Noel Greenwood, a former senior editor at the Los Angeles Times who helped shape local and California coverage as the newspaper outgrew its modest local ambitions and transformed itself into one of national stature, died Sunday at his Santa Barbara home. He was 75.
Greenwood had prostate cancer for seven years, said his daughter, Diana.
“He was from the old swashbuckling school of journalism,” said Times Sacramento columnist George Skelton. “What he would always tell me was ‘You know more about this stuff than the people you’re interviewing — so just say it.’ He didn’t pull any punches.”
Greenwood’s forthrightness could buoy the reporters he mentored and sting those who got on his wrong side.
“He was a phenomenally demanding — a wonderfully demanding — editor,” said David Freed, a former Times reporter who now writes mystery novels. When Freed first went after a job on the Metro staff, Greenwood met with him for only a few minutes before telling the eager applicant that his writing had “a certain immaturity.”
“I didn’t know what that meant, but it was burned indelibly into my brain,” said Freed, who was hired by Greenwood about a year later. “I owe him immeasurably for helping me become the journalist I became.”
William F. Thomas, who was editor of The Times from 1972 to 1989, called Greenwood “a force in the newsroom.”
“He could be thorny, but he had more firepower than any 10 other people,” Thomas said.
Born in Providence, R.I., on Oct. 14, 1937, Noel Edward Greenwood moved to San Jose with his parents when he was in high school. He attended San Jose State, where his first brush with the news business was a part-time job at the printing plant that put out the school paper.
His first full-fledged reporting job was with the Goleta Gazette-Citizen in 1958. He worked for newspapers in Banning, Reno and Las Vegas before landing at The Times’ Westside edition in 1967.
At the time, the paper was undergoing a metamorphosis spurred by publisher Otis Chandler.
Greenwood later recalled being a new reporter when a lengthy, impressionistic 1967 Times piece by a colleague on San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district was met with hoots of derision in the newsroom but set an exciting tone for the complex, long-form journalism that Greenwood later encouraged.
“The older reporters … thought that the newspaper had gone down the toilet,” Greenwood told The Times’ David Shaw in 1989, but he felt differently. It was “a shot fired across the bow” of traditional, who-what-when-where-why newspapering, he said.
Greenwood worked his way up the editorial rungs, becoming an assistant Metro editor in 1974 and Metro editor in 1981.
In 1983, he was named deputy managing editor and placed in charge of city, suburban and Sacramento operations as well as editions in Orange and San Diego counties. Passed over in a bid to succeed Thomas as editor in 1989, he was named senior editor in 1990 and left the paper two years later.
Over the years, Greenwood felt The Times was retreating from the grand vision laid out by Chandler, who stepped down in 1980. Urging staffers to accept the reality of strained budgets, he made a typically colorful remark: “Otis has gone surfing and he’s never coming back.”
During Greenwood’s tenure, he sparked a newsroom initiative for training minority journalists, which, after 29 years, The Times still runs. He also helped supervise efforts that won The Times a number of Pulitzer Prizes, including a 1993 award for spot news coverage of the riots that erupted after the Rodney King trial.
Since leaving The Times, Greenwood lived in the Santa Barbara area, editing nonfiction books that often were the work of former reporters. They include “In My Father’s Name,” a 1996 account by former Times reporter Mark Arax of his father’s murder; “Management of the Absurd,” a 1997 business book by Richard Farson; and Bella Stumbo’s “Until the Twelfth of Never,” a 1993 exploration of the Betty Broderick murder case in San Diego.
Greenwood was briefly married in 1983 to Stumbo, who was one of his reporters. She died in 2002.
He is survived by two daughters, Diana Greenwood and Darci Knight, from a previous marriage to Sally Orr; and three grandchildren.
In 2008, Greenwood’s home burned in a brush fire that swept the Montecito area. He had about 20 minutes to cram what he could into his car, returning two days later to find his house in ashes. He rebuilt it on the same site with the same distinctive, octagonal footprint.
Long after he left daily newspapers, he loved to tell stories about his days in the newsroom. He bemoaned the “absurd and horrific” changes that he believed came to the Times when its corporate owners, Tribune Co., acquired it in 2000, his daughter Diana said.
“With Dad,” she said, “everything started with newspapers and ended with newspapers.”
Bob Rawitch, a former Times reporter and editor, spoke with Greenwood about a week before his death.
“He was upbeat, he was sarcastic, he was his old, irascible self,” Rawitch said. “He wanted to know what was going on at The Times and who was going to buy it. ‘What have you heard?’ he asked.”