The Preservationist

Most journalism products are disposable by nature. “News” becomes “old news,” and papers and magazines are chucked into the recycling bin. The most powerful features, essays, and profiles might find new life in a bound anthology, but those volumes often go out of print or are replaced in the J-school curriculum by whatever is fresh and new. Even the internet eventually forgets; webpages wash out into the sea of infinity, where reportage dissipates. 

Alex Belth is doing his best to defy this immutable law. For the better part of the past decade, Belth—a New Yorker, lifelong Yankees fan, and devout journalism preservationist—has dedicated himself to rappelling into the void to retrieve and reclaim neglected magazine stories. Belth first highlighted such work on Bronx Banter, his long-running blog about New York culture. Over time, he has parlayed his obsession into paying gigs, seeking out and spotlighting long-yellowed print for the Daily Beast, The Stacks on Deadspin, Esquire Classic, and his own archival site, the Stacks Reader

Belth, a sportsman, is energized by the race against time and the search for something hidden, forgotten, and—surely, for some—priceless. “There’s an element of treasure hunting,” he says. “If you keep digging, you’re going to find something amazing.”

As a child, Belth enjoyed flipping through glossy magazines and looking at the photos. He limited his reading to comics, movies, and baseball—Roger Angell’s work for The New Yorker, Yankees coverage by Mike Lupica at the Daily News, Murray Chass in his father’s New York Times. As a teen in the late 1980s, he worked as a messenger in the Brill Building, where Martin Scorsese had an office; later, he started editing film and eventually worked as an intern in postproduction for Ken Burns on his Baseball documentary for PBS, an apprentice editor for Woody Allen, and a personal assistant to the Coen brothers, but abandoned his own directorial ambitions by the time he turned thirty. He went to work in travel and expense administration for Time Inc.

At the time, Belth’s beloved Yankees were at the tail end of a dominant run of pennants and championships, and the word “blog” was just coming into vogue. Belth devoured every word he could find about his boyhood team and started reaching out to baseball bloggers who weren’t considered part of the mainstream media. “Well, shit,” he recalls thinking, “maybe I’ll be a baseball writer.” He launched Bronx Banter in 2002, primarily as a baseball forum, and quickly made a name for himself. Within a year, he had signed a contract to write a young-adult book about baseball player and labor rights pioneer Curt Flood. Belth traces his preservationist instincts to this experience: “I’d be looking for an old article in Inside Sports magazine. But being a culture junkie, I’d see four other articles I’d want to read.”

The fascination grew exponentially. Once Belth found a story he admired, he would seek out more from that author. On that hunt, he would flip to a magazine’s table of contents and invariably spot one or two other headlines that piqued his interest and gave him more bylines to track down. Sometimes the stories themselves referenced other articles or reporters of interest. Once he latched on to a writer, he had to find every scrap that scribe had ever jotted down. “For Gen Xers, accumulating shit still meant something,” he says. “If you wanted to collect David Bowie albums, you had to have them all, including the bootleg Japanese 45s.”

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Belth would photocopy the articles and circulate them among his friends. Still working days at the Time Inc. building, he started kicking around next door, at the Sports Illustrated offices, during breaks, looking through their morgue and befriending the writers, some of whom Belth had been obsessing over. He asked them questions and, sometimes, for permission to reprint their work on Bronx Banter. 

He branched out from sports into other topics and general pop culture. He paid fifty dollars for admission to the Condé Nast archives and worked his way through old issues of GQ, draining Xerox toner cartridges on bylines like Tom Junod and Scott Raab. Often, a byline would lead him to magazines he’d never heard of—obscure titles, or publications that lasted only a few issues—which he’d then search for on eBay. Soon he was awash in rags from every subgenre imaginable. There was Wigwag (1988–91), which tried to be a more personal New Yorker; Ramparts (1962–75), which was like Rolling Stone without the music coverage; and dedicated music mags like Crawdaddy (1966–79) and Ego Trip (1994). He came across trailblazing women’s outlets such as the literary New York Woman (1986–92) and Jane (1997–2007). Belth could indulge his own interests in sports with the likes of Inside Sports (1979–98) and Jock (1969–70) and cinema with American Film (1975–92) and The Movies, which lasted five issues in 1983, and featured film reviews written by Salman Rushdie.

Along the way, Belth not only picked bylines from tables of contents, but also noted editors and designers from the mastheads. When Belth reached out for an interview, one person would turn him on to the work of two others, and so on. Once, he reached out to Stephen Randall, longtime editor at Playboy, who sent along a list of his twenty favorite celebrity profiles that had ever run in the magazine. One was a profile of Jerry Lewis written by someone named O’Connell Driscoll—who, at the time of that story’s publication, was a senior at the University of Southern California but wrote with a restraint that seemed far beyond your typical twenty-two-year-old student. Belth chased down the byline; Driscoll, he learned, had written seven celebrity profiles for national magazines in the 1970s and 1980s and then quit to take a job at Nordstrom. He never wrote another major magazine feature. “He wrote with this Gay Talese, fly-on-wall approach taken to the extreme—just scene and dialogue,” says Belth, who tracked down Driscoll to interview him and ask permission to reprint his work. “He told me I was the first guy to ask him about this in forty years.”

In 2013, a search for author and magazine writer Peter Richmond led Belth to the National Sports Daily, a short-lived tabloid that ran five days a week between January 1990 and July 1991. Belth found an article that Richmond had written about spending three days at Wrigley Field with actor Bill Murray. With Richmond’s permission, Belth highlighted the piece on Bronx Banter. That story got the attention of Tommy Craggs, at the time the editor in chief at Deadspin, who offered Belth a job resuscitating lost journalism on the site. Within months, the Daily Beast reached out, wanting something similar. 

Belth, who still runs Bronx Banter, has since pooled his work for Deadspin and the Daily Beast at the Stacks Reader, where he continues to curate the journalism he’s salvaged and writes about the people behind the stories that so fascinate him. Since late 2015, Belth has also been tasked with taking care of Esquire Classic, a job that gives him the keys to one of magazine journalism’s most sacred vaults. “You could hire someone and tell them what to do, but Belth walks in with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of magazines,” says John Kenney, managing editor at Esquire. “He could talk about writers going back years. He’s the ultimate reader, extremely attentive. And he’s actively open to discovering things in magazines like it’s the first time. He frees himself up to be just a devoted fan.”

That doesn’t mean Belth isn’t a critical reader. “I’m not a writer jockstrap holder or a wannabe,” says Belth. “I know I’m not a Chris Jones or Richard Ben Cramer. But I don’t feel subservient. I feel entrusted with preserving and caretaking their work.”

“He’s not a saint,” says Malcolm Jones, a writer at the Daily Beast. “But I don’t get the idea that he imposes his own ego on any of this. He’s not one of these people who is like, ‘Look what I found.’ He’s more like, ‘Look at this. You’re really going to like this.’ And he has the best taste I know. He knows what’s good and what’s not, and he doesn’t miss much.”

While Belth might be indulging his own enthusiasm for journalism’s past, he’s not blind to the industry’s troubling present. Nor is he dismissive of the role his efforts could play in educating and inspiring the journalists of the future. “I look at the next ten years with a certain sense of urgency,” he says, “both in terms of being able to contact older writers and a sense of oral history—just getting these people’s stories down. And there’s a sense of urgency to actually save this material. Once it’s gone, it’s gone, and that’s it.”

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Tony Rehagen has written for Pacific Standard, GQ, Bloomberg, and ESPN The Magazine. He is based in St. Louis and is on Twitter @trehagen.

TOP IMAGE: Alex Belth. Courtesy of subject.