This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections
It was to hit the newsstands fifty years ago this week: a desperate effort to save the great New York City daily newspaper. The new paper’s hybrid name, World Journal Tribune, sounded forlorn even then.
The new title represented an attempt to merge three very distinct newspapers and journalistic traditions: the New York Journal-American, carrying the sensationalism of the Hearst line of papers, the World-Telegram & Sun, inheriting all the great innovation of the Sun and the World, and the much admired New York Herald Tribune.
This cost-cutting consolidation also meant the loss of many jobs for typographers, reporters, and editors, and so their separate unions called a halt. Settlement came 140 days later, and the World Journal Tribune made its tardy debut on September 12, 1966.
The original merger plan, to debut on April 25, 1966, had been to keep the Herald Tribune as a morning paper, the World Journal as an afternoon issue, and to combine the Herald Tribune and Journal-American on Sunday. But, after strikes and lockouts, the only one left standing by the fall of 1966 was the World Journal Tribune, an evening paper to be sold on the newsstand. It was already a bit behind the times in trying to thrive amid a television-dominated, suburban milieu, and commentators could foresee the trend where major cities would lack competing papers. Newspapers still drew a great deal of revenue from advertising, but they faced overwhelming costs in updating their plants and appeasing their laborers. A ruinous strike in the winter of 1962-63 was in everybody’s memory.
By the mid-1960s, reporters and editors worked, “facing each day as it came, hoping until the very end,” recalls Pat Smith, fifty years later. Like many Herald Tribune staffers, reporter Smith took pride in the Trib’s reputation as a great newspaper and felt the loss even as she and colleagues scattered to labor under the new masthead or to other work in journalism.
In addition to the loss of the Herald Tribune’s great legacy, historians of journalism also recognized a larger death—that of New York’s vibrant newspaper life and of the many, many titles that had merged over the decades, even centuries, into this newfangled hybrid. That spring in the Columbia Journalism Review, Daniel J. Leab compiled the old mastheads into a newspaper “genealogy” tracing back to the 1790s and embracing such pre-merger titles as the Commercial Advertiser, Evening Telegram, Sun, Star, Herald, and the New York American.
With the World Journal Tribune lacking an overarching vision or flavor, it was, as veteran reporter A.H. Raskin lamented in the New York Times Magazine, “the bloodless synthesis of a dozen papers that, over the period of almost a century and a half, had reflected the boldness, imagination and even genius of such towering individualists as Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, Horace Greeley, James Gordon Bennett, Charles A. Dana, E.W. Scripps and Roy Howard.”
The new composite did host talented journalists such as Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe, and Dick Schaap, but many, even the working reporters and editors themselves, shared Raskin’s view that the W.J.T. was “a paper born to die” and that its death a mere eight months later was but a “mercy killing.” Staffers had known that “big changes were coming” recalled Herald Tribune reporter Smith, and, as Raskin divulged, forward thinkers—M.I.T. guys, for the most part—were already envisioning ways to report, edit, and transmit remotely the news into a “television set or some specialized receiver.”
The final death came with the World Journal Tribune’s last issue on May 5, 1967. Left standing in the ruins was New York magazine, the one-time Herald Tribune Sunday supplement recognized for its creativity, and the New York newspaper scene that we still know fifty years later: the thorough but ponderous broadsheet New York Times, its tabloid companions, the Post and the Daily News, and more specialized Wall Street Journal.
The hurdles that the daily newspaper confronted then were not necessarily the same that they face in their struggle to survive now, but, as today, the public’s hunger for news and commentary has not abated, and the industry’s ability to adapt should not be underestimated. Nonetheless, even in our guarded optimism, we can pause and mourn what was lost when the World Journal Tribune rolled out.
*Richard Kluger in his heralded (pun intended) newspaper biography The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune (1986) calls the convoluted mass of ancient and modern images in the dingbat “an allegorical hieroglyph of the newspaper’s function to render history on the run.” [p. 119]. Rolled out in the Tribune on April 10, 1866, the dingbat celebrates its 150th birthday this month.