Former Observer general manager also led McClatchy Newspapers chain

Erwin Potts
Erwin Potts Sacramento Bee

Erwin Potts, a North Carolina native who spent his early career as a newspaper reporter and editor and eventually became the first non-family member to lead McClatchy Newspapers as it grew into a national media company, died last week in Mexico.

During part of the 1970s, Potts also was general manager of The Charlotte Observer and the Charlotte News. He joined Sacramento-based McClatchy in 1975 as director of newspaper operations and retired in 1996 as chairman of the board of directors.

Potts’ family announced Thursday that he had died of injuries suffered in an accident at his home in Cabo San Lucas. He was 85. An El Dorado Hills resident, Potts lived for several months each year in Mexico.

Friends and colleagues expressed their regard for the man who was credited with expanding McClatchy from a group of largely California-based newspapers to one of the nation’s major newspaper companies.

“Erwin was a wonderful man who was dedicated not only to the McClatchy Co., but also the McClatchy family,” Kevin McClatchy, chairman of the board, said in a statement. “He took the reins of this company during a tumultuous time, after my father’s passing, and was instrumental in driving McClatchy’s growth during that period. He will truly be missed.”

McClatchy owns the Observer, among other papers.

Potts was born in Pineville, on April 20, 1932. He grew up in Charlotte and earned a degree in journalism from UNC Chapel Hill. He began his newspaper career in 1954 at the Charlotte News in North Carolina before serving in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1955 to 1958 as a legal officer, administrative and personnel officer, and a supply officer.

After his discharge from the Marines, Potts worked for several newspapers in Florida. He served as the city editor and later as assistant managing editor at The Miami Herald.

In 1970, Potts became the general executive of Knight Newspapers in Miami. Later that year, he was named vice president and general manager of the Tallahassee Democrat. From 1973 to 1975, he was vice president and general manager of Knight Publishing Co., publisher of The Charlotte Observer.

Gregory Favre, former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and retired vice president of news for The McClatchy Co., recalled that he and Potts were competitors in the 1960s, then became colleagues at McClatchy in the 1980s.

“He was a great boss, a wonderful mentor and a dear friend,” Favre said. “He was a business-side person who was a journalist at heart. He understood the newsroom like few people in that position do.”

Potts also served in on the boards of a number of professional and community organizations, including the Newspaper Association of America Board of Governors, Stanford University’s John S. Knight Fellowships Board of Visitors, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Sacramento Regional Foundation.

Larry Jinks, former publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, served on McClatchy’s board of directors after retiring from Knight Ridder. Jinks said he knew Potts for 57 years, since the two were young reporters.

“He was very energetic,” Jinks said. “He was bound to succeed and, of course, he did. He was kind of a natural manager.”

Pete Dexter, a former columnist at The Sacramento Bee, said he and Potts became good friends.

“If you wanted to know something about the business world, you could find out by hanging around him,” Dexter said. “There was a mind there that comes along once in a lifetime.”

Potts is survived by his wife, Silvia, of El Dorado Hills; sons Jeffrey Potts of Folsom and Matthew Potts of Santa Cruz; and four grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his son Bryan.

Potts’ sons said they were impressed with their father’s integrity and the many friendships he developed.

“He was old school,” Jeffrey Potts said. “He raised us in a way that many people aren’t raised today. He held us accountable for our actions.”

Services are pending.

Cathy Locke: 916-321-5287, @lockecathy