The Death of the Daily Newspaper


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January 2, 1964, Vol. IX, No. 11

Postscript to ’30’

By Donald Paneth

A newspaper is a lively, amicable place of employment, and the city room with its atmospheres of excitement, legitimate urgency, and yet easygoing traditions, the center of its efforts.

When a big city newspaper shuts down these days, following the national trend of a declining number of metropolitan dailies, the loss that is regretted most acutely by its staff — besides the paycheck — is the destruction of the life of the city room, of the particular and spirited community that existed there.

Up at the New York Mirror, for instance, the morning tabloid jettisoned recently by the Hearst newspaper chain, the city room was big, clamorous, and brightly illuminated, with rows of desks, typewriters, telephones, stacks of copy paper, newspaper files, reference books. The city desk, foreign and domestic news desks, and picture desk was near at hand…

A huge street map of the metropolitan area was framed on the wall behind the city desk. The art and sports departments were toward the rear of the room on one side, opposite the partitioned offices of the entertainment, food, fashion, and society departments and of the managing and executive editors on the other.

In the process of putting out the paper, its staff — reporters, rewritemen, desk men, copyreaders, photographers, editors, and copy boys — animated the city room.

“C’mon, boy! Move this copy! What’dya think we’re putting out, a weekly?”

On the Mirror, the night staff would arrive to take over from the day side between 6:30 and 7 p.m. Five daily and Sunday editions of the paper were published. The day side produced the one-star (or city) edition, which reached the newsstands about 7:30 in the evening, the night side the two, three, four, and five-star, winding up the paper’s operations for the day at two in the morning.

At the beginning of the night, the staff would clean up stories left over from the day side, keep an eye on any continuing or developing stories, write a lot of miscellaneous shorts, check page proofs for typographical and factual errors, and then take time out for coffee.

“Who wants coffee? I’m buying,” one of the desk men invariably would say.

The two-star and four-star were usually “light” editions — little was changed in them unless a story broke. The three and five-star were the “heavy” editions during the night. For them, stories were revised, brought up to date, or if necessary entirely rewritten, new stories, photographs, maps were added, page layouts made over.

“In that story about the wife who stabbed her husband to death. His brother’s a Bible student in Philadelphia. Get that in, adds class to the story.”

For the most part, despite antagonisms, disputes, rivalries between individuals or perennial rhubarbs about how much to open a window in winter or how high to turn the air-conditioning in summer, members of the staff got along well. They were tolerant of each other’s idiosyncrasies; accorded each other privacy, never asked prying questions, yet were concerned about and alert to each other’s interests, families, vacations, illnesses; worked for each other if something came up and a day off was required…

Now and then a big story, in most cases a local story — a bad fire, disastrous plane crash, sensational homicide, major strike — would break in the office with extraordinary abruptness.

It would be foretold perhaps by a brief, sketchy bulletin on the Associated Press wire or a call from a reporter in some part of the city. Then, it would develop rapidly. The whole paper would organize to cover it, everybody would pitch in with skill, energy, seriousness, and relish. The city desk would assign reporters and photographers. A rewriteman would type out a page one bulletin. The composing room and circulation department would be alerted. Despite edition deadlines, the night side consistently would come up with its most solid reporting on those occasions and, going into overtime, would work through until the story was wrapped up.

After work, members of the staff often went out together, drinking, chasing girls. They would go up to Yorkville, or over on the West side, and then maybe follow up that by going down to Vincent’s near Police Headquarters on Centre Street for shrimp with the hot sauce…

When the Mirror shut down, its closing didn’t really come as much of a surprise to its staff. They had been helplessly witnessing the progressive emasculation of the paper, watching it going downhill, nothing being done about it, for the preceding two or three years. During that period, men had left and not been replaced. Disturbing reports and rumors were heard persistently about the paper’s financial condition. Its razzle-dazzl tabloid personality seemed to deteriorate, blur, become haphazard and uncertain. Most members of the staff — several of whom had been on the old New York Sun and the Brooklyn Eagle when they folded — stuck it out, though, hanging on.

Late at night they would sit around the city room and talk about what was keeping the paper going and if it could go on. Some resisted their perceptions. “The Mirror is not going to fold, it’s not going to be sold, and it’s not going to merge, and I’m not going to worry about it.” Others were clear about what they were seeing. “I had a dream that I was on an ice floe floating toward the equator.” “Do you ever get the feeling that ‘they’re’ winning?” “You know how long I’ve been here? Thirty-six years. Too long to stay in one place.”

The actual shutdown of the paper hit the city room like a big story, the paper itself the subject of it, like a play within a play. Reporters and photographers from other papers, radio and television interviewers responded to cover it. And like the victims of any other disaster, the staff of the Mirror stood around in bewilderment. Later, as they sadly began to empty out their desks, the night editor agitatedly moved to put the paper’s last five-star to bed.

The night side staff finished its regular shift. The night editor came up with a story in Brooklyn for his page one headline. A holdupman had shot to death a yard goods store proprietor in front of his wife and children. He wrote, “FAMILY SEES FATHER DIE.” Somebody opened up a bottle. They drank, cursing and laughing and weeping. To the members of the staff, the Mirror and its city room had been a haven, their place in the world and connection with it. Now they were adrift.

Donald Paneth was a night rewriteman on the New York Mirror until it ceased publication in mid-October.

[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.]