DALLAS — Burl Osborne, who led The Dallas Morning News to a come-from-behind victory in one of the last great newspaper wars, died late Wednesday at University of Texas Southwestern University Hospital-St. Paul. He was 75.
Osborne woke up not feeling well Wednesday. His death was not related to his kidney transplants, his family said.
During 21 years under his guidance, The News gained national prominence, collected a string of Pulitzer Prizes and set a benchmark for profitability in the newspaper industry.
He devoted his adult life to journalism in positions from reporter to managing editor at The Associated Press and from executive editor to publisher at The News. He was chairman of the AP board after leaving The News in 2001.
In 1966 — when he was 29 — Osborne made news by being the third recipient anywhere of an experimental anti-rejection technique for a kidney transplant.
“Burl Osborne was one of the finest journalists of his generation, in this country and worldwide,” said Robert W. Decherd, chairman, president and chief executive officer of A. H. Belo Corp. “He reinvigorated The Dallas Morning News as its executive editor in the early 1980s and as publisher, Burl charted The News’ emergence as one of America’s truly distinguished newspapers.
“As chairman of The Associated Press beginning in 2002, Burl led the AP’s transition to becoming one of the most influential Internet media organizations. Most importantly, Burl was a person of unquestioned integrity whose determination and personal strength set the standard for colleagues and friends throughout his life.”
Osborne was “a spokesman for excellence in journalism,” said Gregory Favre, distinguished fellow in journalism values at The Poynter Institute.
“I admired him greatly, he was a leader in our profession,” Favre said. “He was obviously recognized by his peers — both editors and publishers — for leadership positions in those organizations.”
Osborne was born in Jenkins, Ky., a coal town with fewer than 700 people near the Virginia border. His father strung communications lines between mineshafts and the coal-company operation on the surface. When he was 6, Osborne moved with his family to Ashland, Ky., where his father became a line supervisor for General Telephone.
He was diagnosed as having kidney disease when he was an elementary school student. He believed the condition destined him to die prematurely.
The first member of his family to attend college, Osborne began studying engineering at what is now Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., across the Ohio River from Ashland. He soon found a major and a career in journalism.
He worked for the Ashland Independent, while he studied journalism. He graduated in 1960 and started his career at the No. 3 television station in the then three-station Huntington market.
Later in 1960, Osborne became the Associated Press’ one-man bureau in Bluefield, W.Va.
In 1964, Osborne was named head of the AP bureau in Spokane, Wash., a chance assignment that would soon save his life.
A few weeks after he arrived in Spokane Osborne became ill. He was told he had end-stage renal disease, grave news in 1964. But Spokane was one of the few places where researchers were experimenting with dialysis treatments. Dr. Peter Ivanovich, medical director for the Spokane dialysis center, oversaw Osborne’s treatment, including reviving the young journalist from a cardiac arrest one night.
By 1966, Osborne’s condition was worsening under dialysis. Ivanovich happened to know Dr. Thomas Starzl, a Colorado doctor now considered the father of modern transplantation.
“I reached the conclusion that I’d rather risk a transplant,” Osborne later recounted. “I thought, ‘Really there’s not much hope, so why don’t I do this?’’’
On July 27, 1966, Osborne received a kidney from his mother, Juanita Osborne. Juanita Osborne died in 2009.
In 1994, doctors recommended that Osborne replace the aging kidney he had received from his mother as a preventive measure. His brother, David Osborne of Ashland, Ky., gave him a kidney and a bone marrow transplant to reduce the need for anti-rejection drugs. Osborne was the first patient to receive both a kidney and bone marrow from a living donor.
In 1997, Osborne received the first Organ Transplant Pioneer Hero Award from the International Society of Artificial Internal Organs. The award has since been renamed in his honor.
His health restored by the first transplant in 1966, Osborne resumed his career, which took him rapidly up the corporate ladder at AP. He had increasingly important assignments in Denver, Louisville and Washington, before being named managing editor of the wire service’s worldwide news operations in 1977.
But in 1980, his career took a dramatic shift into the world of a daily metropolitan daily caught in the midst of one of the nation’s hottest newspaper wars. After 20 years with the AP, he was named executive editor of The Dallas Morning News.
Osborne had little newspaper experience, but liked the idea of orchestrating construction of a great newspaper.
“In the late 1970s or early 1980s, you may recall, we were in one of our periodic self-flagellation cycles were we were all worrying about whether newspapers were going to be around another 10 years,” he said in an oral history of his life. “To hear a discussion about how to build a great one was, I thought, a very inspiring kind of discussion.”
Osborne said he decided to leave the security of the wire service “and go roll the dice in Dallas.”
His move was a bold one. At the time, The News was in a fierce competition with the Dallas Times Herald, owned by Times-Mirror Corp., a much larger company with more financial resources.
The News had more total circulation in Texas, but The Herald sold more newspapers in Dallas County. Osborne led The News to win one of the greatest newspaper battles of the late 20th century. Belo purchased the Herald’s assets in December 1991.
Osborne was also respected by his competitors, including Tim Kelly, former deputy managing editor of The Dallas Times Herald.
“Anyone who ever underestimated Burl Osborne did so at his or her own risk,” said Kelly of Lexington, Ky. “Burl a battler in life, due to his kidney issues, and also in his long and distinguished career.
“Burl was one of my early role models as a fellow Ashlander and journalist. He was a polite but fierce competitor when we were on opposite sides of the Dallas newspaper war and eventually became someone I saw as a friend and valued sounding board.
“I am greatly saddened to hear of his death.”
George Rodrigue, the managing editor of The News, recalled his influence on a Pulitzer Prize winner.
“Burl had allowed Craig Flournoy and me to pursue a story about segregation and discrimination in public housing. He’d let us follow that story from Dallas to East Texas to the entire nation.” Rodrigue said.
He said the project expanded from a week to a year and a half with multiple stories.
“It was a huge investment, and Craig and I worried about whether the final versions of our stories would be good enough for him. We also worried that he might think we had written the stories too aggressively.
“Burl came down to the newsroom, read the top of the first day’s main story, and said, ‘Can you make it tougher?’”
“We did, and the series won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting,” he said. “It was the paper’s first, and I think that Burl took great pride in it — deservedly so, since without his support we’d never have been able to spend the time or money necessary to tell the story right.”