There are a few rules to live by when you work for Angus McEachran, according to some of those who've lived to tell the tale: Be fair, be accurate, be compassionate, and, whatever you do, "don't fuck up."
After 42 years in the newspaper business, The Commercial Appeal's grizzled editor and president is ready to retire. He steps down from his role as president this week and as editor at the end of the year.
He leaves a reputation for cussing a blue streak, being a stickler for detail, and having the ability to scare the hell out of people. He has been described as someone who looks like a buffalo and acts like a drill sergeant, a man whose very breath -- a barely audible snort -- can motivate reporters when they feel it heavy on their shoulder.
And then there are the stories that put McEachran into Paul Bunyan-like roles: tales of phonebooks ripped apart in anger, poorly written stories sent flying through the air as burning paper airplanes, a reporter tied to his chair with clothesline until he got the story right, a photographer dangled out the window because he had, well, fucked up.
But these stories are only part of the picture. When you talk with those who've worked for him, what emerges is a hard-boiled journalist with a good heart. He's a guy who likes to stand on top of a desk to address the newsroom, who will point out a reporter's mistakes in front of everybody, but he also cares about his reporters and the people his reporters put in print.
McEachran followed the old-fashioned newspaperman's route to the top. It was a journey composed of practical experience, grit, and ambition rather than a journalism degree. A native Memphian, he went to George Washington University and Memphis State but never got his degree. He started at The Commercial Appeal in 1960 as a copy clerk and eventually worked his way up to assistant managing editor.
At the time, the newsroom was a noisy den housed in a converted automobile plant. Inside the institutional-green walls was a bustling mini-metropolis of reporters talking and smoking. Typewriters clacked, police radios squawked, teletype machines tapped -- and Angus bellowed.
Longtime Commercial Appeal writer Shirley Downing walked into that atmosphere as an intern after a summer spent working for First Tennessee Bank. "It was a fun place to work," she recalls. "It was quite different from working at a bank. Angus just ruled that newsroom. He was in charge." But everybody learned from him, Downing says. McEachran demanded accuracy and fairness from his reporters and wasn't going to accept anything less.
"You held your breath until Angus would get to your story to see if he would get out his bullshit stamp," says Downing. Or if he would fold it up, set it aflame, and send it flying back to the offending reporter.
Bruce Hight, today a writer for the Austin American-Statesman, had just graduated from the University of Tennessee when he got a job at the CA. "It was like journalistic boot camp and Angus was the drill sergeant. Sometimes, you got a pat on the back, and other times, you'd get a boot in the rear."
One morning, Hight came to work oblivious that his story from the day before had a grammatical error in the lede. McEachran was already in the newsroom. "He called me over and asked if I had gone to college. He knew the answer already, so I knew this was going to be trouble." McEachran asked where Hight had gone and if he had taken a grammar class while matriculating. When Hight answered yes, McEachran said, "Why didn't you use it when you were writing this story?"
"Then he told me not to do it again. He said, 'The only reason I'm not going to kill you is because your editor should have caught it, and I'm going to kill him.'"
Hight says the awareness of details that McEachran instilled in his reporters has served him well over the years. He also jokes that it was while working for Angus that he learned the meaning of terror.
After working as executive editor for the Birmingham Post-Herald, McEachran took over the now-defunct Pittsburgh Press in 1983. At the time, the paper was a sleepy little news outfit trapped in a time warp. In the late 1970s, they were still using stem phones with separate ear- and mouthpieces, and reporters routinely napped on couches in the men's room, snoozing under unfolded newspapers. It was 10 years after the Watergate era, when Woodward and Bernstein thrust investigative journalism into the nation's consciousness, but the Pittsburgh Press was a polite paper, still lazily playing by the rules.
If the Press was like a quiet china shop, Angus McEachran became the proverbial bull. He came in and was literally a wake-up call for the reporters sleeping on the men's room couches.
"There was a moment when -- God knows if it really happened or not -- there was a reporter lying there sawing logs," says former Pittsburgh Press writer Martin Smith. "Angus walks in and snatches the newspaper and says, 'What's your name?' ... It must have been like looking up at the face of God, whoever the poor bastard was that was sleeping there."
Smith, a novelist and senior editor for the Los Angeles Times Magazine, says that McEachran came in and did the things that needed to be done.
"It was just a place that needed someone to kick it in the pants," says Smith. "Who better than Angus McEachran? He didn't come in and say, 'This place sucks.' He went through the motions, but once he took control, he put his mark on it right away. He's not a guy you ignore."
McEachran made it clear to the staff that things were going to change. No longer was this going to be a paper where you could skate by until you retire or go into public relations. The Press was going to be a newspaper. If they weren't willing to help him do that, they would soon be out of work.
Patrick Kiger was one of McEachran's early hires at the Press. He compares McEachran to, among other things, Grizzlies' president of basketball operations Jerry West for his ability to spot talent. Anyone can sign Shaquille O'Neal; it takes a special person to spot a player who has great potential but hasn't realized it yet.
"There were a lot of young people who started [at the Press] and they were languishing," says Kiger. "There wasn't a lot for them to do. They'd hang out all day and then go drinking at night. ... Angus showed up and gave the place some purpose."
McEachran began to bring in new blood and gave the younger reporters a direction, even if it was just by giving them a longer leash to do the stories they wanted to do.
"If you meet [Andrew Schneider], he looks like a hardcore investigative dude," says Kiger. "But he wasn't really a writer. ... Angus found Schneider some place, brought him in, and let him go after everybody. He won two Pulitzers after being there three or four years."
The Pulitzers -- one with Mary Pat Flaherty for a story on illegal trafficking of transplant organs and one with Matthew Brelis about the FAA's inadequate medical screening of airline pilots -- put the Press on the map. It was no longer a backwater paper but a burgeoning powerhouse. For the organ-trafficking story, Schneider and Flaherty -- a young reporter who was at the paper when McEachran got there -- did a world tour, flying in and out of foreign countries, taking photos of hospital documents with spy cameras. It was a story that shook things up at a global level and not the sort of thing that often came out of Pittsburgh.
Kiger's experience with the Press is similar to Schneider's. Kiger had been working for the city magazine for a while but had no newspaper experience. McEachran, he says, "gave me a handshake and a $7,000 raise and then just went back to his office, allowing me to do ... whatever crazy stuff came into my head."
That crazy stuff included spending over a month with a group of Hare Krishnas and a 4,000-word essay on the role of boredom in Western civilization. The head of the features department and the editor of the Sunday magazine -- Kiger's immediate editors -- would never have hired him in a million years, he says. In fact, when Kiger had applied for a job at the Press out of college, he was unceremoniously rejected. They wanted reporters who would work their way up from suburban council meetings.
"I drove the head of the features department -- a conservative old hanger-on from the previous regime who was my theoretical boss -- totally crazy," says Kiger. "I kept expecting that I was going to come in one day and find the contents of my desk in a cardboard box by the door. But it never happened. When I think back on it now, I suspect that Angus was back there in his office, laughing hysterically at the great practical joke that he was playing on the guy."
Kiger credits his later successes -- national magazine assignments, a book contract -- to McEachran's early indulgence of his talents. Ralph Haurwitz, a former Pittsburgh Press staffer and now a reporter at the Austin American-Statesman, echoes that sentiment.
"He gave reporters room to do their best work. He had a traditional sense of news. Both Pulitzers were based on basic shoe-leather, hard-nose reporting."
In 1992, every department at the Press except the newsroom was unionized. The teamsters, representing the paper's truck drivers, went on strike, and the resulting conflict lasted about eight months. The reporters continued going to work and continued getting paid, working on more in-depth stories in anticipation of resuming publication. There was a lot of second-guessing among staff as to how management was handling the situation. One popular saying at the time was that the staff would follow McEachran into a burning building but wouldn't follow the paper's general manager into a bar, even if he was buying.
"There was a hope," says Haurwitz, "that Angus would lead the paper back to publication. As the strike wore on, it became apparent that things had turned very sour."
But not everyone likes McEachran or his management style. It's loud and blustery, meant to intimidate subordinates into action. Not everyone thrives under that sort of pressure. There were a number of former colleagues and employees who declined to comment for this article. And the strike in Pittsburgh was especially nasty, with lingering resentments even to this day. Despite the comment about following him into a burning building, McEachran didn't escape unscathed.
And he's never been shy about the way he feels about other news outlets in Memphis. In a 1994 Memphis magazine article, he easily dismissed television news, the Memphis Business Journal, and the Flyer when he called The Commercial Appeal "the only game in town" when it came to news.
"I'm sure he's got just as many enemies," says Smith. "Not everybody finds characters charming. He's unforgettable, though. No doubt about that."
McEachran inspired one of the characters in Smith's crime novels, a patriarchal police chief whom Smith actually named after another one of his former colleagues -- Kiger.
From Smith's Time Release: "Patrick B. Kiger came to the city from Memphis, where he was known as a savvy cop within the department, and as a brutish Neanderthal with the press. ... His first week on the job, he had laid out his style with roll-call meetings at each precinct: You got a problem, come to me. Be prepared to lose every argument, but I'll listen and look you in the eye before I throw your sorry butt out of my office. ... You want my attention? Work your ass off, plain and simple. Don't fuck up."
For Smith, the operative part of the passage is "Don't fuck up." In the book, he wanted someone who would be the "go-to guy," someone beyond reproach who would step in to make the world a better place. "I just needed someone who could come into a room with a really good bullshit detector and listen to competing voices, each one telling their version of the truth. He could figure out very quickly what was going on. That's what I took from him," he says.
Otis Sanford, now the deputy managing editor at the E.W. Scripps Company-owned Commercial Appeal, has worked for McEachran in three different capacities in two different cities and calls him one of the best editors he's ever worked for. "He is a hard-hitting news man. He's very aggressive when it comes to news."
And despite, or perhaps because of, his management technique, many reporters have remembered the lessons they learned from McEachran and continued to apply them later on in their careers.
"Some people probably didn't respond well, but others did," says Hight. "Well, it may be better to say some of us lived through it. ... I enjoyed working for him."
When McEachran came back to Memphis from Pittsburgh in 1993, the Pittsburgh Press, the dinosaur he had molded into a Pulitzer Prize-winning publication, had been sold to its competition and the staff dispersed to other industries and other papers. In Memphis, editor Lionel Linder had died in a car accident.
"When [McEachran] came back," says Downing, "he was a lot more mellow. He was less hands-on out in the newsroom; he has editors that run the newsroom now. He's still got that booming voice, though. He's still Angus."
McEachran wasn't there to fix the paper; he was there due to unfortunate circumstances in both cities.
Some of the newer staffers at The Commercial Appeal -- who asked to remain anonymous for this story -- talk about feeling let down that their editor isn't more of the flamboyant ball of energy he once was. They say meetings with McEachran in the newsroom are rare but jovial chance encounters. They've heard the McEachran stories but don't ever remember being really intimidated. One likens him to a salty old sailor, all bluster and no bite. Another says she was more intimidated by the size of his office.
He still commands respect, but his presence no longer dominates the newsroom. It seems as if he's effectively been retired for a while.
"Angus might have more influence than I realize," says one current CA staffer who asked not to be identified. "Once he leaves, I might realize that the tone has changed."
It may disappoint those staffers, but Downing says this is usual for McEachran's position at the paper. "He came back as the editor, and then he became the president too. We don't see him as much, but that's not his job anymore."
In his tenure as editor and president, however, he has made some changes to the paper and its policies. A few years ago, wanting to reach out more to the community, the paper doubled the space allotted for letters to the editor. Phone numbers and e-mail addresses of reporters were listed at the end of each story so readers could easily get in touch with reporters.
In January 2000, under McEachran's leadership, the paper launched The DeSoto Appeal. Sanford says the decision was made because they felt there was a tremendous need for it. "[DeSoto] is one of the fastest-growing counties in Mississippi and one of the fastest-growing in the South."
And perhaps McEachran doesn't have to be so volatile in public anymore. He instituted the paper's "error court," a more politically correct forum for reporters to explain their mistakes and themselves. It's not the public routing in the newsroom that staffers once suffered through but has been known to make more than one reporter cry.
McEachran declined to be interviewed for this article. However, the Flyer caught up with him at a local chapter meeting of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) where he was the keynote speaker.
"Three or four years ago," he told the PRSA members, "I became so concerned with what I saw were just stupid errors in the newspaper, errors that were the result of sloppy reporting, that I came up with error court. The idea is to explore how the mistake was made and how we can rectify it in the future."
The walk down the corridor to error court is called the walk of shame. If reporters make too many mistakes, they can lose their beat or even their job. "Like it or not," said McEachran, "I can tell you, in the three years we've been doing it, we've reduced errors by about half and reduced the number of stupid errors by three quarters."
If stupid errors are one of McEachran's pet peeves, so are anonymous and unattributed sources. Because he's concerned that sometimes an anonymous source is actually the reporter, McEachran's policy is that someone other than the reporter has to know who the source is and it has to be pre-cleared through the editors. As he puts it, "It takes an act of God or the editor to use an anonymous source in this newspaper."
The legends that surround McEachran are as much a part of him as his broad shoulders and his scruffy beard. Everyone agrees that he has a temper, but it's hard to find someone who can attest firsthand to any of the legends.
Haurwitz says the Press staff eagerly anticipated the editor that would send flaming copy across the newsroom. "Much to our disappointment, he never did that in Pittsburgh. By then, maybe, we had graduated to electronic copy, but I'm not sure about that."
Smith called it McEachran's flair for the dramatic. "I don't doubt any of [the stories], but I can't vouch for them either. He knows how to make his point." And McEachran's never discouraged any of them. Downing, for one, can verify the existence of the bullshit stamp.
While no one who ever heard it will forget the story about the reporter tied to his desk with clothesline, there is much talk about how compassionate and funny McEachran is. And how he stands behind his reporters. It is as if, as Haurwitz put it, he's gruff on the outside and the inside but with a pretty good dose of teddy bear on the inside too.
"There are no sacred cows in his newsroom. He backs up his reporters," says Schneider. "As long as you can prove the story ... if you've got the proof, if you've got the attribution, you can put anything in his newspaper."
At the PRSA event, McEachran told a story about a star high school athlete who was being paid to stay in school and win the state championship. After the paper ran a story about the situation, the athlete sued the paper for $6.9 million.
"On the eve of the trial," he said, "two things happened: One, our number-one witness recanted (turns out she was back in bed with the principal who was paying [the athlete] to play); and two, they dropped the settlement from $6.9 million to $10,000. Well, I was going to spend $10,000 that day in legal fees, but I thought that if we caved in, the reputation and the integrity of the newspaper would be seriously impaired. I said, 'No way.' We went to trial."
And after a week-and-a-half trial, the paper won.
"One of the things I learned from him," says Downing, "is that, in journalism, we have an important role to be the eyes and ears of the community. Here I was, very shy and awkward at the time, and I learned how to stand up at a city council meeting and object if I had to. He was bold, and he taught us to be very bold by example. Just watching him was an education."
When asked at the PRSA meeting what he was going to do after his retirement, McEachran had this to say: "I'm going to spend probably about six months winding down and then decide how much I want to wind back up. I like to hunt and fish, and the caretaker at the place I hunt and fish is more worried than my wife about my retirement. She thinks I'll be there every day.
"I'm noodling around with the idea of whether I'm going to do some teaching or writing. I really don't think I've got that much to say. Other than that, I'm going to sit on my butt."
So who'll be the next editor at The Commercial Appeal?
Newsroom gossip puts the torch into the hands of managing editor Henry Stokes, deputy managing editor Otis Sanford, or Timothy Gallagher, the editor and president of the Ventura County Star, a Scripps-Howard paper in California. Of those, Sanford and Gallagher are said to be the front-runners.
John Wilcox, the current general manager of the paper, is the CA's new chief executive officer. Before he came to Memphis, he was publisher at the Ventura County Star.
Mike Phillips, Scripps-Howard's editorial development director, is part of the committee charged with finding McEachran's replacement. "It's very early in the process," he says. "We're looking for the best editor that we can lay our hands on."
That person, according to Phillips, will have a clear sense of vision, strong personal leadership, and an understanding of who the community is.
"We think that newspaper could really rise to greatness over the next decade," says Phillips. "It needs an engaged editor, someone who can be out in the community and listening to the people. We want the paper to be the central part of how Memphis confronts its challenges."
The company is looking throughout the newspaper industry, both inside Scripps-Howard and out, says Phillips, but they're going to take their time.
"It's sad to see Angus leave," says Downing. "He bridged the old school of journalism, where we were typing on paper, to a computerized operation. He bridged that very well. He's been a really great editor and a great educator."
Granted that it doesn't happen every day, but Angus McEachran sure got a lot of mileage out of tying a reporter to a chair.
Like Michael Jordan, Frank Sinatra, and Jim Rout, the editor of The Commercial Appeal announced his retirement months in advance. When he did, his staff wrote two obituary-style stories about it that were timid, bland, and deferential to the powerful, all CA trademarks during the 10-year reign of Angus the Terrible.
They dusted off anecdotes about his reporting on James Earl Ray and, as an editor, bullying reporters, including supposedly tying one to a chair back in the day. Exactly the same tales were told in 1993 when he came here to replace the late Lionel Linder. McEachran's passion for "news news news" apparently excludes reports of his own career. Nothing, zero, about his twin titles of editor and president, circulation, the bottom line, shrinking the size of the paper, God as source, or even the new garden section.
His staff, we were reminded once again, won two Pulitzers while he was an editor in Pittsburgh, and the CA generously credited him with a third win on his watch by editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez, who was hired by Linder, won the Pulitzer for work done in 1993, and left Memphis in 1997 for the Los Angeles Times.
Retirement nears, and McEachran's own paper has twice begged the question one of his predecessors, Mike Grehl, used to ask smug reporters: What have you done lately?
In answering that, one reader's opinion may well be as good as another's. Like a buffet, it depends on what you ate. The story you skipped might have made or ruined someone's day. My own view is colored by the fact that I worked for the pre-McEachran CA for nine years, liked it, and casually know several people there. McEachran is not one of them. So all reviews should be regarded skeptically, but review, we must. The influence of the daily paper has waned but remains as important as, say, the Memphis City Council.
Newspapers get too much credit or blame for prizes or the lack of them. The more important and revealing thing is how they go about the labors that win readers, not prizes. The inside-baseball stuff doesn't matter either. From time to time, someone gets canned or sentenced to the CA doghouse. Who cares? A jerk can be a great reporter or editor. A charmer can be worthless.
In the news business, you are what you publish. Your articles are your legacy, not what other people say about you. Food can't be better than it tastes, music better than it sounds, or a newspaper better than it reads. In my book, half a dozen CA reporters are as good as anyone. Only one of them, Geoff Calkins, was brought in by McEachran. A talent magnet, he was not. Maybe it's those rope tricks.
No question, the daily newspaper is a crutch for the rest of us. McEachran deserves credit for setting an example that good newspapering is not a popularity contest, even if it came naturally. I think the CA is an honest paper, although I wonder sometimes about the things it doesn't write about. From the Neighbors section to the hardworking Nashville bureau, it gives fair value. Its news stories try to get to the truth, as far as they go.
Unfortunately, that is often not very far. The big continuing local stories of the last 10 years were suburban sprawl in eastern Shelby County, casinos, technology, failing schools, politics, the jail and sheriff's department, and the explosion of corporate and personal wealth. The CA shed little light on the whos, hows, and whys of most of them.
Despite prolific veteran reporter David Flaum, the CA's business section is getting beaten by the Memphis Business Journal, which hired the city's best young business reporters. The CA lost or ran off good editors and reporters like Jerry Markon of The Wall Street Journal, Roland Klose of the St. Louis Riverfront Times, and Dave Hirschman of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It rarely makes the connection between Wall Street and Main Street, as if the shenanigans at dot coms or Salomon Brothers have no parallels here in River City. They do, and other publications, including this one, have written about them.
The best thing about the editorial page is the letters to the editor. Readers say the politically incorrect things that make editorial writers wet their pants. Most of the opinion and analysis columns are reruns from national newspapers, readily available on the Internet. There is only one local editorial voice, political columnist Susan Adler Thorp, who was a Linder protégée. McEachran's contribution to column writing is religion writer David Waters, a good writer on a short leash. McEachran axed homegrown Rheta Grimsley Johnson's syndicated column after she went to Atlanta.
Not long after McEachran returned to Memphis, I heard him give a speech proclaiming his pains to avoid conflicts of interest, such as not owning stock in Memphis companies. This struck me as grandstanding. Editors and reporters swim in the same water as everyone else. Tell me where they own a home, where their kids go to school, and who they're having drinks with and I'll tell you about conflicts of interest.
Besides, potential conflicts can come from many directions. The CA never explained that Mike McEachran, head of the gang unit, special operations, and the street-crime task force in A.C. Gilless' Shelby County Sheriff's Department since 1997, is the editor's brother. It allows financial advisers and consultants to write regular columns on money and business and plug their clients and products. It regularly quotes stock analysts without disclosing that some of them are shills for investment bankers and bought the hot stocks they tout at below-market prices. It has told readers little about its nebulous partnership with WREG Television, which is owned by a different parent company. And nobody ever breathes a word in public about CA profit margins, which were once 36 percent, among the highest in the industry. The secrecy about finances may explain the newspaper's penchant for bashing public officials for small expenses while ignoring exorbitant compensation at local corporations and nonprofits.
For my money, McEachran pretty much rested on his laurels, which was fine with us here at the Flyer and Memphis magazine. "Now, we get Angus," our publisher Kenneth Neill warily and accurately predicted shortly after Lionel Linder died. We expected big things. Ten years later, we're still waiting.