killed 63 people in the San Francisco Bay Area.

He “really helped guide that coverage,” Susan Goldberg, the city’s acting editor at the time and later Mr. Ceppos’ successor as Mercury News editor, said in an interview. In a high-pressure, deadline-driven company that “sometimes isn’t known for the nicest people,” she added, he was a supportive presence who “helped people gain confidence in themselves and in their own capacities”.

Mr. Ceppos then walked the Mercury News through an embarrassing episode after the publication in 1996 of a three-part investigative series called “Dark Alliance”, which sought to link the CIA to the crack epidemic in the United States. United. The articles, written by journalist Gary Webb, implied that the CIA knew that a drug ring linked to anti-Communist Nicaraguan rebels was selling crack cocaine in Los Angeles in the 1980s and that the ring was directing millions of dollars in profits to the US-backed network. “opposites”.

Cocaine “was virtually unobtainable in black neighborhoods before members of the CIA military smuggled it into the south-central in the 1980s at ridiculously low prices,” according to the report. The online version of the story included a graphic in which the CIA insignia was superimposed on an image of a person smoking crack.

Years later, The Washington Post described the series as “the first major journalistic cause celebre on the emerging new Internet.” Some black leaders have pointed to Mercury News reports to accuse the CIA of intentionally distributing crack cocaine in African-American communities. Several government inquiries followed.

Amid the furor, The Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times published reports that cast doubt on elements of Mercury News reporting. Post reporters wrote that “available information does not support the conclusion that the CIA-backed contras – or Nicaraguans in general – played a major role in the emergence of crack cocaine as a widely used narcotic in the United States. United”.

Mr Ceppos, who the CJR said was on sick leave, eventually tasked an in-house team of reporters to look into the newspaper’s handling of the story.

“We have oversimplified the complex issue of America’s growing crack epidemic,” he wrote in an open letter to readers in 1997. “Through imprecise language and graphics, we have created impressions that were open to misinterpretation.”

“I believe we failed at every step of our process of writing, editing and producing our work,” he wrote again. “Many people here share this burden. … But ultimately the responsibility was, and is, mine.

Doyle McManus, the Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, told the Post at the time that Mr. Ceppos’ column was “an extraordinarily difficult thing to do.”

“I give it high marks for its openness and directness,” McManus said, “which newspapers don’t have a reputation for. We tend to bury our corrections in the fine print on page 2.”

“He was a deeply ethical person,” said Carey, an investigative reporter who worked under Mr. Ceppos on both Pulitzer-winning projects as well as the Dark Alliance internal review. Mr. Ceppos’ conduct, he said, was “characteristic of who he was”.

Jérôme Merle Ceppos was born in Washington on October 14, 1946. His mother was a housewife and later a real estate agent. Her father had a bachelor’s degree in journalism but could not find a job in the press and earned his living as the owner of a Jewish grocery store.

An uncle on Mr. Ceppos’ maternal side was Sidney Epstein, a journalist turned editor and associate publisher of the former Washington Star, the city’s afternoon paper.

Mr. Ceppos grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, where he started a newspaper in elementary school and edited the paper at Northwood High. After graduating in 1964, he enrolled at the University of Maryland. He also edited the newspaper there and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1969.

After three years as a reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, NY, Mr. Ceppos moved to the Miami Herald in 1972. There he made a stint as editor, with the task of overseeing the barrage of reports domestic and international inbound wire services.

Clark Hoyt, former editor of The New York Times and vice president of news for Knight Ridder, recalled meeting Mr. Ceppos during those early years of their careers. Hoyt, then working as a Washington correspondent for the Herald, was in the newsroom in Miami attending the story conference where editors determined which stories to put on the front page. On the front of an early edition of the newspaper was an article about an accident near Lake Okeechobee involving a bus that overturned, resulting in the death by drowning of some of the migrant workers on board.

An editor with what Hoyt described as a “volcanic temper” dismissed the account as a traffic incident of little interest to Miami readers. It shouldn’t be published on the front page, the publisher said.

Mr. Ceppos, then in his twenties, learned of the deliberations and participated in the meeting. In a “quiet”, almost “hesitant” manner, Hoyt recalls, Mr. Ceppos asked the editor: “Have you Lily this story?” It finally made the headlines.

There was a “junior young guy instead,” Hoyt said, who “knows a mistake is about to be made and does just the right thing. … I always thought that he had great judgment and great courage.

Mr. Ceppos spent nine years at the Miami Herald before moving to San Jose. At Mercury News as well as in his corporate role at Knight Ridder, he has taken significant steps to increase the diversity of the editorial team.

“For Jerry, diversity in the newsroom wasn’t just for show,” recalled Lori Aratani, a transport reporter for The Post who previously worked at Mercury News under Mr. Ceppos. “He truly believed that building a newsroom that reflected the communities it covered helped build trust and credibility.”

A year after Mr. Ceppos left Knight Ridder, the chain was sold to the McClatchy newspaper company. The Mercury News was later sold to MediaNews Group Inc.

Mr. Ceppos served as dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada in Reno and then, from 2011 to 2018, dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. He helped start a student newswire that served both to train aspiring journalists and to supplement local media coverage with reporting on stories, including unsolved Ku Klux Klan-era murders. civil rights.

Survivors include his wife of 40 years, the former Karen Feingold of Baton Rouge, and his two children, Matthew Ceppos of Reno and Robin Ceppos of Washington.

Mr. Ceppos was the editor of the 2021 book “Covering Politics in the Age of Trump.” His last published journal article was a memory of his high school journalism adviser, Mary Lee Ruddle, who died weeks before him at age 95. She was the person, he wrote, who, when he was a “teenage geek,” gave him the confidence to send him on his way.

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