Donald McKay McNicoll, a longtime editor for The Associated Press whose coverage of Winston Churchill’s death appeared in thousands of newspapers around the globe, has died at age 93.
McNicoll, who suffered a stroke in 2000, died Monday in St. Mary’s Hospital in London, his family said.
Known as ‘Mac’ to colleagues and friends, the Scottish-born McNicoll was widely admired for his editing skills and quick decisions in handling stories.
“McNicoll was the one person whom I always found extremely keen to know about and help with everything that was going on,” said Horst Faas, AP’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and former European photo editor. “Mac was disarmingly witty and never lost control or showed anger.”
A vivid picture of McNicoll at work was drawn by the late South African journalist and anti-apartheid activist Donald Woods in his 1980 autobiography, “Asking for Trouble.” Woods described what he called a “harrowing interview” with McNicoll while seeking a job with the AP in London.
“McNicoll seemed to be doing several things at once, mentally subediting running copy from a teletype machine on to his typewriter while answering questions from a succession of journalists. … Three or four of the journalists waited in line for such guidance, which McNicoll gave out of the corner of his mouth without looking up from his typing or his reading of the telex,” Woods wrote.
When McNicoll found out that Woods was 24 and without journalistic experience in Britain, he announced to everyone within hearing that he must be a genius to consider himself ready to join AP.
Exclaiming, “I’ll soon find out!” McNicoll plucked a thick handful of stories and told Woods to edit them in exactly one hour: “Tight, mind! Not one unnecessary word.”
Woods gave back half the stories and did the tightest editing job he could on the rest for the next hour, he wrote.
McNicoll took the edited stories, “picked up a red pencil and, while continuing to answer queries from various staff men who advanced to his desk, went through my copy with the red pencil, flying over the pages, leaving savage gashes here, fresh paragraph marks there, tearing out and rewriting great swathes of words and working through the pile in 15 minutes.”
McNicoll had effortlessly tightened the editing by more than half, “leaving out no essential element of any story and vastly improving the wording,” Woods wrote. He didn’t get the job.
But, “after McNicoll I felt I could face anyone in the newspaper world, ” Woods wrote.
In his own reporting for the AP, McNicoll regarded his coverage of Churchill’s final illness, death and funeral in 1965 as the most significant. Stories under his byline appeared in some 8,000 newspapers throughout the world for weeks.
McNicoll worked for British national newspapers and served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in England during World War II before he joined the AP in 1946. He became editor of the desk that supplied the news agency’s worldwide news service to British subscribers and later became editor of its world desk.
When he retired from AP in 1979, Sir David English, then editor of the Daily Mail, noted that about half of the editors on London’s Fleet Street and their staff were “Mac’s boys,” formed in the crucible of the AP newsroom.
In retirement, McNicoll wrote for newspapers and for specialist journals with a particular interest in the environment and forestry.
He is survived by his wife, Anna, their son Gavin and son Ian from a previous marriage.
After a private cremation, a funeral service will be held on March 8 in London.