The Los Angeles Times runs a long obit today on James Bellows (as does the New York Times), who was the newspaper equivalent of the patron saint of lost causes, since his job was taking over the also-ran newspapers in big cities and giving them one last burst of life before they finally folded. This might give you the impression he was a perennial loser, but no one in newspapers believes it; his mode was “if we’re going down, let’s give them hell until we hit the bottom!” There is an irony in that he did have one unqualified success, but it was in television, and it was Entertainment Tonight, whose web site at the moment has nothing on Bellows, but lots about Julia Roberts explaining what it’s like to kiss Clive Owen. But before you mock him for that, it’s worth noting that when he ran the New York Herald Tribune, he ran Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” on the paper’s front page. The man earned his bones, is what I’m telling you.
One never wishes to call a death timely, but Bellow’s passing could be seen also as a metaphor for the passing of a certain sort of newspaperman who it seems unlikely we’ll see again. Today’s newspapers are staggering and falling all over the place, and quite a few of them aren’t likely to survive the next couple of years. From the outside looking in, the reaction to this from the newspapers does not seem to be a Bellowsesque “if we go down, let’s go down fighting” but “Let’s just keep pushing people off the boat until the thing finally sinks.” Newspapers are in trouble for a whole lot of reasons, but one big reason is that so many of them are simply boring; there are many reasons for that, too, but one big reason is a decades-long choice to play it safe, because why shouldn’t they have? Profit margins are at stake. Playing it safe had a predictable outcome; doing risky stuff, is, well, risky.
Well, now playing it safe isn’t working anymore. The question is whether there is anyone like Bellows still around to help newspapers renew their mission, possibly to resurrect the things, or if the people like Bellows have already largely left the field, leaving only a class of barely-adequate middle managers for editors, who will shuffle staff until they’re the only ones left to turn out the lights. I’m a huge believer in the need for newspapers, and of course as a former newspaperman, I have a sentimental attachment to them as well. I want newspapers (with or without the actual paper). But I’m not sure if newspapers generally know what they’re about anymore, or if those in charge of them are willing to rouse themselves to rage against their own dying of the light. Maybe those remaining should look back at Bellows, and see how he did it.