John Brownell, Times News Executive, Dies

John Brownell, the youngest journalist in the history of the Los Angeles Times ever to become a top newsroom executive, died Saturday.

Brownell was 33 when he died at Sherman Oaks Community Hospital.

Before his condition became terminal, he had written a note to his colleagues at the paper in which he expressed gratitude for “your heartfelt expression of support and caring . . . both during my hospitalization for complications of AIDS and my recuperation here at home. I am sorry I cannot thank each of you personally, but I want you to know how deeply appreciative I am. . . . .”

Brownell’s most recent promotion--to deputy managing editor--came in February of this year and was the latest in a chain of advancements that began shortly after he came to The Times in 1980.


At his death, Brownell was in charge of “Column One,” developing ideas and editing the offerings for the Page 1 feature which the paper considers its daily showpiece.

Shelby Coffey III, editor and executive vice president of The Times, said: “John Brownell’s career was one of early promise fulfilled and later promise cut tragically short.

“He had great abilities as an editor. He overhauled ongoing sections of the paper and helped create a new one, World Report. He invigorated revered features like Column One and The Times Poll.

“He was a rare catalyst, both innovative and diplomatic. He made things happen and he had a sense of humor. He had a short season here, but a superb one.”


As deputy managing editor, Brownell not only oversaw the editing and writing of Column One material from around the world but was responsible for the paper’s polling operations which most recently involved interviews with hundreds of Muscovites on the eve of the Gorbachev-Bush summit.

I. A. (Bud) Lewis, who directs The Times Poll, said he was “shocked and terribly saddened” by Brownell’s death.

“He was stimulating to work with,” said Lewis. “He was a brilliant young man, and I thought he had an unlimited future at The Times.”

Brownell also coordinated “enterprise reporting,” where staffers are encouraged to generate their own, unassigned, ideas for stories.


Born in St. Charles, Minn., Brownell began in newspapers as a copy editor at the Chicago Tribune while still a senior at Northwestern University, where he graduated in 1978.

In 1979, he moved to the copy desk of the Milwaukee Journal and then later that year to the Minneapolis Star. In 1980, he came to the National Desk of The Times where he became a news editor and telegraph editor.

In 1983, he was asked to go to The Times Washington Bureau as assignment editor where he helped determine which of the dozens of stories that surface in the nation’s capital each day would carry a Times byline.

He took pride and delight in solidifying those assignments early each morning while his counterparts in Los Angeles were still battling freeway traffic on their way to work.


Jack Nelson, The Times Washington bureau chief, said: “I considered Brownell a superb editor with the potential to become a great editor. He had the rare ability to work with and lead older, much more experienced, correspondents. He fully understood issues and helped keep The Times in front of the news.

“In Washington, he was widely admired as a person and as a journalist.” In 1986, Brownell was recalled to Los Angeles as senior editor of The Times Magazine, helping to redefine content and style, and then was made editor of the View section in 1987.

His success there in adding to the variety of the section’s scope while simultaneously expanding the writing and editing staff, led to his advancement to assistant managing editor in 1989. He was still at an age when most newspapermen were only beginning to make their mark.

George Cotliar, The Times managing editor and Brownell’s immediate supervisor, reflected on their association:


“There are so many facets involved in producing a newspaper the size of The Times each day that few have mastered them in their entirety. John was one of the very few who was comfortable with the words, the graphics, the production . . . the electronics. Although I had worked with him only briefly, I had come to rely on him greatly.”

Brownell is survived by his parents, Melvin and Ann Brownell, and one sister and five brothers, of St. Charles, Minn.

Funeral and burial will be in St. Charles. At Brownell’s request, a memorial service will be scheduled in Los Angeles.