The top editor of USA Today announced her early and immediate retirement yesterday, days before the expected public release of a critical report detailing how the paper's former foreign correspondent Jack Kelley was able to deceive editors and readers in print for years.
In an e-mail to USA Today's staffers, Editor Karen Jurgensen, 55, said she regretted not identifying problems with Kelley's reporting earlier.
"Like all of us who worked with Jack Kelley, I wish we had caught him far sooner than we did," Jurgensen wrote. "The sad lessons learned by all in this dreadful situation will make USA Today a stronger, better newspaper. My goal long has been to make USA Today a lasting institution for the forces of good in the country because journalism is daily service to readers."
In January, Kelley was forced to resign from USA Today after he was found to have deceived editors when defending an article he wrote about war crimes in the Balkans. His departure cut short that internal inquiry which was prompted by an anonymous complaint last spring. But it provoked critical media coverage and dismay among journalists at the newspaper, which has the largest circulation of any U.S. daily.
On March 18, USA Today published a package of stories by a team of reporters working with a panel led by the newspaper's founding editorial director, John Seigenthaler, that detailed dozens of examples of plagiarism by Kelley and frequent instances of outright fabrication and embellishment. Publisher Craig Moon, who is expected to announce further findings made by the Seigenthaler panel about management lapses, praised what he called Jurgensen's meticulous work to improve the paper's design and presentation. "Karen's retirement opens the door to move the USA Today brand forward under new leadership," he wrote in an e-mail sent to the newsroom staff.
In recent articles, The Sun has reported several episodes - dating back to 1997 - in which Kelley's colleagues warned USA Today editors that they did not trust reporting done by him. The reporter, now 43, had been with the newspaper since his graduation from the University of Maryland's journalism school in 1982 - and before it had even published an issue. He was USA Today's employee of the year in 2001 and in the following year became the newspaper's sole Pulitzer Prize finalist for reporting. His wife, Jacki, remains USA Today's senior vice president for advertising.
Colleagues said Kelley was soft-spoken in person but he proved swashbuckling in print, presenting himself as the eyewitness to dramatic events such as a bombing in Jerusalem and an attempted escape from Cuba. Those electrifying accounts did not stand up to scrutiny.
Jurgensen is the first prominent casualty from the Kelley scandal, but it is not clear if she will be the last, according to staffers there.
"Nobody knows what comes next," said senior reporter Mark Memmott, a former deputy managing editor who had once overseen Kelley and was assigned to investigate Kelley's work last year. "It's very sad if Jack Kelley's legacy is to tear down the careers of some very fine journalists who - like I did - made some mistakes but also did an enormous amount of good work here."
Some staffers, however, say they are angry because senior editors had failed to listen to Kelley's skeptical peers. If Jurgensen's departure marks the last change in the senior editing ranks, veteran reporter Tom Squitieri said, "The editor who is least responsible for Jack Kelley is the one who has to leave, and that's wrong."
Squitieri, who has traveled widely abroad for USA Today, said he approached Memmott on several occasions with concerns with Kelley's reporting. In 1999, as Squitieri argued that he should be sent to cover conflict in Serbia, Memmott said Kelley would go, and dismissed Squitieri's objections as jealousy, according to Squitieri.
"Clearly, it was shown to me that no one was interested in hearing this stuff," Squitieri said. And now, he said, "I see no evidence of people willing to take responsibility for anything here other than to put the blame on others."
Memmott said yesterday that he did not recall any specific complaints from Squitieri - or anyone else - about Kelley's work, other than standard questions that crop up during the reporting process. Squitieri "didn't tell me anything explicit," Memmott said. "I wish he had."
Like Kelley, Jurgensen arrived at USA Today in 1982 as one of the founding members of the newsroom staff - in her case, after stints at newspapers in Charlotte, N.C., and Miami. She held a series of increasingly senior roles, including editorial page editor, and became top news executive in May 1999.
She ended her written remarks yesterday to staffers: "I am grateful to the staff for giving readers an increasingly better daily newspaper over the past few years. And I am honored to have worked with such talented, committed journalists. The new leadership will help the staff to turn this event into an opportunity to further our progress."