Thursday, March 13, 2008

An Homage to the Last Great Newspaper Editor

By Ron Kaye, Daily News editor-in-chief

HE called his memoir "The Last Editor ..." but the whole truth is that Jim Bellows was the last great American newspaper editor.

Bellows' witty sensibility, his nose for news, his journalistic pizazz were relics of a dying era when he took over the New York Herald-Tribune in the 1950s and turned it into what is widely regarded as the nation's best newspaper - ever.

He was a Zen master talking in haiku and koans that were incomprehensible to many, the path to the light for others.

He spotted talented writers and editors and gave them the permission and support to break through the conformity and mediocrity that became the hallmark of corporate monopoly journalism in America in the 1950s and 1960s.

It was in that era that television destroyed the business model of newspapers, just as the Internet is doing today. The result back then was that roughly half the papers in the country failed, and the danger today is that something similar might well happen again.

Bellows is being honored tonight at the L.A. Press Club by the staff of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, which closed nearly 20 years ago. I worked for Bellows there in the early 1980s and was lucky enough to work with him again when he became a consultant here at the Daily News a few years back.

It was a humbling experience to work for a news genius. Bellows had X-ray vision for the news behind the news, inside the news, the angle that hit readers between the eyes,

in the heart, in the guts.

In New York, and everywhere, he attracted great writers like Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin and many others who liberated newspaper writing and reporting and took their craft to new heights.

At the Washington Star, he brought style and attitude to the nation's capital and Capitol. Later at the Herald-Examiner in Los Angeles he resurrected a newspaper from the grave, and came closer to capturing the ethos of this city than anyone before or since.

Yes, all three papers are long since gone. For it was Jim Bellows' karma to be the underdog, to be given the reins of papers that faced impossible odds against giant newspapers with unlimited resources.

The full title of his memoir captures the irony: "The Last Editor: How I saved the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times from Dullness and Complacency."

I'm not sure I agree totally that those or any other major American newspapers were really rescued from their arrogance, and that may be the biggest reason we are all in trouble today.

But I do know that if Jim Bellows had ever had the chance to run one of those papers, especially the Los Angeles Times, where he was once a top news executive, they would not be like they are today.

They would be surprising, provocative and daring. Many of the writers would seem like friends who dropped by to share a laugh, a tear, a story you'd never heard before.

That's what Jim Bellows taught the journalists who worked for him.

And he did it in cryptic phrases and words:

Tom Wolfe told an interviewer Bellows' teaching was: "Keep going and don't stop."

Former Herald-Examiner columnist Randall Sullivan recalled Bellows teaching him the difference between New York and Los Angeles: "In New York people want to know where you work; in L.A. where you live."

Bellows' message to me was simply: "Stick with your passion."

Ron Kaye is the Daily News' editor-in-chief. Write to him by e-mail at

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