Keeping It Real
An old school editor who was young at heart.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
There’s a funeral in Los Angeles on Friday. I wish I could be there, but duty calls.
I’d like to think my old boss Jim Bellows would understand.
A newspaperman to his core, Jim died last week. The obituaries said he was 86, but I don’t believe them – I always thought he was immortal. He had an old soul, but a young heart.
Bellows was the editor of the New York Herald Tribune in its glory days in the early ’60s, where he made the careers of Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe, and virtually invented the concept of New Journalism, a fancy term for letting good writers write. The innovations were all the more striking, because the Trib was a Republican-owned, conservative newspaper. At least until Jim got there and started shaking things up.
A low-key leader, famous for mumbling, rather than issuing editorial directives, he had a way of making writers want to do their best in the hope that he would appreciate their efforts, and their ambition.
Besides stealing Breslin from his previously distinguished post as a copyboy at the Long Island Press, Bellows’ most notorious stunt at the Herald Tribune was turning Wolfe, a foppish Yale graduate with little previous journalism experience, loose on a satirical exposé of the New Yorker magazine. The editor and publisher of the magazine were outraged, and tried to kill the story by threatening a lawsuit, playing into the hands of a delighted Bellows, who promptly leaked the story to Time and Newsweek.
After the Tribune died, Jim went to try to revive another failing newspaper, the Washington Star. He subsequently left the position, but only after he had consistently infuriated the Washington Post’s legendary editor, Ben Bradlee and his wife, Sally Quinn, razzing them by calling them the capital’s “Fun Couple” in “The Ear,” the paper’s gossip column.
I caught up with Jim in L.A., where he was editing the late, great afternoon paper, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and I was a cub reporter. We didn’t interact much – like I said, he wasn’t big on talking – but I got to see the master in action, packaging the news with flashy headlines, great use of photography and entertaining, enlightening stories.
When I arrived on the scene, the paper was deeply involved in covering the saga of Eulia Love, a 39-year-old black woman who’d been confronted at her home by two Los Angeles police officers after refusing to pay a $22.09 utility bill. With an alacrity that might remind you of some recent incidents in Salinas, she was shot and killed by the police after reportedly “brandishing a kitchen knife” in their direction.
The establishment paper in town, the Los Angeles Times, blew the story, running a paragraph about the incident deep inside the paper. But Bellows was outraged. The Her-Ex ran so many front-page pieces about this travesty – and what it said about the racial attitudes of the LAPD – that it led, ultimately, to the resignation of the police chief, and wholesale reforms in the police department.
You may be wondering what all this has to do with Monterey County, or your lives as newspaper readers.
I’m getting there.
To my mind, if more newspapers had the style, wit, visual energy and sophistication that Jim Bellows brought to the party, they wouldn’t be in this fix. Although the publications he edited were part of what is generally referred to as “mainstream media,” his raffish bohemianism and respect for readers’ intelligence put him squarely in the camp of the alternative press, along with publications like The Village Voice, at least in its glory years and, lately, the Santa Barbara Independent.
There’s a lot of lousy news about the newspaper business these days. My former employers at the San Francisco Chronicle recently threatened to sell or close the paper unless major concessions were made. (The give-backs were tentatively agreed to this week.) The Rocky Mountain News in Colorado just shuttered its doors, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is about to stop print publication and go completely online.
There’s no shortage of pundits to explain what’s going on, and why. Most blame the rise of the Internet, but I think Bellows had it right. “Who says a good newspaper has to be dull?” he asked.
Publications that are well-written and reported and attractively designed, with a staff hungry to do good work can and will continue to find readers, regardless of the “platform.”
By the way, the alternative press happens to offer free content, the very idea that New Media gurus say they invented and Old Media cranks claim is responsible for killing the industry.
But the enemy, as always, is not technology, but complacency.
Jim Bellows taught me that.