|THE LAST EDITOR|
May 16, 2002
Newsman Jim Bellows on how he helped big-city underdog newspapers compete with industry giants.
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts
TERENCE SMITH: Jim Bellows has what's been described as the longest resume in American journalism. He built a career editing the underdog second newspapers in big cities. He led the New York Herald- Tribune in the 1960s, which was locked in competition with the mighty New York Times; then the Washington Star, which fought an uphill battle against the powerful Washington Post; and the scrappy tabloid Los Angeles Examiner, which struggled to compete with the Los Angeles Times.
All three papers eventually succumbed to their bigger rivals, but Bellows built a reputation as a bold and innovative editor. Now approaching his 80th birthday, he's published his memoir of those days entitled "The Last Editor: How I saved the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times from Dullness and Complacency." In his days at the New York Herald-Tribune, Bellows nurtured a new generation of outstanding writers, including Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin. Both recalled what it was like to work with Bellows in a recent PBS documentary.
[Footage courtesy Steven Latham Productions' documentary The Last Editor: The Jim Bellows Story.]
TOM WOLFE: He came to me in that whispery voice of his, he said, "Keep going and don't stop." He made newspapering what I had always hoped it was going to be.
JIMMY BRESLIN: And it was covering the city the way you covered a baseball game: Talk to a lot of people, get quotes, get color, get impressions, get feelings.
TERENCE SMITH: Bellows left the world of newspapers in 1981 to take the helm of "Entertainment Tonight," and make it the runaway success it remains today.
And later, approaching his 70s, he moved on to the Internet, providing content for Prodigy and then Excite, an upstart company run by 24-year-olds.
|Struggling second papers|
TERENCE SMITH: Jim Bellows, welcome.
JIM BELLOWS: Welcome. Good to be here.
TERENCE SMITH: Pleasure to have you. I... this modest and unassuming subtitle of yours, "How I Saved the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times from Dullness and Complacency" -- how did you manage to do that?
JIM BELLOWS: That's cheeky bravado actually, because, you know, I've managed to tweak a few of those big papers, and maybe I could tweak a good audience for the book.
TERENCE SMITH: What it was about you and struggling second papers in big cities? You seem to be drawn to each other like moths to a flame.
JIM BELLOWS: Well, I think I get a little reputation from the Trib and helping there, and so therefore, I was called to these other duties. And of course, it was just wonderful, because you can build that spree on the second paper, and you can't do that on the first paper. The first paper doesn't want to rock the boat. It wants to keep the profits the way they're going, and everything like that. We didn't have to worry about profit and earnings and so on, because we didn't have any. But we certainly worked harder and did unusual things in the process.
TERENCE SMITH: You write, in fact, that, in the book, that you think that being number one, you know, instills a certain, what, smugness, complacency in the first paper now?
JIM BELLOWS: All those things. (Laughs)
TERENCE SMITH: Let's take the New York Herald-Tribune, which you edited in its last days in the early 1960s-- and candor requires that I confess I worked there under you in those days.
JIM BELLOWS: And your father, too.
TERENCE SMITH: That is correct. You had two Smith males working there.
JIM BELLOWS: Right.
|Creating a team of writers|
TERENCE SMITH: You managed to assemble an extraordinary collection of writers there, including Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin. How did you do it?
JIM BELLOWS: I think... you know, I'm not a boss, boss. I'm somebody who goes out and says, "I need your help." But it's amazing how people want to feel needed. And these were sort of stars before, and I just gave them a bigger chance and bigger playing field.
TERENCE SMITH: You moved on to television, of all things, in which you'd had no prior experience, and to one its most successful shows, "Entertainment Tonight."
JIM BELLOWS: I'd never done TV before, but it was a wonderful experience, and we had a great time.
TERENCE SMITH: In many ways it was the birth of what is called today celebrity journalism, and a lot of people think it's sort of the end of civilization as we know it. Do you?
JIM BELLOWS: Not a bit. You have to have a breath to your newspaper, so it's like a human being, somebody you're going to argue with and you're going to take positions with. But you're also going to have things, private things, in a way, sometimes you do in newspapers you pick up every morning on the doorstep, "hey, what are we going to have here that's interesting today?"
TERENCE SMITH: What's the future hold in this business that you've been in so long, in journalism? Is the answer the Internet, will newspapers still be around, will they still be on newsprint?
JIM BELLOWS: You're going to have a newspaper that's delivered there at your home every day, but it's not going to be market quotes, it's not going to be baseball statistics; it's going to be commentary and opinion, but you're going to be able to get that other material that you want by the computer world and everything else.
TERENCE SMITH: Jim, what worries you, if anything, about journalism today? When you look at the news business and you look at everything from newspapers to the 24-hour news channels, any cause of concern?
JIM BELLOWS: The newspapers now are too tame. And you need more people with passion who are willing to take risks and have a commitment to making a difference.
TERENCE SMITH: Too tame when you look across the country, too tame? Papers that... you see papers that ought to be more adventurous?
JIM BELLOWS: Yes, and they ought to take risks, which they've got to, it's productive to be helpful to people to make a better life and make sense out of the news.
TERENCE SMITH: And yet, you know, television, newspapers, are all losing audience, losing viewers, losing readers. For, at least until September 11, the American public was turning away from mainstream news. Why do you think that's so?
JIM BELLOWS: I think it's just probably too much to think about, to talk about it, to see on television and so on, and that's... and you've got all these other influences with the... with the Internet and everything playing there. And that's... that's a pretty big order to handle all of that.
TERENCE SMITH: What is your current philosophy about this business that you've been in, and what you want it to be, and the role you want to play in it?
JIM BELLOWS: Well, you see, the book now is done. It's out, the TV show's done. I want to get a new job, all right?
TERENCE SMITH: (Laughs)
JIM BELLOWS: Seriously.
TERENCE SMITH: This man is looking for a job.
JIM BELLOWS: I'm talking to the former mayor of Los Angeles, because he's trying to put out a new newspaper in Los Angeles, and I'd like to help him. It would be wonderful because they need-- that city needs and every city needs-- more competition than it has now.
TERENCE SMITH: The idea of starting a new newspaper in Los Angeles, this is a big, tough job, even for Jim Bellows.
JIM BELLOWS: Well, I just want to help. I'm in my 80th year and I'd like to keep going.
TERENCE SMITH: That's great. Thank you so much.
JIM BELLOWS: Okay, good.
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