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Harris, Jay T. 1948–

Jay T. Harris 1948

Newspaper publisher

Top Job in Philadelphia

A Vital News Source

Story Unleashed Furor


Jay T. Harris, publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, is considered one of the most influential minority newspaper executives in the United States. Head of the influential West Coast daily since 1994, he has enhanced the reputation of the already well-regarded Mercury News and continued to expand its role as an important media source in California, especially in its coverage of Silicon Valley. The paper itself made headlines in late 1996 when it published a controversial story that linked the crack cocaine epidemic and drug traffickers to a right-wing Central American political group that received erstwhile covert support from the Central Intelligence Agency. Harris was praised for allowing the story to run, and for sticking by the paper and the reporter after the story generated intense scrutiny.

Harris began his career in journalism not long after earning a degree in English from Pennsylvanias Lincoln University in 1970. His first job was as a reporter with the Wilmington News-Journal, a Delaware paper, where he made a name for himself relatively early in his professional career for an expose on heroin trafficking in the city. The series won Harris an Associated Press award, and he was soon promoted to an editors desk. Within a few years he had been singled out for a fellowship by the Frank E. Gannett Urban Journalism Center at the Medill School of Journalism. Medill, at Northwestern University in suburban Chicago, is considered one of the foremost training grounds for journalism in the United States. Harris was made a Gannett Fellow, the first ever, when the Urban Journalism Center was created. In 1975, Harris left the day-to-day world of newspapers when he was offered a job at Medill. There he taught classes as an assistant professor of journalism and urban affairs; he also served as associate director of the Urban Journalism Center and associate dean at Medili before leaving in 1982.

Top Job in Philadelphia

Harris returned to newspaper work that year when he arrived in Washington, D.C., to take a job with Gannett News Services, one of the largest print media companies in North America and publisher of USA Today. There, he served as a national correspondent and wrote a weekly column. In 1985, he left Gannett when he was

At a Glance

Born 1948. Married; three children. Education: Lincoln University, B.A., 1970.

Career: Began as reporter for Wilmington News-Journal, Wilmington, DE, 1970, editor, until 1975; Northwestern University/Medill School of Journalism, assistant professor of journalism and urban affairs, 1975-82; also served as associate director of the Frank E. Gannett Urban Journalism Center and associate dean of Medili School of Journalism; Gannett News Services, Washington, D.C., national correspondent, 1982-85; Philadelphia Daily News, executive editor, 1985-88, and vice-president of Philadelphia Newspapers, 1987-88; Knight-Ridder Newspapers, Miami, FL, assistant to the president, 1988-89, vice-president of operations, 1989-93; San Jose Mercury News, San Jose, CA, chair and publisher, 1994-.

Awards: Par Excellence Award, Operation PUSH, 1984, for distinguished service; special citation from the Institute for Journalism Education for contributions to the cause of racial diversity in American newspaper journalism, 1991; Ida B. Wells Award, National Association of Black Journalists, 1992.

Member: American Leadership Forum-Silicon Valley.

Addresses: Office San Jose Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Dr., San Jose, CA 95190.

wooed away by its top competitor, the Knight-Ridder News Corporation. He was hired by the family-owned media company to helm its Philadelphia Daily News. Not yet forty years old, he became one of the youngest executive editors of a major metropolitan daily in the country. He also became one of a few minority newspaper executives in such a post as well. A 1988 article on his achievement by George Garneau in Editor & Publisher called Harriss rise, especially at such a young age, exceptional in a field dominated but middle-aged, white men. Harris remained optimistic that that particular demographic would change: I think more people will do what I do over time, he told Garneau, and remained philosophical about his own situation. My color is a factor in everything in my life, he told Editor & Publisher Race is a factor in American society. Obviously, some people think Im pretty good.

In 1987, Harris was made a vice-president of Philadelphia Newspapers, and remained in the number-two spot at the Daily News until he was summoned to Knight-Ridder headquarters in Miami for a post there. From 1988 to 1989 he served as assistant to the president, and was named vice-president for operations in 1989. In this post he oversaw Knight-Ridders newspaper holdings in the Midwest and Plains states, including its dailies in Akron, St. Paul, Gary, Duluth, and Grand Forks. In 1993 Harris was offered the plum position of chairman and publisher of the San Jose Mercury News upon the retirement of its top executive. The newspaper, based in the northern California city of San Jose, was a widely-read, respected newspaper with a circulation of 300,000 and considered the Wall Street Journal of Silicon Valley. In Santa Clara County, located at the south end of the San Francisco Bay, it was estimated that 57 percent of the population read the Mercury Newss daily edition.

A Vital News Source

Harris stepped into the publishers job in San Jose in 1994. Some notable accomplishments of his tenure include the launch of a foreign bureau in Hanoi, Vietnamthe first permanent news bureau there since the Vietnam War endedand the papers on-line edition, the Mercury Center, with its special focus on high-technology business news and a customizable personal news service called NewsHound. About two million visitors hit the papers Internet site at peak hours. Harris also oversaw the launch of Nuevo Mundo, a Spanish-language weekly paper and the only such news source in Northern California.

But it was the newspapers publication of Dark Alliance: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion, that made headlines around the country and made the San Jose Mercury News known to a far more extensive number of people than just residents of Santa Clara County. Written by an investigative reporter on its staff, Gary Webb, the three-part series detailed possible links between some California-based supporters of contrasthe anti-Communist guerrillas in Nicaraguathe crack cocaine problem in Los Angeles in the 1980s, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Webb obtained information from informants who were involved with the first two. There arose a massive controversy about the reports, and the story was in some cases misconstrued as an allegation that the CIA had flooded South Central L.A. and other pockets of urban misery with crack. As Harris clarified in an interview with Victoria Valentine in Emerge magazine, the heart of the story is that close associates of the Nicaraguan Contras, in the early 1980s, were selling very significant amounts of pure cocaine in the United States; that much of that was going into South Central L.A.; that others, persons in L.A., including people associated with the gangs there, were turning it into crack; and that, finally, these same persons associated with the Contras were sending money back to support that effort.

Story Unleashed Furor

Some in the African American community had long suspected a tie between the government and the rise of crack, a drug that was cheap, addictive, and deadly. Unusual methods of financing the Nicaraguan contras, a pet cause of the Reagan Administration, were not unknown: during the 1980s, it was discovered that agents for the U.S. government were secretly selling arms to Iran, a sworn foe of the United States, and using the money to finance the contras, who were struggling to overthrow a leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Though the story Harris had okayed initially caused little stir, its publication on the Mercury Center site and subsequent rapid dissemination throughout cyberspaceas well as the interest given it on talk-radio programs hosted by such prominent pundits such as Joe Madisonhelped the Dark Alliance story gain notoriety. Several prominent political figures, including U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Rior-dan, and U.S. congresswoman Maxine Waters, called for an official government investigation into Webbs allegations.

Other newspapers and media outlets found fault with the Dark Alliance story, and Harris had to weather criticism that the reporters tactics and conclusions were flawed. Peter Kornbluh, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, remarked that their editorial decision to assault, rather than advance, the Mercury News story has, in turn, sparked critical commentary on the priorities of those pillars of the mainstream press.

Harris is married and has three children. He is involved in numerous professional and philanthropic organizations, and is a trustee of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. He is also the recipient of numerous professional accolades, including a 1991 citation from the Institute for Journalism Education for his contributions to racial diversity in American newspaper journalism, and the Ida B. Wells Award from the National Association of Black Journalists in 1992. His prediction in the Editor & Publisher interview proved prophetic: a decade later, even the first newspaper that had hired Harris, the News-Journal in Wilmington, had an African American executive editor.


Columbia Journalism Review, January/February 1997; May/June 1998, p. 26.

Editor & Publisher, May 7, 1988, pp. 11, 38.

Emerge, December/January 1997, pp. 34-37.

Additional information for this profile was provided by press materials from the San Jose Mercury News and Knight-Ridder Newspapers.

Carol Brennan

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