The Editors' Blog

Claude Sitton: A giant in the South, and in his newsroom

Claude Sitton, editor of The News & Observer, at work in his office in October 1990, shortly before his retirement.
Claude Sitton, editor of The News & Observer, at work in his office in October 1990, shortly before his retirement.

When word came Tuesday morning that Claude Sitton had passed away, we were ready with Jay Price’s masterful obit. It’s good to be prepared, and we all knew this was coming.

What I wasn’t ready for was the torrent of memories that the news produced.

It was a spring day in 1986 when my phone rang in The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Miss.) newsroom. The gravelly, Southern voice was like a foghorn:

“This is Claude Sitton.”

John Drescher was leaving the paper for graduate school. Claude needed a government/political reporter. That call led me to a quiet, somewhat tense newsroom that was far different from what I was used to. It was Claude’s paper, and his newsroom, with a palpable sense of right and wrong, with issues distilled in black and white, no gray allowed.

That was an attitude no doubt forged in the South of the 1960s, when most things were black and white, and most issues were about blacks and whites. There’s no need for me to provide the details of Claude’s exploits in covering the civil rights movement, because Jay covered them well, but he was the best there was as a roving reporter. (If you haven’t read “The Race Beat,” it’s worth your time several times over. And Claude is the star.)

He swallowed life thoroughly, and quickly, but it was hard to tell if he was enjoying it. When he hiked on the Appalachian Trail, he rose at the crack of dawn and walked rapidly, stopping for nothing. If he asked you to lunch, he did so while walking by your desk, and you had to rise immediately and walk at a near-sprint to keep up on the way to Belk’s (yes, it was downtown, and there was a cafeteria).

Our print headline today captured him perfectly: “Fearless, forceful journalist.”

He loved to take on the powerful, mostly bit by bit, with daily journalism that sometimes left the reporters responsible for it a bit gassed. Stories for the weekend papers? We often started them on Friday.

Around late 1989 or early 1990, not too long before Claude’s retirement, The Independent launched reporting for a profile. Barry Yeoman, a fine journalist and writer, was assigned to the piece, and he phoned many folks in the newsroom to talk, including me. Being fairly new to the place, I asked what the rules were, and was assured that I could talk to him and to tell the truth.

So I did, and the piece runs: “King Claude and the Daniels Dynasty.” I’m the only N&O staffer quoted by name saying anything negative, something about how we didn’t have enough time on stories to produce meaningful, enterprising journalism.

And so I’m feeling a little exposed. Claude comes down the hall and summons me from my desk.

He wanted to know if I was quoted accurately and if I had meant what I said. I told him I was, and I had.

“Well, all right then.”

He strode quickly back down the hall to his office, and I never heard another word about it.

When Claude retired, the paper changed quickly, mostly for the better. We got more reporters and editors (take a bow, Frank Daniels III), and we did more and better longer-term work. But The N&O has never lost its taste for taking on the powerful, or its aggressive stance on seeking public records, or its sense that a strong newsroom, properly directed, can make a difference in its community, the state and the region.

I give Claude a large share of the credit for that, even nearly 25 years later. He’s gone, but his spirit is still here.

Steve Riley is The N&O’s senior editor for investigations.

Riley: 919-836-4940

Twitter: @SRileyNandO