Fred Donaldson, 80, formerly of Hatfield, a colorful reporter, editor, and publisher for the Philadelphia Bulletin, Intercounty Newspaper Group, and Journal Register Co., and an innovative entrepreneur, died Tuesday, May 31, of coronary artery disease while on a cruise in Ocean Cay, Bahamas.
Mr. Donaldson wanted to be a forest ranger when he was a boy and later considered becoming a rabbi. Instead, he got a job out of high school in 1959 as a copy boy at the Bulletin newspaper and launched a lifetime career as a crusading journalist and blogger, tireless editor, inventive publisher, digital pioneer, and consultant.
“He was a master of literally every aspect of the local newspaper business,” a friend and colleague said in a tribute.
At the Bulletin, Mr. Donaldson was promoted quickly from copy boy to reporter to night rewrite man and nicknamed “Fearless Fred” by his editor. He was in the office and had to stop the presses when President John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and he interviewed visiting foreign dignitaries and wrote features, music reviews, and a column called Ethical Questions in which he responded to letters from readers.
He left the Bulletin in 1965 to be a reporter, editor, and page designer for the Intercounty Newspaper Group, which published dozens of local weekly newspapers in Conshohocken, Roxborough, Lafayette Hill, West Oak Lane, Phoenixville, Valley Forge, and elsewhere in the Philadelphia area.
Over 33 years, he rose to company advertising director in 1969, and later to administrative vice president, publisher, senior vice president, and finally president and chief executive officer in 1993. Despite his increased responsibilities as an executive — he was known by colleagues as the “dean of weekly newspapers” — Mr. Donaldson never lost his zest for reporting, writing, and innovating.
In addition to improving circulation and ad revenue as publisher and president of the papers, he contributed fiery editorials, investigative stories that brought about change, poignant appeals for community engagement, and a weekly column about cars, one of his personal passions.
He was opinionated and energetic and especially liked to report on what he called “corrupt government and crony capitalism.” His wife, Linda, called him “Crusader Rabbit” after the TV cartoon character and said: “He was never afraid of a fight. He was brutally honest. He wanted to know why were things happening and what could be done to fix it. He knew how to uncover things.”
Mr. Donaldson remained with the Journal Register Co. after it acquired Intercounty in 1998, helped develop its presence on the emerging internet, and served as business manager, general manager, and in other executive positions until he “semiretired” in 2007. After that, he created freddonaldson.com and blogged weekly about politics, health, and culture.
Over the years, Mr. Donaldson also worked side jobs with his wife as a printer, programmer, and graphic design consultant. He sold Australian stamps to collectors, advised his wife on her businesses, and, since 2007, made himself available online for “day or week consulting for newspapers — small daily and all-sized weeklies.”
Born Oct. 5, 1941, in Philadelphia, Mr. Donaldson was ill with heart ailments as a boy but excelled in track and cross-country in high school and graduated from Central in 1959. He married Judith Kaufthiel, and they had sons Adam and Noah and daughter Jane. After a divorce, he married Linda Kirby in 1973, and they lived in Glenside and Hatfield and had son Benjamin.
He joined Beth Tikvah-B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in Erdenheim, served on committees and the board of directors, and twice was elected president of the congregation. He was on the boards of the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers Association and the local chapter of the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism, and raised funds and improved conditions for students with special needs.
Mr. Donaldson was a skilled builder and landscaper. He had a baritone voice and sang show tunes to his wife. He enjoyed photography, cars, and cruises. He read voraciously, doted on his family, and liked to visit local historical societies and museums when he traveled.
He had heart surgery in 2008, and he and his wife moved to Ocala, Fla., in 2021. “A man with a softer heart than Fred would be hard to find,” his wife said. “He was a really generous person.”
In addition to his wife, children, and former wife, Mr. Donaldson is survived by six grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and other relatives. A sister died earlier.
A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday, July 17, at the Baldwin Brothers Funeral & Cremation Society, 11250 S.W. 93rd Court Rd., Suite 300, Ocala, Fla. 34481.