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.