James Hoge, veteran of big city tabloid newspaper wars, dies at 87

James Hoge, who tussled with unions, politicians and Rupert Murdoch while running tabloid newspapers in Chicago and New York City, then had a second, more highbrow career in international relations rousing the esteemed but sleepy Foreign Affairs magazine, died Sept. 19 at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 87.

The cause was a cerebral hemorrhage, said his wife, Kathleen Lacey.

Mr. Hoge, who was once featured in an Esquire article headlined “The Dangers of Being Too Good-Looking” and was sometimes likened to Robert Redford in his WASPy handsomeness, stood out in journalism in other ways. Along with being exponentially more debonair and stylish than typical newsroom inhabitants, he also pushed for stylish, engaging writing during his three-decade career guiding tabloids through a tumultuous pre-internet era in the newspaper industry.

His meteoric rise began at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1958, first as a Washington correspondent, then, at age 29, as city editor, followed three years later by his appointment as managing editor. By 44, he was publisher. The paper won six Pulitzer Prizes during his leadership.

In addition to adding sections covering food, real estate and fashion to attract suburban readers, Mr. Hoge hired aggressive investigative reporters to compete with the Chicago Tribune. His staff persuaded him to greenlight a plan to buy and secretly run a downtown saloon so reporters and photographers could document crooked city inspectors taking bribes and kickbacks in envelopes left on the bar.

Pam Zekman, one of the reporters on the team that produced a 25-part series on the corruption, recalled the idea had originally and unsuccessfully been pitched to editors at the Tribune while she worked there on the investigative staff. After she joined the Sun-Times, she found it “wonderfully refreshing” that Mr. Hoge embraced the idea.

The series, published in 1978, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, but an ethical debate over the paper’s undercover reporting sank its chances.

In 1976, while still working at the Sun-Times, Mr. Hoge was appointed editor of its sister paper, the Chicago Daily News, which published in the afternoon. The Marshall Field family, which owned both papers, put the Sun-Times up for sale in 1983. Mr. Hoge organized a group of investors to buy it but lost to Murdoch, the Australian press baron who owned the New York Post.

“There was never any question whether I would stay,” Mr. Hoge told The Washington Post after losing to Murdoch. “We both knew it was impossible.”

Tribune Co., publisher of the Chicago Tribune and New York Daily News, hired Mr. Hoge as publisher of the New York paper, which was losing a tabloid battle with Murdoch’s Post.

“I want to be the man who has on his epitaph he saved the Daily News,” Mr. Hoge told Vanity Fair in a 1989 article that called him “a man so gifted and handsome that people would actually gape in admiration.”

Despite his “magnetic presence,” as Vanity Fair put it, Mr. Hoge struggled to turn the paper around. He also went to war with the paper’s unions, which in late 1990 went on a five-month strike that resulted in violent clashes between picketers and employees reporting for work.

Unable to resolve disagreements over wages, overtime and staffing levels, Mr. Hoge threatened in early 1991 to shutter the paper. That March, British publisher Robert Maxwell stepped up to buy the paper and negotiated a labor deal with the paper’s unions. Mr. Hoge stayed on for several months before leaving.

The following year, the Council on Foreign Relations named Mr. Hoge editor of Foreign Affairs, a policy and international affairs journal started in 1922. Given his lengthy career in tabloid journalism, a medium not generally conducive to lucid policy analysis, the choice was seen as a surprise by some media onlookers.

But Mr. Hoge had been an active member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and its board thought he could enliven the magazine and make it more readable, both in design and text. (In a nod to concerns about his background, he presented council leaders with a mock front cover featuring supermodel Cindy Crawford and cover lines reading “Boris’ Babes” and “Sexiest Ethnic Rivalries.”)

Mr. Hoge immediately signaled that the magazine would become more timely, delaying his first issue until after Bill Clinton’s election as president in 1992.

“The issue is being designed to offer the new president a lot of free advice,” Mr. Hoge told the Tribune.

Mr. Hoge commissioned reported pieces, shortened the length of its major articles from 7,000 to 5,000 words and increased the frequency of issues to six per year from four.

During his tenure, he published political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s influential essay “Clash of Civilizations?” arguing that cultural and religious conflicts would dominate the world following the Cold War’s end. He also published the “Tiananmen Papers,” revealing secret discussions among China’s leaders on crushing student protests in 1989.

“What Foreign Affairs provides,” Mr. Hoge once said, “is a unique, nonpartisan forum for wide-ranging ideas on America’s role in the world.”

By the time he stepped down 18 years later, the magazine’s circulation had nearly doubled to 160,000 copies per issue.

James Fulton Hoge Jr. was born in Manhattan on Dec. 25, 1935, and was raised on Park Avenue. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was a homemaker.

“My father was a high-energy guy who loved being a lawyer, but who also had a visceral response to newspapers,” he told Vanity Fair. “He’d spread the papers out on the floor and he’d say, ‘Look at that, will you!’ Or he’d say, ‘Read that column!’ Or he’d just laugh.”

Mr. Hoge graduated in 1954 from the private Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. He studied political science at Yale University, graduating in 1958. Three years later, he received a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, paying his way through school while working part time at the Sun-Times.

Mr. Hoge’s marriages to Alice Albright, a descendant of Chicago Tribune founder Joseph Medill, and Sharon King ended in divorce. He married Lacey in 1999. They lived in an apartment on Park Avenue.

In addition to his wife, survivors include three children from his marriage to Albright, Alicia Hoge Adams, Robert Warren Hoge and James Patrick Hoge; a son from a relationship with TV journalist Cynthia McFadden, Spencer Hoge; a stepdaughter, Kienan Lacey; a stepson, Devin Lacey; 11 grandchildren; and a sister.

Mr. Hoge’s younger brother, longtime New York Times journalist and editor Warren Hoge, died in August at 82.

Throughout his life, profiles of Mr. Hoge noted his patrician upbringing. He found them annoying.

“Sure, my father made a good living, but I never got a penny of inheritance,” he told Vanity Fair. “If you look like a WASP and talk like a WASP, there’s a kind of inverse racism. That is shortchanging us who are like that. My major motivation has never been making a ton of money. To me, the fun of the game is big-time journalism.”