John M. Higgins, longtime journalist and business editor of Broadcasting & Cable Magazine, died last week of a heart attack in a hospital in New Jersey. He was 45.
Higgins, who joined B&C in 1997, was renowned in the media industry he covered for his knowledge of the business and his dogged reporting. He led the TV magazine's coverage of mergers, operations, advertising, Wall Street and, particularly, stock gymnastics. He earned a reputation as a tough and fair reporter, even among those on the receiving end of his financial critiques.
Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons last week called Higgins "an outstanding journalist and one of the smartest and best-informed reporters on our beat. We will miss his fairness, his tenacity and his friendship."
Higgins, of Hoboken, N.J., is survived by his wife, Debbie Marrone, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission; a sister, Moira Higgins; and a brother, William S. Higgins, both of Chicago. Another sister, Megan Higgins, died in 2000.
He started his career in 1983 in Milwaukee as a police reporter for the Milwaukee Sentinel, a job he relished for its window into the gritty world of criminals. In 1986, he took to business as a reporter for the Miami Review, a daily legal and business newspaper owned by American Lawyer Media, where he covered real estate, banking and economic crime.
Born the youngest of four children in Rochester, N.Y., he moved with his family to Miami, where he spent most of his youth. He joined a wildlife- rescue fund as a teenager to save stranded animals of any species, from injured hawks to beached whales.
He loved working with eagles because he associated them with freedom. Once, as a teen, Higgins jumped from a moving truck to save a runaway horse, falling and permanently scarring his arm—but saving the horse. It was an act both fearless and humane, two traits that would mark much of his career.
In the evenings at the Higgins dinner table, the elder Mr. Higgins led Socratic discussions with his kids, and John was often quick to answer.
"My father always said John spoke with the authority of the Pope," said his sister Moira. "He always had the air of assuredness, but it wasn't arrogant. It was a confidence that I think led to his kindness, too."
He attended Notre Dame and later graduated from Marquette University. "He started working on the student newspaper, and he was hooked," said his wife.
Higgins could have stepped from the pages of a Damon Runyon story. A burly man with thick brown hair and a matching mustache, he filled any room he entered with his outsized personality. He liked obscure music, loved good barbeque, and lived to crack wise. He would cackle with a gap-toothed smile when asked how many editors it takes to screw in a light bulb. (Answer: Only one—but he has to rewire the whole building.)
For a man of such mass, he could move faster than a quarterhorse at the track, especially for news. When former B&C staffer Deborah McAdams first met Higgins in 1999 on a job interview in New York, "he came blowing into the diner like a black bear through underbrush. The tables and chairs in his path were but a mild inconvenience." As he approached, "his eyes flashed, he gave his half-grin, half-smirk, finger-brushed his hair out of his eyes and said, 'Tell me about yourself.'" After she got the job as reporter, one day, he was dissatisfied with the spin on an exiting MTV executive. "Higgins made me get [then-MTV chief] Tom Freston on the phone—twice—and hound him six ways from Sunday about the departure. Finally, exasperated, Tom just said, 'Tell Higgins that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!'"
His weekly analysis of the cable and broadcast-TV business often bested peers at big daily newspapers like the The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. "He was good as the best financial analyst out there; he just happened to be a journalist," said Tom Wolzien, a longtime Wall Street media analyst who is now a strategic consultant for media companies. "He was an outside insider."
Added Richard Bilotti, a veteran analyst with Morgan Stanley, "For a guy who did what he did for a long time, I never heard anyone question his integrity and honesty. He set a standard that people who run the companies, analysts that follow the companies and investors that invest in the companies would do well to follow."
When a CEO tried to obfuscate in an earnings report, on a conference call or press conference, Higgins openly chided him. "I looked forward to press conferences with Higgins," said friend and Newsweek reporter Johnnie L. Roberts. "He made them squirm."
"I thought he was a terrific journalist," said former FCC Chairman Richard Wiley, one of Washington's mostly respected attorneys. "He got right to the point. He was a keen analyst, and I will really miss reading his material."
Already, he has left a hole at B&C magazine, where he often rallied reporters with his own probing questions or genuine enthusiasm for a financial riddle. "He knew everything and knew everybody," said P.J. Bednarski, executive editor. "And if he didn't, he would in 10 minutes. He drove us crazy, and he made this magazine great."
MTV Networks CEO Judy McGrath cited the anxiety a Higgins call could produce, yet she looked forward to those calls. "We all showed him the deepest sign of respect you can give to a writer," she said. "We read him. All of us. Broadcast and cable. In a fragmented media environment, he remained buzzworthy, a master of watercooler TV journalism. Higgins, a brand with name recognition."
Despite the humor and bravado often on display, he was a romantic, sending fresh flowers to his wife nearly weekly. "He had a really generous heart," said Debbie. "He went out of his way to help people." Not long ago, John missed his own train to help a woman get a heavy bag up the stairs. "That's who John was," Debbie said.
"Maybe it was growing up in the South, but John was always a gentleman," said his sister Moira. "He was the youngest and always made my Mom, sister and me feel like ladies."
Even after spending nearly two decades covering the television business for a trade magazine, Higgins never became a one-dimensional character. His interests ranged from fine food to obscure punk music. "He always said he'd rather be the oldest guy in a room full of twentysomethings than the other way around." said B&C's Anne Becker.
Tom Freston, former CEO of Viacom, was scheduled to have lunch with Higgins the week after he died. "John had a heart of gold and a true love for music and TV under his special-investigative reporter persona," Freston said. "He had huge respect from everyone he covered and railed against. Only John, with his love for the musically obscure, would vacation in Paris to visit French alternative rock clubs."
Higgins was also spontaneous enough to surprise even close friends. On a cold January morning in 2002, Higgins arrived at City Hall to witness the marriage of Michael and Christine Burgi. Said Michael Burgi, "I had run into Higgins the day before at some event and told him I was getting married. There he was, the next morning, digital camera in hand. He took some shots, he wished us well, he went back to work."
On a personal note, I am still numb. I have talked with John every weekday of my life since I became executive editor here three years ago. I see him more than I see my wife. We have been friends for nearly 15 years, ever since the day I met John in 1992 while I was a competitor at the Wall Street Journal. I'm so glad he persuaded me to come work with him.
Most of the people who came into contact with John thought his kindness and compassion extended only to them individually, myself included. Just a few weeks ago, John called me two hours before my 10-year anniversary party.
"You need help setting up? I can be there an hour early."
But in listening to friends and reading posts of his selfless and thoughtful acts, the true nature of John's character is revealed. There is a saying that those who live fully are never really afraid to die. I know John was not afraid.
Broadcasting & Cable Newsletter
The smarter way to stay on top of broadcasting and cable industry. Sign up below