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Newspaperman as Savior

Adam Bernstein

Newspaper editor James Bellows died Friday aged 86 near Los Angeles. He made a career as the top editor at a series of failing newspapers -- the New York Herald Tribune during its last hurrah in the early 1960s, the Washington Star as it struggled as an afternoon daily in the late 1970s and then at also-ran Los Angeles Herald Examiner from 1978 to 1981. He also worked on TV, helping revive the ratings of the puffy celeb program "Entertainment Tonight." Read Pat Sullivan's excellent obit here.

James Bellows

Bellows was often branded as the savior of whatever newspaper he happened to be working for -- a reputation that seems sort of misplaced in retrospect. On a more-human scale he was just trying to find good features and tactics to challenge the dominant newspapers in each city: the NY Times, the Wash Post and the LA Times.

He encouraged a more-literary style at the Herald Tribune (think Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin) and helped create a great and gutsy gossip column at the Star called the Ear (Diana McLellan was its author) that proved a continual annoyance to Post editor Ben Bradlee because it made him and his wife a frequent target.

Bellows also helped bring more women into reporting positions and fostered their careers. Among them was Maureen Dowd, late of the Star and now a columnist at the NY Times.

She once called Bellows "a newspaperman with verve and bravery in equal measure, who always backed up his reporters, and who loved nothing better than to do a joyous rain dance in a hail of criticism."

Bellows immodestly named his memoirs "The Last Editor: How I Saved the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times from Dullness and Complacency."

By Adam Bernstein |  March 6, 2009; 4:19 PM ET  | Category:  Adam Bernstein
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There's an appreciation of Jim bellows on

Posted by: denishorgan | March 7, 2009 2:18 PM

Cheeky little obit, Adam! Worthy of the EAR itself!

And like the EAR, a few shadings of inaccuracy. Jim named his book "The Last Editor" because he was literally the final editor of every newspaper he tried to save. I'd say not immodest, but overly modest.

When the Star teased Ben Bradlee and his wife Sally Quinn, she was not yet his wife. Take a look at "The Last Editor" and you'll discover the covert deal Bradlee and Bellows made that launched the attacks on the "Fun Couple," as we called them.

And yes, the wonderful writer Diana McLellan did carry on with the EAR for a great many years, but for the first two years at its beginning and in its heyday, she had a partner. And that was me. Forgive the immodesty. It's rampant.

Louise Lague

Posted by: louiselague | March 9, 2009 12:21 PM

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