Somebody’s Gotta Tell It: The Upbeat Memoir of a Working-Class Journalist , by Jack Newfield. St. Martin’s Press, 336 pages, $25.95.
The Last Editor: How I Saved The New York Times , the Washington Post , and the Los Angeles Times from Dullness and Complacency , by Jim Bellows. Andrews McNeel Publishing, 349 pages, $28.95.
Once upon a time, most cities boasted at least two newspapers, making competitionforstories-andtalentedstorytellers-quite fierce. In the last 25 years, however, consolidation has shrunk the number of multi-newspaper towns to 49 from 174; and between 1990 and 2000 alone, thenumberofdaily newspapersdeclined by 131 to a new low of 1,480 nationwide. Two guys who lived through this era of contraction have recently written accounts of their time in the ink-stained trenches. Journalist Jack Newfield and roaming editor and self-proclaimed “savior” Jim Bellows both offer an inside look at American journalism-from different sides of the copy desk.
Mr. Newfield, who wrote for The Village Voice for 24 years before moving on to the Daily News and the New York Post, is a left-wing populist in the most traditional sense, exposing the City’s “Worst Landlords” and “Worst Judges” in yearly features and writing scathing accounts of the failures of New York City government. Like many an American rabble-rouser, Mr. Newfield comes from the streets-Bed-Stuy, in this case. He makes no secret of his politics or his allegiances, including the “neighborhood code” he’s tried to live by: “unity, loyalty, fair play and no surrender.” “My Brooklyn,” he explains, “was the working-class Brooklyn of the Dodgers, Democrats, unions, optimism and pluralism.”
At The Village Voice in the early 60′s, Mr. Newfield felt right at home with a staff of “‘inspired amateurs,’ who had not gone to graduate school, who had not worked for a daily paper where their opinions would have been squeezed out of them.” At The Voice, Mr. Newfield taught himself how to be a writer and, more importantly, developed his journalistic technique, which he would later dub the “Joe Frazier method of reporting”: “Keep coming forward. Don’t get discouraged. Be relentless. Don’t stop moving your hands. Break the other guy’s will.”
Ardently pro-labor, he was the only member of management to quit the Daily News during the 1990 labor strike, even though working there, he admits, “was one of the joyful periods of my career.” The battle lines in that notorious fight were drawn when the Tribune Company, which published the News, set out to destroy the newspaper unions in New York, the way they had in Chicago years earlier. Under self-imposed pressure to back up his principles with action, Mr. Newfield chose to side with his conscience: “The strike forced me to confront myself, testing my own integrity, my willingness to live by the words I wrote. Could I exhibit the sacrifice and courage that I preached? … In my heart I knew I had to resign and join the picket line of my peers.”
Moving to the Post after his resignation from the News, he soon found himself in the middle of “one of the busiest, craziest car wrecks in the history of American journalism.”
What happened was this: In January 1993, unable even to buy newsprint, the Post was on the verge of collapse-until Mario Cuomo stepped in and found a buyer for the beleaguered daily. The only problem was, Governor Cuomo picked the wrong man-Steven Hoffenberg-who stood accused by the S.E.C. in a $215 million swindle. Call it a case of mistaken identity. “I reached the conclusion,” Mr. Newfield recalls, “that Hoffenberg’s crazy idea was to take the Post hostage, use it as a shield against the S.E.C. and F.B.I. His thinking was that as long as he was impersonating the civic patriot, ‘rescuing’ the seven hundred jobs at the Post, they wouldn’t put him in jail.” After firings, rehirings and a staff mutiny that saw Mr. Newfield and other columnists banned from the Post building, Rupert Murdoch finally bought the paper (thanks to some F.C.C. wrangling), and Mr. Newfield stayed on until last June, when he was let go.
Jack Newfield’s career was powered by political zeal. Legendary editor Jim Bellows is by comparison apolitical-and frankly self-aggrandizing. For readers unfamiliar with Mr. Bellows’ career, the subtitle of his book might be a tad misleading: At no time did he “save” the three newspapers mentioned by working for them. What he did-brilliantly-was to influence their content by working at smaller cross-town rivals: the New York Herald Tribune, the Washington Star and the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, all now defunct.
There is no question that Mr. Bellows was a talented editor. An early supporter of the New Journalism, he launched New York magazine as a Sunday supplement for the Herald Tribune, with writers like Tom Wolfe, Dick Schaap, Seymour Krim and Jimmy Breslin. He also masterminded a celebrated gossip column while at The Star (where he regularly lambasted the Washington Post’s Katharine Graham), and in Los Angeles he began treating the world of entertainment as front-page news.
Mr. Bellows gives himself many titles, each demonstrating his high regard for himself. Others love him, too-he treats us to a profusion of letters, telegrams and what appear to be solicited quotes from friends and colleagues, all testifying to the brilliance of Jim Bellows. Family members also chime in, including his wife, stepson and four daughters, each praising a man who by his own account doesn’t seem to have been home very much.
Mr. Bellows’ professional talent lay in finding great writers and trusting them. Since he only enjoyed working for struggling papers and relished the challenge of trying to keep them afloat, the pay was never very high-but he granted his writers a freedom that kept the most talented ones coming back. After 31 years in the newspaper business, Mr. Bellows made the jump to television, livening up the content of the then-sputtering Entertainment Tonight in 1981, and moving on to ABC News, USA Today TV, TV Guide and later overseeing editorial content for Internet pioneers Prodigy and Excite in the late 80′s and mid-90′s.
It’s worth noting that Mr. Bellows barely touches on the events of the day-Watergate, the Kennedy and King assassinations, the war in Vietnam. As these events helped shape-perhaps more than anything else-the American psyche in the latter half of the 20th century, and as he was the editor of big-city newspapers at the time, this is more than a little disappointing. It would have been interesting to learn how events affected the way he treated the news-if indeed they did-or to read about newsroom reactions to, say, the social upheaval of the 60′s. It’s a curious omission, for though he contributed in important ways to the trend of turning entertainment into news, Mr. Bellows also brought old-fashioned hard news to his television and Internet projects.
Mr. Bellows makes it clear that he truly loves the business of disseminating information to the masses-whether by print, broadcast or broadband. As an editor, he has done much to influence the course of contemporary journalism, both what we read and how we read it.
Paul McLeary has written for Social Policy Magazine, Salon and Hyde Park Review of Books.