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.