Jim Bellows Came to Washington—and Needed Help from Mary McGrory

By Jack Limpert

Screen shot 2014-03-06 at 9.12.01 PMJim Bellows was one of the nation’s great newspaper editors. In the 1960s he edited the New York Herald Tribune and then went on to the Washington Star  and Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. In 1981 he ran out of newspapers that needed saving and went into television. He died 15 years ago today at the age of 86.

He left behind a memoir, The Last Editor, about his life in journalism; it’s described as a memoir of a man “whose David and Goliath battles changed the face of the newspaper business.”

From 1975 to 1978, he was in Washington, editing the Washington Star, an afternoon paper trying to survive against Ben Bradlee and the Washington Post.

Some background: In 1974 the Washington families who owned the Star decided to sell the failing newspaper and its television stations. The buyer was a Texan, Joe Allbritton. It seems fair to assume that Allbritton saw more potential in the television stations than the newspaper, but he did try to liven up the Star by hiring Bellows.

In 1978, the FCC barred common ownership of broadcast properties and newspapers in the same market and Allbritton sold the Star to Time Inc. They brought in magazine people from New York City to run the newspaper and it folded three years later, leaving lots of good journalists, including Maureen Dowd, looking for work.

Joe Allbritton died in December 2012 and his son Robert is selling the television stations for almost $1 billion, with some of the money presumably available to help Robert expand his Politico empire.

Here’s a short excerpt from The Last Editor, with Bellows describing how Mary McGrory, a much-loved Star columnist, and Ed Yoder, editor of the Star’s editorial page, tried to protect him from Joe Allbritton.
Mary and Ed were watching nervously the growing enmity between Joe Allbritton and me. I don’t think Mary felt I was giving enough tender loving care to the little guy up on the top floor. Hence, she supplied some of the nuturing that I didn’t provide.

“Well, you have other things to do,” she acknowledged. “You were trying to run a newspaper, not humor a temperamental man, which could take quite a bit of time. You had to be tough.”

But for Mary McGrory, there was reason to show compassion. She wanted the paper to keep going. “We had to have Joe. And I was very willing to put up with him if he was going to save the paper.”

Mary McGrory liked her role of mediator. “It was very enjoyable being in the middle of something like that,” she admitted. “That’s as good as it gets.”

As the journalistic queen of the Potomac, Mary was secure enough to humor Joe.

“I didn’t feel any loss of pride or dignity to go out of my way to be nice to him,” said McGrory. “You were naturally nervous about these assaults on what was totally your turf. You couldn’t have him writing a page one editorial endorsing Gerald Ford. That was out of the question.

“But I liked him for buying the paper and taking a chance on us. Because otherwise it was extinction.”

Mary had an interesting take on Joe Allbritton, the Texas titan of banks and mortuaries. “I would watch him come into the newsroom and see all these losers in their unpressed suits, and they were all having such a good time! And they were talking to each other and laughing, and there was a great deal  of affection and kindness.

“And I thought, this is a man who hadn’t had many loves. When you take banking and mortuaries, those are not places where people have a very good time. But here he was at a place where all these people were working for a declining paper, not getting much money, and reveling in it. I always felt that was what Joe was looking for—to be accepted in this absolutely weird world, where people didn’t wear good suits and plainly weren’t going anywhere.

“And he could see they had something that he didn’t have.”
Do you believe that? A rich guy buys a newspaper, hoping to find people who are having fun?

Nobody is quite sure why Amazon’s Jeff Bezos just paid $250 million for the Washington Post. People guess that Mort Zuckerman, who made his money in commercial real estate, bought U.S. News because he wanted to write a back-page column and be invited to appear on television talk shows and meet people more interesting than real estate developers.

Lots of people think that David Bradley, who made his millions in corporate best practices, bought the Atlantic and moved it to DC so he could hire interesting minds and explore big questions. And then there’s Chris Hughes, who got rich with Facebook and now seems to enjoy running the New Republic. Philip Anschutz, Michael Bloomberg, the list goes on.

The journalists at the Star were happy to see Joe Allbritton and then Jim Bellows. It was fun while it lasted.

As Mary McGrory said, “…otherwise it was extinction.”

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