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The Life And Death Of A Great Newspaper
Horace Greeley founded the “Trib”— and the union that eventually helped kill it. But in 125 years it knew many a shining hour.
October 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 6
I am a true blue American and I want to see Uncle Sam prepared to lick all creation like John Paul Jones did.
P.S.—Please call the battleship America .”
Marjorie never got her battleship—the exigencies of the military situation just did not call for one at the time—but the Battleship America Fund did win both prestige and circulation for the Tribune. Nevertheless, the increasing receipts did not enable Reid to match, in the years following World War I, the solid economic foundations that Ochs and his heirs, the Sulzbergers, were building to support the news-gathering expenditures of the New York Times. And while the Times poured its profits back into development, the Reids were finding it a struggle merely to approximate their competitor’s daily news operations. Ogden Reid was not unwilling to invest a share of the Tribune’s profits; there were simply no profits to invest. In 1922 his brilliant wife, Helen Rogers Reid, who had taken over the business management of the paper, threw a banquet for its executives. “It’s been a glorious year,” she announced. “We only lost $150,000.”
During the twenties, the paper made great progress with department-store advertising, which Helen Reid, an ex-suffragette, went after aggressively. With this new momentum, money was borrowed to erect a plant on Fortieth Street, between Seventh and Eighth avenues. And in 1924, five million dollars more went to purchase the competing New York Herald. Remembered primarily as the paper that had sent Stanley to find Livingstone, the Herald and its father-and-son publishers. James Gordon Bennett, Senior and Junior, had made a number of contributions to the newspaper business. The paper virtually discovered Wall Street, and it led in financial news. It was also the first paper to give serious coverage of crime news, and before falling into the hands of newspaper entrepreneur Frank Munsey in 1920, it was unexcelled in foreign coverage. Munsey soon came to the conclusion that his newest property and the Tribune were knocking each other out in competition for the same readers. “Do you buy us, or do we buy you?” he asked the Reids. “We buy you,” Whitelaw Reid’s widow replied. The Tribune, it was explained to the surprised Munsey, was a family obligation and, as such, not for sale. “I had no such obligation,” Munsey said later. “So I sold to them.” And while he was about it, he threw into the bargain the younger Bennett’s Paris Herald.
Three of Munsey’s assets were brought into the new Fortieth Street building: the name of the Herald; a young reporter, soon promoted to city editor, named Stanley Walker; and the bulk of the Herald’s circulation. Before the merger, the Herald had 175,000 and the Tribune 140,000 readers. The Herald Tribune came up with more than 275,000 which, while still less than the Times, provided the cushion that carried the paper up to World War II. Thus began what A. J. Liebling described in The New Yorker as the Silver Age of the Herald Tribune—"so called because of its gently elegiac quality and because a man on the paper could carry away his pay in quarters without making a bulge in his pants pocket.”
Unionized printers were making more than fifty dollars a week by now, but writers were willing to work for less than twenty under city-desk giants like Walker and a successor, L. L. Engelking. In 1959, Walker, in a reminiscent mood, listed in the Saturday Review some of the more notable Tribune writers: “Alva Johnston, Ed Angly, Joe Driscoll and Ishbel Ross … Joseph Alsop, Sanderson Vanderbilt, Tom Sugrue, Ben Robertson, St. Clair McKelway, Tom Waring, John O’Reilly, Homer Bigart, John Lardner, Jack Gould, James T. Flexner, Lincoln Barnett, Bruce Pinter, Maron Simon, Beverly Smith, Joseph Mitchell and Joel Sayre. … What a brilliant, gallant troop of journalistic cavalrymen!”
Some names are missing here, like Walter Millis and Irita Van Doren, but cavalrymen wasn’t a bad way of putting it. Most came to the Herald Tribune, lived in genteel poverty long enough to make their reputations, and rode off again to better-paying jobs on other papers and on magazines. Fortunately, the supply of ambitious apprentices was inexhaustible. “It was these eager, intelligent and unterrified youngsters,” Walker wrote, “who gave the paper its distinctive flavor, a flavor which made it readable to a literate Tammany boss, a college president, and the more brainy taxicab drivers.”
Most of the writing was excellent, but ironically the Herald Tribune story most often recalled by newspapermen is one from 1924 that turned out not to be true. For five days, before admitting it had been hoaxed, the paper headlined the reports of Sanford Jarrell, who stood Prohibition New York on its ear with bulletins about the activities, appointments, and patrons of a mysterious floating nightclub which, alas, turned out to exist nowhere but in his imagination.