Monday, March 02, 2015

In memoriam: John Shurr, journalist and AP bureau chief

I had the opportunity to work with three great AP bureau chiefs who had my back in my 18 years with the wire service, the last being John Shurr, with whom I spent nine years in Columbia.

So I was saddened to hear of John's passing tonight.

It, unfortunately, was not a surprise; those of us who knew John knew he was in declining health, quite possibly from the Agent Orange he was exposed to during the Vietnam War.

John and I dealt with the craziness of Susan Smith, the madness of the James Jordan death investigation, women at The Citadel, numerous hurricanes, video poker, lowering the Confederate flag, the Republican wave that took over state government ...

Fun times, those.

And through it all, I knew I could always go to John for advice and support. It helped that we both had been in charge, at separate times, of the AP's Rhode Island office. In recent years, he and I would often exchange emails chortling at the continued parade of buffoonery by R.I. politicians and lamenting the slow, painful decline of the Providence Journal, at one time one of America's best local papers -- but sometimes overlooked as it was in the umbra of the major-major metros of the East Coast.

He's best known in South Carolina for his efforts on behalf of freedom of information, an indefatigable defender of the right of the public to know what its government is doing. And I would hope that in his honor, the Legislature this year would finally pass many of the needed changes to South Carolina's FOI law that include a quicker review process, more reasonable costs and a clear and certain window in which time records must be produced. (And, of course, there is the need to overturn the state Supreme Court's troubling decisions on meeting agendas and autopsy reports.)

And as a result of his dedication, in the late 1990s the AP coordinated the first statewide FOI audit in South Carolina that found, as we put it at the time, agencies would get no better than a D if graded on the public schools' grading scale. We found all sorts of obfuscation and harassment, including police demanding IDs from and running the license plates of those requesting records. Sadly, things have only gotten worse.

That was John's public face.

But in the bureau, he was about as good a CoB (AP lingo for chief of bureau) that you could get. He was no more than 15 feet away in his glass-walled office, complete with the picture of his sailboat, his pride and joy, tossed onshore by Hurricane Hugo. (John got a replacement -- "another hole in the water into which you throw money" -- and he tried several times to get me to crew with him. But I always managed to avoid that -- his reputation as Captain Bligh was not entirely undeserved {grin}.)

 But John always gave you enough room to do your job.

Oh, there was no mistake he was paying attention, as evidenced by those occasional "got a minute" calls from the inner sanctum. But you could always count on the fact that when you needed the resources, John would blow out the budget and ask permission (or forgiveness) from AP's headquarters later.

Then there were the years when the AP bureau was like Switzerland, caught in the middle of the Columbia-Spartanburg-Greenville-Charleston newspaper war. There were some strong personalities involved, and afterward he and I would often joke about the S.C. Press Association meeting where the editors started challenging each other -- one had a tight grip on a chair he looked as if he were about to throw -- and John and I just knew, in horror, we were going to have to break up a fight. John, in his way, was able to calm everyone down.

And when the folks in New York thought they knew their jobs better than you, John never hesitated to remind them that -- under the old AP -- a CoB ultimately held the stronger hand and to back down.

That went so far as the AP's managing editor. A former ME who shall remain unidentified here (but every ex-APer knows) used to write a weekly review, a sort of after-action report, called "Dialogue." It was pretty much a one-way conversation, however. It praised "good" work and took bureaus to task when the ME or the general desk felt they had fallen short (often, as my fellow news editors observed, without asking for explanations).

After one winter ice storm, we got blasted. Long story short, our "story" was on the coast, where we knew high winds were blowing salt spray inland, shorting out numerous electrical transformers and leaving thousands dark. We had ice and some snow in the Upstate, but not as many people were affected - the storm that was panicking New York, which was expecting a direct hit, gave us only a glance. We were shorthanded, and I decided it would be foolhardy to call someone in on overtime and make them drive into those conditions. So we concentrated efforts on the coast and used the phones to gather some great material from the Upstate, so good that New York used two of the quotes in its national story. But we got nailed for not enough effort.

I wrote a lengthy challenge. But John summed it up with a short, pointed note to the ME: "Please cancel my subscription to Diatribe."

That was the kind of person, boss and colleague John was. He will be sorely missed. Karen's and my thoughts and condolences go out to his wife, Debbie. And I'm proud to have worked with a journalist's journalist.

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