The Rip Post


THE LAST EDITOR

by Rip Rense
(Originally published in 2002 for The Rense Retort.)

Jim Bellows was a Mozart in a world of ink-stained Salieris. He deliberately helmed restless underdog newspapers and made them sing with writing, personality, verve, and love of community---where others were content to preside over stuffy, self-important, sleepy cash-cows. He covered the city instead of Sri Lanka. He was an editor for people, not politicians.

Bellows thought that newspapers were not beholden to advertisers, demographers, stockholders, political correctness, politicians, or even themselves. He thought newspapers were there to serve the readers. To, as he likes to say, "get 'em talking."

He was the real deal.

Bellows was a guy with his sleeves rolled up putting in fourteen-hour days with staffs running on adrenalin, nicotine, alcohol, and aspirin. His journalism training (he entered the racket on a whim): flying F6F Hellcats for the Navy. "Each individual in charge of his own plane, each formation a powerful unit---the perfect metaphor for life in a city room," as he put it. Not bad preparation.

As a cub reporter for the Columbus, Georgia Ledger, he was caught spying on a late-night Ku Klux Klan rally, force-fed liquor and shot up with drugs (later disowned by his bosses, which did not endear him to management types thereafter.) At the legendary New York Herald-Tribune, he teased the New Yorker, and elbowed the gray New York Times, which upped local coverage in response to the gritty, Bellows-driven, Jimmy Breslin-and-Tom Wolfe-charged "new journalism" (which was really old, storytelling-style journalism revived.)

In the early '70s, Bellows walked away from a posh associate editor's job at the Los Angeles Times---the "velvet coffin," as he dubbed it---to take over the falling Washington Star. The paper quickly became a cracking answer to the establishment Post, and famously ribbed Post editor Ben Bradlee with a prickly gossip column, "The Ear." Reviving the rickety L.A. Herald-Examiner in 1978, Bellows became a harpoon in the side of his former employer, the L.A. Times ("The Whale," as the Her-Ex called it almost daily), before leaving the news biz to found Entertainment Tonight (don't hold it against him), run the TV Guide west coast bureau, and help start Excite.com.

Yet the resume, astounding as it is, doesn’t tell the story.

Jim Bellows is a cryptic, mumbling, gravel-voiced enigma who gives instructions like "think of the shade in a cave" and "you'll figure it out." The funny thing is, it works. He gets through to you---with a raised eyebrow, a half-smile, body language. You know what he means. Everyone who has worked for him has a "Bellows story." Here's a famous one: Once asked by a Washington Star writer what sort of column to write, Bellows responded "Bip bip bip." (The meaning? Short and punchy.) That same writer, Diana McLellan, found her column trumpeted on the sides of buses before she'd even agreed to take the job. Sly Bellows stuff.

The secret---well, one secret---of Bellows is that he is a "writer's editor," which is such a preposterous sounding term. Editors cultivate and cherish writers, don't they? (Pardon me while I pluck a dollar off a tree limb.) Well, Jim did---along the way, teaching the value of sharp observation, and letting facts speak for themselves ("gritty detail," he called it.) The prime exponent of this form was Pulitzer Prize-winning Breslin, who let the details of his stories carry their weight and credibility---not purple prose.

And Bellows was the opposite of micromanagement. If you had panache or pizazz (two of his favorite words) and didn't mind fourteen-hour days too much, Jim turned you loose. He instilled confidence and trust the way a boss always should, whether at a newspaper or anywhere else. At the L.A. Her-Ex, where I was lucky to work for him, the result of this trust was easy to see: we routinely wiped out the Times in annual awards banquets, even as strike-crippled ad revenue (and L.A. Times strongarm advertising tactics) ensured our eventual demise.

In today's world of corporate bottom-line martinets and self-serious poseurs, the Bellows style of trust is as quaint as a dial telephone. Trust? A modern piece of copy can go through six or seven different editors, all hemming and hawing as they suspiciously study sentences as if they are booby-trapped; puzzles that only their keenly trained minds can solve. What trust?

Fools that most writers are, the confidence of an editor is more inspiring than dental coverage and a decent salary (at the Her-Ex, we lacked both, and paid for parking.) This is why so many writers walked away from better paying jobs, or turned down better offers (guilty), to work for Jim, or to keep working for him. This is why he is revered by the likes of Wolfe, whom Bellows grabbed from the Washington Post and loosed on New York City, and Breslin, whom Bellows took off the Herald-Tribune sports page and told to write about the people.

The list of loyal Bellows alums---a who's who of journalism---can be found in a new book I recommend, especially to those readers who have soured on the fourth estate: "The Last Editor" (www.thelasteditor.com.) (Or catch the PBS documentary of the same name.) Bellows was persuaded by his youngest daughter, Justine, to finally set down a memoir, at a spry seventy-nine (credit longevity to the two-martini lunches.)

It's a crisp, entertaining read, with tons of "sidebars" from those who worked with the man---or, to use his terminology, who "helped" him. That's it, you see---Bellows always asked for help. He figured out, early on, a principle that probably makes corporate clone types retract their body hair: if you ask people for help, why, they like to pitch in!

This is the leitmotiv of Jim's astonishing "second paper" career---where he steered what I consider to have been the last great American "Front Page"-style newspapers: the Herald-Tribune, Star, and Herald-Examiner. He asked for help.

The Last Editor. . .

That's about right. Newspapers are gone. They are corporations. Oh, there are fine, spirited people working for them, but the "Front Page" ethos is fable. Consider alone the fact that the title, "editor," doesn't exist at many papers. They are "team leaders," and "content managers." As Bellows wrote:

"(Newspapers are) competing in the lowest-common-denominator race with tabloids, trash TV, shock-jock radio, and the rumor-plagued Internet. They are fighting for eyeballs, advertising dollars, and a thumbs-up from Wall Street for maximizing profits (not serving the public) as their primary goal."

Serving the public. What a concept.

Bellows thought so.

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