Osborne, Burl (1937–2012)


By: Ada Negraru

Type: Biography

Published: March 24, 2021

Updated: March 24, 2021


Burl Osborne, journalist, president and publisher of the Dallas Morning News, director of the A.H. Belo Corporation (renamed Belo Corp. in 2001), and chairman of the board of directors of the Associated Press, was born in Jenkins, Kentucky, on June 25, 1937. He was the eldest of Oliver and Juanita (Smallwood) Osborne’s three sons. When he was around six years old, the family moved to Ashland, Kentucky, where his father worked for the General Telephone Company of Kentucky. At the age of ten, Osborne was diagnosed with nephritis, a condition that resulted in the gradual loss of kidney function and eventually led to a kidney transplant in 1966.

The first in his family to pursue a higher education, Osborne attended Ashland Junior College as an engineering student. There he held a part-time job with the Ashland Daily Independent. He soon transferred to Marshall College (later named Marshall University) in Huntington, West Virginia, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1960. He also earned a master’s degree in business administration from Long Island University and graduated from the Harvard Business School Advanced Management Program in 1984. Osborne credited W. Page Pitt, the head of Marshall’s School of Journalism, with being a great influence on his professional development.

While attending Marshall, he worked for the WHTN-TV station in Huntington to gain the broadcasting experience needed for a job with the Associated Press (AP). Soon after his graduation in 1960, Osborne was hired by AP and worked for the news service for twenty years. He started as a reporter in Bluefield, West Virginia, and was the only person working at the small, local bureau. In 1962 he transferred to the bureau in Charleston, West Virginia, followed by a promotion to correspondent and transfer to Spokane, Washington, in 1964, when Osborne was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease. Spokane’s Sacred Heart Hospital was home to an innovative dialysis center. Thanks to recent improvements in dialysis treatment, Osborne’s chronic kidney failure could be treated with repeated dialysis in his own home. However, the treatment was risky, and Osborne suffered at least one heart attack as a result. In 1966, with his condition worsening, he underwent transplant surgery. His was only the 130th kidney transplant in history. The kidney was donated by his mother.  

In 1967 Osborne held the position of AP news editor for Colorado and Wyoming. He then became chief of the AP bureaus in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1970, and then Columbus, Ohio, in 1972. In 1974 he became assistant chief of the Washington, D.C., bureau, and in 1977 he was named managing editor of the AP’s worldwide news service. He married Betty Wilder on February 14, 1974, in Louisville. Their son, Jonathan Osborne, was born in 1976. 

In 1980 Robert Decherd, CEO of the A. H. Belo Corporation in Dallas, Texas, recruited Osborne as executive editor of the Dallas Morning News. When he arrived in Dallas, the Morning News was competing for circulation with the rival Dallas Times Herald and was facing issues with management, production, marketing, and an outdated format. The first outsider hired to his position in fifty years, Osborne brought a fresh perspective and increased performance expectations. He assumed responsibilities beyond those of executive editor to cover production. The newspaper modernized its content and layout. Among other changes, it added a daily business section and increased its focus on sports to increase readership. In 1983 Osborne was promoted to senior vice president and editor of the newspaper; he was promoted to president in 1985 and publisher in 1991. During his twenty years with the Morning News, the newspaper more than doubled its circulation, was awarded six Pulitzer Prizes, and in 1991 purchased its competitor, the Times Herald. Osborne was elected to the A. H. Belo board of directors in 1987 and served until 2002. In 1995 he became president of A. H. Belo’s publishing division. He was involved with the company’s expansion into other geographical areas, which led to the acquisition of local or regional newspapers such as the Press Enterprise, in Riverdale, California, and the Messenger-Inquirer in Owensboro, Kentucky. Osborne embraced the emerging online media. The Morning News launched its website in 1996. Osborne retired as publisher and editor of the Morning News on December 31, 2000. He stayed on the board of directors at Belo Corporation until May 2002 and held the title of publisher emeritus at the Morning News until 2007. 

In 1990 Osborne was named Newspaper Executive of the Year by Adweek. He received the National Press Foundation’s George David Beveridge Jr. (now the Benjamin C. Bradlee) Editor of the Year Award for 1991 and the Pat Taggart Texas Newspaper Leader of the Year Award in 1993. He was also named a distinguished alumnus at both Marshall University and Long Island University. In 1999 he was named a fellow of the Society of Professional Journalists and received a Millennium Award from the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge. The Seventy-seventh Texas Legislature passed a resolution honoring Osborne  ahead of his retirement from the Morning News in 2001.

Elected to the board of directors of the Associated Press in 1993, Osborne served as chairman of the board from 2002 until 2007. He was actively involved with numerous professional and civic organizations. He was a member and co‑chairman of the Pulitzer Prize Board, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, president of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, board member of the Newspaper Association of America, board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists, director and member of the executive committee of the World Association of Newspapers, chairman of the Foundation for American Communications, chairman of the American Press Institute, president and chairman of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association, member of the Advisory Committee for the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, and board member and interim CEO of Freedom Communications, Inc. Osborne also served on the boards of the Southwest Transplant Alliance and National Kidney Foundation, as well as the J.C. Penney Company and Gatehouse Media.

Osborne’s professional achievements are even more remarkable considering the challenges posed by his kidney disease. In 1994, due to the advanced age of his mother’s kidney, he went through a second transplant surgery as a precautionary measure and received both a replacement kidney and bone marrow (to reduce the risk of rejection) from his brother David. Osborne was the first patient to receive a simultaneous transplant such as this from a living donor. In 1997 the International Society of Artificial Organs awarded Osborne with its first Organ Transplant Pioneer Hero Award. The award was subsequently named the Burl Osborne Pioneer Organ Replacement Hero Award. In 2012 the National Kidney Foundation named an award in Osborne’s honor.

Burl Osborne died in Dallas on August 15, 2012, after a sudden illness unrelated to his kidney condition. A memorial service was held at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas on August 24, 2012.

Peter Ivanovich, “Celebration of the Life of Burl Osborne,” Artificial Organs 37 (April 2013). Mark Maynard, “Newspaper Giant Dies: Osborne Roots Go Back to Ashland,” The Daily Independent (Ashland, Kentucky), August 16, 2012  (https://www.dailyindependent.com/news/local_news/newspaper-giant-dies-osborne-roots-go-back-to-ashland/article_9a431507-e6f3-5356-a4a4-cd99897b86bb.html), accessed March 10, 2021. Burl Osborne, Interview by Bill Simon, January 30, 1997, A. H. Belo Corporation Oral History Project, A. H. Belo Corporation Records, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University. Judith Garrett Segura, Belo: From Newspapers to New Media (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008). Texas Legislature Online: HR 1413, 77th Texas Legislature, Regular Session, 2001 (https://capitol.texas.gov/billlookup/History.aspx?LegSess=77R&Bill=HR1413), accessed March 10, 2021. Dave Wellman, “Burl Osborne: Unique,” Marshall University Profiles in Prominence 2 (2003).

Categories:
  • Health and Medicine
  • Journalism
  • Newspapers
  • Editors and Reporters
  • Publishers and Executives
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ada Negraru, “Osborne, Burl,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 03, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/osborne-burl.

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March 24, 2021
March 24, 2021

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