NEW YORK — Burl Osborne, former chairman of the board of The Associated Press and longtime executive at Belo Corp., has died.
Osborne, who was 75, died Wednesday at a Dallas hospital after a sudden illness, his wife, Betty, said. Osborne, who lived in Dallas, was a member of the AP board for 14 years, the last five as chairman, from 2002 to 2007. He worked for 25 years at Belo, serving as editor and publisher of the Dallas Morning News, president of Belo’s publishing division, and as a member of its board. He retired as publisher emeritus of the Morning News in 2007.
Before joining Belo, Osborne worked for the AP for two decades, starting as a correspondent in Bluefield, W.Va., and rising eventually to managing editor, a post he held from 1977 to 1980.
Osborne, a native of Jenkins, Ky., began his career while still a college student with a part-time reporting job at Kentucky’s Ashland Independent, kindling a lifelong enthusiasm for the news business.
“He lived it and breathed it and would’ve paid The Associated Press, and the other outfits where he worked, to do the job. That’s how much he loved it,” Osborne’s son Jonathan said Thursday.
After joining AP in 1960, he worked as a reporter in West Virginia and Washington state, filing stories that included a first-person account of his dependence on an artificial kidney machine. Osborne later underwent a kidney transplant from his mother.
Osborne headed AP bureaus in Louisville, Ky., and Columbus, Ohio, and was assistant bureau chief in Washington, before moving to New York to take the job as managing editor. But, at heart, he remained a reporter, former colleague Terry Hunt recalled Thursday.
Soon after Osborne took over as bureau chief in Louisville, a mine explosion killed 38 men in Hyden, Ky. Osborne chartered a plane and flew to the scene, and spent several days reporting in vivid detail. After filing his main story the first night, Hunt says he relayed a request from editors in New York for a feature. “Give me a minute to look at my notebook,” he says Osborne answered, before dictating a poignant story of the miners’ families.
Osborne left AP in 1980 to become vice president and executive editor of The Dallas Morning News, a market underdog battling the rival Dallas Times Herald in a feverish circulation war.
“It was competitive, and we were in many respects behind, or we thought we were behind. And so everything we did was focused on doing it better than anyone else could do it with the resources available to us, period, just whatever it was,” Osborne said in a 2008 oral history interview with an Associated Press archivist.
The Times Herald closed in 1991, the same year that Osborne became publisher of the Morning News. Belo spun off its newspaper business in 2008 into a separate company, A.H. Belo Corp.
Osborne reconnected with AP in 1993, when he joined the cooperative’s board of directors. He became chairman of the board in 2002, leading the board when it hired Tom Curley to be the AP’s chief executive and working with Curley to transform AP for the digital age.
“He was a man of a thousand ideas and really saw himself as an entrepreneur,” Curley said. “He was the one who wanted to make the digital transformation and really encouraged us to move ahead with our changes at AP. It was really extremely helpful to have someone like that supporting the direction that I thought, and the rest of the management group thought, we had to take. I’m not sure too many others … would have been as confident about the need to change.”
Osborne served as chairman of the AP board until 2007. He also served on the board of newspaper publisher Freedom Communications Inc. from 2004 until the company was acquired and taken private last month, including a year as Freedom’s interim chief executive in 2009 and 2010. In addition, he served as a director on boards including J.C. Penney Co. and Gatehouse Media.
Jonathan Osborne said his father had been in seemingly good health until suddenly becoming ill early Wednesday, and was taken to UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, where he died. In addition to his wife and his son, a former journalist who lives in Austin, Texas, Osborne is survived by a brother, David, and a grandson, Harry.