Former Medill professor dies at 63

Sean Lavery

Jon Petrovich was a pioneer in broadcast and interactive media throughout his lengthy career that included prominent positions with CNN, The Associated Press and the Medill School of Journalism.

Petrovich, a former professor and chairman of the broadcast department at Medill, died Thursday in New York City following battles with both cancer and diabetes. He was 63.

Deemed the “Godfather” of CNN.com by his colleagues, Petrovich served as executive vice president of CNN for 15 years before arriving at Northwestern.

Medill Prof. David Nelson said Petrovich’s death represented a major loss to the field of journalism.

“I’ve been through a lot of people who have died at Medill and the thing is they’re all great people,” Nelson said. “And this guy was among some of the greatest.”

Petrovich began his career as a local broadcast news reporter in Louisville, Ky. before being hired by media mogul Ted Turner in the mid-1980s to run the cable channel Headline News. He left CNN after 15 years of work that oversaw the rise of interactive media. He became a professor and chairman of broadcast journalism in the 2000s following a decade of involvement on the school’s board of advisers.

Medill colleague Ava Greenwell said the news of Petrovich’s death was “such a shock and such a loss.”

“He will be sorely missed,” the associate professor said. “He brought a lot of enthusiasm in his time as broadcast chair.”

Prof. Mary Coffman had been in contact with Petrovich during their time in Washington, D.C., as colleagues. She said the “Godfather” comparison was apt due to his love for his family, students, career and Medill.

Coffman said the “larger than life” media man would approach her with grand ideas to present news to new audiences.

“Jon Petrovich was a giant of the broadcast media industry,” she said. “Medill students were fortunate to learn from the expertise he had to share.”

Coffman said she has spoken with a few of Petrovich’s now-graduated students who adored him just as much as he loved them.

Petrovich left Medill in 2007 to become the head of U.S. broadcast operations for The Associated Press. Nelson said the career move was partly influenced by his family.

“It killed me to see him go,” he said. “But I knew he had family out there in New York that he wanted to be around.”

The former Senior Vice President of The Associated Press, James R. Williams, said at the time of hiring he was confident that Petrovich would be vital in meeting the changing demands of the digital era.

Nelson said he was not aware of any plans of a University memorial and added that he did not think Jon would have liked one.

“He grew up in northwest Indiana,” Nelson said. “He had dirt under his fingernails.”

His nephew, Ron Petrovich, said in an online message that Jon had said he was happy with his life.

“He once told me, ‘If I die tomorrow, I’m OK with that,'” Ron Petrovich wrote. “‘I’ve been blessed. I’ve seen the world and have a great family,'”

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