McGruder, Robert G.
Robert G. McGruder
Robert G. McGruder was best known by his colleagues first as a passionate diversity advocate and second as a newspaper pioneer. In his sixty years McGruder attained the title of "first" perhaps more than many of his notable coworkers. His achievements as diversity advocate and news executive afford him the honor of being included among some of the most notable African American men of his era.
Robert McGruder was born on March 31, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky. As a young child he lived in Dayton, Ohio and in Campbellsburg, Kentucky. At the age of six, McGruder battled and overcame polio. Although McGruder was not raised in a two-parent household, he was positively influence by both his mother and grandmother. His grandmother was an educator during the early twentieth century. She taught in rural segregated areas of Indiana and Kentucky. His mother began her career as a classroom educator as well and later became a librarian. Her love for children's literature inspired her to develop a library club for children. McGruder believed that the experience of observing two smart, strong black women provided him insight into how to overcome indifference, hostility, discrimination, and adversity. Through their experience McGruder learned a lot about how much African Americans had to endure as well as how much more work lay ahead in order for African Americans to achieve the level of success he hoped to realize one day.
While living in Ohio, McGruder enrolled in the School of Journalism at Kent State University. By 1963 he graduated with a BA. degree in journalism from Kent State. Immediately after completing his degree, McGruder was employed as the first African American journalist with the Dayton Journal Herald in Ohio. McGruder left the Dayton Journal Herald in 1963 and joined the Cleveland Plain Dealer in the same year. The journalist position with the Plain Dealer would be another added to the many "first" titles that McGruder would soon claim. His position as the first African American journalist at the Plain Dealer was shortened due to the United States military draft. McGruder served in the U.S. Army from 1964 to 1966. He eventually returned to the Plain Dealer, and by 1971 he became the first African American assistant city editor at the newspaper. Not surprisingly, McGruder continued to climb the journalist ladder, and in 1978 he became city editor. McGruder became managing editor in 1981. McGruder's twenty-three-year tenure with the Plain Dealer was monumental for any journalist. His news coverage focused on a broad range of issues, including the urban riots and rebellion of the 1960s. During the 1970s, McGruder editorialized about the anti-busing battles in Boston, Louisville, and other cities throughout the country. While working for the Plain Dealer he also covered sports, arts, and entertainment, along with other topics such as diversity in the workplace.
In 1986, McGruder accepted the position of deputy managing editor of the Detroit Free Press. The Free Press had been scouting McGruder for twenty years before he accepted the position which required him and his wife Annette to relocate to Detroit. Under his direction, the Free Press focused on child abuse, corrupt police officers, and Michigan labor unions. Most importantly, McGruder successfully guided the Free Press through two strikes and a series of near business closures. When McGruder arrived in Detroit in 1986, the Free Press's main rival was the daily, Gannett's Detroit News. The Free Press was considered a failing newspaper, while the Gannett thrived. The papers eventually accepted a joint operating agreement. One editor recalled how McGruder reminded everyone to concentrate on the primary mission of the Free Press: to produce great journalism, treat people fairly, and provide balanced reporting. McGruder's leadership helped the newsroom function during the months following a bitter strike against the two newspapers several years later. McGruder excelled at crisis management.
McGruder experienced many highs and lows in the business. In a speech delivered at the James R. Batten Knight Ridder Excellence award ceremony in 2001, it was noted that in many cases McGruder did not always receive positive treatment from his colleagues. Excerpts taken from an editorial in the Knight Ridder company newsletter were read to the audience. In the editorial McGruder discussed his early experiences in journalism. He noted that being the first black reporter on staff at the Plain Dealer in Cleveland was a high point, but it was also difficult for him. Moreover, as an African American, it was not always comfortable to cover or report news that had a particular effect on the African American community.
McGruder promoted a number of African Americans to jobs that had never been held by blacks. He cited managing editors at several newspapers. He only hoped to have had a positive influence on them, he noted. He felt great pride in watching people whom he helped achieve greatness. Those were career high points for McGruder. Additionally, his unwavering commitment to diversity has made an impact well beyond Detroit. In 1999, he led a task force that compiled a diverse list of candidates for Knight Ridder to pursue for top editing posts. Under his leadership, more than fifty people were identified, and ultimately six were hired.
- Born in Louisville, Kentucky on March 31
- Graduates from Kent State University; works for Dayton Journal Herald; becomes first African American reporter to work for Cleveland Plain Dealer
- Serves two years in the U.S. Army
- Returns to the Plain Dealer
- Serves as assistant city editor
- Becomes managing editor
- Joins Detroit Free Press as Deputy Managing Editor
- Becomes Knight Ridder fellow at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
- Becomes managing editor
- Becomes first African American president of Associated Press Managing Editors
- Becomes first African American executive editor of news operations at Detroit Free Press
- Receives John S. Knight Gold Medal, the highest honor given to an employee of Knight Ridder, parent company of Detroit Free Press
- Dies at age 60 in Detroit, Michigan on April 12
As the executive editor of the Detroit Free Press McGruder was challenged by crisis situations. His passion for journalism kept him abreast of the news. Proper news analysis was important to him as well. For McGruder, it was equally important to focus on who offered the analysis, from whose perspective did they offer it, and whether it was fair and balanced reporting. He was relentless when it came to diversity in the news business, and he gained considerable respect and support from his colleagues for his commitment. McGruder served on the board of directors of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and on the advisory board of the Institute for Minority Journalism at Detroit's Wayne State University. He was a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Minority Media Executives. He was also past president of Associated Press Managing Editors (APME).
Honors and Accolades
Prior to his death in 2002, McGruder received several noted honors, including the John S. Knight Medal. The recognition was the highest honor an employee of the Knight Ridder Company could receive. On January 26, 2002 McGruder received the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity award from Wayne State University. He accepted the William Taylor Distinguished Alumni award from Kent State School of Journalism in 2002.
On April 12, 2002 Robert G. McGruder died of cancer at the age of sixty. In recognition of his commitment to bringing diversity into the newsroom, several awards were named in his honor. In 2003 the National Association of Black Journalists awarded Robert McGruder the lifetime achievement award for his efforts to promote diversity and for the positive impact he had on the lives of journalist throughout the country. McGruder's wife of thirty-three years, Annette McGruder, and his stepdaughter, Tanya A. Martin, accepted the award on his behalf.
Charles Eisendrath, Michigan journalism fellow director, and James Naughton, president of Poynter Institute, both spoke about McGruder's mentorship during their early career and the positive impact he had on their lives. Countless other journalists spoke about his character as a journalist and news executive. Although he was said to have a competitive nature, it was also noted that he was committed to developing young talent and to encouraging them to pursue greater opportunities in the field of journalism. In his final acceptance speech just months before he died McGruder spoke of the major challenge that lay ahead for the Detroit Free Press. He stated that he was proud of the company for its accomplishments in four major areas: creating a diverse newsroom, increasing minority representation in top management positions, establishing apprenticeship and mentorship programs for high school students as well as minority students from Wayne State's Journalism Institute, and finally creating a diversity handbook in 2000. However, his challenge to the company was to extend itself beyond its current initiatives. McGruder offered this closing: "People who work to bring diversity to enterprise talk about the need to bring people of different voices and backgrounds to the workplace, school or neighborhood. We're working on building source lists that go beyond the usual white male sources to allow other voices to emerge. For a newspaper I think that means things like fairness, equal access and opportunity, accuracy in terms of our ability to honestly report on our citizens and communities … It is not, I want to add, something to pursue because it is good for business. It's about doing what is right."
McGruder, Robert G. "Battle Against Racism Better Fought in Present." Detroit Free Press, March 2001.
The African American Registry, "Robert G. McGruder, A Detroit Newspaper Icon!" http://www.aaregistry.com (Accessed 4 February 2005).
McGruder, Robert G. Acceptance Speech, "Helen Thomas Diversity Award." Wayne State University. 26 January 2002. Detroit Free Presshttp://www.freep.com (Accessed 4 February 2005).
――――. Acceptance Speech, "John S. Knight Gold Medal Award." October 22, 2001. Detroit Free Presshttp://www.freep.com (Accessed 4 February 2005).
Baiyina W. Muhammad