The Life And Death Of A Great Newspaper

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In the late forties, the Herald Tribune was still earning its way, but its financial difficulties were mounting. Costs rose until the annual increase, in the early 1950s, was a million dollars. The staff, overloaded with wartime returnees, was gradually pared by about ten per cent, but not without an outcry. The story goes that the paper’s famous sports editor, Stanley Woodward, who had been responsible for bringing the Herald Tribune Red Smith, its unrivalled sports columnist, was asked which two men his department could spare. “Red Smith and me,” Woodward said. In fact, Smith stayed, but Woodward left not long afterward. News coverage was cut back, at least in comparison with the vast news-gathering machinery of the Times. But paradoxically, even as its reputation in this department waned, its political power seemed to wax. As the Tribune’s endorsement had assuredly helped Wendell Willkie to the presidential nomination in 1940, eleven years later the paper launched Dwight Eisenhower to the Presidency with a two-column page-one editorial.

Now the paper was first in the White House, but far from that on New York newsstands. Whitelaw Reid tried to attract readers with various editorial devices—roving teams of writers to compensate in part for the reduced foreign bureaus, new columnists from Billy Rose to Art Buchwald. He brought in Walter Kerr as drama critic, Roscoe Drummond, and the cartoons of Bill Mauldin. An “early bird” edition was brought out at 7:30 P.M. , but it failed to win away very much business from the afternoon papers.

In the early days of young Whitelaw’s editorship, during the late forties, the Reids had more to worry them than costs and prices. The new management was liberal in its Republicanism and was sometimes known to readers of columnist Westbrook Pegler (and later to McCarthy supporters) as the “Uptown Daily Worker,” a rather astonishing view but one that sometimes hurt. Worse than that, a source of anxiety, damaging rumor, and great financial drain, was the debt incurred before the First World War—the moneys that the elder Reids had advanced to the paper. The old Tribune had given notes for this money, and on Mrs. Whitelaw Reid’s death the notes had been divided, with a face value of three million each, between her son Ogden and his sister Jean, the wife of Sir John Ward, a former royal equerry. While Ogden never attempted to collect on the notes and further indebtedness due him, and turned it all over to the Reid Foundation, Lady Ward’s lawyers began to press for payment when the first of her notes fell due, for $150,000, on April 15, 1948. It was paid. The next annual payment, for the same amount, could not be met in full, and was not entirely retired until 1952, by which time, of course, much more debt had accrued. A third of the $150,000 due for 1950 was paid off by 1954, and thereafter Lady Ward saw no more money.

In these circumstances, with a family debt that took precedence over payments on the Tribune’s mortgage, reorganization was clearly called for. Those who held the debts were in the driver’s seat, and they elected in 1955 to turn the paper over to young Whitelaw’s aggressive and dynamic younger brother, Odgen R. “Brown” Reid. Whitelaw, who had briefly replaced his mother as president, was elevated to the honorary position of chairman of the board. Helen Reid was in effect retired, and the noteholders got stock for what was owed them. As stock, it was, of course, subordinate to the mortgage, an arrangement that alone made possible the refinancing that kept Brown Reid in power for a few twilight years.

As editor, Brown Reid tinkered frequently with the Herald Tribune’s outward aspects. The sports section was printed on mint-green paper, and the paper’s traditional makeup was “brightened.” His most successful contribution was a revamping of the Sunday paper, which was slipping toward what was felt to be a point of no return: a circulation of less than half a million. Among the innovations was a small television program guide which, while never an advertising success in itself, did reverse the downward circulation trend. The Sunday paper went from 528,000 in 1954 to 576,000 in 1956.

The gentle Republican liberalism of the younger Whitelaw’s regime seemed to turn to the right in the McCarthy era, and in some other respects the new editor rouged up the “little old lady of Park Row” into a trollop. Crime and divorce stories began getting prominent play, and publicity pictures of starlets were splashed through the news sections.

Not all staff members were in accord. Two-time Pulitzer prize winner Homer Bigart, back from Korea, shook his head and went to the Times. Other resignations came from Washington Bureau Chief Walter Kerr (not the drama critic) and City Editor Fendall Yerxa. Unquestionably, the “new image” attracted readers, but to the Reids’ dismay every convert appeared to be matched by a defector from the ranks of the stolid, suburban, well-to-do readership of the “old” Herald Tribune.