News Editor Bob Brandt subscribed to The Washington Star in October 1978, soon after going to work there. His paper never arrived. Undaunted, he signed up again, this time for a special half-price offer. He waited a week, a month, more than a year. He complained to The Star's circulation director. No paper was ever delivered to his Alexandria doorstep.
Finally Brandt hit pay dirt. "I found the newsboy, a new youngster," he recalled. "I told him I wanted the paper and I would shoot him in the kneecap if I didn't get it.
"It was wonderful my last several months there."
Brandt's solution was unusual; but his problem was not.
In the 31/2 years that Time Inc. owned The Washington Star, there were two fundamental facts of life that, in the end, became facts of death. The first was that too many people who wanted to read the afternoon newspaper of the nation's capital -- who had been lured to it by heavy promotional campaigns and solid reporting -- simply could not get it delivered to them.
Internal Star documents indicate that of the 200,000 would-be readers who stopped their subscriptions to The Star every year, some 70,000 did so because they got their papers late, infrequently, or not at all. In June alone, delivery complaints were running as high as 5,000 per week. And the paper's new circulation was turning over at an annual rate of 100 percent, twice the industry average, as thousands of readers canceled their subscriptions. Some tried again, then canceled.
"It was like pouring water into a sieve," said one source who analyzed the problem. "They kept filling it and it kept coming right out of the bottom."
While subscriptions do not provide profits for newspapers, they are a key to what does -- advertising. And that was the second incontrovertible fact: The Washington Star, in its final years, simply could not lure advertisers away from the dominant Washington Post. Circulation and advertising became linked in an irreversible downward spiral. No matter how much The Star's ad salesmen courted new business, most major advertisers insisted first on proof that Star advertisements would pull in customers, and they could not get it. And it did not help matters that The Star could not get its papers out.
Despite the chronic delivery problems, Time did not bring in new managers to overhaul the circulation department. Publisher George Hoyt had no previous experience running a metropolitan daily; he was recruited from a suburban newspaper that was delivered primarily through the mail. Instead of concentrating on circulation and delivery, Time Inc. put its resources into an effort at which it had always excelled -- promoting its product.
"We went in and tried to cause a little commotion . . . . That was the strategy," said Richard E. Coffey, Time's veteran promotion director who came to town in 1978 to design a sophisticated marketing approach for The Star. Coffey finally hit upon a theme. "I think the most valid claim we can make is simply that the person read it earlier in The Star," Coffey wrote in an early memo. Hence the slogan of the year: "Today's News Today."
Soon, creativity bloomed in the promotion of the Star. There was the saucy series of ads featuring "Sam and Janet Evening, Private Ears," who got all their news from The Star, and, later, the "unbiased newspaper" ads in which a copy of The Star stood straight-arrow while a copy of The Washington Post sank leftward into a layer of fog. Most of these ads included offers of cut-rate subscriptions to lure new readers.
For a time, it all worked to a remarkable degree. Some 200,000 new or renewed subscriptions were coming in each year, according to Carole Marchesano, president of Goldberg/Marchesano, The Star's advertising agency. Circulation rose 11,000 in the first year of Time's ownership and another 5,000 the second year. Then, in the last year, circulation plunged 23,000.
How did it all change so suddenly? Many Star executives attribute it to the old, vicious cycle of promotion and circulation. Thousands who signed up during the cut-rate offers canceled when the discounts expired. Others canceled because they could not get their papers, or declined to resubscribe during the last six months when The Star was selling only at the full price.
"Any time we put out a half-price offer, you could jack the circulation up 40,000 to 50,000," said Associate Editor Sidney Epstein. "The problem was the stuff didn't stick." Asked whether The Star's delivery system worked, Epstein replied: "Even the circulation director would tell you no."
By one analysis, it took The Star just over 12 months to sell enough new subscriptions to equal the paper's home-delivery circulation. It took only about 11 months for that number of subscriptions to be canceled. About 30 percent of The Star's cancellations came because of poor delivery, compared with 20 percent of Post cancellations.
A member of The Star's board of directors who declined to be identified, said: "Probably the most serious problem at the Star was the inability of management to put together a circulation group that could get that paper into the hands of people to read." Star Circulation Director Frank Anderson did not return reporters' phone calls.
Star board chairman James R. Shepley, in a press conference announcing Time's plans to close The Star, attributed some of the delivery problem on the Teamsters Union contract, which he said left little incentive for building sales. But union officials contend the contract had more flexibility than The Star acknowledged. Other Star officials blame afternoon traffic jams, which do not plague the morning Post.
Some officials blame delivery problems partly on the confusion caused by the promotions themselves. The string of discount offers "not only created chaos for carriers, but also for route managers and the director of circulation. You never knew what you had," said a former Star promotion manager. "They were in there working all day and all night, crossing names off the books and putting others on. It all had to be done by hand."
For all of these reasons, circulation charts in the Time era look like a "yo-yo. Up and down, up and down," the former promotion manager said. "Except that each time down, you sank just a little bit lower."
Annual circulation figures released in May 1980 showed The Star still on the rise. But starting that very month, The Star's circulation entered its final downward spiral, according to internal Star reports. Star officials, aware of the trend, faced a choice between continuing the expensive promotions, which had not increased the number of permanent subscribers, or letting the air out of the circulation balloon.
The debate was chronicled in several memos that circulated in the department. "If we show two consecutive drops in circulation, it will be hard to combat the image of a declining paper," warned one memo. "Rumors will sweep the market about Time 'giving up' on The Star." Several memos noted the critical link between circulation and advertising. If circulation drops, advertisers will desert The Star, making the paper thinner and even more difficult to market, one memo predicted. "We should begin to develop a plan for the sales staff so we can negate their the circulation figures' impact," cautioned a memo from Star marketing director John Heyd.
All the while, The Star's advertising sales staff was doggedly pounding the street in search of new business, fighting the law of newspaper economics. "If you fall much below 50 percent of the market share of circulation, you lose a disproportionate share of the advertising revenue," is the way industry analyst John Morton of John Muir and Co. explains the law.
With The Star's circulation at 36 percent of the Washington market, Star ad salesmen became very familiar with the law; they heard it stated almost every day by large and small advertisers:
"We would try various tests with The Star and we never got a good return on investment," said Dart Drug Corp. advertising director Neil Kaplan. His company spent $1.8 million in The Post last year and only $525,000 in The Star.
"We ran an ad in The Post . . . and we would get a response. We would run an ad in The Star and zippo," said Doug Grimsley, an owner of Brothers Furniture Co. in Northern Virginia. "We never got any response at all. That's about it."
"It just did not pull," Michael Murray, ad director for Marlo Furniture, said of The Star.
Time had hoped to increase circulation to over 400,000 -- it was 329,147 when Time bought The Star, compared to The Post's 561,640 -- and boost its advertising share from 28.1 to 40 percent, said Jack Valenti, a member of The Star board of directors. "At 60-40 percent you can make a go of it . . . . I thought there was a chance to turn this around."
"In Time's behalf, when you just look at a city like Washington, and you look at a daily with more than 300,000 circulation, you can't believe you can't go into a city like that and at least sell enough ads to break even," said Eugene Patterson, publisher of The St. Petersburg Times, with whom Shepley discussed his ideas about The Star.
Shepley himself courted major advertisers in an effort to drum up business, as did Gart. And advertising salesmen kept up the fight, although they complained about a lack of resources. "When I was in New York, I had all the resources of Time Inc. at my disposal. Locally, however, we had problems," said former Star national advertising director Bob Booth. "I was talking with one account and all I could do for him was take him to the best restaurant in Manassas. I found out later that The Post took him to the Preakness and fishing in Nova Scotia . . . . Our Redskin seats, when we could get them, might as well have been on the pontoon of the Goodyear blimp."
"They tried hard, I'll tell you that," Montgomery Ward & Co. advertising supervisor Thomas Wilmot said of The Star's salesmen. "They came at us with discounts, package deals, half price, the last one they had was 'buy a full page Sunday and get a second page at half price.' It's a good paper. I like The Star myself."
Despite the efforts, The Star slipped even further behind The Post in the 31/2 years under Time. Its 28.1 percent share of advertising linage in 1978 had dropped to 25.1 percent in May 1981. Star officials blame the drop largely on the 1980 recession, which, coupled with rising advertising rates, forced merchants to cut back on newspaper ads. And, the officials say, most merchants chose to cut ads from The Star, rather than The Post, which reached more readers.
Hoyt charged publicly that Post ad salesmen used "scare tactics" on potential Star customers, warning that unless they gave more business to The Post, they would not get good placement once The Star folded. However, two dozen merchants surveyed by Post reporters said they never heard those warnings.
"The Post turned out to be an even more formidable competitor than we imagined," Time Inc. President J. Richard Munro said at the July 23 press conference announcing The Star's impending demise. He said Time gave The Star "our best shot; we could not take away from Mrs. Graham any market share on the advertising front . . . . That was one of our basic assumptions when we bought The Star."
Speaking at the same press conference, Time Editor-in-Chief Henry Grunwald made a full circle of The Star's advertising-circulation woes. If it takes readers to lure ads, it also takes ads to lure readers, Grunwald said. Asked what he believed The Post offered readers that The Star did not, he answered: "the ads, of which unfortunately we did not provide enough."
"Are you serious about the ads?" a reporter asked.
"I'm quite serious about the ads," Grunwald answered, expressing the widely held belief that many readers subscribe to newspapers primarily to read ads.
With circulation and advertising pulling each other ever downward, Star officials braced themselves for a jolt in the wake of the decision six months ago to do away with cut-rate subscriptions. It was hoped, officials said, that The Star could build circulation from a solid core of full-rate subscribers, although the transition was sure to be rocky.
The jolt came in May, when audited circulation figures for the 12 months ending March 1981 were made public. The Star's daily circulation had fallen to 322,827, more than 6,000 below the daily total in the year of Time's purchase, and its lowest since The Star's 1972 merger with the tabloid Washington Daily News. Its Sunday circulation had dropped to 294,000, the lowest since 1960. But those were yearly averages. The Star's real circulation in the month before it closed was even lower, according to sources: about 300,000 daily and 280,000 Sunday.
"We didn't have any more rabbits to pull out of the hat," observed one Star official. "You couldn't do it with mirrors anymore."
Beginning of the End
The last chapter of The Star's 128-year history began June 18 at the A Bar A dude ranch in Encampment, Wyo., where the Time Inc. board of directors had gone for a monthly board meeting and a breath of fresh air.
Surrounded by wood-paneled walls adorned with stuffed game and Indian blankets, Star board chairman Shepley delivered a presentation on the paper's troubled financial condition. Circulation was plummeting, the paper was losing money at the rate of $20 million a year, and there was no end in sight, reported Shepley, the recently retired Time Inc. president who had looked on The Star as his pet project.
"The problems were clear," one board member recalled. Several options were suggested. "The option to close was always there, even from the beginning, but it was never anybody's favorite option . . . .
"I knew when I left there that I'd have to make a decision, but whether it would be a month or six weeks or two months, I didn't know."
One option that was immediately dismissed was the transformation of The Star into a spicy tabloid. "There are editorial standards that the company prides itself on that a tabloid would not meet," one board member said. Cutting out the weekend papers had considerable appeal, but even that would not staunch the financial hemorrhaging.
The last option died in mid-July when Star management and The Post could not reach a joint operating agreement. The talks had begun in mid-April and the two sides had met four times -- Post Company board chairman Katharine Graham, board member Warren Buffett and publisher Donald Graham on one side; Shepley and Time Inc. board member Sol Linowitz on the other. But both sides soon recognized that The Star's losses exceeded The Post's after-tax profits. Any marriage would eat away Post income.
Not 'Whether' but 'When'
At that point, several board members said, the question shifted to when -- not whether -- Time would stop publishing The Star. The corporation had spent $85 million on the struggling newspaper in a little more than three years -- $25 million more than expected in the first five years -- for an after-tax loss of $35 million.
On July 16, the board met on the 47th floor of the Time-Life Building, and for four hours debated, as one director recalled, "if there was the slightest possibility of anything else . . . .There's a personality about a newspaper. It's a living, breathing entity. You feel guilty about putting it to rest."
The sentiment to close was unanimous. Details were left to an executive committee, headed by Shepley, the man who hatched the dream of rescuing The Star with Time's plentiful resources. On Wednesday, the 22nd, Shepley's committee met in the 34th floor Chart Room, and voted unanimously to close The Star on Aug. 7, 1981. The proceedings took 30 minutes. Gart, the only Star official present, checked the time as the vote was cast. It was 12:18 p.m.
Everyone present was instructed to keep the decision secret until 8 a.m. the next day, when Time Inc. would release it to the wire services -- "to make sure that we maintained control of the announcement," said board member Henry Luce III, son of Time Inc.'s founder. The board members then retired to a private dining room on the 47th floor for lunch.
At about the same moment, the Star newsroom was swimming with rumors of impending, momentous changes in the paper's management. All that was known was that on Tuesday Gart had been flown to New York aboard Time's corporate jet for an emergency meeting at Time's headquarters. Some staffers were darkly predicting that Time Inc. was about to fold The Star, a theory quickly discounted by several deputy editors who learned that Gart, as he passed his secretary on the way out, was smiling.
The rumors intensified on Wednesday, when Gart still had not returned, but virtually no one feared the worst. That night, Gart put in his regular call to the news desk just after midnight to discuss the next day's front page with Managing Editor Stanley Cloud. Gart said nothing of the board's decision.
Gart and Associate Editor Sidney Epstein summoned The Star's top editors early Thursday for an emergency 7 a.m. session in Gart's office, in the last hour before Time released the news to the world.
Gart distributed the authorized Time Inc. press release to his assembled editors and waited for the news to sink in. Metro editor Dennis Stern flipped furiously through his, to find it misstapled: pages 1-3-2.
Gart told the stunned group he had fought hard to save The Star. Executive Managing Editor William F. McIlwain called Time Inc. "shabby" for not providing the staff with details of severance pay. "The last thing Time Inc. would want to be perceived as is shabby," he would say later. "The damn word came out and I was delighted with its choice because it does have a sound about it -- shabby."
Gart asked those left in the meeting to keep the news under wraps until 8 a.m., as Time had asked. They balked, insisting that their staffs should not have to hear of the paper's death from the radio. Gart relented, but it was already 7:45, too late to reach most of the staff before the radio broadcast.
"I thought I was dreaming," said reporter Ken Walker, awakened just after 8 by his radio alarm bringing him news of The Star's demise. Walker drowsily pushed the extra-sleep button on the radio, and dozed back off, only to be reawakened minutes later by another bulletin about the death of The Star.
The scene was replayed all over town. Staffers lurched out of bed and rushed to The Star building in disbelief. On the subway from Cheverly, editorial writer Woody West had the same eerie sense that, he imagined, "Columbus might have had if he had indeed gone off the edge, because all of a sudden there was an edge. I had been convinced the world was round."
Employes waded through a phalanx of waiting television cameras and newsmen outside The Star building. Some staffers expressed rage, some sadness, some shock. Within hours, the newsroom phones were ringing with job offers from major papers around the country, a consoling reminder to the staff that their work had been noted. For many, this changed the grief to giddiness. For mechanical and business employes, the job opportunities would be scarcer.
The staff's bitterness toward Time Inc. grew as the day wore on. Some noted that Time president Munro had visited Time magazine's Washington bureau after the hour-long press conference about The Star's impending death, but had not come by The Star newsroom. Reporters read Time's press release, which was posted around the cluttered newsroom, and some cursed at it.
"If I had been there as a reporter, I would have said 'How irresponsible and terrible for this corporation to do what it did,' " said one Time Inc. board member who asked not to be named. "But that isn't the way it was done at all. It was done with great sadness. And it was not done irresponsibly."
Amid the chaos and hysteria, veteran police reporter Charles McAleer, 62, soldiered on, calling police sources to get the day's news. "McAleer, The Star," he said into his phone again and again. "Well, you won't hear my melodious voice after two weeks."
McAleer, who came to work at The Star as a copy boy in 1937, wrote his daily "shorts" -- a murder in the District, an accident on George Washington Parkway, an escape from police headquarters. "Why are you doing that?" a young reporter asked in amazement. "I don't want to see us miss anything," McAleer answered. "Somebody had to get them in. I don't like seeing them left out."
Managing Editor Ed Jackson, who had been in San Francisco the day before urging Time magazine's bureau to file more stories for The Star on the Time-Life News Service, called back the bureau chief to tell her to forget it.
Gart remained in his office much of the morning. Few staffers knew it, but he was calling editors of the nation's 10 leading newspapers seeking jobs for his reporters and editors. Shortly after noon, he wandered into the newsroom and talked with a cluster of reporters. He shook hands with some of them.
"It would be noble if you'd say something to the troops," reporter Lyle Denniston said. "I don't get paid for being noble," Gart muttered.
"Murray, did you fight to save it?" asked another. Gart spun around and shot back: "To the end."
Gart proferred his hand to syndicated columnist Mary McGrory, a Star staffer for 34 years. But McGrory, who bitterly resented Gart for much of his tenure, declined. "I wanted to say to him: You were never part of this," she would say later.
All the while, McIlwain hobbled around the newsroom on crutches, recovering from a recent foot operation. "I can't believe it," he said again and again. "The guy doesn't have the courage to face his staff." Later, huddling with McGrory, McIlwain said: "I blame him for everything. I blame him for the weather. I blame him for my foot."
McIlwain, viewed by many as Gart's foil because of his gentle style, had given notice several weeks earlier. He was quitting The Star that day -- partly because of his disaffection with Gart, he later explained -- to become editor of The Arkansas Gazette. A going-away party for McIlwain had been scheduled for 5 that afternoon. Gart advanced the time to 3, and turned it into a wake for the paper, open to all. The Moet Chandon champagne flowed, reporters hugged and sang and cried.
Finally, at 5:06 p.m., Gart climbed atop a desk.. "I can't tell you how sorry I am this happened, and I think all of you are a credit to yourselves," he said. "I love you all." There was some applause, some muffled hissing.
Then Gart motioned across the room to the white-haired, bearded McIlwain, who stood on another desk top, propped on his crutches. Gart wished the departing editor well, and McIlwain began to speak.
All at once, spontaneously, the mob of reporters began to applaud. The clapping drowned out McIlwain's soft, folksy voice. It grew louder; then the cheering began. Then the foot-stomping. Then the whole room was stomping and cheering, a roar that swelled as McIlwain looked on in awkward amazement.
"A lot of it was a sort of tribute to McIlwain who had fought, however unsuccessfully, for some of the creative ideas that Gart so disliked. Some of it was people venting their frustration and anger at Murray and Time and everything they represent," said reporter Howie Kurtz. "It went for two minutes, but it seemed like an eternity. I was applauding and screaming and it was like being at a ball game in the ninth inning. It was a lot of repressed emotion rushing to the surface. It was almost like Murray versus Bill, not as individuals but what they represented . . . .
"And then the moment had passed."
For its final two weeks, The Star was a living theater of emotions -- nostalgia, anger, courage, humor, fear and more. McGrory emerged as one of the most vocal defenders of The Star's institutional spirit, rallying young reporters at every chance to keep writing, to do their best until the end, to show Washington and the nation what was being lost. In her Sunday column on the weekend after Time Inc.'s announcement, she railed against "the scandal and the outrage" of The Star's death.
The column, in a way, became McGrory's last stand. On Saturday, Gart attempted to delay its publication until The Star's final day, lest it scare away potential buyers. Enraged, McGrory threatened to quit. "I said the last day would be too late," McGrory recalled telling Gart. "Being professional is writing even when it involves you." Gart relented, and the column was published.
"It was the first argument I've won with him," McGrory observed wryly. "I guess he realized it might look a little odd if a longtime employe quit and forfeited severance and said: 'Free speech is dead at The Washington Star.' "
Three days before The Star published its last edition, McGrory marked her 34th anniversary on the staff. Two of her admirers, reporters Allan Frank and Phil Gailey, ordered 35 long-stemmed red roses and champagne for a surprise party. About 20 reporters and clerks in the near-empty newsroom gathered around the slim, gray-haired McGrory, a Pulitzer Prize winner known for her acerbic and elegant prose. And then she began to speak:
"I always dreamed that the best way to go would be to be carried out between editions," McGrory said, as her small audience laughed through tears. She noted that she had often been asked why she stayed at The Star so long. "One of the reasons I couldn't ever leave The Star was I couldn't imagine what the farewell party would be like. And now I don't have to. And isn't that nice?"