The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune by Richard Kluger
Knopf, 801 pp., Currently out of print
Relatively early in Richard Kluger’s bulky, somewhat excessive but always excellent The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune — a National Book Award finalist first published by Knopf in 1986, but now out of print — the author establishes the connection between technological innovation and the news. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution (steamboats and railroads drastically cutting travel time between continents and coasts, telegraph cables redefining the limits of communication), “the problems created by time and distance were being annihilated by human ingenuity, and the notion of what was ‘news’ altered sharply.” According to Kluger, this was the context, roughly in the middle of the 19th century, in which the American press solidified, and the art of modern newspaper journalism was born. Since that time, equally radical developments, like telephones, jet aircraft, and the Internet, have continued to dramatically shrink space and time, and change both what makes for news and how we get it.
The qualities that we value in our news have not changed as noticeably. Whether we are reading in print or online (or not reading at all), most of us want a good story that is timely, accurate, and well told. Kluger argues that, despite being a perennial also-ran in terms of circulation and advertising revenue, the New York Herald Tribune excelled at what mattered. It was as good as any newspaper in the country in the quality of its reporting and the quality of its prose.
James Gordon Bennett, an irascible Scot, founded the New York Herald in May 1835. The high-minded Horace Greeley — an eventual presidential candidate who Kluger esteems “one of the nation’s truly fabulous characters” — published the first issue of his Tribune six years later. In 1924, under the often-inebriated leadership of Ogden Mills Reid, the Tribune consumed the Herald, and the Herald Tribune was born. In 1967, after hemorrhaging money for roughly two decades, the paper came to its end under the charitable stewardship of John Hay Whitney, known to his friends as Jock.
Many legendary names — Karl Marx, Mark Twain, and Henry James among them — wrote for the three papers during their combined life of 132 years. When Henry Morton Stanley tracked down David Livingstone in Africa in 1871 and, as the story goes, greeted him with the words, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” he was on assignment for the Herald. Jacob Riis’ groundbreaking study of poverty in New York, How the Other Half Lives, grew out of reporting that the author did for the Tribune. Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Lippmann’s popular column “Today and Tomorrow” — syndicated to millions of readers — originated in the Herald Tribune’s pages. Composer Virgil Thomson (also a Pulitzer winner) served as the paper’s music critic for more than a decade. And in the Herald Tribune’s final years, its trendsetting Sunday magazine New York (which survived the paper, and still survives) helped introduce readers to Tom Wolfe and other distinctive new voices.
One of the greatest pleasures of The Paper is Kluger’s eye for quirky characters and the stories most worth telling. He wonderfully handles James Gordon Bennett’s spoiled, loutish son James Gordon Bennett, Jr., who took over management of the Herald (sans qualifications) in his father’s later years. Kluger calls him “a splinter off the old block” who “rarely stifled an impulse.” On New Year’s Eve, 1876, the younger Bennett attended a posh party at the family home of his fiancee, where he proceeded to urinate “either in the fireplace or the grand piano, accounts differ.” The wedding was called off, and the junior Bennett moved to Paris, where he began a foreign edition of the Herald. One day, the paper published a letter inquiring how to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit, signed “Old Philadelphia Lady.” In Kluger’s words, “Bennett’s exceedingly misshapen funnybone was so struck by this that he ordered the letter to appear every day thereafter, without answer or comment — and it did for more than 30 years, until a few days after his death.” And yet Kluger salvages Bennett, Jr., in his final act. The First World War forced most newspapers out of Paris in 1914, but the Herald’s cantankerous second owner was determined to stay: “for the first time in his career as a hereditary prince of American journalism, he became a working newspaperman, editing copy, sweating over headlines, and writing editorials that urged French heroism at the ramparts and called on his countrymen back home to rally to the Allied cause.”
This last anecdote about the younger Bennett illustrates another of The Paper’s virtues: not just the story of the Herald Tribune and its predecessors from 1835 to 1967, it is necessarily also a history of the events that made headlines during that long span. Kluger writes a number of times that journalists are “historians on the run,” who craft their work from the vicissitudes of everyday life, and help to define the occasional watershed moments that in turn define their eras. Consequently, the book includes vivid accounts of war — most notably the Civil War and World War II — via the stories of the daring reporters who covered them. Our understanding of other major historical events — from the Titanic’s sinking, to Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic, to the assassination of John F. Kennedy — is deepened when seen through the lens of how they were originally reported. The Herald Tribune, a staunchly Republican paper, was, for better or worse, an influential actor in political life: its editors took part in scaremongering during Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt, and went hard to the mat for presidential candidates Wendell Willkie in 1940 and Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, the latter of whom returned the favor by reading the paper every morning.
By the 1950s, however, the Herald Tribune was in need of much more than an influential fan in the White House. According to Kluger, the final 20 years of the paper’s run featured a parade of managerial mistakes and financial decline. It was presided over by the same family for roughly 85 years. A young journalist named Whitelaw Reid won the job of running the Herald Tribune after Horace Greeley’s death in 1872, and was able to purchase the paper after marrying into a fortune. His son Ogden Mills Reid followed him in 1912, and his two sons Whitie and Ogden, Jr. — the third generation of Reids at the paper — each took a turn as president between 1947 and 1958. But no one played a bigger role in the paper’s success than Helen Rogers Reid, wife of the first Ogden.
Helen Rogers was a small, determined woman from a humble background who became the private secretary of Elisabeth Mills Reid, Ogden’s mother, after graduating from Barnard College. She married into the family — and the paper — in 1911. She eventually worked on the business side, selling advertising space. Revenues at the paper jumped up by a million dollars in her first year there, and another million and a half by the end of her second. Her alcoholic husband remained nominally in charge, but in Kluger’s telling the paper experienced its golden age under Helen Reid’s primary guiding influence. Following Ogden Reid’s death in 1947, however, the paper desperately needed aggressive management and new blood to keep it competitive with the New York Times, at a time when an increasing number of alternative forms of entertainment were vying for attention. Instead, Helen Reid, “blinded by dynastic pride,” turned to her sons, neither of whom had the experience or creativity needed to put the Tribune back in the black. At the end of the 1950s, Jock Whitney bought the paper and took a noble if uninspired shot, but the institution’s fate was already awfully close to written.
Kluger — who served as editor of the Tribune’s Sunday book review supplement in its final years, and won a Pulitzer Prize of his own for Ashes to Ashes, his history of the tobacco industry, in 1997 — concludes The Paper with these sentences:
Each time a voice in the press is cowed or stilled, democracy in America loses something of its essence. Every time a newspaper dies, even a bad one, the country moves a little closer to authoritarianism; when a great one goes, like the New York Herald Tribune, history itself is denied a devoted witness.
They’re compelling words, but events of the ensuing 25 years have complicated them. It is a terrible thing every time a newspaper dies, but the journalistic impulse does not die with them, and history will probably never lack engaged witnesses. The dominant forms of media have changed and will continue to change, but the function that has been served by great newspapers will always be served by something, and the best values they have embodied will continue to be embodied elsewhere. The argument that the newest technological innovations could help to bolster democracy with unprecedented efficacy is, I think, a persuasive one, even if its ultimate truth remains to be tested.
On the other hand, the distinctive culture Kluger brings to life exceedingly well — from the daily grind of the beat reporter to the electric atmosphere of a busy city room — will probably disappear or change beyond recognition (if it hasn’t already). Reading this book, we’re left with the sense that it will be a terrible shame. Despite the fact that I was born about 15 years after the Herald Tribune closed shop, Kluger convinced me it was something special, an imperfect institution engaged in a worthy pursuit. On the paper’s final afternoon in operation as an independent unit (it would limp on for a short time as part of a merged venture with the Journal-American and World-Telegram & Sun), the New York office received a spate of goodbye cables from the Washington bureau. The final one — which Kluger quotes in its entirety — came at 5:10 p.m., and captures the spirit of that worthy pursuit as well as anything in this wonderful book:
TO SS NEW YORK FROM SS WASHINGTON BUREAU:
WE TAKING WATER SLOWLY. POWER ALMOST GONE. LIST INCREASING. UNDERSTAND YOUR SITUATION SIMILAR. MORALE GOOD HERE, CONSIDERING. REPORTS SOME DRINKING BELOW DECKS, BUT CREW STILL LOYAL AND MUTINY UNTHINKABLE. SOME FEAR ABOUT CASTING OFF IN LIFEBOATS ON ICY SEAS, UNKNOWN WATERS. BUT WHAT THE HELL. SHE’S BEEN A GOOD OLD SHIP WHICH KEPT AFLOAT LONG AFTER FINKS ASHORE SAID SHE WAS DOOMED TO SINK. SO DOWN WE GO, LADS, BUT WITH OUR ENSIGNS FLYING AND GUNS FIRING. GO TO HELL, NEW YORK TIMES. DAILY NEWS, YOU DIE. BERT POWERS, BE DAMNED. AND MAY TRUTH IN PRINT, AND HONESTY IN REPORTING, AND INTEGRITY IN PUBLISHING REIGN FOREVERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR . . .
Stephen Weil is a publicist at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He blogs about old movies at Images Worth Repeating.