Rob Dean, 1954-2020

Longtime editor brought stability to 'New Mexican,' left behind legacy

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For more than two decades, news reporters, editors and readers of the Santa Fe New Mexican considered editor Rob Dean the light of the newsroom.


The Montana native, who came to work for The New Mexican in 1992 and retired in 2013, put both readers and his staff first when it came to telling the stories each day of the people, policies and politics of Northern New Mexico.


The affable, eminently likable Dean, considered a stalwart of journalism in New Mexico, died unexpectedly Sunday at his Santa Fe home, said his wife, Toni Dean. He was 65. The cause of death had not been determined.


Those who knew and worked with Dean - who for the past two years served as executive director of nonprofit journalism organization Searchlight New Mexico - recalled a man whose love of newspapers, storytelling and people seeped into every aspect of his job and life.
Many credit Dean with leading the newspaper forward following years of revolving-door editors and uncertainty in the newsroom.


"Rob brought a lot of stability to The New Mexican after changes in ownership and the great many editors the newspaper went through," said Robin Martin, owner of The New Mexican. "He really cared about his employees and people in the community who wouldn't otherwise have had a voice in the newspaper."


Dean came onboard just a few years after Martin's father, the late Robert McKinney, won a court decision returning control of the newspaper to him following a lengthy legal battle with the newspaper conglomerate Gannett.


Dean helped expand the newspaper's vision, often creating innovative projects that won numerous awards and hiring talented writers, reporters and editors.


"He was simply a nonpareil human being and that flowed through his work as a journalist and a leader," said Phill Casaus, editor of The New Mexican. "That influence isn't just at The New Mexican or at Searchlight New Mexico. It's in New Mexico itself."


Dean exuded a warm, jovial attitude as he made the rounds of the newspaper every day, turning on darkened lights with the battle cry of "Let's look alive here!" and stopping by the desks of his reporters and copy editors to check in with them about stories or potential problems in their lives. Former colleagues recalled he would often sit on reporters' desks and bring up story ideas that resulted in excellent journalism, as well as gain insight into what made his employees tick.

Dean also took chances on young and untested talent, giving many journalists the opportunity to learn to write, report and edit on the job.
In the early 1990s, he initiated the newspaper's weekly teen section, called Generation Next, to attract younger readers and give youth a chance to learn journalism.


"You master a beat by covering the beat," he often said when impatient and anxious journalists asked him how best to get a handle on their jobs.


He also supported his staff when it came under fire from irate subscribers, ruffled civic leaders and other New Mexican department directors.


"Rob always stood by reporters under his supervision," said former New Mexican reporter Steve Terrell, who retired in November. "One thing he hated was conflict among his staff. During his tenure, I had a dispute with a Pasatiempo editor over one of my music columns. We took the disagreement to Rob, who thought it over for a couple of days," Terrell recalled.


"Then Rob called me into his office and said, 'OK, I'm going to take your side on this, and we'll publish your column as is this Friday. Just do me one favor - don't do a victory dance!' "


He also sent reporters around the nation and the world to cover stories relevant to Santa Fe: crime sagas, political campaign stories or a look at New York City following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.


Dean was born and raised in Harlowton, Mont. His father was a county official who imbued his son with a passion for government, politics and public service. But Dean wanted to be an observer and recorder of such movements and studied journalism at the University of Montana.
Before coming to Santa Fe, he served as metro editor at the News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., and taught journalism at Pacific Lutheran University.


Among other honors, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government honored Dean for lifetime achievement, and the Ukraine Media Partnership Program, a project encouraging an independent press in the former Soviet bloc, named him a fellow in 2016, assigning him to mentor a newspaper in southeast Ukraine.


He also edited the book Santa Fe, Its 400th Year: Exploring the Past, Defining the Future.


Dean retired in 2013. A few years later, he was chosen to lead Searchlight New Mexico, an investigative journalism project co-founded by former New Mexican editor Ray Rivera. Dean's journalism experience, plus an uncanny knack for fundraising, have helped solidify Searchlight's footing on both a state and national level.


Rivera said Dean "had the ability to articulate exactly what he means. That's what helped him be such a great editor and manager and also such a great fundraiser for Searchlight. He elevated our fundraising in part because he could articulate the vision for Searchlight. He brought such an energy to it, and such organization."


Former newspaper reporter and author James McGrath Morris of Tesuque said Dean was "the perfect model of a newspaper editor," adding he always ensured the newspaper was serving the community.
Dean is survived by his wife and two sons, Ryan and Peter Dean. The family will soon plan and announce a memorial service.

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