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Aug. 9, 2013, 1 p.m.

Summer Reading 2013: “The Last Editor: How I Saved The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times from Dullness and Complacency” by Jim Bellows (2002)

“I thought: Let’s get all the areas we want to keep people informed about, whether it’s food or finances or relationships, and let’s get the best people not only to write a short tip on the subject matter once a week, but also to answer questions from our subscribers.”

Editor’s Note: The Nieman Foundation turns 75 years old this year, and our longevity has helped us to accumulate one of the most thorough collections of books about the last century of journalism. We at Nieman Lab are taking our annual late-summer break — expect limited posting between now and August 19 — but we thought we’d leave you readers with some interesting excerpts from our collection.

These books about journalism might be decades old, but in a lot of cases, they’re dealing with the same issues journalists are today: how to sustain a news organization, how to remain relevant, and how a vigorous press can help a democracy. This is Summer Reading 2013.

The Last Editor: How I Saved The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times from Dullness and Complacency by Jim Bellows

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Jim Bellows, the famed editor of the The New York Herald Tribune, The Washington Star, and The Los Angeles Herald Examiner, took pride in running second-place newspapers. There he was in a position to encourage bold, literary writing, and have some fun at the expense of the papers he refers to in the title of this book, his 2002 memoir.

Toward the book’s end, he writes about the experience of working on news at Prodigy, the pre-web dialup network that bridged BBSes and the Internet we know today. Bellows took some lessons with him from his newspaper days, including the idea to attract people to his network with celebrity experts — not unlike today’s discussions of the rise of personal franchise sites within news organizations, from Nate Silver to Ezra Klein.

There was a problem. CBS was the news partner at Prodigy; IBM was the technical partner, and Sears was the marketing partner. But when Larry Tisch bought CBS he opted out of Prodigy. With CBS gone, the most knowledgeable communications people were gone too. IBM and Sears had no media experience and their executives had little respect for news. They thought of it as fillers between the ads…So against these corporate walls, breaking news fought an uphill battle.

Then I developed what seemed to me a promising idea. I felt that there not only had to be a personality to this whole thing, but there had to be personalities involved in it.

If you wanted to lose ten ugly pounds, what could beat asking Jane Fonda? If you were wondering about the meaning of the last scene in Casablanca, who better to query than Gene Siskel? If you wanted to ask about presidential policy, how about asking Bob Novak or Jack Germond? Asking them directly, on your computer. And getting a personal answer.

I thought: Let’s get all the areas we want to keep people informed about, whether it’s food or finances or relationships, and let’s get the best people not only to write a short tip on the subject matter once a week, but also to answer questions from our subscribers. What could be more exciting than that in luring people to our service?

Basically, I was trying to create for Prodigy a group of star columnists, very much as I had done in the world of newspapers.

POSTED     Aug. 9, 2013, 1 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Summer Reading 2013
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