Fitz McAden retires Friday as executive editor of The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.
His 42-year newspaper career has been marked by a dogged pursuit of stories and public accountability.
"You have to dig," he said. "It's not about being negative; it's about getting to the bottom of things and not just trimming the treetops. You've got to get to the bottom of it."
McAden started as a reporter for The Miami Herald. He had been state editor at the Herald and news editor at The State in Columbia when he took the job at the Packet in February 1995. He added the Gazette duties in 2008.
"The decision to bring Fitz to the Lowcountry was the best decision of my professional career," said Sara Johnson Borton, president and publisher of the newspapers. "Not only is Fitz a great journalist, he has a passion for our business. His passion for news has had a lasting impact on hundreds of journalists who have had the privilege of working for him."
McClatchy president and chief executive officer Patrick J. Talamantes said he is thankful for McAden's effort, body of work and support over the years.
"I got to know Fitz relatively early in my time at McClatchy," Talamantes said. "What impressed me off the bat -- an impression that has not changed -- was his focus on good stories and the communities those stories helped, his willingness to roll up his sleeves and get the work done, and his genuine desire to help young journalists learn the ropes, do well, and advance in their careers."
During McAden's tenure in the Lowcountry, the newspapers added a Saturday edition, making them seven-day dailies for the first time; added an online edition updated nightly in 1997; went through a redesign as a new press and new building came online in 2007; evacuated the newsroom en masse twice during hurricane threats; published an "extra" edition on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001; combined the Packet and Gazette newsroom staffs; survived a major downturn in the economy; and evolved into a 24-hour news production team delivering video, audio, graphics and text to smartphones, tablets and laptops in addition to a morning newspaper in print.
His news staff has won scores of awards from the S.C. Press Association, and about a dozen Presidents Awards, McClatchy's highest recognition for journalism excellence in which the work of the local staff has been judged against as many as 30 dailies nationwide.
When the Packet was named one of "10 Newspapers That Do it Right" nationally in 2004 by Editor & Publisher magazine, it cited "the paper's watchdog role, reflected in stories such as the revelation that a local marina dredging project was dumping the muck into a nearby sound instead of further out in the ocean, and an investigation into municipal court backlogs."
McAden led deep probes into how local and state courts and regulatory agencies dealt with a case of physician misconduct; the Beaufort County EMS response to a brutal beating in Bluffton; a child killed in a middle school restroom; improperly installed roof trusses in hundreds of homes that had passed county inspection; the messy private affairs of a state representative who was seeking statewide office; complaints against a timeshare company; fees a utility charged to the poor even though they did not tap into new water lines; haphazard county real estate assessments; the bungled attempt to try suspects in the death of an 8-year-old boy caught in the crossfire of a gun battle; and the unsolved apparent murder of a couple who disappeared without a trace.
In many cases, the digging has led to walls of secrecy set up by public bodies and their attorneys, by government workers and judges.
"The public records thing is a battle that is never won," McAden said this week. "You just have to keep pushing to get the information people need to know and have a right to."
McAden said he has often felt pushback from readers and local leaders.
He has been known to push his staff hard. Even though he likes to tell stories and pull practical jokes, he set the newsroom tone with his typical 12-hour work days, pecking with two fingers at a keyboard late at night. His work day got much longer on Fridays. Staffers sometimes got emails from him that were sent as late as 4 a.m. He said the investigations, which come on top of routine daily production, could not be done without a good staff.
"We want to do the stories that make a difference and bring about change for the better," McAden said. "Not that we are the sole arbiters of that. We're an institution, too, and all institutions are imperfect. Newspapers can come across as sort of a scold, a constant scold. That's one of the problems the media has, but it's a hard thing to avoid if you do your job right."
McAden said his wife, Jill McAden, principal of Hilton Head Island Elementary School, has been very tolerant of his job. And his two sons, James and Andrew, now college graduates and on their own, learned as boys that "dropping by the office for 15 minutes" meant hours away from home.
McAden, who will turn 65 next week, is a native of Charlotte who was reared in Columbia in a family of textiles executives. He said he has not had time to make retirement plans.
"Mow the lawn," he said. "Be a better husband. Be a better father."
"Fitz has been a trusted colleague as well as a wonderful friend," said publisher Borton. "I will miss him terribly. He's made life in the Lowcountry better for all of us over the last 19 years."
A search is underway for McAden's replacement. Managing Editor Jeff Kidd will fulfill McAden's duties until a new editor is named.
Follow columnist David Lauderdale on Twitter at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.