In Memoriam: Cole Campbell

This weekend I heard the news that Cole Campbell, dean of the school of journalism at University of Nevada, Reno, was killed Friday when his car overturned on an icy road. Every once in a while you realize we’ve lost someone special who made a true impression on the world, someone who will be remembered for years to come. Cole was such an individual. He was a good friend. During the 1990s when the newspaper industry heard the call to change its ways, Cole was at the forefront of change. I worked with him during his leadership at the Virginian Pilot and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Some people are smart; he was brilliant. He always ran to embrace the toughest issues – such as the nexus between the role of newspapers and civic health; between the noble traditions of journalism and their applications to Web 2.0; between ethics and winning. Recently I was on a panel at the National Archives which Cole moderated. No one I know could cut through the maze of chatter and create a sense of meaning faster or better than Cole. For me, Cole stole the show that day. So many people came up to me afterwards to talk about his performance. But for Cole his engagement was neither unusual nor a performance. Indeed those in attendance were witness to just the very tip of his talents.

Cole also had a strong current of integrity running through him.

But, of course, some people were more ready to see his foibles. He pushed for change so hard that he could overwhelm people he worked with. He ended up in a relationship with a direct report at one paper which cost him dearly. It was said sometimes that he was too conceptual, too smart for his own good, too far out in front of colleagues. After Cole left thePost-Dispatch, finding the right job was not easy.

And yet each of these experiences made his sense of integrity even more alive and real. You see, Cole deeply understood the meaning of integrity. He knew it from growing up as a preacher’s son. He knew it from being tested by the mistakes he had made and then quietly searching for personal redemption. He knew it because so many people had told him that change was not possible; but he discovered that it was if he would stick by his convictions.

A lot of time is spent by people in our society trying to conform. We all do it. But in Cole Campbell we found that rare individual who was willing to step out of line and reach for his aspirations. That doesn’t always make for an easy ride; but it does make the journey ever more worthwhile.

You will be truly missed Cole Campbell.