When compelled to preach, in print, a funeral oration on the death of a distinguished newspaper many years ago, the press critic A. J. Liebling wrote:
"The end of a newspaper story has become one of the commonplaces of our time, and schools of journalism are probably giving courses in how to write one: the gloom-fraught city room, the typewriters hopelessly tapping out stories for the last edition, the members of the staff cleaning out their desks and wondering where the hell they are going to go. The technique involves a certain amount of reference to earlier disasters of the same sort, as does a story about a hotel fire or the sinking of a submarine. One measure of such events is called in headlines the 'Toll' [that is, the number thrown out of work] . . . another is the age of the decedent."
Yesterday's grim news about the demise of The Washington Star recalled all those earlier journalistic disasters, with additional historic elements.
For The Star is more than a distinguished American newspaper. It has been a journalistic redwood with roots deep in the nation's history. For generations it was top dog in this town, at once the wealthiest paper in America and the one whose impact on life in the capital, politically and socially, was the greatest. The consequences of its death extend far beyond its own boundaries. g
Early morning broadcasts first bearing the news quoted a Time Inc. official as saying this was a sad day for everyone connected with The Star. A monumental understatement, to be sure. It was equally a sad day for Washington and for American journalism everywhere.
When all the post-mortems have been completed about The Star, one fact will stand out -- that the nation's capital, despite stunning demographic figures attesting to its far greater relative wealth and higher levels of education than other metropolitan areas, becomes another American city unable or unwilling to support more than one daily newspaper.
Why that is so will be the subject of endless analysis and debate, much of it inconclusive. But the elements are familiar. They involve changing reading habits -- particularly for afternoon newspapers -- the special impact of television, the general health of newspapers and differing fashions and values in the presentation of news.
Announcement that The Star will cease publication continues a long trend -- of declining afternoon newspapers and increasing one newspaper towns.
Newspaper circulation in general has not been keeping pace with the rising population. By the beginning of World War II, some 40 million Americans were buying daily newspaper. The national population then was about 130 million. Ten years later in a population of 150 million, a record number of 54,0917.938 people were buying daily papers.
Then the figures began to change, and the decline has continued. The impact on afternoon papers across the country has been most severe. Since 1950 the number of afternoon newspapers has dropped from 1,450 to 1,388.
But these are only general facts. They don't begin to reflect the compelling personal ones, or explain why The Star held such special sway in Washington for so long and now is about to pass into history, leaving this most political of world capitals with only a single newspaper voice.
To a degree probably unfathomable to the younger generation of Washington journalists, The Star dominated the city even more completely then The Post has done in recent years. When Washington had four daily newspapers, The Star carried as much advertising as the rest combined. It was so powerful it literally told advertisers whether or not they would be permitted to buy space -- adhering to some sense of Victorian morality, it refused to let lucrative liquor ads appear in its pages.
During the Depression, when other U.S. papers were retrenching and laying off employes, The Star led the entire country in the volume of advertising printed. It maintained that position until paper rationing in World War II forced curtailment of pages and ads.
Such success, earned after so many decades, gave The Star something of an old-fashioned, genteel club atmosphere. It was old, it was sober, it was prosperous, and it was paternalistic. It reflected the old cliffdweller society of a vanished Washington, and it embraced the values of the tangible pillars of that kind of life -- of the F Street and Metropolitan clubs, of the Gridiron and Alfalfa annual tribal performances played out before elite private audiences.
The Star reeked with history and traditions. It was the kind of place where an owner, of the third generation, would tell a newcomer how Abraham Lincoln had personally handed his handwritten copy of his first inaugural address to the editor/owner of The Star immediately after delivering it.
In a time when newspaper wages were notoriously low, The Star paid top dollar in Washington and probably set the pace for employe benefits among American papers. It was one of the first to have a pension plan, and it would arrange for everything from having your teeth fixed in its old (and truly antiquated) dental clinic to giving you mortage money to buy your home.
All this, of course, bespeakes a much more than normal degree of company town atmosphere, but The Star was entirely civil, if stuffy, about it. You were all part of the Star family, and supposed to be proud as such. Most were.
On its 100th anniversary in 1952, in the glow of still great prsperity, its president, Samuel H. Kauffmann, another third-generation owner, known privately as "Old Sam" among the workers, offered a typical invocation to a gathering of employes.It could as well have been delivered at a gathering of Yale's secret Skull and Bones Society or a conclave of the Episcopal Church:
Our Father: We ask Thy blessing upon our gathering together here this evening. We are here as a family, celebrating the completion of a century of mutual service to a high cause. We are here to honor those who have served before us -- and those who have completed their years of active service. We are here to salute the faithful fellowship of men and women who are giving this institution their labor and their love, today as in long years past. We are here to take new courage and dedication for the years which lie ahead.
In keeping with such strains, The Star was decent, honorable, upright, and conservative. It was called the good gray lady, and was proud of the description. It was also a kind of newspaper that gave great freedom to disparate talents -- to a Mary McGrory and a David Broder, a William Hines and a Richard Fryklund, a Smith Hempstone and a Jerry O'Leary.
It was inconceivable, in tis own mind at least, that this solid, well-mannered, gracious old enterprise, of such impeccable credentials and standing, could ever be overtaken by its competitors -- and certainly never eclipsed.
Even after The Post bought out its morning competition, The Times-Herald, in 1954 to give it a morning monopoly in the richest, most powerful capital in the world, The Star continued to operate as if it were still on top. And so, for a while, it continued to be.
A year after The Post stood alone in the morning field, The Star still led it substantially in advertising linage, by 46 million to 37 million lines. For some years to come it continued to rank among the nation's top evening papers in advertising and circulation. But the inevitable decline began, first slowly, then precipitously.
This reporter, among many others, was a witness to that process. The year I joined The Star, in 1957, there were still more afternoon papers sold in Washington than in the morning. Combined circulation of The Star and its afternoon competitor, The Daily News, then stood at 439,000 to The Post's 390,000. By the time I left, 12 years later, the situation had reversed.
When The Star took the plunge in 1972 and bought The Daily News, its circulation spurted momentarily to 418,000, but from that point on it plummeted -- faster and faster, farther and farther, year by year.
Its old owners finally broke with their historic role and sold it. But no amount of new blood -- or new money -- could halt the slide. The Star had become a patch of journalistic quicksand. Eventually it sunk in its own morass.
Announcement of its death might write de profundis on a great journalistic endeavor, but it doesn't answer more troubling questions.
The Star reaches the end after intensive efforts to revitalize it. Money, energy, talent have been expended in trying to save it. Still, it has declined. Why?
Despite its difficulties, The Star remains demonstrably the best afternoon paper in America. It probably among the top five of all dailies. Why, then, would such a paper with such an audience in this metropolitan area of about 3 million people be unable to survive?
Journalists will debate these questions long into the night without solving them. They won't adequately be able to express another feeling, either. As my father, Malcolm Johnson, wrote after experiencing a similar journalistic tragedy 31 years ago, when he had to write the obituary of his own paper, The New York Sun:
"I wish I had been able to tell how newspaper people feel -- that a good newspaper has a heart and a soul and that to them the death of a newspaper is as grievous and personal as a death in the family. But I didn't and I couldn't."
That surely how the people at The Star feel about it today, along with many others who have been a part of its life. A. J. Liebling notwithstanding, they don't need any funeral orations to tell them what this loss means.