The Newspaper Blues

Growing up in 1950s and coming of age in the 1960s, I witnessed the end of the golden age of newspapers. The City of New York supported four general morning newspapers and three afternoon papers. (The Wall Street Journal was not one of them then being considered to be a trade publication catering to financial news in the same way The Journal of Commerce catered to shipping, commodities and trade.)


The New York Times and Herald Tribune presented serious news each morning, The Daily News and The New York Mirror’s stock in trade was tabloid gossip, crime, sensationalism and popular sports. Three papers filled the afternoon / evening hours making up for content with yellow journalism, sensationalism and, when all else failed- fiction. The New York Journal-American, New York Post and the World-Telegram and Sun competed for readers’ nickels.


The Times, considered the “gray lady,” favored substance and seriousness over personality. The staff included Russell Baker, David Halberstam, James Reston, William Safire, Harrison Salisbury and Gay Talese. Sportswriters included Dave Anderson, Arthur Daley, George Vecsey and William Wallace. Red Smith joined on once the Herald Tribune folded as did theatre critic, Walter Kerr.


The Trib re-invented itself as the Fifties drew to a close jazzing its format, creating a Sunday supplement; New York Magazine, and featuring two bright new columnists: Jimmy Breslin on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays paired with Dick Shaap on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Breslin gave us a plethora of characters like Marvin the Torch and Shaap coined the moniker: “Welcome to Fun City.”  They joined the likes of Art Buchwald, “Sally Rand could use an extra hand,” Red Smith, “The best team that money can buy,” Harold Rosenthal and Tom Wolfe.


The Daily News and The New York Mirror competed with dueling headlines, sports and gossip. Ed Sullivan, Liz Smith and Bob Sylvester dug celebrity dirt at the Daily News while Norm Miller and Dick Young reported sports assisted by cartoonist, Bill Gallo. The lighter weight, Mirror, countered with Walter Winchell, Bill Travers and crime writer, Victor Riesel blinded in an acid attack by the mob. Some classic Daily News headlines (albeit not all from that era) included: Who’s a Bum (Dodgers 1955 Championship), Ford to City: Drop Dead and Arrest Weirdo in Tate Murder (Charles Manson.)


The Mirror countered with gems like: Marilyn Monroe Kills Self – New Year, New Cuban Skyjack and 3,000 Beatniks Riot in Village. When the Mirror folded on October 16, 1963 the Post took up the challenge eventually producing the ultimate gem: Headless Man in Topless Bar!


The New York Post wasn’t always a rag and in that era before Rupert Murdock bought the paper the publisher was Dorothy Schiff who controlled the paper for forty years. The Post reflected Ms Schiff’s liberal views making it into a left-wing tabloid featuring Milton Gross, and muckrakers, Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson. Larry Merchant and Paul Zimmerman did sports with Leonard Lyons and Cindy Adams seeking celebrity gossip.


Countering the Post was the Hearst Corporation’s The New York Journal-American, anti-Democrat in spades. When President Truman fired General Douglas Mac Arthur for insubordination during the Korean War, the Journal-American treated Doug’s homecoming US tour as if he was the conquering hero and Harry as a putz. Westbrook Pegler led the charge. Pegler was a hater. The J-A had a great dean of sports, Jimmy Cannon, a man about town, Bob Considine, and their own gossip guru, Dorothy Kilgallen.


The World-Telegram and Sun brought up the rear although one reporter, Gabe Pressman, went on to have an lengthy television career with WNBC that continues to this day more than 60 years later. The Telegram featured two good sports writers, Joe King and Joe Williams aided by the brilliant sports cartoonist, Willard Mullins. Mullins produced his work in his Long Island studio and delivered it via a cooperative Long Island Railroad conductor at the Plandome Station who commuted his cartoon to the paper’s plant every day.


The Telegram’s enduring claim to fame however, was the headline they chose to run for their late edition on November 22, 1963 after receiving word of JFK’s assassination. It covered almost all of the front page announcing: PRESIDENT SHOT DEAD.


In a desperate attempt to survive, the Trib, Journal and Telegram merged into the ill-fated, New York World, Journal Tribune that lasted just seven months from September of 1966 until May of 1967. The New York Times, New York Post and Daily News survive, barely. The electronic age has pushed printed newspapers to the brink of extinction as electronic editions fail to generate the kind of ad revenue needed to survive.


The over/under on the Daily News’ demise is any body’s guess as they’ve fired anyone worth a paycheck to save a paycheck except Mike Lupica. The Post continues to exist so long as Murdock chooses to use his cable news surpluses to offset its hemorrhaging red ink. As for the Gray Lady, the publishers cut and cut and cut. Today, The Times is a shadow of what it once was. “The Paper of Record?” I think no longer. The Times pretends this remains so since it is unchallenged as there is no other print source left to call them out. Time/Life, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, etc, etc, they are all crippled and/or dying.


A damn shame! Looking forward, I wonder where folks will go to read good journalists reporting in depth about significant events or to simply do a crossword puzzle?