Obituary: Stephen Isaacs, former editor for Minneapolis Star, Washington Post, dies

  • Article by: ADAM BERNSTEIN , Washington Post
  • Updated: September 3, 2014 - 12:11 PM

 

Stephen D. Isaacs, who became the Washington Post’s city editor at 26, experimented with long-form journalism in a futile bid to save the Minneapolis Star and was a demanding journalism professor at Columbia University, died Aug. 28 in Austin. He was 76.

The cause was complications from a fall, said a son, David Isaacs.

In 1978, Isaacs, then 39, left the Post to become editor of the Minneapolis Star, an afternoon newspaper whose bleeding circulation he was hired to stanch. He tried to emphasize in-depth reporting, creating what he considered a daily magazine of local news.

But saving the Star proved a fruitless battle. Isaacs quipped that the competition in Minnesota was too great from “ice fishing to lovemaking” to prevent the inevitable closing of afternoon papers.

Known inside newsrooms for a mercurial personality that caused friction with reporters and other editors, he also ran afoul of civic authorities in Minnesota. In 1980, he cleared a 30-foot gap by cutting down four trees and about 30 shrubs on city property in Minneapolis in order to get a better view of Lake Harriet from his home. He was charged with misdemeanors for criminal damage to property and molestation of vegetation.

The Star merged with the morning Tribune in 1982 and Isaacs decamped for New York, eventually launching a career in academia.

Isaacs was groomed for the newspaper business from a young age. His father, Norman, served as top editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal and Louisville Times and was a prominent voice on journalism ethics and prize committees. His mother, the syndicated domestic-advice columnist Dorothy Ritz, was reputedly a first cousin of Bob Dylan.

The younger Isaacs had been a reporter since his teens and joined the Post two years after graduating from Harvard in 1959. In the newsroom, he built a reputation for unbridled confidence and a bulldozing physical presence. A former college football player, he used his height, bulk and palette of off-color language to convey his thoughts on coverage and personnel issues with unmistakable clarity.

He liked, foremost, to shake things up, which was intrinsic to his personality and his sense of what a newspaper was for. As the Post’s city editor and then metropolitan editor for much of the 1960s, Isaacs was instrumental in luring to the local desk a much-younger, aggressively hungry generation of reporters who would gain substantial renown in journalism. In “The Powers That Be,” journalist David Halberstam described Isaacs as a manager “with a special instinct for talent, who had hired some of the best Post reporters of a generation.”

They included Carl Bernstein, half of the duo who exposed the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation; Jim Hoagland, who would win Pulitzer Prizes for his reporting on apartheid and his foreign affairs columns; Richard Cohen, who became a Post op-ed columnist; and Dan Morgan, an award-winning reporter and author.

“He was like a disheveled general operating at full speed on every front that was within his vision,” Bernstein said. He said Isaacs, for all his “bombastic” tendencies, had a forward-thinking vision that included regional coverage that downplayed the old divisions of Washington, suburban Maryland and Virginia. His marriage to Diane Scharfeld ended in divorce. Survivors include a longtime partner, Suzanne Freeman of Austin; three children from his marriage, Deborah Jacobson of Houston, David Isaacs of Santa Monica, Calif., and Sharon Isaacs of Manhattan; and five grandchildren.

 

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