Richard Severo, a prizewinning reporter for The New York Times whose challenge to what he considered a punitive transfer by the newspaper’s management became a cause célèbre among journalists in the 1980s, died on June 12 at his home in Balmville, N.Y., in the Hudson Valley. He was 90.
His wife, Emóke Edith de Papp, said the cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease.
Over his Times career, from 1968 to 2006, Mr. Severo won a coveted George Polk Award from Long Island University in 1975 for his reports that millions of gallons of milk produced by a New York State dairy farmers’ cooperative, one of the largest in the nation, had been watered down with powdered skim milk for more than five years while being sold as whole milk. He also won a Meyer “Mike” Berger Award from Columbia University for a report about an unwed mother and the death of her child in 1977, and three Page One Awards from his union, the Newspaper Guild (now the NewsGuild) of New York.
But while reporting for The Times’s science section, Mr. Severo ran afoul of his bosses when he decided to write a book drawn from his articles about a patient with neurofibromatosis — known as Elephant Man’s disease — whose face was reconfigured after grueling surgery.
Accounts of what happened next vary, but The Times, through its publishing subsidiary Times Books, was said to have claimed first rights to the book because it was based on Mr. Severo’s work for the newspaper. Mr. Severo, however, through his agent, had already begun auctioning the rights to other publishers. Times Books eventually bid $37,500 (about $110,000 in today’s dollars), but Harper & Row, with an offer of $50,000 (about $145,000), won the rights.
Published in 1985 as “Lisa H: The True Story of an Extraordinary and Courageous Woman,” the book was described as “an incisive account” by Eric W. Schrier in The New York Times Book Review. But by then Mr. Severo had been transferred to the metropolitan desk, which he considered a demotion and retaliation for the book deal. Top editors at The Times said the move was because they had become fed up with his constant complaining; Mr. Severo was known to be a perfectionist, uncompromising and cantankerous.
The incident set off an unusually public confrontation over a company’s prerogative to transfer an employee, and to what degree a news organization can claim ownership of a reporter’s articles if the reporter decides to write a book based on that work. The conflict was covered not only in the news industry, but beyond.
“Seldom at the top levels of journalism does a conflict between a reporter and his boss become so bitter and public as the case of Richard Severo versus The New York Times,” Eleanor Randolph wrote in The Washington Post in 1984.
The boss was A.M. Rosenthal, the executive editor, who was considered to be comparable in temperament — mercurial, stubborn, sometimes capricious — to Mr. Severo.
Four years of arbitration hearings ensued, during which Mr. Severo took an unpaid leave. Along the way an internal rebellion was mounted by a cadre of Pulitzer Prize winners when management demanded that Mr. Severo hand over his diaries and other personal papers. In the end, in September 1988, an arbitrator ruled in The Times’s favor.
Ending his leave, Mr. Severo returned and accepted the transfer to the metropolitan desk. He was later assigned to the obituaries desk, where he prepared many in-depth obituaries about luminaries in advance of their deaths.
(Under current Times policy, as outlined in its “Ethical Journalism” handbook, the company requires staff members intending to write a nonfiction book based on their work for The Times to notify The Times in advance, and to refrain from accepting a bid from an outside publisher until The Times decides whether to make a competitive offer for the book.)
As a Times reporter earlier in his career, Mr. Severo went undercover for four months in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx to report on the heroin trade and its impact. In 1977, he wrote a cover article for The New York Times Magazine in which he revealed that the nation’s first nuclear waste reprocessing plant was leaking nuclear waste into Lake Erie. And in 1979, he detailed the impact of the herbicide Agent Orange on American troops returning from Vietnam.
In his memoir “City Room” (2003), Arthur Gelb, a former metropolitan editor and managing editor at The Times, called Mr. Severo “one of the most gutsy reporters on my staff.”
Thomas Richard Severo, who was known as Dick, was born on Nov. 22, 1932, in Newburgh, N.Y., to Thomas and Mary Theresa (Farina) Severo, Italian immigrants. His father owned a liquor store, and his mother was a homemaker.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in history from Colgate University in 1954, Mr. Severo was hired as a news assistant at CBS. He went on to a series of reporting stints with The Poughkeepsie New Yorker, a now-closed Hudson Valley newspaper; The Associated Press in Newark, N.J.; The New York Herald Tribune; and The Washington Post, before The Times recruited him in 1968.
His wife, who is known as Mokey, is his only immediate survivor.