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Maxwell McCrohon (1928–2004)

by Stuart Revill and Gavin Souter

Like other Australian journalists of his generation, Maxwell McCrohon was exposed early to American journalism. In his case it was love at first sight – the attraction was strong, permanent and would prove to be mutual.

After World War II, Fleet Street was no longer the only overseas destination for ambitious young Australian reporters and in 1951 The Sydney Morning Herald sent the 22-year-old McCrohon to its bureau in New York.

During the next half-century, until he died in Washington this month aged 76, McCrohon reached some of the highest levels of editorial management in the United States. At various times he was editor of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and editor-in-chief of the United Press International wire service.

McCrohon spent most of his childhood at Walla Walla, near Albury. After secondary education at Canterbury Boys High School (where two other future journalists, Phillip Knightley and Murray Sayle, were fellow students), he joined the Herald, first as a proofreader, then a cadet journalist, shipping reporter and foreign correspondent.

When he arrived in New York he found it to be every bit the "wonderful town" then being extolled by Frank Sinatra at the Paramount Theatre, next door to The New York Times building.

McCrohon covered the victory of the Australian boxer Dave Sands over Carl "Bobo" Olsen at Madison Square Garden. He covered the United Nations, became a discerning reader of the New York and out-of-town papers, and interviewed John Steinbeck and actors such as Bette Davis and Spencer Tracy. Towards the end of his four-year term he married a nurse, Nancy Wilson.

Back in Sydney, he spent three years on The Sun-Herald before returning to the US in 1958. The McCrohons settled in Chicago, where Max had found a job on the Chicago American, the once lively afternoon sister to the morning Chicago Tribune.

Over the next decade McCrohon did nearly every important editorial job at the American, including – thanks to his Australian passport – a spell as Havana correspondent, a byline denied US-born journalists during the Cuban crisis. He played a major role in redesigning the paper from broadsheet to tabloid and in changing its approach to news, feature-writing and display.

The new paper, renamed Chicago Today, appeared in 1969 and a few months later McCrohon became its managing editor. Circulation rose, but Today's advertising revenue still ran a distant fourth to its competitors. It ceased publication in 1973.

Even so, the makeover had been so well received by readers and the newspaper industry that in 1972 McCrohon was appointed managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, another old-timer in need of change.

As right-hand man to the editor, Clayton Kirkpatrick, McCrohon made the layout more flexible and less dense, rationalised the news pages and initiated a "sectional revolution", an example to be followed by many other papers.

"This used to be a very reader-unfriendly newspaper," recalled one of McCrohon's colleagues. "It was spinach journalism: you're going to read this paper whether you like it or not. Max was the guy who had the vision of what to do, and that vision was to remember the readers."

When Kirkpatrick became president of the company in 1979, McCrohon, who had recently become a US citizen, replaced him as editor. Two years later he was appointed vice-president for news. Although not overtly political, McCrohon moderated the Tribune's conservative editorial policy, even to the point of sometimes endorsing Democrats.

In 1983 he left the Tribune to become editor-in-chief of United Press International. Four years later he was appointed editor of the Hearst Corporation's ailing Los Angeles Herald Examiner. This rescue mission failed in the face of competition from the Los Angeles Times and suburban papers.

McCrohon continued as a consultant with Hearst and in 1992 was appointed American editor of Mbl ("We" in Russian) an American-Russian paper published jointly by the Hearst organisation and Izvestia. Separate editions were published in Austin, Texas, and Moscow.

Life in the "Wemobile", as the staff called it, was a hectic mixture of bilingual websites, inter-hemispheric phone conferences with former KGB officers, and travel between Washington (where the McCrohons had settled, and where Nancy worked for a Democratic senator), Austin and Moscow. Distribution problems in Russia put an end to We/Mbl in 1994.

McCrohon was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1999. Surgery and therapy kept his condition relatively stable, allowing the McCrohons to visit friends and relatives in Sydney. Earlier this year, however, his condition worsened and he died the day after the McCrohons' 50th wedding anniversary.

McCrohon's vision of a reader-friendly newspaper, and his innovations in sectionalising and feature-writing, had a widespread impact in Chicago and across the US.

He is survived by Nancy, two sons and a daughter.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Stuart Revill and Gavin Souter, 'McCrohon, Maxwell (1928–2004)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 June 2024.

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