Santa Fe Reporter co-founder dies at 79, leaving behind a legacy of hard-hitting investigative journalism

Oct 30, 2020

Richard McCord meets with SFR as part of the 40th birthday issue published in 2014.

Staff Writer | Santa Fe Record

Richard “Dick” McCord, the co-founder and long-time editor of the Santa Fe (New Mexico) Reporter, died Wednesday, Oct. 7, at the age of 79. He had been receiving care at the Santa Fe Care Center after going through a period of declining health.

McCord was a journalist, editor and author whose work set the standard for journalistic excellence in Santa Fe for many decades.

He and his former wife, Laurie Knowles, founded the Reporter in 1974, driven by a passionate dedication to the ideals of an independent press and a small, scrappy crew of journalists hellbent on digging up the stories no one else had the guts to tell.

In his 15 years as the editor, the Reporter won more than 200 journalism awards, and in 1982, he came within a hair's breadth of winning a Pulitzer Prize.

"In terms of starting the Reporter, he was a visionary. He had very high standards," says Knowles, who remained close friends with McCord despite being divorced from him for over 40 years. "In many ways, I would say he was uncompromising. But he was a very fine editor and a fine teacher."

McCord's story starts in a small town near Atlanta, where he graduated at the top of his class of 60, Knowles tells SFR. He attended Vanderbilt University and got his first taste of journalism as the editor for the college newspaper.

McCord worked for a short time after graduation as a writer for the Southern Bell in Atlanta, then spent a year as a park ranger. It was during this time that Knowles, who was working at Sports Illustrated at the time, met McCord through a mutual friend.

Soon afterward, McCord got a job as a journalist at the Long Island daily newspaper Newsday. Knowles says that while he loved journalism, McCord was restless in New York and bored by the bureaucracy of the large paper.

In 1971, the couple quit their jobs and headed West on a six-month road trip that brought them to New Mexico.

When they arrived in Santa Fe, "we just knew, this was the place," Knowles tells SFR, "so we stayed. And now we've both been here for practically 50 years."

Knowles and McCord camped out in Hyde Park for five long summer months while Knowles made sandwiches and McCord tended the bar at the Downs. McCord was still doing occasional freelance work for Newsday and eventually found a job as a writer at the Santa Fe New Mexican.

In a 2009 interview with SFR's then-editor Julia Goldberg, McCord says he loved the intimacy of the small-town daily but adds, "I got really frustrated at the New Mexican itself because it was so timid and it wouldn't cover the issues and would kill stories if they felt it was going to offend an advertiser."

So he quit, and in 1974, McCord and Knowles co-founded the Santa Fe Reporter. Read more on this chain of events in a story SFR published on its 40th birthday, "Mr. Reporter."

Knowles describes the 14 years that followed as both the best and the worst of times.

The couple reached out to their professional contacts from all over the country and put together a team that included writers from Sports Illustrated, the New York Post and the Arizona Republic, as well as a handful of fresh college graduates.

McCord became the paper's editor, and Knowles started off as a reporter and later headed first the circulation department and then the advertising department.

The paper worked on a shoestring budget, she says, paying writers less than $200 a week. Staff members often put in 12-hour days and worked until 3:00 in the morning pasting up the paper before driving it down to the printer in Albuquerque. They furnished the newsroom with desks salvaged from the dump down on Airport Road and infamously stocked the Coca-Cola vending machine with beer cans. Their dog, Ernie Pyle, hung out at the office most days.

"But we also had a ton of fun," says Knowles. "Those were the most glorious times. It was grueling, but it was a tremendous adventure."

Steve Terrell, a journalist who recently retired from a long career with the Santa Fe New Mexican, got his start at the Reporter under McCord.

Terrell says McCord could be an exacting boss.

"He was a hard person to work for sometimes, a real taskmaster," Terrell tells SFR, "but he had a real vision of what he wanted the paper to be, and I learned so much. I really owe him so much."

Under McCord's watch, the Reporter's investigations exposed abuse and neglect at the New Mexico State Hospital in Las Vegas and shone a light on the 1980s New Mexico State Penitentiary prison riots, among many other topics.

McCord and Knowles sold the paper to Hope Aldrich in 1988, then she sold it to current owners Richard Meeker and Mark Zusman in 1997. McCord went on to write several books. One book, The Chain Gang: One Newspaper Versus the Gannett Empire, explored the fight between small town independent presses and national news conglomerates trying to crush all competition. It first appeared as a piece in the Reporter, prompted by Robert McKinney's (later-reversed) sale of the New Mexican to Gannett.

In another book, McCord documented the history of the College of Santa Fe.

Santa Fe Living Treasures honored McCord in 2017 for his work bringing light to Santa Fe's history, culture and politics.

"Dick was always generous with his time and his institutional memory," says Julia Goldberg, who served as SFR's editor from 2000 to 2011. "He was very kind and had a good sense of humor. He remained fully supportive of the Reporter and of Santa Fe — that support and good humor stood out every time I spoke with him. Like everyone who has worked here — and there are legions of us — we owe Dick a big thank you."