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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published January 26 2014

Newspaperman, Granville native Lee Hills stuck to his principles

One of the most transformational newspapermen in U.S. history was born in Granville, N.D. Lee Hills believed that newspapers should be a “public service,” not an ideological mouthpiece. Almost all newspapers prior to Hills’ were established because the founders/publishers/editors had a certain ideology – usually political – that they wanted to promote.

As a reporter, Hills kept an open mind regarding the events or subjects he was covering. Like a good detective, he carefully gathered the information and, once he believed he had sufficient material, wrote his story, striving for “accuracy, fairness and objectivity.” As an editor and publisher, he insisted that his reporters adhere to these same principles.

In 1942, Hills went to work for Knight Newspapers, becoming the executive editor of John Knight’s Miami Herald. In 1951, Hills accepted the position of executive editor of the Detroit Free Press, an add-on position since he already had a full plate serving as executive editor of the Herald, nearly 1,400 miles away. At this time, Hills had become “John Knight’s chief lieutenant” and primary adviser.

Although Hills continued to make his home in Miami, he became active in civic matters in Detroit, serving on the city’s arts commission, of which the late Edsel Ford had served as president. By doing this, Hills not only became more attuned to the fabric of Detroit, but he also made valuable contacts.

In 1955, the United Auto Workers demanded “a guaranteed annual wage” for its workers at Ford and General Motors. Secret negotiations were then held between the UAW and the two large automobile companies, but, mysteriously, the Free Press ran a series of articles about what was going on at the negotiations titled, “A Peek Behind the News Blackout,” reported by Hills. He later revealed that much of the information he used in his articles was channeled to him by Henry Ford II, president of Ford Motor Co. and son of Edsel Ford. For his series, Hills was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1955 because of “his aggressive, resourceful and comprehensive front-page reporting.”

In 1959, Knight made Hills executive editor of Knight Newspapers and then, a short time later, named him as vice president. The next year, Hills was named as one of the three people to the Pulitzer editorial jury for selection of the prize winners. In 1962, he was elected president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

In July of 1962, while president of ASNE, “Hills led a dozen editors on the society’s first visit to the Soviet Union, a 23-day whirlwind tour visiting editors, government officials and industrial plants.” This was a tense time between the U.S. and the Soviet Union because Premier Nikita Khrushchev had started shipping nuclear-armed missiles to Cuba two months earlier.

While Hills’ group was in the Soviet Union, they were informed that they could meet with Khrushchev if they agreed to appear at the Communist Peace Congress.

Hills replied, “Under no circumstances would we attend the congress. We had no intention of letting ourselves be used for its propaganda purposes. Also, if this was a condition of the interview, (Khrushchev) could forget the interview.”

The Russians backed down, and Hills received an interview with the premier. Paying close attention to the resolve of Hills was the White House, likely emboldening President John F. Kennedy to remain steadfast in demanding that Russia remove its Cuban missiles. On Oct. 28, 1962, Khrushchev capitulated and agreed to dismantle the missiles.

Besides national security, Hills had another reason for paying close attention to what was going on in Cuba. Puerto Rico, a neighboring island, was the home of Argentina “Tina” Ramos, the romantic interest of Hills. Ramos was the publisher of El Mundo, a popular newspaper in Puerto Rico. In 1963, Hills and Ramos were married.

In 1967, Hills became president of Knight Newspapers, “the first person from outside the Knight family to hold that position.” The company owned 16 daily papers, including the Grand Forks Herald. In 1973, Hills was elevated to chief executive officer and chairman of the board of Knight Newspapers.

Almost immediately after becoming CEO, Hills began to negotiate a merger with Ridder Publications. When the merger was finalized in 1974, Knight-Ridder became the company with the “largest combined circulation in the country.” Hills became the first chairman and CEO of Knight-Ridder, positions he held until his retirement in 1981. He was then named Knight-Ridder’s editorial chairman emeritus.

Hills was always active in philanthropy and, in 1950, had urged the Knight brothers to set up the John and James Knight Foundation. At first the foundation concentrated on initiatives to “advance and improve journalism,” but later became involved in other educational, cultural and civic endeavors. In 1991, Hills was named chair of the foundation. The foundation impacted North Dakota when it granted

$1 million to Grand Forks in 1997, after much of city was destroyed from the flood and subsequent fires.

In 1995, the University of Missouri completed construction of a college communications building that they named Lee Hills Hall. The next year, the college established a program endowed by Lee and Tina Hills “to increase ordinary citizens’ understanding of the value of free expression to democratic societies.” It emphasized good journalism so that informed citizens could better govern themselves. This program is called the “Lee Hills Chair.”

Lee Hills died Feb. 3, 2000. Knight-Ridder was purchased by the McClatchy Co. on June 27, 2006. By then, McClatchy had already arranged the sale of the (Grand Forks) Herald to Forum Communications Co., owner of the The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

“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.