A DYING NEWSPAPER begins to smell of death long before its end. Anyone who has ever worked for one -- and that includes a growing number of us -- learns to recognize the signs: Good people start leaving, there is less money for road trips, there is no money for overtime, staff morale deteriorates, the figures get worse as circulation and advertising linage decline. Suddenly, one morning, without a final warning, you pick up the phone or you turn on your radio and you hear the news. Your newspaper is dead.
It happened in July 1972 in Washington, when a second-rate but dearly beloed tabloid called The Washington Daily News folded, literally between editions. The word had been out for months that one of the two afternoon papers in Washington was going under -- it was only a matter of time and the only question was which one. In the end, The Washington Star paid $4 million for The Daily News to go away. The Star got a monopoly, a lot of people went on unemployment and the city lost a newspaper and gained a parking lot.
The News as not mourned the way The Washington Star is being mourned. It was never looked upon as a "second voice" in the nation's capital or anything as stately as that. The Daily News was a writer's paper, and it was a people's paper. And it was often said that we covered big stories such as Hurrican Agnes and the shooting of George Wallace and some of the sensational murders of the late 1960s and early 1970s better than the two bigger papers. We never had enough reporters and never enough editors and the result was that we never got in each other's way. But if we groused about low pay and poor working conditions -- and believe me, we did -- we also knew that we were among the lucky people in life who got paid for doing something that was fun.
The Star hired a number of people from The News and The Post hired a few of us and the assumption was that we had witnessed the last newspaper death in town. The afternoon monopoly would flourish and so would the morning Post. But within years, it became clear that The Star wasn't making it. After Joe L.Allbritton unloaded the paper and kept the lucrative broadcast properties, The Star was left to support itself and it could not.
Last week, Time Inc. executives were telling the obituary writers that if Time Inc. couldn't make it, nobody could, but in fact Time Inc. probably did just what shouldn't have been done with the newspaper. They poured in lots of money and produced a product that was a pale imitatin of The Washington Post, a moderate product molded in the Time Inc. image, a product no one was compelled to read. This is too busy a town for that kind of paper.
The scent of death had been gathering around the paper for months. Not too long ago, my husband, a sports columnist at The Star, was in Houston for a fight and he told Newsday's Bob Waters, one of the all-time great boxing writers, that things looked bad for The Star. My husband did not tell me, or if he did, I didn't really hear. Time Inc. had asked the unions for five-year contracts in order to turn the paper around. The unions acceded to the request and the agreement seemed implicit: The paper had five years.
"I do not think you need my condolences," Waters wrote my husband the other day, "but if you do, I've spent the better part of this day amassing what must be a bushel of the things. They are available to you if ever you feel the need. We have heard stories here that the news of Time's default created a wave of drunkenness in The Star's city room. I discounted such stories. The Star people I have met have been for the most part professionals. I can't believe that a professional newspaperman would need a debacle to vault him into a saloon. . . ."
There isn't anything quite like a newspaper going under. If a defense contractor shuts down for six months, it lays off its employes, they go on unemployment and when the plant reopens with a new contract tghey are the first to be rehired. Once a paper shuts down, that's it. You suddenly find yourself competing for scarce jobs with your closest friends. Or you find that specialized skills you have in this business aren't needed elsewhere. How many businesses need printers or pressmen, reporters or classified ad sales people?
If those of us who have worked on dying newspapers have felt a sense of failure at the end, so have we felt a sense of fear for the future. This is not just an industry that is dying, but a way of life. Most of us came into it not to make money, but to try to make the world around us a little better. And if there is a dedication to truth, as there is in the working press in Washington, so is there an intolerance for the double-talk with which so much of our national life is conducted. Most good newspaper reporters, I suspect, would have a hard time being somebody's press secretary.
These are the kinds of people with whom we have competed at The Star. That they no longer will be working against us diminishes our profession. That they will no longer be working at The Star diminishes Washington. There will be anger, bitterness, anxiety and sadness at the wakes for The Star across town today.
But for those of us in the newsroom at The Post, there will be only sorrow. Like the rest of this town, we have lost a good friend.