In the 1980s, with politics swirling in the country and in newsrooms, John Foley maintained a pristine image as an exceptional newsman at the Los Angeles Times.
He was deputy managing editor of the newspaper, but he cared much less about titles than about guiding reporters to tell deep, thoughtful and literary stories that would earn a spot in Column One, a feature he created in 1968 that distinguished The Times from other leading news organizations.
Fifty years later, as the newspaper prepares to revive the beloved Column One that Foley nurtured, his impact on the newspaper and his reputation as a role model for the newsroom remains. He passed away of natural causes on Sept. 5 in a senior-living home in Azusa surrounded by loved ones, his family said. He was 94.
Put simply, “He was classy,” said Narda Zacchino, an author who was an associate editor when Foley was deputy managing editor. “He was a fine, fine journalist in his own right, and as a human being he was also exceptional … and a wonderful mentor.”
Foley was a politics editor during several presidential elections in the late 1970s and ’80s. He oversaw coverage of Watergate, the Los Angeles Olympics and helped create the Los Angeles Times Poll, which gathered and distributed the public’s opinion on political issues, said Robert Foley, one of his sons. Today it is the USC Dornsife/L.A. Times Poll.
He also led a redesign of the newspaper, including incorporating color to the front page for the first time, Robert Foley said.
Still, Column One stories— which veered from the daily breaking news coverage to tell in-depth original narratives placed prominently on the front page — were his trademark, Zacchino said.
Robert Scheer, a professor at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and former Column One writer, said Foley approached Column Ones as literary essays, giving each the attention they required to be developed into great stories.
“In the best sense of the word, he was professorial in my mind and a gentleman,” Scheer said.
But he never bragged about his accomplishments, said Robert Foley, who remembers hearing about his doings at The Times through others.
“I was just reading, in fact, a story about how in 1976 he got Jimmy Carter, who was the Democratic nominee for president, to come to The Times and speak to the editors of the paper. But I didn’t learn about that until 30 years later,” Robert Foley said. “He was very modest.”
When Foley wasn’t in the newsroom, he enveloped himself in nature and literature. He was an aspiring novelist before deciding journalism would give him and his family more stability, and instilled the importance of reading and current events in his children.
Mary Falabrino, one of Foley’s daughters, said she remembers asking her father to give the children a synopsis of the day’s news in the Watergate era.
“No, no. Go read the paper,” she remembers him telling her.
Upon his retirement in 1989, Foley built a house near Big Bear Lake where he spent his days fishing and boating, and volunteered for the area’s library as well as the Los Angeles Arboretum in Arcadia.
“On a softer side, he was really a person of character, always do the right thing and was really just a straight arrow,” Robert Foley said. “He never broke the rules.”
His character translated into his journalism. He didn’t gossip, he didn’t mix his personal life with his professional life or reveal his political preferences, and he wasn’t the type to participate in politics to rise up the ladder, Zacchino said. He was fair.
“Editing Column One stories and working with reporters was what made him happy in life,” she said.