NEW YORK — Michael J. O’Neill, a former editor of the Daily News in New York who directed its breathless coverage of the ‘‘Son of Sam’’ serial killer, then became a strong national voice for responsible media behavior, died Tuesday at his home in Scarsdale, N.Y. He was 89.
The cause was complications of pulmonary fibrosis, his family said.
When Mr. O’Neill became executive editor of the News in 1974, it was the nation’s largest general-interest newspaper, with a daily circulation of about 2 million. (It is now under 600,000.) The next year, it published the headline many deem the most famous in US journalism: ‘‘Ford to City: Drop Dead.’’ It referred to President Gerald R. Ford’s denial of federal assistance to save New York City from bankruptcy. Ford never actually said ‘‘drop dead,’’ however well the phrase captured his point, and thought the headline cost him the White House.
From July 1976 until August 1977, Mr. O’Neill directed the paper’s coverage of a wave of killings by a man who called himself ‘‘Son of Sam.’’ The News became part of the story when Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin received a crazed letter that claimed to be from the killer, whose real name was David Berkowitz. After consulting police, the News printed only parts of the letter.
Although press critics said the News was more restrained than the New York Post in its coverage, Mr. O’Neill apologized for the newspaper’s excesses.
“I would not argue that everything we did was exactly the way I would have liked,’’ Mr. O’Neill told The New York Times.
But overall, the News under Mr. O’Neill was credited with de-emphasizing sensational crime in favor of government coverage.
He hired a number of young people from other publications as both reporters and editors, and assigned some reporters to specialties they had not regularly covered before. He expanded science coverage and allowed articles to run somewhat longer, a departure from the abbreviated, punchy tabloid style.
In 1980, Mr. O’Neill led the start of an afternoon edition, then saw it killed a year later because of costs. He consoled employees when the paper’s owner, the Tribune Co., based in Chicago, put the News on the market, then rallied them when the company changed its mind. He ushered in computers and other automation in the newsroom, started an op-ed page, and expanded feature sections. Unlike most newsroom executives, he also oversaw the editorial page, writing many editorials himself.
He hired colorful columnists who became influential, among them Breslin, Liz Smith, Mike Lupica, Beth Fallon, Pete Hamill, and Michael Daly. He accepted Daly’s resignation for using false names and dismissed Hamill for his politics.
“Mike told me I was, quote, too far, far to the left of the News readership, unquote,’’ Hamill told The Times in 1979.
Mr. O’Neill was president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors for a year. In his final speech before the group, in 1982, he said the press had become insensitive, arrogant, and hostile to government.
Michael James O’Neill was born Nov. 19, 1922, in Detroit. He wrote a humor column in his high school newspaper. After enrolling at the University of Detroit, he left to serve as an Army journalist in Europe in World War II, earning a Bronze Star for battlefield reporting. He graduated from the university with a liberal arts degree in 1946.
Moving to New York, he worked for a small wire service and then for the United Press, advancing to Washington correspondent specializing in foreign affairs.
He joined the Daily News Washington bureau in 1956 and became the newspaper’s managing editor in 1968, executive editor in 1974, and executive vice president in 1979. He resigned in 1982, saying he wanted to ‘‘renew an old love affair with writing.’’
He wrote, edited, and contributed to several books. As the author of ‘‘Terrorist Spectaculars: Should TV Coverage Be Curbed?’’ (1986), he urged people to push the networks to limit coverage of terrorism to prevent making celebrities of thugs.
Mr. O’Neill leaves his wife of 64 years, the former Mary Jane Kilcoyne; his sons, Michael and Kevin; his daughters, Maureen and Kathryn; and five grandchildren.