Newspaper Editor James G. Bellows Dies; Guided Big-City Underdog Newspapers

James Bellows, right, with Don Forst at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1978. He left to become the first managing editor of the syndicated television show "Entertainment Tonight."
James Bellows, right, with Don Forst at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1978. He left to become the first managing editor of the syndicated television show "Entertainment Tonight." (Upi)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 7, 2009

James G. Bellows, 86, a legendary editor who made a specialty of guiding such underdog big-city newspapers as the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune and Washington Star, forcing the dominant papers to liven up and compete, died March 6 at a nursing home in a Santa Monica, Calif. He had emphysema and Alzheimer's disease.

Known as the man with the longest résumé in journalism, Mr. Bellows collected and nurtured writers who loved his passion, his sense of fun and his unparalleled competitive instincts. Even the title of his 2002 memoir, "The Last Editor: How I Saved the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times From Dullness and Complacency," managed to challenge his competitors, long after his editing pencil was worn to a nub.

"Second papers have more excitement than number one. Easy Street is not a good address for innovation," he wrote in the book.

Knowing how to make stories interesting and focused, he also managed to get great work out of ink-stained wretches and prima donnas alike, including Mary McGrory, Jimmy Breslin, Judith Crist, Jack Germond, Jules Witcover, Maureen Dowd and Gail Sheehy.

At the Herald Tribune in the 1960s, he proved that a good newspaper does not have to be boring, as the underdog's motto needled the New York Times. He sicced Tom Wolfe on the New Yorker magazine's venerated editor William Shawn, then peddled the resulting dust-up to Newsweek and Time. Neither the vivid writing nor the go-get-'em reporting was enough to save his papers from financial collapse, but the cause of death was not bland journalism.

A newspaper's job, he said, "is to print the news and raise hell. How many newspapers are raising hell?"

When he joined the Star in 1975, Mr. Bellows launched its gossip column, "The Ear," and delighted when its writer, Diana McLellan, mocked "the Fun Couple" from the "Other Paper" -- Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee and his then-girlfriend and now-wife, Sally Quinn.

Three years later, he left for Los Angeles to shake up what was considered the worst urban daily in America, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. An example: He focused the public's outrage after two cops emptied their guns into a woman over an unpaid $22 gas bill. He also put a runaway hippo named Bubbles on its front page, something the Los Angeles Times was unlikely to do.

He did it all by instinct, with shrugs, mumbles and waving hands, and talent stuck to him like a magnet.

"Much like the Wizard of Oz, by giving people their own self-confidence, permission, freedom and support, he got these great results," said Mary Anne Dolan, who succeeded him in Los Angeles.

Journalist David Halberstam, in his book about the media elite, "The Powers That Be," called Mr. Bellows "a serious man who did not seem serious."

When Star publisher Joe Allbritton, returning from a bicentennial dinner at the White House, wanted to endorse President Gerald Ford in a front-page editorial, Mr. Bellows stopped him. "I didn't say that it was unprofessional and embarrassing to rush from the White House with a front-page endorsement of your host," Bellows wrote. "I didn't say that the Beltway crowd and the Sunday morning prophets would eat us alive. . . . I didn't say that we were already fighting for our credibility and this would just about kill us."

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