Leslie “Les” Payne was born on July 12, 1941 and died on March 19, 2018. He was a consummate American journalist who served as editor and columnist at Newsday and was a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists.
He received the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for “The Heroin Trail,” a series of 33 articles that detailed how heroin originated in Turkish poppy fields and found its way to the streets of New York City.
Les was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1941. In 1954, he moved with his mother to Hartford, Connecticut. The first member of his family to attend college, Les graduated from the University of Connecticut in 1964 with a degree in English. He was interested in pursuing a career in journalism, but as an African American he found no opportunities in the mainstream press. So, he joined the army, where he eventually became a captain. He ended his army career with two years as an information officer, writing speeches for General William Westmoreland and running the army newspaper.
In 1969, Newsday hired Les as an investigative reporter. In 1973, he helped write “The Heroin Trail.” The next year, the stories were published as a book (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975).
In 1975, Les and other 74 other African Americans working in the journalism established the National Association of Black Journalists. Les was NABJ’s fourth president.
During his iconic career, Les also co-wrote a series of articles about the Symbionese Liberation Army and the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, articles that became the basis for his next book, The Life and Death of the SLA.
Les’ coverage of the 1976 Soweto Uprising in South Africa was selected by the jury for a Pulitzer Prize in International Journalism, but the group’s advisory board overruled their decision with no explanation. Despite being barred from the country, Les returned to South Africa in 1985 to chronicle change in the country during those intervening years.
In 1980, Les began writing a weekly column for Newsday that became syndicated in 1985. In 2006, Newsday’s editor said the column was “so strong, so provocative and generated so much hate mail that Newsday editors got to know the names of all the Suffolk County Police Department’s bomb-sniffing dogs.”
Les served as Newsday’s national editor and assistant managing editor for foreign and national news; at different times, he was responsible for the newspaper’s coverage of health and science, New York City, and investigations. He was responsible for New York Newsday, the newspaper’s short-lived attempt to compete in the New York City market. His staff won six Pulitzer Prizes, among numerous other awards.
After retiring from Newsday in February 2006, Les continued to contribute his column to the paper until December 2008. At the time of his death, he was writing a book about Malcolm X.