WWII Navy veteran and longtime news executive William J. Keating dead at 93
By DAN SEWELL | Associated Press | Published: May 21, 2020
CINCINNATI — William J. Keating, who spent three decades as an Ohio newspaper executive after leaving Congress in the mid-1970s, has died, his family confirmed. He was 93.
The Cincinnati native led The Cincinnati Enquirer as president and later as publisher. He served on the board of The Associated Press for 25 years, chairing the global news organization from 1987 to 1992. He also held executive positions in the Gannett Co., where he served as general counsel and a regional newspaper president.
Louis D. Boccardi, former AP CEO and president, said Thursday that news executives were exchanging many phone calls sharing warm memories of Keating, who died Wednesday after being in failing health for some time.
"He was very popular — a wonderful man," Boccardi said. "His mantra was 'Let's try to do the right thing.' "
"It's hard to think of someone who exemplified community service more than Bill Keating," said Beryl Love, executive editor of The Enquirer. "But what strikes me even more when I talk with those who had the honor of working with him, or for him, is the kindness and civility he exhibited throughout all his professional endeavors. He truly cared about people."
Genial and modest, but driven and fiercely competitive, Keating was a champion swimmer who is in the University of Cincinnati athletic hall of fame. He helped build a Cincinnati law firm from scratch and had a flourishing political career until he gave up his U.S. House seat in 1974 to become The Enquirer's president.
He brought a skilled politician's touch with him to the newspaper industry as he worked with journalists, unions, civic and business leaders. As AP chairman, he also had working relationships with some of the most powerful people in the newspaper industry.
"Bill was masterful," Boccardi said in an earlier interview. "He had political instincts, and I mean that in the best sense. He knew his constituency. He was very careful and considerate of the views of other people."
Douglas H. McCorkindale, retired CEO and chairman of Gannett, said Keating had served in Congress during a time when representatives were more likely than today to try to amiably work out deals and compromises while getting along with each other. He called that approach "the Keating style."
"Bill was able to get things done by working with people," said McCorkindale, also a former AP board member. "He was able to work with very diverse groups. He did that very well in the newspaper business."
At The Enquirer, he helped engineer a 1977 joint operating agreement with The Cincinnati Post in which The Enquirer took over circulation and other business operations of the E.W. Scripps Co.-owned rival daily. The Post published until the end of 2007, when the agreement expired. He was assigned another tough challenge for Gannett, heading the Detroit Newspaper Agency from 1986 to 1990 that combined business operations of Gannett's News and Knight-Ridder's Free Press.
"Bill was an expert at doing the right thing, and just getting it done correctly, even if it sometimes alienated some people," McCorkindale said. "If it was the right thing to do in the long term, you could count on Bill do that. Doing the right thing sometimes takes guts, doing what you have to do."
Keating went to St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, served in the U.S. Navy at the end of World War II, then studied business administration at the University of Cincinnati and went on to earn his law degree there while in the Air Force Reserve.
Fresh out of law school, he went door-to-door visiting big law firms and urged them to send cases they didn't want his way. He was a founding partner of what became a major Cincinnati law firm, served as an assistant Ohio attorney general, then a municipal judge, and was elected Hamilton County common pleas judge in 1964 — as a Republican overcoming the Lyndon B. Johnson Democratic presidential landslide in that election. Keating was a leading vote-getter in Cincinnati city council elections in 1967 and 1969. He ran for an open U.S. House seat in 1971, and won that year and in 1973 by landslide margins.
In 1974, he stunned Cincinnati's political world by giving up his seat in midterm to respond to a request by Carl Lindner Jr., a law client and perhaps Cincinnati's most powerful businessman, to run the newspaper that Lindner had bought a few years earlier.
"I said, 'I don't know anything about newspapers except to be interviewed,'" Keating recounted in a 2005 oral history interview with an Associated Press archivist. "And so I did. I came back, and just lived there. Trying to figure out how it worked."
His first-year challenges included a newsprint shortage and a Teamsters strike that disrupted publication. He also worked through a printing technique transition to "cold type," based on photographic printing that speeded up production and cut costs. Circulation and profits grew. Gannett acquired The Enquirer and made Keating president of its Central group of newspapers. He served as executive vice president and general counsel for Gannett in 1985-86, and led the Detroit project as its CEO in 1986-90.
Editorial cartoonist Jim Borgman won a Pulitzer Prize at The Enquirer in 1991, the year before Keating retired.
While his brother Charles Keating was a finance executive and a controversial figure in the 1980s national savings and loan crisis, Bill Keating maintained a high ethical reputation through his years in politics and journalism
"William J. Keating's ability to earn and keep the public's trust has been the cornerstone of his public career," The Enquirer stated in an editorial upon his retirement.
Keating was particularly proud of his AP connection. His AP time saw increased strategic planning and the news cooperative launch electronic photo delivery and a video news service, as the news industry moved toward the age of digital, 24-hour online news.
Boccardi praised Keating as a highly supportive, engaged chairman who provided "a very sure hand on the wheel." One of the dominant issues of Keating's time was the captivity of AP foreign correspondent Terry Anderson, held hostage for nearly seven years after being kidnapped in Beirut, Lebanon. Keating got frequent updates from Boccardi and stayed involved in behind-the-scenes efforts with the White House, State Department, the United Nations and other entities that finally led to Anderson's release in 1991.
"Bill was always there, and I could call him and vent some of my frustrations," Boccardi said. "He was very concerned, and expressed that concern frequently; sympathetic and supportive."
Keating retained "a great affinity" for the AP and its people. In 2008 he became chairman of the AP Emergency Relief Fund, helping build a pool of donations to help staffers and their families who suffer losses at home because of disasters or conflicts. He led a fundraising drive that increased the fund by more than five-fold.
"There's something about the AP. It gets in your blood," Keating said in the 2005 interview.
Keating for decades was a key civic leader in Cincinnati, and was highly supportive of youth and collegiate sports, serving as a volunteer coach and meet official. His great-nephew Gary Hall Jr. won swimming gold medals in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics. The University of Cincinnati aquatic center is named for him, while he and his brother helped fund St. Xavier's natatorium, named for their father, Charles H. Keating.
He and his wife, Nancy, had seven children.
Editor's Note: Keating's comments are from a 2005 interview at AP headquarters with Kelly Tunney, former AP senior vice president.