NEW YORK (AP) — Sally Jacobsen, a widely experienced Associated Press correspondent who became the first woman to serve as the news service’s international editor, overseeing with a cool, steady hand coverage of wars, terrorism and a daily stream of history-making events, has died at the age of 70.
Jacobsen, who retired in 2015 to Croton-on-Hudson, New York, died Thursday night at nearby Phelps Hospital from a recurrence of cancer that first struck her six years ago, said her husband, Patrick Oster, a retired Bloomberg News managing editor.
Her 39-year career took her from the precincts of financial power as a Washington economics correspondent, to the earthquake-ravaged barrios of Mexico City, to the councils of NATO in Brussels and then to the pressure-packed job at New York headquarters of leading AP’s scores of international correspondents through the years of 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
In her final jobs, she supervised the AP Stylebook, shepherding through changes in newswriting conventions followed by media organizations everywhere, and was executive director of the industry group Associated Press Media Editors.
“Sally had a quiet strength that was critical to her role as a foreign correspondent, Washington correspondent, international editor and editor of the AP Stylebook,” said Kathleen Carroll, former AP executive editor. “Her passing is a terrible blow and we are grateful for all that she contributed to the profession in her distinguished career.”
A native of Gunnison, Colorado, Jacobsen was a graduate of Iowa State University and Cornell University, where she received a master’s degree in economics. She joined the AP in its Baltimore bureau in 1976, and in 1979 transferred to the wire service’s Washington staff as an economics correspondent, in the days of energy crisis, double-digit inflation and rising U.S. unemployment.
She was assigned in 1985 as a Latin American business-economics correspondent in Mexico City, where she also helped report on such major stories as the massive 1985 earthquake in the Mexican capital. Three years later, she was transferred to Europe as AP Brussels correspondent, covering the NATO alliance, the formation of the European Union under the Maastricht Treaty, and the upheavals of the final Cold War years.
After a leave during which she taught journalism at California State University, Bakersfield, Jacobsen returned to AP in New York in 1996 as an assistant editor on the Business News desk, and then, two years later, to world news, as AP assistant international editor.
In 1999, she was promoted to international editor, a tough, prestigious AP position that for generations had been held only by men.
“Sally Jacobsen was a model for many of us who grew up in the AP,” said Sally Buzbee, AP’s current executive editor and senior vice president. “She was calm, gracious, effective — a complete professional. And it spoke volumes when she took on one of the AP’s most demanding and high-profile jobs, that of international editor.”
She brought a tactful firmness and intelligence to the demanding job of overseeing dozens of AP bureaus around the world, with their sometimes jaded, headstrong foreign correspondents. She soon had a plate full of wars to handle, when the U.S. military stormed into Afghanistan in October 2001, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and then invaded Iraq in March 2003.
Veteran AP correspondent Bob Reid was a coordinating field editor for those conflicts. “Unless you’ve been there, it’s impossible to fully appreciate how important it is for front-line bureaus in war zones to have a calm, steady, collegial hand at the other end of the chain,” Reid said of Jacobsen.
She later was named an AP deputy managing editor for operations and projects, taking on special AP initiatives; was liaison to the Associated Press Media Editors; and was editor of the venerable AP Stylebook, a universal arbiter of proper usage in newswriting.
“She touched many journalists,” Carroll observed, “and maybe most of all with the inventive and creative changes she brought to the Stylebook. One of her proudest accomplishments was expanding the range of that guide to include words like ‘huitlacoche,’ a corn fungus delicacy in Mexico. That was a pure Sally Jacobsen contribution.”
Besides her journalist-novelist husband Oster, Jacobsen is survived by their son, Alex. She also would have wanted a mention of their beloved Airedale terriers, Tazz and Gemma, Oster said.
Dedicated travelers, visitors to some 75 countries over the years, Jacobsen and Oster had just returned in April from five weeks in Australia when the cancer recurred, he explained.
He said no funeral services are planned, but there will be a memorial gathering at the Oster-Jacobsen home in Croton-on-Hudson on May 18.
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