Still Seeing Stars after Thirty Years

A venerable afternoon paper is gone, but not forgotten

Given the handwringing about the fate of newspapers (and the federal government) today, it is worth a moment’s reflection on a late, great afternoon newspaper in our nation’s Capitol that died thirty years ago, on August 7, 1981. After 128 years—much of that time as the dominant paper of record in Washington, DC—The Washington Star ceased publication and filed for bankruptcy.

The last front page of The Washington Star lies in state in a drawer in the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue. The banner across the top, in bold, black type more than 1.5 inches high, says it all: FINAL EDITION. Even the president, Ronald Reagan, sent a note of condolence to the editor, which was published on the front of that final paper.

Then, as now when newspaper layoffs are plentiful, the Star news staff scattered across the journalistic landscape in search of jobs. Three decades later, a hearty contingent of Star newsroom survivors—where I worked for six years until it folded—are alive and well. Many former Stars and friends gathered Monday for half-price burgers, drinks, and a trip down memory lane at Mr. Henry’s Restaurant on Capitol Hill, a hangout for many when the Star was alive.

One of the reunion organizers was grande dame Diana McLellan, who once taunted DC’s famed and powerful with her must-read column, The Ear (powerful always trumped rich in Washington). In so many ways, this witty British writer was way ahead of her time with a gossip column that attracted the attention of le tout Washington as the Star, like other afternoon papers, was struggling to stay alive.

The column was a circulation-raising creation of our famed editor, the late Jim Bellows. Known for cultivating writers from his days at the New York Herald Tribune, Bellows made the Star a writers’ paper, too (and brought in some of his New York buddies, like Jimmy Breslin, as visiting writers-in-residence).

With his impish look and wry sense of humor, he took great pleasure in being the underdog and teasing what The Ear called the “Other Paper” or “O.P.” in town. The Ear, which McLellan initially co-wrote with Louise Lague, dubbed Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his girlfriend and future wife, the writer Sally Quinn, “The Fun Couple,” and referred to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as “Henry the K.” The Star sent little gold-colored ear-shaped pins to those featured in the column (a status symbol of sorts) and, as the column caught on, there was even an “Ear Ball” for Washingtonians wearing that pin.

Recognized for his skills in sweeping in to help resuscitate dying No. 2 papers, Bellows came on board in 1975 and tried desperately to compete for readers, adopting a daily magazine approach that mixed hard news with features. The front page included a Q&A with a newsmaker and an “In Focus” feature on a topical issue of the day. Jim left in 1978 for another attempt at saving a sinking newspaper, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, before moving on to television, where he helped invent the long-running show, Entertainment Tonight, a forerunner of the many celebrity shows today.

But the Star was also one of the best political papers around, with heavy hitters like Jack Germond, Jules Witcover, and the late luminary Mary McGrory, a pioneering liberal political columnist who came to the paper in 1947 and won a Pulitzer in 1975 for her scathing columns about the Watergate scandal (the Post’s fortunes had risen dramatically with Woodward and Bernstein’s coverage, of course, but the latter had started as a copy boy at the Star).

Despite her proper manners and Catholic upbringing, Mary managed to skewer the politicians of Washington in oh so many ways (she was of course on Nixon’s enemies list). And in the wide-open Washington Star newsroom, where messy desks were close and telephone interviews noisy, Mary had special status—a small office with a window and a trusted assistant, Liz Acosta. Reporters, young and old at the Star and on the campaign trail, worshipped Mary.

The Star was one of the first newspapers to get a computer system, in hopes of cutting costs, but it was unreliable and amazingly we had to shared computers because there were not enough for everyone. But when Mary came out of her cubicle, the seas parted, and she always had first dibs on those terminals. Unfortunately, the computers frequently crashed on deadline, and Mary was one of the first to howl in pain when her column disappeared off the screen.

I came to the Star as a young science and medical writer in mid-1975, at a time when the paper’s own health was in serious jeopardy. Advertising revenues and circulation were falling and the paper was on a four-day work week (read: we worked fulltime for four days pay). But the Star was not alone.

“The Star’s plight was similar to that of other big-city evening papers, which lost about 20% of their circulation between 1965 and 1979,” noted a 1981 Time story when the paper folded. “The flight of city dwellers to the suburbs and the gradual postwar shift from a blue-collar to a white-collar work force have created an audience predisposed to morning papers. Today’s reader goes to work later and has less time for reading a newspaper at the end of the day. Although television coverage offers less depth, it can provide much fresher news: many evening papers go to press before midday so that delivery trucks can beat the evening rush hour.”

As Time noted, the beginning of the end may have started twenty-five years earlier, when The Washington Post bought the Times-Herald in 1954, securing a morning monopoly and more than doubling its circulation. At the time, the afternoon Washington Star (then the Evening Star) was the dominant paper in town, a family-owned enterprise that failed to recognize the threat or adjust its business plan to take on the newly energized Post. There are, of course, parallels in the current plight of newspapers, many of which were slow to adapt to the Internet, blogging and social media.

In 1975, brash banker Joe Allbritton purchased the Star and Bellows came aboard in an attempt to restore the paper’s failing fortunes. The newsroom staff was eager to beat the competition with late nights, early mornings, and great sources on nearby Capitol Hill and around town.

The Star newsroom and printing plant were in a dicey Southeast Washington neighborhood where we parked our cars and ran to the building to avoid mugging. The building, built close to the freeway in the 50s to help speed delivery, was industrial, with walls tiled yellow and floors of linoleum (not the carpeted, glass-walled newsroom of our competition across town). Careless chain smokers were always lighting the wastebaskets on fire, and some of the diehards definitely kept a bottle of liquor in their desks.

In 1978, Time Inc. bought the Star from Allbritton; the staff was initially thrilled to think we had the support of a worldwide journalistic empire. But it was not to be: Time pooh-bahs were impatient and didn’t really understand the newspaper business. They cut the Star and its 1,400 employees off unceremoniously on a hot summer day in late July and closed its doors forever on August 7. We wore small buttons that day with black stars and the dates 1852-1981, and we and the world of journalism mourned.

It was the end for the paper but not for its people.

Many of the Star’s large and talented news managed to snag jobs in Washington. A bunch of us were lucky enough to get jobs downtown at the Post, where I had the dubious honor of sitting at a desk right outside Bradlee’s glass-walled office (no one else wanted to sit looking their editor in the eye day in and out!). I had many friends at the Post and was grateful to be working for the top Washington paper. But nonetheless, it seemed strange at first to be working for the competition—and I was amazed at how much easier it was to get stories (not necessarily a good thing, since the competition had helped both papers).

That summer the first cases of the then unnamed HIV-AIDS epidemic appeared, so I was off and running on a long and tough medical and human story that still haunts me today.

Mary McGrory brought her illustrious column to the Post. Looking back, I realize how much the Star had long cultivated pioneering women journalists and also young reporters. We were young and hungry at the second paper in town. Now, thirty years later, many of those ambitious young Star reporters are part of the journalistic establishment.

Fred Hiatt later went on to become the Post’s editorial page editor. Howie Kurtz became a well known Post media critic and CNN star before decamping last year for the online world of The Daily Beast. Sue Schmidt, a young aide on the Star national desk, became an intrepid Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at the Post and later The Wall Street Journal.

Maureen Dowd went to Time and then The New York Times; Mary McGrory would be quite proud of Maureen’s successful op-ed column. The workaholic Robert Pear continues to analyze entitlement programs—and break stories—for the Times’s Washington bureau. I saw my friend Gloria Borger, another Star metro reporter, on CNN just last week, analyzing the debt ceiling debacle. And Michael Isikoff, grey-haired now, but just as dogged, went to Newsweek and then to NBC News, where he is now its national investigative correspondent.

The Ear and Diana went to the Post for a short while before moving to The Washington Times, a conservative paper started by Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon soon after the Star folded. A number of the Star’s senior reporters and editors headed there, and that paper was lucky to have them.

Legendary political reporters and columnists Jack Germond and Jules Witcover went to the Baltimore Sun, along with the dean of Supreme Court reporting, Lyle Denniston. Others started new careers in broadcasting, including my boss Barbara Cochran (then Barbara Cohen), who had made her way up the editing ranks at the Star to managing editor and went on to become a top radio and television executive. Political reporter Fred Barnes gained fame for his conservative commentary at The Weekly Standard and on television, now at Fox News.

Not everyone stayed in DC, of course; some left for other regional papers, like the Hartford Courant (where editor Denis Horgan landed and became a columnist, as well) and others for new careers in public affairs or writing books.

Sadly, I can’t make it to the Mr. Henry’s reunion, but I have been keeping up with the running comments on the Star’s Facebook page, which has ninety-eight members. Another growing list, sadly, keeps track of Star alum obits as well. From afar, I will toast The Washington Star and the dead afternoon newspapers of yore: “We miss you. May you rest in peace.” Who knows how many more reunions there might be, since ”30” in newspaper lingo, also means “The End.” (When we typed stories in days of old, the signoff was, “—30—” to signify the end of the story.)

But, most importantly, I will also raise a glass to the health of today’s struggling morning newspapers. Thirty years ago, I could never have believed that the mighty Washington Post and so many other papers would be in such deep trouble today. They are working hard not to suffer the sad fate of afternoon newspapers like the Star that did not learn their lessons in time.

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Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter. Tags: