Tacoma loses its editor — Randy McCarthy was the unseen force behind our biggest stories

Randy McCarthy and Karen Peterson discuss a story about a same-sex wedding at the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island during a meeting in Peterson’s office, Oct. 28, 2013.
Randy McCarthy and Karen Peterson discuss a story about a same-sex wedding at the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island during a meeting in Peterson’s office, Oct. 28, 2013. News Tribune file photo

“Less talking, more typing!”

The barked directive rings in the ears of every reporter who worked in The News Tribune newsroom for the past 30 years. It came from Randy McCarthy, longtime editor, who died Jan. 19 of pancreatic cancer, a month after the unexpected diagnosis.

He was 66, and he was ours.

His name was little known to readers, and he was just fine with that. He still deserves an honored title: Tacoma’s editor.

McCarthy directed coverage of countless news events, mapping out assignments on a whiteboard, deploying reporters, gathering and synthesizing ideas and angles. If news is a symphony, he was a conductor.

“Randy was maybe the best I’ve worked with at taking the germ of a story idea and turning it into something grandiose for readers,” said Karen Peterson, former executive editor of The News Tribune. “He had the drive and the skill to guide everything from the reporting and writing to the editing, headlines and design — and he threw his whole heart into it.

“The results? Relentless investigations after Tacoma Police Chief David Brame killed his wife and himself in 2003. Daily poster-sized pictures of magnificent rigs during the Tall Ships Festivals. Pages of breaking news coverage the morning after four Lakewood police officers were gunned down in 2009. And a coffee-table book showcasing the building of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.”

Such stories provide evidence of his influence. Those who worked with him remember little things: his constant grin, his attire (always black sweaters or blue shirts), and the way he answered his phone with a one-word chirp: “McCarthy.”

Hard-nosed editors litter the history of journalism to the point of cliche. He fit the prototype, but he was no cigar chomper. He didn’t stash a bottle of bourbon in his desk. His fidgety blend of belligerence and warmth was all his own.

He managed up and down with equal agility. He could calm angry bosses and inspire young journalists to punch above their weight.

Randy McCarthy Dean J. Koepfler News Tribune file photo

On a typical morning, he might greet reporters and higher-ranking editors with the same teasing, impatient query: “What now?”

The question, somehow surly and sweet at the same time, typified his style.

“It sounded gruff on the exterior if you didn’t know him,” said David Zeeck, former News Tribune publisher and executive editor. “But everybody who worked with him knew that was shorthand for, ‘Get to the point, I got a lot to do here, let’s get to business right now,’ because he had a thousand things he was working on. I love that.”

Faded notebook pages taped to a pillar near his desk include some of his greatest hits: quotes written down by laughing co-workers. The most recent, dated Dec. 13 of last year, is vintage McCarthy: “The best edit is usually ‘delete.’ “

His real first name was Don, but no one called him that and few knew it. Born in 1952, he grew up in Fairfield, Illinois, a small town in the southern part of the state.

His high school teacher, Margaret Thacker, introduced him to journalism and talked him into writing for the school paper, The Brayer (the school mascot was a mule). McCarthy’s wife, Lisa Kremer, a former News Tribune reporter and now an attorney, said the news bug bit in those early days and never let go.

“He said everything he knew about journalism, he learned from Mrs. Thacker, until he met David Zeeck,” Kremer said. “Those were the two big mentors of his journalism career.”

McCarthy majored in journalism at Southern Illinois University and became something of a prodigy. The Idaho Statesman in Boise hired him as a copy editor before he graduated. He was promoted to city editor in his 20s and gained a reputation as a wildman: the Boy Editor who hopped from desk to desk without touching the floor and rode a bicycle through the newsroom.

His roots in journalism predated the Watergate scandal, but his career began as President Richard Nixon resigned. McCarthy knew the story inside and out. The film “All the President’s Men” would become a touchstone. Years later, memorized quotes delivered by co-workers could still send him cackling.

His favorite scenes depicted dogged work: reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein sifting through note cards at the Library of Congress, and Bernstein waiting all day to speak to a source.

“He really believed in the power of people affecting government,” Kremer said. “He believed in journalism’s watchdog role.”

McCarthy spent 10 years in Boise, then three more at the Spokane Spokesman-Review before joining The News Tribune in 1987. He started as a page designer, working evening shifts.

“They did not know the magic they had back there,” Kremer said. “But they eventually figured it out.”

He liked old movies, classic cars and watching racing. He owned a small procession of vehicles, but his favorite might have been a 1977 Datsun 280Z, which he drove into the ground. At one point, it was stolen, and later found on the grounds of what was then Fort Lewis, stripped. McCarthy was distraught.

“He said the problem wasn’t that the car was stolen and stripped,” Kremer said. “It was kidnapped and raped.”

In the early 1990s, he became a de facto assistant city editor. Around the same time, he met Kremer, then a rookie reporter. They married in 1998 and capped the ceremony with go-cart racing.

By then, McCarthy was already a fixture, the go-to editor on big breaking news, which suited his nature.

“The thing he reminds me most of is something like a lieutenant or sergeant in the infantry,” Zeeck said. “Those are the people who, if you’re getting shot at, they can organize people to do their jobs and fight and survive.

“When you had the biggest stories or the most complex stories, Randy was always the center of gravity. He wanted quality — it had to be right and it had to be good — but he was kind of a born newsroom dad. He could get you to to eat your peas and do the hard job, but in a way that engendered more respect. You loved him for it.”

Breaking news was his favorite meat, but he also knew readers liked dessert. He didn’t brag about the many investigative projects he steered, but he loved to cite a 1994 story about Chester the cat, who got stuck at the top of an 80-foot tree. McCarthy insisted on front-page treatment with a picture.

An amateur drummer, McCarthy edited with cadence, searching for backbeat and flow. A pen or pencil in his hand became a drumstick, banging out rhythms only he could hear.

A procession of reporters, young and old, sat at his shoulder as he shuffled paragraphs like a street magician, moving key points closer to the top of the story, demolishing overwrought writerly transitions at lightning speed.

“I think it panicked young reporters when they first started working with him — he’d just tear it apart,” Zeeck said. “But then they’d see it made a lot more sense.”

A newsroom joke came from the late Joseph Turner, one of the few News Tribune scribes who could match McCarthy’s irascibility. Turner cracked that McCarthy would have distilled the ancient and already brief postal service creed to a bullet list:

  • Rain

  • Snow

  • Sleet

  • Gloom of night

Pierce County Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer worked with McCarthy for two decades. He remembers starting out and getting a crash course in journalism 101 from Tacoma’s editor.

“It was a full time job with him teaching me how to work with you guys,” Troyer said. “We always managed to figure it out. He was a really trusted guy to me and someone I could go to in the industry and ask for advice. He was very fair with everybody. Sometimes he had to be the Switzerland and the negotiator, between not just me, but other organizations and his writers.”

Troyer, often embroiled in the chaos of late-breaking incidents, recalled telling McCarthy he sometimes needed a guaranteed way to reach a live reporter instead of voicemail hell.

McCarthy shared a sacred internal number reporters would always answer, known to few: the Batphone, a receiver by his desk, literally adorned with a rubber bat. Answering it and hearing Troyer’s voice, more than one annoyed reporter wondered how he got the number, not realizing McCarthy was the source.

Overseeing high-stakes stories, he kept a low profile. During tense interviews with public officials responding to tough coverage, he would sit to one side, speaking rarely, always listening.

At times, his eyes would droop, giving a deceptive impression of boredom. This was a ruse. Often, after hearing carefully crafted answers, he would cut in with a gut-level question. All eyes would turn, and the official might stammer a reply.

His anger came rarely, erupting like a solar flare. The newsroom would hush as necks craned to see what was going on. One target was an innocent office chair, sent skittering by McCarthy’s frustration with internal bureaucracy.

He had no patience for slacking. That was where “less talking, more typing” came in, when he noticed reporters on deadline (including this one) procrastinating with gossip as the clock ticked. Sometimes, faced with excuses, the mantra lengthened: “I don’t want to hear your whining — I want to hear your typing.”

He softened as he grew older — especially after his two daughters, Nora and Emma, were born in 2002 and 2004. The wildman turned into a mushy dad, a transformation few predicted.

He let the girls paint his fingernails. The gruff breaking news editor escorted them to Broadway musicals and even confessed to liking show tunes.

He told Kremer he had accomplished most of what he hoped to achieve in journalism. Now he had different goals.

“He went on every single field trip, save one, that each of those kids had,” Kremer said. “It was just the joy of his life. From 50 on he just wanted to have the best possible family life.”

As illness overtook him in December and January, confining him at home, colleagues and friends visited, sharing stories and smiles. One was Adam Lynn, a longtime reporter, now an editor. For a decade and a half, he sat one chair away from McCarthy, trading barbs and vetting the news of the day.

“Randy and I worked together for almost 16 years,” Lynn said. “We worked on thousands of stories and wrote a screenplay together. He was a natural-born storyteller and had an ear for language, no doubt about it. What made him special to me was something else: his ability to hear the humanity in a story — mine, a source’s, even his own. He was a master listener. I think as human beings, that’s what we most want: someone to listen to us. That’s why he could relate to almost everyone and almost everyone could relate to him. I’ll miss that ear most of all.”

Though some friends already knew, Executive Editor Dale Phelps delivered the formal news of McCarthy’s death in a Jan. 22 email to staffers.

“It feels hard to move forward today, but I can almost hear Randy telling us to get on with it,” he wrote.

“And we will. It just won’t be easy.”

News Tribune investigative reporter Sean Robinson won the 2016 Ted Natt First Amendment award for ongoing scrutiny of the Pierce County Prosecutor’s office. Since 2000, he has produced award-winning coverage related to criminal justice, government accountability and public disclosure.