Paul Davis, a onetime Downstate Illinois news anchor who became an influential TV news executive and a widely admired statesman for his profession, led WGN-Channel 9 into the modern era of broadcast journalism during 13 years as news director of “Chicago’s Very Own.”
In a career that spanned six decades, he served as president of two of the nation’s largest professional organizations — the Radio Television Digital News Association and the Society of Professional Journalists.
Davis died of cancer Sunday at Heritage Health Therapy and Senior Care in Gibson City, Illinois, according to his daughter, Marinell Croson. He was 82.
“Paul Davis was a booming presence at WGN-TV and in life,” said Paul Rennie, vice president and general manager of WGN. “He had a true journalist’s eye and had a great impact on the news, both at WGN and beyond. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”
Jim Disch, longtime assistant news director under Davis, recalled: “My best years in the TV news business were those spent with Paul at WGN. He was instrumental in guiding the TV careers of many journalists, not just in Chicago, but across the nation.”
Born Paul Milton Davis in Effingham, Illinois, he credited his mother, Zona Buchholz Davis, for his start in broadcasting at hometown radio station WCRA 1090-AM.
“My mother was the news director — a ‘one-person band’ as it were — at WCRA [from 1949 to 1978] . . . and I was a kid and I hung around,” he recalled in a 2016 interview with the station. “Before long my voice dropped, I was 15, and I started being a staff announcer. I did that until I went off to college.”
After studying at Georgetown College in Kentucky and Baylor University in Texas, Davis earned a degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While a student, he joined the news department of CBS affiliate WCIA, the CBS affiliate in Champaign, as an anchor reporter in 1960. He assumed additional duties as the station’s news director in 1967.
Tribune Broadcasting beckoned him to Chicago in 1980 as news director of WGN, where he oversaw the transformation of a mediocre news operation into what would become a ratings and reporting powerhouse. He served under five general managers.
At his direction, WGN expanded the 9 p.m. weekday newscast to a full hour in 1983 and added newscasts at noon weekdays and on weekend mornings. He also opened the Tribune station group’s first Washington, D.C., bureau.
Possessing a keen eye for talent, Davis significantly advanced the careers of Steve Sanders, Joan Esposito, Jim Williams, Roseanne Tellez, Dan Roan, Allison Payne and Pat Harvey, among many others. He advised, coached and mentored even more.
In 1993 Davis left WGN to become a full-time consultant and advocate for freedom of information issues. “I’ve had a great time here, but I felt that it was time to go while I could still try some new things,” he told me at the time.
Davis served for more than decade on the board of governors of the Chicago/Midwest chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The organization honored him with its Governor’s Award in 1994 and its Silver Circle Award in 2009.
Last week the Illinois News Broadcasters Association announced that it would name its annual Crystal Mic Award for Best TV Newscast in honor of Davis. He was a two-time recipient of the organization’s Illinoisan of Year Award.