"Did you tell them what a great place to work it was and what fun we had?" my friend and colleague, David S. Broder, asked. He was speaking of The Star.
No, I didn't. Those memories came later, along with another recollection of Dave's: of how we delighted in nothing more than sticking it to The Post on some story. That is, beating them. Because it was a case of Us and Them, and we fancied that we accomplished our goal rather often in those days.
Our competitors on The Post, of course, would not agree. They were equally sure they were better. That added to the sense of zest. A real rivalry existed. It sharpened the cross-town competition, and made both papers better.
Now, barring some last-minute miraculous rescue, Washington becomes a one-newspaper town, and that outside competitive edge is blunted, if not broken forever. A special burden, probably unprecedented in journalistic history, falls on the survivor.
In romantic lore, newspaper people are supposed to fit the Ben Hecht-Charlie MacArthur Front Page model. Their gruff air of hard-eyed cynicism masks a sentimental spirit. Like good cops on the beat who tend gently to lost children and stray dogs, they're really tender-hearted types.
Stereotypes have their values, and in this case they bear some relation to reality.
Newspaper people, much more than their electronic journalism colleagues, take extraordinary pride in the tradition, and myths, of their craft. They think of their papers as living creatures. They invest them with distinctive personalities and character traits. They pass on stories of past glories, of grand foibles, and in telling and retelling them create legends. They wash their hash marks of service as proudly as spear bearers of old Roman legions. Put three or four of them together and be prepared for bouts of nostalgia and reminiscence.
It's no surprise, then, that for many newspaper people the immediate reaction to the news of the impending death of The Star was to bring forth a flood of memories and the recalling of past episodes from its long history.
Even more than most papers, The Star had a special hold on those who had worked for it. Its sense of history and camaraderie were equally strong. As Dave Broder says, it was a wonderful place to work.
From a professional standpoint it permitted remarkable freedom, as I can attest. In my 12 years there, it allowed me the greatest latitude to wander the nation, and the world, in search of stories. If my reporting struck sensitive nerves, the paper always backed me up. I knew I was not alone. And if I was lucky enough to have some success, I knew members of the staff geniunely would be pleased at my good fortune, as I was at theirs. To an unusual degree, backbiting was absent from the newsroom.
As the obituaries of last week invariably pointed out, The Star was more than just another good newspaper. It truly was one of the best in the nation. Its presence provided the nation's capital with a distinguished additional newspaper voice, and a vital alternative look at the complicated news currents flowing through this intensely political and important city.
Its demise, thys, requires something more than a sentimental bow or easy expressions of sadness. The passing of The Star raises hard questions that have to be addressed, for the implications of this journalistic disaster extend far beyond one newspaper.
Playing the role of armchair general, journalistic variety, surely is the cheapest of tricks, especially on this occasion. But at the risk of sounding like an even more oversimplified second-guesser than usual, I offer the following on reasons for The Star's failure.
Despite all the effot and money expended by Time Inc. in its last period, The Star never established a distinctive personality. If anything, its identity became lesss sharply defined than in the past. It was a good paper, all right, but in this city, facing the kinds of competition that exist, merely being good isn't good enough.
My impression, as a more than casual Star reader, was that, with few exceptions, it failed to give a sense of vitality and excitement. You really didn't have to read the paper. Its coverage was solid, but not compelling. It lacked a presence, a boldness, a sharpness in the way it presented its daily journalistic portrait of Washington life. It was neither striking nor provocative, and I never got a feeling of great emotion coursing through its pages.
During Time's stewardship of The Star's destinies, it appeared as if a deliberate effort were made to make the paper blander in look and approach.
The editorials reflected that feeling. They tended to be rather bloodless, and more often than not seemed to be written off the news than on it. It seemed to take a long time for The Star to comment on major events, including its own death. Where The Post instantly provided lead editorial commentary about The Star's unhappy news, The Star did not. That was more typical than otherwise.
I don't mean to sound harsh, and perhaps no amount of retooling or money or energy could have saved The Star. It faced formidable -- and overpowering -- competition and the additional handicap of operating as an afternoon paper in a time when PMs are experiencing trouble across the country. But certainly a great journalistic lesson emerges. To have any chance of success in such conditions, a second, weaker paper must offer the strongest, clearest sort of alternative. The Star did not.
It leaves The Post in a historic position in this most powerful of world capitals, and facing the hardest kinds of challenges, from within and without.
Already The Post's strength and reach make it an inevitable target of suspicion. It has become accustomed to being examined from every side with wavy and often hostile eyes. But these will be as nothing to the public scrutiny it will face in the future.
The Post will have to satisfy its outside critics by demonstrating that it recognizes the special responsibility now thrust upon it and tangibly taking new steps to meet them. It will also have to achieve something probably even more difficult.
It must prove to itself that it can maintain its perspective and its present high level of zest and energy for tomorrow's news. In a sense, it will have to show that competition doesn't cease when you're all alone. Perhaps the toughest kind comes when you are forced to compete with yourself.