Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Last Editor

Jim Bellows died this week.

His death, like a lot that he did in his life, was fairly unceremonious and was left as a footnote in the news of today. He was the Man Behind the Curtain at many newspapers that eventually bit the dust. He promoted and championed great news and even better news writers only to watch many of them go broke or out of business — save for a handful that do well today.

As I was trying to decide what to do with my life after high school, an old teacher handed me his book, The Last Editor, as a way to help make up my mind. I was already thinking journalism, and I think he gave me the book in some effort to dissuade me from the profession.

Bellows was not just at the front line of great news, but he was also at the front line of a dying industry and we only now seem to understand and what he really meant in those pages he wrote.

The '60s and the '70s saw the corporatization and bastardization of many good newspapers. Two- and three-newspaper towns quickly were trimming the fat and closing doors on institutions that had been around forever.

Company men came into his newsrooms and laid people off and ended entire news runs becasue papers were not being read — let alone the new technology of television news and computers that were still on the horizon. He worked at dying newspapers, the second string in major cities, becasue he got a thrill from being the underdog.

The underdogs today are web-based, more nimble and much more entertaining.

We, journalists, bemoan and whine as jobs are lost and more papers closed today, but Bellows was there originally in the first round of cuts in an industry that, 40 years later, still has no clue who its real audience is or how to connect with them.

His book should be required reading for those who are still in the news business and want to save the whole cluster-fuck business.

Bellows ended his career, if I remember right, working with web products to bring news directly to its reader. Maybe we should have seen then, back in the hey-day of the 90s where this whole business was going.

1 comment:

blythe said...

I didn't know. That book was my bible for a while.

What a guy he was.