Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bellows and Buzz, Vol. 1

Recently I re-acquainted myself with two books by journalistic leaders of the 1970s and 1980s -- "The Last Editor," by Jim Bellows, and "Knightfall," by Davis "Buzz" Merritt. Both I only knew of only by reputation. Bellows, during his runs at the Washington Star and the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, seemed like the sort of creative demiurge one desperately wanted to follow. Merritt "blew up" the copy desks at the Wichita Eagle, so I had little interest. Bellows' book, published in 2002, is basically about himself; by that time he was a celebrity, having created TV shows. He was a character in Doonesbury. Merritt's book, from 2005, was published by the American Management Association and is to some degree a critique of Knight Ridder's management under Tony Ridder, although a good bit is about Buzz Merritt. But few outside the newspaper world would have heard of Merritt.

Useful threads to the past that can be followed from reading them in the context of the current crisis. Merritt, for example, wrote just before the dismantling of Knight Ridder saddled much of the industry with massive debt. The survival of KR would not have warded off the current problems, but certainly would have left newspapers in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, San Jose and Sacramento -- and throughout the entire McClatchy and Media News empires -- in far better financial shape than they are now.

Bellows subtitles his book "How I Saved The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times From Dullness and Complacency." For those who do not know Bellows, he worked for only one of those papers, and he does not claim great accomplishments at Times Mirror Square. He mainly worked for the two papers named earlier and the New York Herald Tribune. All died during Bellows' tenure or shortly thereafter, but he credits their journalism, and his involvement with it, with loosening up the sober market leaders.

Saying losses were wins does put the author's argument at a disadvantage, as does being a person who can write a book filled with others' praise of himself and phrases such as "I redefined news," and still write that he has no ego. But his view is mainly that he put others in the right place. The book shows the change in social values; while he largely judges on talent, he is a prep-school boy at home in the clubby world of journalism's owners in the pre-corporate era, and the final act that secures the No. 2 post for a woman at L.A. is that she single-handedly throws a dinner party for 12. If she can organize that, he tells his wife, she can organize a reporting staff.

Bellows' newspapers were No. 2 (or weaker) and he gives them every idea he's got. Substantive stories and gossip columns. Star writers in Sunday magazines. Lots of Jimmy Breslin. Redesigns, reorganizations, and lots of cheek, such as letting "Rosebuds" replace stars in movie ratings in the Hearst-owned Her-Ex. Enthusiasm, fun, give the writers their head, let them go do interesting stuff.

Great times, but Jock Whitney -- who had bought the failing Herald Tribune, the book says, as a favor to Dwight Eisenhower to keep a mainstream Republican voice alive in Manhattan -- pulls the plug. Joe Albritton -- who had bought the failing Washington Star, the book says, to try to become a playah in Washington society -- shows Bellows the door and sells the paper to Time Inc., which shows it to its grave. Hearst -- which had allowed a six-year strike to cripple the Her-Ex -- eventually pulls the plug as well. Perhaps the Timeses and the Post had simply taken Bellows' innovations and, having larger staffs, done them better.

Bellows' view is that his papers were largely doomed when he got there, as a result of labor contracts, evening publication, the growth of TV news and features (to which he eventually decamps). He did great journalism, but there was little that could be done for the business, he feels, and it is nice to save the newspaper, but good journalism is more important. Let us take him at his word. What lesson does his book offer?

I see his view as: Journalists need to do journalism and shouldn't worry about the rest. The business side is always trying to force his hand and is often run by vain, short-sighted people. "I felt newspapering should be fun," he writes of why he did not fit in with the Chandlers at Los Angeles. Rick DuBrow of the Her-Ex contributes this view of Bellows' tenure:

"I have a lasting vision of the Herald; it was like sitting in on a jam session every day, riffing your stories on the keyboard, taking exhilarating solo flights that Jim encouraged... There was a swagger in the city room, and flair in the air." The sort of atmosphere that Bellows apparently tried to set at all his newspapers. The sort of environment that journalists love, or profess to love. And, alas, whatever the quality of the work, whatever the quality of work life, the environment of newspapers that went out of business in 1967, 1981 and 1989. (He also worked for the late Miami News, by the way.) These are newspapers that never had a chance to be destroyed by online. Newspapers where you played with someone else's money until the spigot turned. Money's not there anymore? Go somewhere else. There was always somewhere else to go.

It's a wonderful view that we all grew up on, from an era when journalists were misfit tramps going from paper to paper, and while weaker newspapers failed you could always get a job at a stronger one, in your town or somewhere else. It combined the grandiosity of the journalist's dreams, the sense of shy egomania, with the fatalism of -- it's not my fault. Someone else didn't pay the bills. No one understands us. I pick up my lance and ride on. The truth will out.

The worker at GM can say: I did my job. It's not my fault the cars were poorly engineered or designed. But journalists design the content. Poor delivery or ad sales are not their problem, but if year after year more readers say, "Sorry, not interested," journalists are not asking the right question. Theirs is the view of an artist, an actor or musician -- I do the work, and maybe there'll be a gallery owner. If not, it's society's loss.

For all its many wonderful tales, Bellows' book basically tells us that high-quality journalism didn't save the newspapers he worked at. He comes from the era in which a Jock Whitney would buy a paper as a favor to a president or a Joe Albritton would buy one to hobnob with the influential. People owned papers partly to get rich, partly because they believed in the mission of the press, partly to promote their friends and beliefs, partly to be powerful, influential, invited to the right parties. Put all that together and you are willing to subsidize a newsroom as it plays its game. Merritt tells us how that era ended, to which we will turn next.

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