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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published January 18 2014

Did you know: ND-born journalists changed the industry

One of the most remarkable journalists in American history was born in North Dakota.

Lee Hills once was known as the “boy editor” when he published his hometown newspaper at the age of 20. For 28 years, from 1951 to 1979, he simultaneously served in an executive position for two of the country’s most important newspapers, located more than 1,350 miles apart.

During the first five years he was in those positions, he was awarded Pulitzer Prizes for both papers.

In 1974, Hills shepherded a merger, making him the board chair and chief executive of the largest newspaper company (Knight Ridder) in the U.S.

He also is “the only person to be elected president of the four leading professional journalism organizations in America: the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Inter-American Press Association, Sigma Delta Chi, and the Associated Press Managing Editors” (now the Associated Press Media Editors).

On May 28, 1906, Lee Orville Hills was born on a farm near Granville, in McHenry County. He, his siblings, and parents, Lewis and Lulu Mae (Loomis) Hills, moved to the coal mining town of Price in central Utah, where his father raised chickens.

In 1917, Lulu Mae died, and in 1920, at age 14, Lee Hills went to work for the News Advocate in Price. He said, “I swept out the place, learned to run the Linotype, and I wrote the society column.” Soon, he was selling ads and working as a reporter.

In 1924, Hills enrolled at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City. To earn money while at school, he worked as a stringer for three city newspapers: the Telegram, the Tribune, and the Deseret News.

The biggest story for Hills occurred March 8, 1924, when a series of explosions at the Castle Gate Mine, near Price, killed 171 miners. In 1926, the editor of the News Advocate died, and Hills returned to Price to run the paper.

After receiving a scholarship and finding someone to take over the News Advocate, Hills enrolled at the University of Missouri in 1927. As a student he said, “the University of Missouri taught me the importance of serious journalism.”

In 1929, Hills “left the university before getting a degree to work as a reporter for the Oklahoma City Times and to study law.” He was a reporter during the day and attended night classes at the Oklahoma City University School of Law, earning his LL.B. in 1934.

In 1935, Hills was recruited by the Scripps Howard news conglomerate and assigned the position of copyreader at the Cleveland Press newspaper. Scripps “executives were soon deploying Hills wherever their papers needed a fresh eye or a firm hand.”

In 1936, he was assigned to the Indianapolis Times, and in 1938, he was named editor of the Oklahoma City News, becoming “the youngest editor of a U.S. metropolitan newspaper.”

Scripps realized they had a journalist who had the knowledge and instincts to breathe fresh life into stagnant newsrooms, so Hills was assigned to editorial positions at the Memphis Press-Scimitar in 1939 and the Cleveland Press in 1940.

Hills always considered excellent reporting as the key to a successful newspaper and continued to serve as a reporter at the papers for which he was editor.

I found it interesting that, despite the fact that he had edited six different newspapers, his occupation was listed as “reporter” in the 1940 census.

In 1942, believing it was time to move on, Hills “asked to meet with Mr. (John) Knight, who, with his brother, owned the Akron Beacon-Journal, the Detroit Free Press, and the Miami Herald.” Among the other papers owned by the Knight brothers was the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald.

After inquiring about a newspaper position, Knight told Hills, “There is an opening for a news editor in Miami.” Hills replied, “I’ll take it,” and within four months, he became managing editor.

Choosing initially to manage by example, Hills “served briefly as a war correspondent for the Herald and filed reports from the Far East, the Middle East and Latin America.”

As the paper’s editor, Hills stressed “accuracy, fairness, objectivity, and readability.”

In 1943, because of the war, paper was in short supply and rationed by the government. Hills made the decision to cut 12 pages of advertisements each day during six days of the week and 36 pages on Sunday and “impose circulation limits in order to cram as much war news as possible.”

Meanwhile, the chief rival of the Herald, the Miami News, made the opposite choice. Because of Hills’ decision, readership of the Herald increased and that of the News declined.

While Hills served as editor, readership of the Herald continued to grow. One thing that bothered him was the growing crime rate in his city, and he encouraged his reporters to wage an all-out “anti-crime crusade.”

When the Herald began this endeavor, there was not only some push-back, but also threats. Hills “refused to be muzzled.” In 1951, he directed his reporters to dig up facts about the “mob bosses living in the area in a series called ‘Know Your Neighbor’.”

It was for this series that the Herald was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for public service.

Later in 1951, the Knight brothers asked Hills to accept the position of executive editor of the Detroit Free Press. Hills told them that he was interested in the new challenge, but he was “loath to leave the Herald.”

An unusual arrangement was then made where he would be executive editor of both papers at the same time, often shuttling between the two distant cities.

(We will conclude the story of Lee Hills next week)

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.