executive editor, Detroit Free Press
One thing was certain about Robert G. McGruder: He towered over the newsroom.
But it was more than his 6-feet-4 frame that elevated McGruder above his peers. It was the way he pushed his newspapers to do solid journalism and to advance diversity in the newsroom.
The Detroit Free Press executive editor was a champion for diversity and journalistic excellence until his death on April 12, 2002, after a prolonged battle with cancer.
“He had been executive editor of the Free Press for just six years,” says Publisher Heath J. Meriwether. “But under his direction, the newspaper practiced aggressive journalism, tackling child abuse, bad cops and the biggest labor union in the state. He often said he was proudest of the journalism that pointed out solutions to the problems that plagued the voiceless or those whose voices were seldom heard.”
He spoke for those voices so often ignored. He was one of them, growing up with the sting of segregation. But his will to succeed broke barriers and led him to become the first African American in a number of positions at the Free Press, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a variety of newspaper organizations.
He was a president of the Associated Press Managing Editors, director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, member of the National Association of Black Journalists and National Association of Minority Media Executives. He also served as a director of the Michigan Press Association and as a member of many nominating juries for the Pulitzer Prize.
During his 16 years at the Free Press, McGruder saw it all. He guided award-winning news coverage, and he faced the creation of a joint operating agreement with The Detroit News in the 1980s, as well as the newspaper strike during the 1990s.
In 2001, McGruder was awarded the John S. Knight Medal, the highest employee honor bestowed by Knight Ridder. His words describe the influence he had on journalism better than anyone else’s.
“Please know I stand for diversity,” he said in his acceptance speech. “I represent diversity. I am the messenger and the message of diversity. I represent the African Americans, Latinos, Arab Americans, Asians, Native Americans, gays and lesbians, women and all the others we must see represented in our business offices, newsrooms and our newspapers if we truly want to meet the challenge of serving our communities.”
In January 2002, he was honored with Wayne State University’s Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Award. McGruder spoke of the three black women who helped raise and teach him by overcoming their own obstacles: his grandmother, his mother and his wife of 33 years, Annette.
“A lifetime of seeing wonderful black women face indifference, hostility, discrimination, a narrowing of dreams and goals and a significant amount of overcoming taught me a lot about how much better we can be — and how much more we must do,” he said.