When the Deadline Becomes a Lifeline
I once had lunch with a man who owned newspapers.
His family had owned newspapers for generations, and he was now the head of that family.
He also owned other things, and it was said that he personally was worth more than $200 million.
I do not, I am sorry to say, often eat lunch with such people.
But he owned the newspaper I worked for, and we kept bumping into each other in the elevator. Every time we did he would say, “We really should have lunch some time.”
But rich people say things like that in elevators. And so I figured it would never happen.
Then one day his secretary called and asked if I was “free” on Friday to have lunch with the owner. I told her I would have to check my calendar, though the only calendar I had was the one in my wallet that my insurance agent sent me every year.
I put her on hold, counted to five very slowly and got back on the phone.
“I can probably move a few things around and squeeze him in,” I said. “I’ll try.”
She snickered. “I’m sure you will,” she said. “I’m sure you will also be on time.”
She was wrong. I was early.
We had lunch in one of the owner’s private clubs. I had only one wish: that I not spill anything. Or, if I did, that at least I would spill it on me and not on him.
We had to find something to talk about and so we talked about newspapers, since that was the only thing we had in common.
Actually, he talked and I babbled. Some people fall silent when they are nervous. I babble.
I prattled on about what newspapers meant to me and what I thought they meant to other people and how I loved newspaper stories and then, I’m pretty sure, I gave him a fairly detailed plot outline of “Deadline U.S.A.,” the best newspaper movie ever made.
As it turned out, everything I told him he had heard before. All the stories and all the rest. And when I was done, he told me something I never forgot.
“You are a romantic,” he said. “You are caught up in the romance of the profession. That’s good. I even envy that. But you have to understand, I’m not. I’m a businessman.”
And then he talked about what that meant. It was not evil. Not at all. He was a very good businessman. He had built up the family fortune and intended to leave more to his son than his father had left to him.
That, he said, was a real goal of his, and, when I thought about it, I found there was little to criticize in that.
It occurred to me, though, that his ancestors and the other early generations of newspaper families probably were romantics. There were other reasons for them to own newspapers: service to the community, power, a sense of noblesse oblige, and, of course, money. But I think they liked newspapers. Really liked them.
As generations passed, some of that wore off. You had to expect that. You can’t demand that a baby, at birth, inherit a love of newsprint just because he bears a famous family name.
And a few years after our lunch, the owner, having already folded one of his papers, sold the one I worked for. He sold it for a very high price to a man who cared nothing whatsoever about newspapers. And so I left.
A lot of my colleagues blamed the owner for selling, but I always remembered that lunch and I realized that to him it was strictly a business decision.
My colleagues and I were romantics. We cared about newspapers because they were newspapers and thought they were different from companies that made sheet metal or shoelaces.
One more bit of nostalgia and then on to the present: I once had a city editor who hated to see reporters hanging around the news room. “There’s no news in a news room!” he would shout. “The city is outside the city room!”
But he would have been wrong if he had been in Baltimore this week. The newspapers there made the news instead of just reporting it.
One ailing newspaper folded and two healthy newspapers were purchased. The town is in a state of mild shock. People take a very personal interest in what they read each day.
My home newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, was one of the newspapers purchased. Along with its sister publication, the Evening Sun, and two TV stations, we were bought for $600 million.
We were bought by a company, Times Mirror, that, in a small way, I have worked for over the last five years. They own the syndicate that distributes this column nationally. That doesn’t give me any extraordinary insights, but I do feel confident about one thing:
They are a company that likes newspapers. That’s why they buy them. They are businessmen. But they like newspapers. Really like them.
And that’s all I ask for. That’s plenty.