The Life And Death Of A Great Newspaper

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The attraction of the Herald Tribune for writers continued to grow, and so did its camaraderie. Downstairs, behind what was coming to be known as the “newspaperman’s newspaper” (“I shivered when they called it that,” George Cornish, Reid’s longtime editor, recently recalled. “Newspapermen’s newspapers always seem to fold.”), was Jack Bleeck’s, the newspaperman’s saloon. It did a great business with the staff. (“Drink is the curse of the Tribune,” the epigram went, “and sex the bane of the Times.”)

While Ogden Reid was democratically rubbing elbows at Bleeck’s with columnist Lucius Beebe and the members of a fellowship later dubbed by John Lardner “the West Fortieth Street Browning Society,” the Herald Tribune was expanding into the lower floors of a twenty-two-story building constructed on a plot to the rear of the main building. But internally the depression of the early thirties brought financial difficulties for the management. Just before her death in 1931, Mrs. Whitelaw Reid made available more family credit, to the tune of $400,000, to help tide the paper over.

Debt hung over the Herald Tribune, and its main rival, the Times, had an unshakable hold on certain revenue-producing groups of readers—the “classified” readers (some 75,000); the obituary followers; and garment executives, whose activities the Times had covered for fifty years. During the late thirties and the war years, the Herald Tribune held its own in circulation and gained very slightly in its share of the total advertising in New York newspapers. The advance of Allied armies in Europe enabled the Reids to reopen the European edition of the Herald Tribune in Paris, in December, 1944. It proved immediately and unexpectedly profitable. Unlike the prewar paper, it looked almost the twin of its parentthe same eight-column pages, the same Bodoni heads, many of the same features.

The Paris edition, of course, was thin, and people who had enjoyed its handy readability would sometimes return to New York and suggest to the Reids that the parent paper would be better that way too, without all that clutter of advertising. Subscribers to the Paris edition actually paid more of the cost of their newspaper. Back in New York, perhaps in that spirit, Ogden Reid raised the price of the daily and Sunday editions on January 1, 1947, just three days before his unexpected death. If the Times went along, fine, he told his subordinates, and if it didn’t, “I think the paper is strong enough to stand it.” The evening papers also raised prices, but the Times matched only the Sunday increase, from ten to fifteen cents, and for nearly three years the flourishing daily Times undersold the daily Herald Tribune. This inevitably took some toll of readers. “Nobody in New York is going to pay a nickel for the Herald Tribune when they can get the Times for three cents,” the general manager of the Times, Julius Adler, is said to have remarked at a meeting of newspaper executives during that period. “That’s the way to put a competitor out of business.”

For a good many years before the death of her husband, and as his health declined, Helen Reid had increasingly taken over the management of the newspaper. She supervised the advertising sales, ran the famous Forums, kept closely in touch with Irita Van Doren’s book section, and helped found and operate This Week, long the Herald Tribune’s magazine section. She had the contacts with public figures, she saw the Presidents, she was on the firing line all day. After watching Dorothy Thompson and her in action, Winston Churchill once observed to young Whitelaw, Helen’s eldest son, that perhaps all newspapers ought to be run by women.

After the war, Mrs. Reid turned the editorial side over to quiet, reserved Whitelaw. It was soon noticed that the Tribune under him was taking on and publishing a great many of his fellows from the class of 1936 at Yale—among them Stewart Alsop, who came in to work with his columnist brother, Joseph; John Crosby, a columnist on radio and television; and August Heckscher (today New York’s parks commissioner), chief editorial writer.