WHEN I WAS A KID my father used to send me out for newspapers that no longer exist. When I got older, I delivered papers that no longer exist and when I was in college I worked night at the old Herald Tribune. One day the presses stopped rolling. I can still hear the silence.
I worked part time for the New York World Journal Tribune. It is gone now, too. I would sometimes go down to a place called the Police Shack, a brick building across the street from police headquarters in Manhattan where once the reporters for something like 21 newspapers and several wire services would wait for news. Some has offices and some just had phones but by the time I got there, only two offices were still occupied and dust coated the phones.
A fat man worked for the World Journal Tribune in one of the offices. On the day that paper folded, the fat man pulled the plug of his radio from the wall and walked out, taking his music with him. He left behind just one reporter in the police shack and phones that never rang.
Every journalist's life is a walk through newspaper graveyards. The big dailies are the dinosaurs of our era. They thrived once. Their publishers smoked big cigars and their editors got the best tables in restaurants and the papers hit the front porch hard and heavy with ads. Kids delivered them and adults worked for them and old men drew their pensions from them. They were a way of life, monuments in newsprint, but the way of life changed and the papers got weak and then sick and then died the way The Washington Star has.
There is a tradition in the newspaper business. Those of us who still have newspapers write the obituaries of the ones that die. What is written is usually kind and nostalgic and often a bunch of lies. Bad newspapers are praised and awful newspapers are said to be a loss to the community and so it is hard to know sometimes if some yellow rag went belly up or something very good and very rare is gone.
The Washington Star was very good and very rare. It was once great and mighty and very important people came to its dining room for lunch. It was the paper of establishment Washington, of the old Washington -- of Republican Washington. Its soul reposed at Brooks Brothers and it summered in Maine, but it was, always and thoroughly, an honest newspaper. If you read it in The Star, you knew it was true.
There is something unfair about the way newspapers die. The people who once owned The Star still live very nicely. I see their names in the society columns. The people who later bought The Star have become even richer. They made money on television and radio properties and when they sold The Star it stood alone, a very sick newspaper. As for Time Inc., it will prosper. It will write off its losses and bring its executives back to New York and never understand that things might have been different if only they had listened. They put out a newspaper version of a coffee table book -- solid, ponderous, designed to be seen but not read. And it wasn't. People told them that, but they chose not to listen.
Maybe things would have turned out this way anyway. Maybe you cannot make money in the afternoon anymore. Maybe television takes too much of the ad dollar and radio too. The floor that seems so solid under me is made of the same stuff as The Star's. The whole field is dying and what's awful is that the process seems random -- the good papers die as well as the bad ones.
Newspapermen learn how to put on pancake makeup and get voice lessons for television. Some get paid to lie on behalf of politicians. The lucky ones fail early and get into some other field. Now there is cable and all kinds of electrical wonders in the firmament and there is something very silly about sitting here, at the keyboard, hitting out words about the death of a newspaper.
But this newspaper was special. This newspaper was very good. This newspaper served its community and its nation and even, in its most glorious days, the world. Someday maybe somebody will sit down and write about how when he was a kid, his father used to send him out for The Star. He will write that it was a fine newspaper.
And that it was missed.