Michael Parks, the esteemed former director of USC Annenberg’s School of Journalism and former editor of the Los Angeles Times, has died at the age of 78. A Pulitzer Prize winner whose newspaper career spanned nearly 40 years, Parks devoted the last two decades of his life to training, mentoring and inspiring the next generation of journalists, and advancing the field of journalism education.
Parks died on January 8 following kidney failure and a heart attack.
“Michael was an extraordinary journalist, educator, leader, colleague and friend,” said Willow Bay, dean of USC Annenberg. “His remarkable life and career remain a testament to journalism not just being a job, but a calling. Michael shared his deep knowledge and experience with all of us, and we will be forever better because of it.”
Parks joined the USC Annenberg faculty in 2000, serving as interim director of the School of Journalism a year later and then director from 2002–08 and again in 2013–14. Before retiring in 2020, Parks led the master of arts in specialized journalism program for a decade and taught courses in reporting, news writing and decision analysis.
“Unlike so many of his peers who assumed that the glory days of journalism were in the rearview mirror, Michael believed deeply that journalism had a bright future, and he saw it every day through the experience of his students,” Bay said. “He was personally invested in them as individuals — and, as a result, deeply invested in the future of the industry.”
Director of the School of Journalism Gordon Stables echoed Bay’s praise for Parks’ profound dedication to his craft, his students and his colleagues.
“The Annenberg community has lost a true friend,” Stables said. “Michael was such a kind and dedicated colleague. His legacy is visible across the school in each new colleague he recruited and mentored. It is also visible in every new program and course that he helped build. For so many of us, myself very much included, his greatest legacy will be his limitless generosity.”
At USC Annenberg, Parks was instrumental in guiding the creation and adoption of an innovative core curriculum that trains students to report stories for print, broadcast and new media. Under his direction, the school expanded its international reporting programs and its focus on developing expertise in covering diverse communities. He also led the school in deepening its commitment to mid-career training and professional development for journalists.
Professor of Professional Practice Emerita Sasha Anawalt worked side-by-side with Parks helming the school’s specialized journalism program. She remembers his care for people and their stories, and how he was never above rolling up his sleeves and getting into the trenches.
“Nobody had twinkly blue watery Irish eyes or a sense of mischief, balanced by a reverence for classical rules, principles and truth, as Michael did,” Anawalt said. “He was a journalist through and through. We all know his question: ‘Who was in the room when the decision was made?’ His legendary Michael-isms groomed a generation or two of now-accomplished professionals. He could anticipate where things were headed professionally and adjust course so that journalists would have an advantage. Michael was one in a million.”
Born in Detroit, Parks earned his bachelor’s degree in classical languages and English literature from the University of Windsor in Canada. Beginning his career with the Detroit News, he then joined the Time-Life News Service as a correspondent and helped found the Suffolk Sun, serving as assistant copy editor. He later joined the Baltimore Sun, where his first overseas assignment was covering the war in Vietnam as a Saigon correspondent.
For the next 25 years, Parks served as a foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun and then bureau chief for the L.A. Times, reporting from 110 countries and territories. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1987 for his coverage of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for the Times’ coverage of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Parks later served as deputy foreign editor and managing editor before taking the helm of the Times as editor in 1997. Leading the nation’s largest metropolitan newspaper for the next three years, Parks managed an editorial staff of 1,350 and a budget of more than $120 million. Under his direction, the Times received a further four Pulitzer Prizes, increased its circulation to 1,170,000 (16%), and also developed an enhanced online news site, www.latimes.com.
Former Dean of USC Annenberg Geoffrey Cowan, who hired Parks in 2000, said no one had a better grasp on world affairs or the place of journalism in reporting international events. Cowan recalled the passion Parks had for journalism and for students, as well as his profound understanding of issues at the international as well as national, state and local levels.
“In the aftermath of 9/11, when the world and the school became focused on international crises, Michael’s unparalleled experience placed the school at the center of an important ongoing dialogue and inspired students to tackle issues at the highest level,” Cowan said.
Parks is survived by his wife, Linda, and their sons Christopher and Matthew. He is preceded in death by their daughter Danielle.
Information regarding memorial services is forthcoming.
Gifts to support graduate students in the Master’s of Specialized Journalism program may be made in Parks’ memory here.
A memorial tribute to Parks has been published in the Los Angeles Times.
Photo album courtesy of Alan Mittelstaedt, associate professor of professional practice.