The construction crews arrived at The Washington Star early in 1979, and gradually, over the next several months, reporters and editors watched their familiar old newsroom shrink.
Around the scuffed edges of the large and cluttered room where reporters once sat, offices began to appear -- offices walled off from the receding newsroom by white sheet rock partitions, square windows and beige metal doors. Time Inc. added one office after another until there were seven of them, housing a new layer of editors: a Third World Editor, a Time-Life News Service editor, a design editor, an editor-columnist and more, all high-paid managers that the struggling, afternoon newspaper could not have afforded before Time Inc. bought it in 1978.
They put a gloss around the edges of the run-down Star newsroom, and reflected the willingness of Time Inc. to plow money into its new property. But they were significant in another way: The old Star newsroom -- a democratic sort of place where reporters and editors worked side by side with no walls between them, the hub of a "reporters' newspaper" where ideas bubbled up from the ranks -- began to look, at least around the edges, like a bureau of Time magazine.
Longtime staffers came to regard the offices surrounding them as symbols of the way Time was remaking Washington's oldest newspaper, remaking it in Time's image of what that paper should be.
Many of the changes were hailed as improvements. By late 1978, Time's Star had five "zoned" editions, one each for the District of Columbia and four surrounding suburban areas. It had an expanded reporting and editing staff. In July 1979 came a morning edition, A.M. Extra, to compete with the Washington Post. That was also the year that The Star, in a highly publicized show of journalistic moxie, wrested the popular comic strip, Doonesbury, from The Post. And the old Star got a dramatic facelift from graphics designer Eric Seidman, who was hired away from The New York Times.
Also in 1979, The Star's chronically depressed financial outlook appeared to be brightening as the all-important circulation and advertising totals began to climb. By spring 1980, Time Inc. president James R. Shepley, who had championed the purchase of The Star, would tell his stockholders that losses appeared to have peaked, calling The Star "a classic turn-around situation."
While the flurry of editorial changes in the first two years lent The Star an apparent momentum, they masked a basic absence of direction. Time embarked on costly innovations without committing enough money or advance planning to make them work, according to industry analysts. And, former Star executives now say, the company did not attack some of the paper's crippling business problems with the same vigor it brought to news coverage.
Also, there was considerable unrest among reporters and editors, who argued that Time's changes undercut The Star's distinctive personality, both on its news pages and in the newsroom. The top news and business executives Time brought to The Star came mostly from inside Time Inc., particularly Time magazine, and had little or no daily newspaper experience.
Church and State
Time Inc.'s most basic imprint on The Star was documented each day in opposite corners of its editorial page, although few readers ever noticed it. In the upper left corner, in small, boldface type, was the name of the editor, Murray J. Gart; in the bottom right, in exactly the same sized type, was the name of the publisher, George W. Hoyt.
As editor and publisher, the two men commanded separate but equal realms of the paper, as do the editor and publisher of each of Time's enormously successful magazines. Time executives consider the separation sacred; they refer to it as "church and state." But for "church and state" to work smoothly at a newspaper, the editor and publisher must have a close working relationship, based on mutual trust and respect.
That was not the case at Time's Star, where Gart and Hoyt were no closer than were their names on the far corners of the editorial page.
Gart often hurled obscenities when talking to his deputies about how "dumb" he considered Hoyt to be. Hoyt complained to his production staff that Gart stockpiled gripes "like hand grenades, and then lobbed them over the wall." The two men developed such mutual hostility that at times they communicated only through go-betweens, most often through Associate Editor Sidney Epstein. Shepley, who was Star board chairman as well as the president of Time Inc. until last November, often had to step in to mediate minor disagreements that had mushroomed into major standoffs, particularly over the paper's problem-plagued computer system, which was maintained by Hoyt's production staff.
Their clear contempt for each other exacerbated The Star's ills in its dying years, executives on both sides of the editor-publisher wall agree. And the situation was all the more harmful because of the many innovations under way -- zoned editions, a special morning edition, a third editorial page, new layout designs and more -- all requiring smooth coordination between the editing and publishing sides of the paper.
"It was ridiculous. They spent more time writing poison pen notes than getting the work done," said an outside consultant who worked with both men. "There was nobody at the helm," complained another.
Within the newsroom, there was no question who controlled the helm once Murray J. Gart, a career "Time Inker," was named editor in June 1978.
He emerged from the Time magazine hierarchy with a reputation as a driven man, a cunning corporate in-fighter who had worked his way through the ranks to become head of correspondents. Only a bizarre brush with death -- a severe case of internal bleeding induced by a coughing fit -- had slowed him down, forcing him to take some time off.
But from the day he arrived at The Star, he seemed to be driving again. Gart was said to rise at 5 a.m. to jog through his exclusive Kalorama neighborhood. He arrived at the office well before other editors. He was terse and distant, rarely solicitous of his staff's views or feelings, unable to communicate with more than a few of them. Many staffers, in turn, scoffed at his patrician bearing, his chauffeured limousine, his regular lunches with Henry Kissinger and Joseph Sisco.
But even Gart's detractors said they could tell from the start that he desperately wanted to save The Washington Star. "My God, this was Murray's great chance," said a longtime Time associate. "He got a chance to be a big guy in Washington instead of being an anonymous editor in New York. It was his chance of a lifetime."
Every night at 11, Gart called The Star news desk from wherever he was to learn which articles were slated for the next day's front page. "He was fairly religious about it. He called me from Italy, from the Middle East, from all parts," said former news editor Bob Brandt, who left The Star to work at the Long Island daily, Newsday. "He was a hands-on editor."
And Gart had wasted no time getting his hands on The Star. At the first of many luncheon meetings with his top assistants, he announced commandingly: "We have to decide whether we're going to be a daily magazine or a daily newspaper." And he solicited no debate on the choice: "I can tell you right now we're going to be a daily newspaper."
"Everybody just sat there and nodded. I don't think anybody really understood at that point what that meant," recalled metropolitan editor Dennis Stern.
It meant that Gart would overhaul The Star's personality, doing away with the long features, investigations and analyses championed by his predecessor, James Bellows. He instructed news editors to rewrite certain analytical and feature stories into harder, straighter reports, to stress what officials say, not what reporters perceive them to mean. "We take great care to keep our reporting and editing free of curves, axes, and pleadings," Gart wrote in a seven-paragraph, internal memorandum outlining his vision of The Star.
More and more, the paper began to reflect the whole field of Gart's vision. He was a Time insider, and news of Time Inc. executives began appearing prominently on page one -- the White House appointment of Time's former editor-in-chief Hedley Donovan, the death of former Time board member Roy Larsen. He was extremely cautious about investigative reporting and began killing or ordering rewrites of investigative projects. He had little interest in local news and, until 1981, even nationally noted local stories rarely appeared on The Star's front page. Finally, Metropolitan Editor Dennis Stern wrested a promise from Gart to put a local story on page one almost every day. "That's what it took," Stern said. "We called it an act of Gart."
In short, Gart shifted the balance of power from the newsroom to the new, walled-off offices around it. Eventually, even his top deputies said they had little influence. "When department heads compared notes, we all came to the conclusion he was insulting us," said metropolitan editor Stern.
"I cannot tell you exactly when, but people here became aware that regardless of how many meetings they had during the day, there was only one meeting that mattered," said columnist Mary McGrory, a Star staffer for 34 years. "And that was the meeting when Murray called the news desk at 11 at night and made up page one by phone from wherever he was."
It was Gart who engineered the redesign of The Star by hiring Seidman from The Times. And it was Gart who pushed through The Star's third editorial page and the A.M. Extra. And Gart who renamed the "Portfolio" feature section "Washington Life," although Portfolio editors had "hooted" -- as one of them put it -- when the new name was first suggested. The section eventually became known around the newsroom as "Washington Death."
Yet some, like former news editor Brandt, respected Gart's acumen. During Jimmy Carter's 1979 cabinet shakeup, Brandt recalls, Gart wrote the headline, "Carter Struggles to Lead." That, said Brandt, "is not a traditional head, but it certainly reflected the time. I would have imagined if Time magazine had run that cover that week, it would have been the kind of headline you would have seen on it."
Gart's activism led to continuing clashes with Hoyt, who complained that Gart made too many expensive changes without concern for production costs. According to a memo recounting Hoyt's comments in a meeting, the publisher referred derisively to Gart's three editorial pages as "the funny pages," and called the World Report "all the news you ever wanted about South America."
The two men also differed seriously over the A.M. Extra, The Star's early edition. This left the newspaper with a split personality-- something between a morning and afternoon paper.
"Almost everyone in town knows that my personal ambition is to get into the morning field more deeply," Gart told the Time-Life Alumni Society last February. Two weeks earlier, Hoyt said in an interview: "The great strength of The Star is its 300,000 subscribers. To walk away from that afternoon field and go head to head with the dragon Hoyt's word for The Post would be suicide."
The A.M. Problem
As such, The Star was pulled in two directions: More and more each day, its news content resembled the stories in that morning's Post, although The Star was still distributed principally in the evening. A.M. Extra sales hovered around 30,000, barely denting The Post's 618,000 circulation and trailing far behind even the Washington sales of The Wall Street Journal. Circulation figures show that, rather than adding new readers, the early Star lured readership from later editions. Gart groused to friends that Hoyt was too "dumb" to realize The Star needed to become a morning paper.
Gart prevailed in many of the battles over editorial changes, but he regularly expressed frustration to subordinates that he could not run both the business and news sides of the paper.
Hoyt, 44, although a Time Inc. insider, had never worked for Time in New York and had far less corporate clout than Gart, who had logged 23 years with the corporation by 1978. Hoyt began his newspaper career at age 10 as a newsboy in Tigard, Ore., where he eventually became an ad salesman. For seven years, he had run Time's successful Pioneer Press chain of Chicago suburban papers, but he had little experience combatting the problems of a metropolitan daily. Pioneer, for example, was delivered primarily through the mail.
The stocky, jovial Hoyt was a stark contrast to the austere Gart. While Gart adorned his office with a wall-sized world map, dubbed by some "the world according to Gart," Hoyt decorated his with prints by an Oregon artist and cartoons, including one that said: "What does the Washington Star publisher eat on his birthday? Graham Crackers," a reference to the owners of The Post. Gart partisans often referred to Hoyt in interviews as "a nice guy who's in over his head," while one of Hoyt's top deputies said of Gart: "He tends toward the imperial."
Perhaps the most far-reaching and expensive change -- and one that illustrates the lack of coordination between Hoyt and Gart -- was the transformation of the old Star's local section into five separate Stars, one each for the District of Columbia and four surrounding Virginia and Maryland suburban areas.
Many of Gart's and Hoyt's top deputies argued vehemently against the zones, saying they would not appeal to Washington readers and, if done correctly, would cost more than Time would be willing to invest. But Gart insisted that the zones would give the paper a local identity, distinct from The Post, generating much-needed circulation and advertising in the suburbs. It was a view shared by Shepley, and, like Time's purchase of The Star, it was based more on the instincts of the executives involved than on market research.
Hoyt said from the outset that he did not expect major advertising gains, but considered the concept good for building readership.
Gart's zeal for local zones seemed paradoxical to many of his subordinates, coming from the former Time foreign correspondent who exhibited little interest in local news. Nonetheless, one of Gart's first acts as editor was to assign Metropolitan Editor Stern to prepare a plan for reassigning his local staff to produce zoned editions. The only marching orders, Stern recalls, were that there should be more than three zones, to distinguish The Star from The Post, which already had special weekly editions for Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
Stern said he wrote the memo on "a rainy weekend in July" 1978 without consulting anyone except his wife, since Gart had instructed him to keep the project under wraps lest word leak to The Post. Stern suggested that The Star produce five zones, each with 18 columns for news and with its own photographer. He asked for 20 extra reporters and editors.
"It was a rough draft," Stern said. "Suddenly it became the final draft. And then it became the blueprint, which was flabbergasting to me."
Executives on the business side of the paper were even more flabbergasted by the lack of coordination on the complex problems of producing, delivering and selling ads for five new local editions. "It was a drastic, drastic move, taking a 125-year-old downtown newspaper and making it into a suburban daily," said former Star operations director Fred Loskamp, one of several business-side executives assigned by Hoyt to resolve the circulation, advertising, production and promotion needs of the new local editions.
The committee members had not yet come up with answers to major logistical problems with circulation when Gart, to their surprise, announced the advent of the zones in a September speech to the National Press Club.
"Gart really did jump the gun," recalled Loskamp, who left The Star soon afterward to take a publishing job on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. "There were still a lot of things to iron out. He forced us into a position of put up or shut up, but I think we would have put up anyway."
That, said Loskamp, "was the first indication we had that we had a two-headed horse on our hands. What it boiled down to was we had a publisher and we had an editor and we thought they were coequal, but in fact, Murray had a lot more clout than George Hoyt did."
The local Stars were rushed into production within weeks after Gart's speech. The Star's 28 local reporters were divided into five staffs, and dispatched from the downtown newsroom to five newly rented bureaus. Their desks were removed from the old newsroom, and they got strict instructions not to work downtown anymore. Those who came to the newsroom said they were often ordered back to the bureaus. A dozen of the requested 20 new reporters were added, and all were instructed to produce daily stories on local school boards, governments and community events, which often meant they had to forgo the regional overviews that had been the staple of the old local section.
Gart was adamant that each local Star be viewed as a separate local newspaper. If editors referred to them as "zones," Gart frowned reprovingly and said: "Local editions." To those who spoke of suburban "bureaus," he snapped: "local editorial offices." Reporters were instructed to answer the phones, "Montgomery Star," "Fairfax Star," and so on, rather than, "Washington Star," but, according to one editor, "I just couldn't make them do that."
The Star invested heavily in promoting the local editions, flooding radio and television stations and decorating newsstands with ads for "a free daily local paper inside your daily paper." Ad salesmen recruited new advertisers for the suburban editions; the circulation staff hawked cut-rate subscriptions to swell readership. Local reporters, many of them complaining they were being "sent to Siberia," nonetheless headed for the bureaus -- "like troupers," Stern recalls -- to try to make the zones work.
On the Cheap
But the skimpy planning began to show through immediately.
"If they were really serious about those zones, they should have spent 50 to 60 percent of their editorial budget on them," said newspaper industry analyst John Morton of John Muir and Co. "But they did it on the cheap." Star sources said less than 20 percent of the editorial budget went toward zones. "The resources required to do the zones right would have put The Star out of business," said former managing editor Phil Evans.
There were three turnovers of zone editors within the first two years. Several local reporters quit, saying they no longer felt any incentive to write in-depth stories. The suburban bureaus became under- manned. To fill the space, editors were forced to put news of Prince Georges County in The Fairfax Star, D.C. news in The Montgomery Star and so on.
The editorial shortcomings caused problems for the business side, increasing the friction between Hoyt and Gart. The expensive radio and television promotions ceased after the first few months, and with them went a major strategy for increasing suburban circulation. "If you say we cover the local area news, then you better be able to do it," said a Star source familiar with the decision to pull the ads. The ads never resumed, and the local newspaper image quickly faded. Some civic leaders from Fairfax County who met with Star editors last year were not even aware that there was a Fairfax Star, Stern said.
As Hoyt had predicted, the zones did not swell The Star's advertising revenues. New ads were placed in one or two zones by businesses that had previously advertised only in The Post. But some businessmen who had advertised before in the full Star now found it cheaper to buy ads only in two or three zones, meaning a net loss in revenues. In the end, The Star could afford the high production costs of zoned advertising only two days a week.
Nothing inflamed ill will at the struggling paper as much as The Star's problem-plagued computer system with an Orwellian trade name, Logicon.
Logicon, a defense contractor with a relatively small newspaper computer division, was the only company offering computer terminals that could perform as many functions in bureaus as in the newsroom. And this was central, Gart argued, to the concept of treating the five zones as full-fledged local newspapers. But the final decision to go with the company was left to Hoyt's assistant publisher at the time, John Howard -- putting responsibility for the system on the publishing side of the church-state wall.
The Star's $2.6 million Logicon system started posing problems long before it arrived, according to Star executives and the paper's computer consultant. The company's small programming staff had a major shake-up after The Star's order was placed, delaying completion of the system. Then, the system, unprecedented in its complexity and size, failed a battery of factory performance tests and had to be overhauled. Two days before it arrived -- one year behind schedule -- The Star's computer systems manager quit in protest after being demoted by Howard for raising loud objections to Logicon.
When the system finally arrived, it was poorly installed and maintained by The Star's technical staff, according to nationally respected computer consultant Jonathan Seybold, who helped advise The Star on the Logicon purchase. Star production executives blame the problem on Logicon, not on their staff.
Nonetheless, the problems were gargantuan. The Logicon system malfunctioned for hours at a time, forcing reporters and editors to work overtime to reconstruct stories that dissolved on their computer screens. On Valentine's Day, a full page of personal love notes disappeared from the classified advertising department's computers.
Metro editors had so much trouble with computers in the bureaus that they began keeping daily "Logicon logs," recording how often and how long the computer was "down," and then presenting them at Friday meetings with Gart. During one such session, Executive Managing Editor William McIlwain called Operations Director Fran Price into the meeting and exploded with such wrath that several editors present said they had to turn their heads away.
The computer stalled on deadline so often that Gart began instructing his editors to call Hoyt at home in the middle of the night if problems arose during production of the A.M. Extra. Hoyt, awakened once by a harassed deputy editor, blurted out: "What do you want me to do about it?" and told the editor to call a computer technician. This led Gart to send Shepley a memo saying that Hoyt had not shown proper concern about getting the paper out on time.
Logicon memos shot up to Shepley with regularity from both sides of the editor-publisher wall. Hoyt's memos complained that the news staff was too late getting its copy to the composing room. Gart's counter-memos said the copy would have been early if Logicon had not collapsed. And so on.
"For this tool Logicon to be in the hands of Hoyt's people in this kind of warfare environment was a real problem," said computer consultant Seybold. "Rather than being removed from the battlefield, Logicon became one of the weapons in the war."
Despite The Star's continuing financial and morale problems, it was still possible to get so caught up in the exhilaration of reporting and editing that staffers said the problems seemed at times to melt away.
For Seidman's assistant design editor, Gary Hoenig, there will never be another night like the 1980 presidential election. He and Seidman put together page after page of graphic masterpieces for The Star's election issue -- elaborate maps, cartoon caricatures, fine-line charts, bold layouts, a stunning visual account of the GOP landslide.
"Graphically, no one has ever put out an election package like we did. Nobody ever even attempted it," said Hoenig, reliving the excitement of election night. "I thought once we put that issue out, people all over town would say, 'That's it. There's no comparison between The Post and The Star.' " Hoenig stopped in mid-thought and opened his desk drawer, where he stored three copies of the election issue, keeping them always within reach. He spread the issue wide open on his desk and turned page after page with pride.
"Look at this," he said. "I worked 26 hours on this. I couldn't go to sleep. After this, I just couldn't see the paper not making it. Then when I saw the next circulation figures and circulation had actually gone down in that period . . . . His voice trailed off. I was devastated." He was referring to the figures released last May, showing unprecedented drops of 23,000 daily sales and 32,000 on Sunday.
Realization Sets In
The realization hit different people at different times: The Star was dying. Both Stars. The old Star, the free-wheeling reporters' newspaper, had been diminishing almost since the arrival of Time Inc. And now Time's Star was giving way too. Even for those who had grown disaffected in the Time era, the second death was hard to bear, for there were always those moments, those major stories, those election-night editions that revived the exhilaration and sense of purpose that gave them a feeling of identity with the paper.
"If you spend all your time asking whether The Star was salvageable, you overlook entirely the subjective question of what kind of institution this was, what happened to that spirit, when did it begin to wane? Wasn't that, in fact, ultimately the gravest loss that was suffered here?" asked Lyle Denniston, The Star's respected Supreme Court reporter. "I honestly don't believe there was any combination that would have kept The Star alive much longer, but there was not the same inexorability about the decline of the spirit of the institution. That could have been protected."
McGrory, looking back on the three owners of The Star during her 34 years, spoke variously of the eras before Time's ownership as "nice," "stormy," "exciting," "fun," "filled with communication, with back and forth." And the Time era, she said, was one of "stillness . . . stillness broken only by the sound of hammers and saws, building some new executive office for some editor who would not make the slightest difference in our lives."
On the Monday of the week that Time announced plans to close The Star, construction crews were again in the newsroom, putting the finishing paint job on a new office -- number eight. But that one was never filled.