Roger Wood: Journalist who went to the United States and revived the 'New York Post'

 

Roger Wood was the debonair editor of the New York Post during the first decade of Rupert Murdoch's ownership. He had arrived in New York in 1975 just before Murdoch bought the Post for $30m in 1976. He was hired as executive editor in July 1977 and his Fleet Street background – he had been the youngest ever editor of the Daily Express, under Lord Beaverbrook – ensured a feisty portrayal of a city in decline, with debts mounting and crime rampant.

Wood guided the paper through nine years of upheaval: Son of Sam's murderous rampage, the mysterious disappearance of the Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, the birth of Studio 54 and three terms of Ed Koch, whose mayoral bid Wood had supported. The flamboyant Democrat often said later that it was Wood and the Post who won him the election. (In fact Wood's politics ran more to the right – he famously endorsed Ronald Reagan for President, a brave move in a Democratic city, and later initially dismissed Barack Obama as another Jimmy Carter.)

Under Wood, the Post's circulation swelled from 400,000 to nearly 1m. (His success led Murdoch to ask him to take on the Chicago Sun Times as well). While most local media shrank from the city's squalid reality, the Post under Wood never blinked. "Headless Body in Topless Bar" was a now legendary headline about a crazed killer who murdered the owner of a bar in Queens then took customers hostage, ordering one to cut off the owner's head. A teenager's suicide inspired the headline "Boy Gulps Gas, Explodes." When the audience stampeded at a concert by the Who in Cincinnati, the headline stated, "Eleven Dead and the Band Played On." Another headline, "Granny Executed in Her Pink Pajamas", spoke for itself.

The concision and dark humour sold but Wood's real passion was the gossip on Page 6. The Page 6 editor James Brady recalled Wood fiddling with its content; he suggested that Wood should really be writing headlines. Wood replied, "But my dear boy, people believe Page 6. They don't believe the headlines."

He loved to say that "People sell the paper; unlike many other editors he much preferred the company of his family and friends to the party circuit. He was born an identical twin, the younger by seven minutes, in Antwerp in 1925. He spent his first seven years there until his English father Fred decided to look for work back in England with his Belgian wife Jeanne Marie Henriette Raskin, known as Bebon, who he had met while serving in the First World War. When they arrived in England the twins spoke no English but within a year Wood and his brother Victor were top of their class.

Wood served in the RAF in the Second World War, changing from pilot duties to navigator so he could join Victor, who was being trained as navigator in Canada. Later Wood was sent to guard German POWs in Cairo and at war's end the twins returned separately to London, meeting again in a chance encounter during a concert at the Albert Hall.

Wood went on to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics at New College, Oxford, where he and Victor – who attended Jesus College – were cross country runners. Victor recalled one race in which Roger was ahead but let him catch up so they could cross the line together – probably the only time Wood was content to be joint first, since the dog-eat-dog world of Fleet Street was soon to hone his already competitive streak.

After the Express there was a stint at Hugh Cudlipp's Daily Herald – its slogan was "Born of the Age We Live in" – and he then joined IPC as publisher of Woman magazine. A major restructuring of the women's magazine division gave a single publishing director to each of the four multi-million selling women's weeklies on the understanding that they would not compete (for advertising in particular) with each other. All four publishers agreed, but it soon became clear that one of them at least was going to do whatever he could to beat of the other three, resulting in the demise of the restructuring plan."I remember Wood smiling cheekily at me when I wagged a finger at him some time later," Reed recalled. "He said: 'Well, it was never going to work so I just did what I had to do; I got in first...'"

When IPC bought 50 per cent of Fairfax, the Sydney Morning Herald group, Wood went out to Sydney to take over its four magazines, building the portfolio to 14, starting with Dolly, a teenage magazine he conceived when he discovered that half the population of Australia was under 15. He also launched Pol, a literary mag, for which he hired Germaine Greer as an honorary editor in 1972 when The Female Eunuch was published. When Wood was asked what he thought of the new woman's movement, he said: "It will only make women more interesting."

Wood's people skills endeared everyone to him. His male friends were "Dear Boy" while all females were "Lovely One". Murdoch paid tribute to him: "Roger was intelligent and charming. He will be remembered by all who worked with him as one of our great editors."

Everything and everyone was interesting to Wood and he always seemed to be quietly in the right place at the right time –though he didn't like broadcasting his movements. His parting shot at the end of each day when he handed the New York Post over to the back bench, was "If you need me, I'll call you…"

Wood, who died of cancer, is survived by his third wife and companion of over 40 years, Pat Miller.

Sarah Miller

Roger Wood, journalist: born Antwerp, Belgium 4 October 1925; married three times (one son, two stepdaughters); died New York 2 November 2012.

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