The Journal American: When a Newspaper Dies

The Journal American: When a Newspaper Dies

Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.

April 28, 1966, Vol. XI, No. 28

Mr. Hearst's Flagship Sank Like the Maine

By Stan Fischler

The Journal-American died with its boots on last Sunday morning at the age of 71. When the boots were removed there was a stench.

"Nat Hentoff was right," said Phil Cirrone, "the Journal-American never was a newspaper."

For 10 years Cirrone has ben an editorial artist at the Journal. His revulsion toward the paper that once paid his salary grew this week because of the extraordinary circumstances that surrounded the Journal's death. It was an infectious hostility and it contaminated most of his colleagues who stubbornly pecked away at their typewriters right down to the bitter end. And it was bitter.

When Hearst's Daily Mirror folded in 1963 it was like a man dying suddenly of a heart attack. Pffft! -- as short, as sweet as the collapse of a newspaper can be. Closing notice was posted without advance warning. It happened in the midst of the work day. Bop! shock, realization. That's it. Workers covered their typewriters, went out, and got drunk.

But when the Journal-American, and World-Telegram and Sun, and Herald Tribune passed away as separate entities last Sunday the experience was like the culmination of a long cancer attack. As far back as last June the more than 2000 Hearst employees knew the Journal's days were numbered. Merger talk, denials, more talk until, finally, the official announcement last month.

Even the closing notice might have been tolerable if the workers were told they were hired or fired. But the faithful employees waited and waited and waited and waited. And, on Sunday morning, after the final presses rolled to a halt, nobody had told them a thing.

They had waited without word all Saturday night in the city room on South Street that resembled a macabre block party. Somebody opened a bottle of Scotch. There was ice from Mutchies Bar down the block and the last of the paper cups from the Journal cafeteria. Rewrite men impatiently knocked off their stories, then grouped around the pneumatic tube that snaked from the copy desk up along the ceiling and into the composing room. They drank and spat and cursed the publishers, and they cursed the Newspaper Guild and they cursed themselves for staying in the business that promised glory a la mode, at 14th Street prices, and now rewarded them with grief.

Bob Spellman, the short, affable assistant to the city editor, impaled a story on a paper spike. "Can you imagine if General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford were going to merge and they didn't allow their employees to know how would be kept on and who would run the plant?" he snapped. "Boy, what the newspapers wouldn't say about THEIR unfair labor practices."

Two copy boys carried in half of a gray swinging door that minutes earlier guarded the men's room toilet. They hung a "Door Prize" sign over it, and presented it to Al Sekine, the Brillo-gray-haired writer for the Brooklyn section. Sekind has been with the paper 31 years. His boss, white haired John Newton, has been with the Journal for 61 years. John Newton is the editor of the Brooklyn section. He waited all day Saturday for somebody to tell him whether he still was on the staff. But no word. Finally, he limped to the city room and said goodbye to his friends. "It's a helluva way for a man to go," he said and then he went to Mutchies to have a few. The sight of the big old man bothered others.

"I don't know why I came here in the first place," said a copy reader who had forsaken a small town paper for the glory of New York Journalism. "Anytime someone asked me what paper I worked for I was ashamed to tell them."

A tall Basil Rathbone-looking colleague listened, scratched his head. "I'd like to get out of the whole damn newspaper business -- it stinks. You're supposed to be a craftsman, a thinker. You're in the business for 20 years so its $200 a week Charlie and that's that. Well, I want more than $200 a week, a lot more."

This was a Journal man talking but it could have been a man from the Times. Relatively low pay and chronic strikes have driven solid newsmen out of the business and into the lush no-strike, big money of television, radio, and public relations. Journal men aren't the only bitter ones. In the past few years the Times lost such top staffers as Stanley Levey, Bob Teague, Len Ingalls, Ralph Katz, Gay Talese, Robert Terte, and Bernard Stengren, to name a few.

One difference between the Times and the Journal is that the Times never will die. There are those who once believed the Journal was eternal, if for no other reason than its circulation, the highest (500,000 - 600,000 weekdays, 700,000 - 800,000 Sundays) in the evening field. More than 8,000,000 copies rumbled off its antiquated presses on Saturday night. IT was the last thunderclap for the presses an the reverberations prompted questions up in the city room.

Why did the paper fold? What was wrong with the Journal? Was it really necessary? Could it have been saved?

"What was wrong with the paper?" repeated the editor. "You mean besides it being a lousy paper. Well, it was irresponsible, inhuman...it had a debased sense of values. It featured death, not life."

A veteran copy editor leaned back in his chair, puffing on a pipe. "It tried to be the Times, the News, and Variety all rolled into one and it didn't make it on any count."

That's a beginning. The Journal didn't make enough money to inspire its owners to continue supporting it. It didn't make enough money because of its image which in turn is a function of its quality, which in turn, is a product of its management.

The Journal reportedly was losing between $2 1/2 million to $3 million annually as a member of Hearst Consolidated Publications, its parent company. But the latter's parent, the Hearst Corporation, has been a big money-maker and is believed to have been capable of sustaining the deficit-ridden Journal, if the corporation desired it. But seasoned observers believe the corporation simply is not interested in running the Journal as a losing entity, so that takes care of the economics. The Journal could have been saved. But should it have been saved? Some think so.

...[John Mitchell] believed his talent was wasted. He served for seven years as the writing member of the paper's crack investigative team that included [James "Red"] Horan and Dom Frasca. He finally quit and became an editor for Newsweek magazine. The other day he told me he should have quit years before.

"There were plenty of good individual writers at the J-A but the end product was a bad one," said Mitchell. "The paper assumed that the New York subway rider is an idiot. I don't believe the New York subway rider is an idiot. The J-A went too wild with those screaming headlines -- stuff like 'Women in Panic' -- that was nothing but sordid 1930 journalism."

...The faithful who knocked out the stories to the very end didn't know whether they were coming to the new World-Journal-Tribune or whether they were going to walk the picket lines. And after the picket line, would there be a World-Journal-Tribune? and if there was, what it would be like? The faithful weren't optimistic.

Frank Borsky, a solid reporter who looks like a light-heavyweight boxer, laughed sardonically. "The new product is doomed before it's started. On the top level they'll have the same old tired minds...the same old internal warfare."

A man from the sports department was listening. "The same brains that folded three papers are now trying to make a go of one. They'll screw that up, you'll see."

That's debatable. The respectable Sunday Tribune may be bolstered by the cream of the Journal and Tely staffers. It will retain its superb New York magazine under Clay Felker's editorship and should siphon off a good chunk of the Journal's 800,000 Sunday circulation. The weekday Trib will remain essentially the same while the afternoon World-Journal could be an effective fusion of the J-A's excitement and the Tely's quality writing.

...Jim Kahn, a rollicking copy reader who went down with the old New York Sun, remembered the tune he droned at that paper's wake day and he belted out a verse in good Basin Street Blue style: "Oh, I hate to see that Evening Sun go down."

Only now, it was the Journal despised yet beloved. The Journal, said Kahn, reminded him of the late Corse Payton, an old vaudevillian who billed himself as the "best worst actor in America."

"Well," said Jim, "the Journal was the best worst paper in America -- and I loved it."

So, maybe Nat Hentoff was wrong after all.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

The Journal American: When a Newspaper Dies

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