Donald Forst, a veteran newsman who led New York Newsday and the Village Voice as they won Pulitzer Prizes and also helped resuscitate the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, died Saturday in Albany, N.Y. He was 81.
He had colon cancer, said his companion, Val Haynes.
Forst's journalism career started in the mid-1950s and included stints as cultural editor of the New York Times, assistant city editor of the New York Post and editor in chief of the Boston Herald. He also worked at more than a dozen other publications, including the Houston Press, Boston magazine and the New York Herald Tribune.
He was best known for the decade he spent as editor in chief at New York Newsday, where he nurtured reporters and columnists such as Jim Dwyer and Gail Collins before the paper folded in 1995. It was owned by Times Mirror Co., then the parent company of the Los Angeles Times.
Dwyer, who won a Pulitzer for commentary at New York Newsday in 1995, said that he and many others were "mentored, nurtured, prodded, tormented by Don into writing lively, accurate stories."
"He might send somebody to go live in an obscure village in the Dominican Republic for three months," said Dwyer, now a New York Times columnist. "He might send someone else to write about the subways three times a week because that was the defining experience of a New Yorker. He wanted to be first and exclusive with everything so he pushed and pushed and pushed."
Collins, now an op-ed Times columnist, said Forst "really believed in the life of the tabloid. He believed in that hard-news reporting. He believed in big headlines. He believed in newspapers for the common man."
Newsday's other Pulitzer under Forst's leadership was for coverage of a 1991 subway derailment that killed five passengers.
Forst's shrewd news judgment helped turn around moribund coverage at a number of underdog major-city dailies, including the Herald Examiner in the late 1970s and early 1980s under editor Jim Bellows.
As the Herald's executive editor, he had one of his first successes playing up the story of a hippo named Bubbles that had escaped from Lion Country Safari in Orange County. Although some staffers winced at the resources he threw into the story, the daily front-page coverage of the hunt for the wayward beast drove up readership and forced competitors, including the L.A. Times, to catch up.
"We were always the underdog at the Herald. Which allowed you to do anything — there were no restrictions on you," Forst said in Bellows' memoir "The Last Editor."
"There was nothing you couldn't do that was intelligent, witty and smart, and that the other guy would never do," Forst said, "because the other guy's stock in trade was conventional journalism, which can be boring as hell."
After New York Newsday folded, Forst surprised many by taking a job as editor in chief of the Voice, the alternative weekly then struggling for an identity. The Voice won a Pulitzer for international reporting for a series on AIDS in Africa in 2000.
Forst left the Voice in 2005, but Haynes said he continued to get up every morning and design a front page for a year and a half after that for his own enjoyment.
"He lived for newspapers and he lamented the death of the print newspaper," she said.
Born in 1932, Forst grew up in Brooklyn, where his father was a lawyer. He once said that he went into journalism because as an undergraduate at the University of Vermont a pretty coed was sitting behind the sign-up table for the campus newspaper. He later earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.
Forst spent the last seven years teaching journalism at the University at Albany, where he inspired a new generation of reporters.
Forst is survived by his wife, Starr Ockenga. He was formerly married to food writer Gael Greene.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times