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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
None of Brown’s devices availed to hold back the rising costs or augment the diminishing revenues. Brown Reid faced a difficult decision—whether to gamble on another price rise or to seek support outside the family. In 1957, he chose the latter, turning to a man with whom Whitelaw and others in the management had already held preliminary discussions. This was John Hay Whitney, at the time President Eisenhower’s ambassador to the Court of St. James’s.
Whitney was eligible on three counts. He had the money; he was a strong supporter of the liberal wing of the Republican party; and, as important as these other reasons, he was the grandson of John Hay, who had been the elder Whitelaw Reid’s best friend, editorial writer, and, during Reid’s honeymoon in 1881, substitute editor of the Tribune. The Ambassador first lent the Reids $1.2 million secured by stock options, and a year later, on August 28, 1958, in exchange for an additional sum reported by Fortune as two million dollars, he exercised his options and became possessed of the assets, good will, and current obligations of the New York Herald Tribune.
Editorially, Whitney used his new property with courage and dexterity. In 1964, for the first time since Horace Greeley, the Tribune endorsed a Democratic presidential nominee; and even in its dying days the paper played a considerable role in making possible the nomination and election of a liberal Republican, John V. Lindsay, as mayor of New York City.
What Whitney did not do, however, was fulfill the promise that his money would, as Joseph Kraft had predicted in Harper’s, “cast the long shadow of a circulation war over the country’s most competitive market.” Alas, it was not to be. Whitney chose the businesslike way. Even before selecting his first editor, Robert M. White, the forty-four-year-old editor and publisher of the Mexico, Missouri, Ledger, Whitney ordered a detailed management survey of the Herald Tribune. The recommendations that subsequently greeted White in New York involved nothing more than the same old editorial sleight of hand that the Reid family had been trying without success to pull off for nearly sixty years. Costs —particularly the cost of newsprint—would have to be cut. Condense the news and don’t cover as much of it, the analysts said. Rely more heavily on the wire services. Already the deficiencies in Herald Tribune reporting were all too apparent to the readers. Now, even on local stories, the staff was to “interpret” whatever came across the Associated Press and United Press International teletypes, reporting that is primarily geared to radio and television stations and small papers interested in skimming off the top of the news.
As editor, however, White made his reputation by ignoring not only the management recommendations but, unfortunately, many of the editorial news conferences as well. He tinkered a little with the makeup, but the improvement failed to provide the dramatic impact Whitney was seeking, and White’s departure was insured by the Herald Tribune’s reporting of the 1960 election. (The paper seems to have been a perennial bad guesser on national elections. In 1876 it had given the victory to Tilden over Hayes, and in 1916, when Charles Evans Hughes went to bed early thinking he had been elected, so did the Tribune. A young reporter named Robert Benchley learned that California had unexpectedly put Woodrow Wilson back into office, but when he called the city desk at 3 A.M., nobody answered.) In 1960, the Herald Tribune went to press early again, proclaiming a Kennedy victory of “Rooseveltian proportions.” The extremely close returns, accurately reported by the Times, resulted in embarrassment for Whitney. He came back from London, and White went back to Mexico, Missouri.
For his next editor, Whitney didn’t reach so far—only across town to hire away John Denson, the editor of Newsweek. Whitney wanted an impact, and Denson set out to give him one. First and foremost he fiddled with the headlines. No longer were these to be mere summaries of stories. Henceforth they would reflect the significance of the news. Dashes, colons, and question marks—lots of question marks—sprang into the headlines. The Bay of Pigs crisis in March, 1961, a month after his arrival, gave Denson a chance to show what he was up to. “DICTATOR CASTRO—THE BEGINNING OF THE END?” the Herald Tribune headed the first report. “SOVIETS WILL OPPOSE US ON CUBA—BUT HOW?” it asked next. Then: “ANTI-CASTRO RAIDERS IN TROUBLE?” And finally: “IT’S A GAME—WHO TAKES THE BLAME?”