Roger Wood, who died last November and whose memorial service will be held this morning at St. Thomas’s Church on Fifth Avenue in New York City, was the editor of the New York Post in the 1970s and 1980s who more than doubled his newspaper’s circulation and made the city’s journalism brasher, livelier, braver, and better.
His editorship was the era of the Post’s famous shock-horror headlines: “Headless Body in Topless Bar,” “Boy Gulps Gas, Explodes,” “Gadaffy Goes Daffy,” and “Eleven Dead and the Band Played On.”
Though these headlines were described as “neo-expressionist poetry” and worse, Roger would point out that they were no more than the literal facts of the case vividly expressed. It was just that he was an editor who pressed his reporters to pursue the facts of the case where other papers quailed or got squeamish. He was indeed the equal in imagination and drive of a Hearst or a Pulitzer.
Yet he looked anything but the part.
Always dressed in a blue blazer, fawn or grey slacks, and a white shirt (occasionally supplemented by an odd Victorian shawl), usually smiling amiably as he padded around the newsroom, addressing men as “dear boy” and women as “lovely one,” Roger would have seemed perfectly at home at the 19th hole of some suburban golf club in southern England.
Roger was indeed English, though born in Belgium and not speaking English until he was seven. He had a very English career to start with: wartime service in the RAF, Oxford, early journalistic training in the provinces, then a rapid rise on the Daily Express to the deputy editorship under the original press lord, Lord Beaverbrook.
One morning he received a summons to join Beaverbrook in the south of France. Arriving at his host’s villa, he was invited to join him on the terrace even before he could unpack. Beaverbrook greeted him with a copy of that morning’s editorial. It attacked one of the old man’s favorite politicians, but had fortunately been written not by Roger but by his editor.
“Do you know what I think of that editorial, Mr. Wood?” Beaverbrook asked.
“No sir,” Roger answered.
By way of reply, Beaverbrook threw the offending paper on the ground, jumped onto it, and began kicking it in a prolonged little dance that eventually reduced the editorial to tiny pieces of newsprint that drifted off in the breeze.
“Good morning, Mr. Wood, you are now the editor of the Daily Express,” Beaverbrook concluded. “Enjoy your trip back to London.”
Thus Roger became one of the youngest ever national-newspaper editors in history. Not surprisingly in these circumstances, however, he was also a short-lived editor. The period was known to classical scholars as “the year of the four editors.” He went on to head magazines and publishing enterprises in England and Australia.
By the time he arrived in America as editor of the Star, he had accumulated a great deal of journalistic and political experience. Outwardly he still seemed the amiable golf-club charmer. Only the piercing quality of his blue eyes and a certain crocodile quality about his smile indicated that here was a creature far more formidable even than the average graduate of the Fleet Street tabloids. Appointed editor of the Post just six months after Rupert Murdoch bought the paper, Wood very quickly stamped his authority on it — and within a year or two he was forcing other editors to scramble to keep up with him.
How so? Well, Roger saw three things about the New York journalism of the mid-1970s.
First, it was lazy, timid, conformist, and therefore spoon-fed. Coverage of both City Hall and Albany, let alone Washington, was reliant upon leaks by officials and politicians whose reward was favorable treatment. If New York had been well-run and successful, there might have been at least an excuse for such coverage. But it was actually sliding towards bankruptcy, crime, and chaos — and the people knew it even if the journos did not.
Roger appointed some first-class, aggressive reporters to the main political slots and then proceeded to harry them unmercifully. Within a very short time, the Post was getting scoops and pols were going to jail. Other papers had to follow suit.