Originally published by Vanity Fair, November 30, 2012 by Scott Sherman.
The Long Good-Bye
Fifty years ago this month, striking printers shut down seven New York City newspapers. The strike would last for 114 days and helped to kill four of those newspapers. “This was an absolutely unnecessary strike,” recalls Tom Wolfe, who worked for the doomed Herald Tribune. Deep down it was about technological disruption—a foreshadowing of dislocations that roil the newspaper industry in our own time. As a newspaper town, New York was never the same again.
A little more than two hours after midnight on December 8, 1962, hundreds of printers walked away from their clattering Linotype machines and their rumbling presses and departed en masse from The New York Times’s block-long composing room, on West 43rd Street. Everything they deemed essential—typewriters, adding machines, a public-address system, manila folders stuffed with union documents—was packed into cardboard boxes and carted away to strike headquarters, in Greenwich Village. The printers, most of them second-generation Irish, Italian, and Jewish men in their 40s, belonged to Local No. 6 of the International Typographical Union (I.T.U.), a confederation better known by its historic nickname, “Big Six.” The Times was shut down, and within hours so was every other major newspaper in New York City.
One of the most dramatic and vexing strikes in American history was under way. The showdown of 1962–63 pitted around 17,000 newspaper employees—pressmen, photoengravers, paper handlers, reporters, elevator operators, office boys—against the owners and publishers of seven New York City newspapers, who were determined to curtail the influence of Big Six and nine other clamorous unions. Over the next 114 days, 600 million newspapers would go unprinted; newspaper-obsessed New Yorkers would be forced to navigate their metropolis without them. President John F. Kennedy would denounce the president of Big Six, Bertram “Bert” Powers, who spearheaded the strike; the Publishers Association would be shaken by the defection of its only woman, Dorothy Schiff of the New York Post; and the newsgathering abilities of local TV stations would grow in size and sophistication. The strike would put a decisive end to New York as a boisterous newspaper town, one that in the 1920s had possessed 19 dailies.
For some New York newspaper veterans, even a brief mention of the episode is enough to summon rage and melancholy. “This was an absolutely foolish strike,” says Tom Wolfe, who was a reporter at the Herald Tribune at the time. “There was a stubborn union leadership that was not going to give in, no matter what. So they managed to kill off four newspapers out of seven.” Jimmy Breslin, then a Tribune columnist, says, “Bert Powers was fucking crazy! He disliked newspapers.” If the strike hastened the decline of newspaper culture in New York, it also changed the landscape of literary journalism: the void created by the news blackout helped to launch and solidify the careers of Gay Talese, Nora Ephron, Pete Hamill, and Wolfe himself. “The freedom that came with that strike,” says Talese, who was then a 30-year-old Times man, “made me, for the first time, know what it was like to be a writer rather than a reporter whose life was owned by the Times.”
At its core, the New York newspaper strike was a battle over technology. The 1950s and 1960s saw the emergence of computerized typesetting systems that would revolutionize the newspaper composing room. Newspapers that prohibited unions, such as the Los Angeles Times, rushed to install cutting-edge computers such as the RCA 301. Newspapers with union contracts, including those in New York City, faced tempestuous resistance from labor leaders, who could easily see that automation would cost jobs.
Today, new technology is again shaking American newspapers as the Internet drains away more and more advertising revenue. Cities with dailies may soon face a newspaper blackout much darker than what New York experienced a half-century ago. For a brief period, New York was a laboratory that demonstrated what can happen when newspapers vanish.
New York in 1962 was a city of fedoras and mink hats, Rheingold beer and Kent cigarettes—a city where you could see Lenny Bruce at the Village Vanguard and Dinah Washington at Birdland. It was a place where anyone with a serious newspaper habit lived in a state of perpetual bliss: seven dailies appeared in rolling editions around the clock. There were two upscale morning broadsheets: The New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune. There were two mass-market morning tabloids with formidable circulations and devoted working-class readers: the Daily News(whose pages were filled with crime and show-business stories, astrological charts, and “beautiful child” contests) and The New York Daily Mirror (a money loser that mimicked theNews and featured both the gossip-monger Walter Winchell and the syndicated labor columnist Victor Riesel, blinded by an acid attack outside Lindy’s restaurant in 1956). There was an afternoon tabloid, the New York Post (known for its agile sportswriters and its marquee columnists Murray Kempton, James Wechsler, and Max Lerner). And there were two afternoon broadsheets: the Hearst-owned New York Journal-American, which employed the jazzy sportswriter Jimmy Cannon and the anarchic conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler, and which had splendid funny pages; and the New York World-Telegram & Sun,whose editorial credo was once defined by A. J. Liebling, the incomparable press critic, as “Republican, anti-labor, and suspicious of anything European,” but which was capable of fine muckraking as well. Every few hours bundles containing the latest editions descended on newsstands: the “bulldog” editions of the morning dailies arrived around nine p.m., ideal for people streaming out of bars, restaurants, and nightclubs, while the first editions of the afternoon papers fell off the printing presses a little after eight a.m.
Each newsroom had its own rhythms and rituals. Life at the New York Post was characterized by tough love, raffish deportment, and corrosive, macabre humor. One night in the early 1960s, Dexter Teed, a diminutive reporter who evoked Herman Melville’s Bartleby, made a customary visit to Julius’s tavern, in the Village, and later returned to the office, whereupon he collapsed at his desk. Post veteran Edward Kosner, later the editor ofNewsweek, New York, and the Daily News, recalled in his 2006 memoir, It’s News to Me,“Teed had fulfilled the newspaper man’s ultimate destiny—he’d died at his typewriter. Dexter was reverently laid out across a couple of desks and covered with sheets of the morning papers to await the police”—after which a deskman shouted, “Get me the clips on Dexter Teed.” Teed’s appropriately diminutive obituary was soon on its way to the typesetters.
The Times newsroom, on West 43rd Street, was a bustling, self-contained universe. The managing editor, Turner Catledge, would sometimes stand outside his office with binoculars, scanning the immense workspace. The city editor used a loudspeaker to summon dozens of clean-cut reporters—many with college degrees!—to a breaking story. As Gay Talese wrote inThe Kingdom and the Power, the Times was full of “skilled workers, geniuses, oddballs, and drones . . . the baseball writers who rarely appeared in the office, the ballet critic who fluttered through at night, the old white-haired scrivener of chess tournaments who wore a heavy overcoat in summer, the music critic who never wore an overcoat even in snowstorms . . . the happy clerk in the telegraph room who during his off hours was an undertaker.”
The Herald Tribune was situated at 230 West 41st Street, and most of its writers worked out of a grimy fifth-floor newsroom. The proprietor was John Hay Whitney—“the only millionaire I ever rooted for,” Breslin once recalled. “The guy hired me while I was drunk at a bar.” For many reporters and editors, working there amounted to a heady, intoxicating experience. “The Trib was in a kind of ‘try anything’ mood,” says William Whitworth, a 26-year-old general-assignment reporter in 1963 who later became editor of The Atlantic Monthly. “They wanted to do something funny and different every day on the front page and anywhere they could in the paper.” The moderately Republican Trib was edited by the preppy, aloof John Denson, who lived on scrambled eggs, coffee, and ice cream, and who, as Richard Kluger wrote in his book The Paper, “looked like a mad genius, wrapped in cigarette smoke, redoubtable and combustible and half the time on the verge of apoplexy.” Denson would be succeeded by James G. Bellows, who received memos like this from Breslin: “please have these sonsofbitches put this story into next sunday’s magazine so’s i can get rid of this level of annoyance from myself.” Also on the Trib payroll was Marguerite Higgins, whose dispatches from the battlefields of Korea won a Pulitzer; the literary gadfly Seymour Krim, who arrived at the Trib after serving as editor of the girlie/hipster magazine Nugget (where he published James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, and Terry Southern), and who would in 1970 memorialize the Trib in a stirring essay, “The Newspaper as Literature/Literature as Leadership”; and the future novelist Charles Portis, who reported from London.
For journalists of that era, the saloon was a refuge: a place to begin a love affair, to get mail, to trade gossip, to reconcile with a city editor who had just put you through a series of grueling re-writes, and to find a job: Breslin was hired by Jock Whitney in Bleeck’s (pronounced “Blake’s”), which was situated at 213 West 40th Street and which had a 42-foot-long bar in its front room. Around the clock, these saloons—Gough’s, Mutchie’s, the Curb—functioned as mini journalism schools: Pete Hamill cherished the early-morning enlightenment he received at the Page One bar, where seasoned reporters issued pungent critiques of the first edition of the New York Post, the ink barely dry.
The newspaper printers had their own culture and tradition, one defined by pride, manual dexterity, and unity. The I.T.U., with a national membership of 113,000 in 800 locals, was a force to be reckoned with in the newspaper industry. It was old, clean, highly democratic, and ferociously militant: between 1945 and 1961, when many American unions retreated from combat and antagonism, I.T.U. was involved in 335 strikes and lockouts nationwide. Big Six was the largest and most vibrant local in the I.T.U. cosmos. In those days, the city’s printing industry was concentrated in Lower Manhattan, and Big Six was headquartered at 62 West 14th Street, then a bustling working-class district of small factories and book binderies. Big Six had contracts with 600 commercial printing shops and 28 publications. Its leaders generally preferred to negotiate with the printing shops, whose owners tended to be modest, practical men. Newspaper publishers, with their aristocratic bearing and their legions of subordinates, were another story. “Newspaper publishers know very little about their own business,” scoffed one Big Six officer in 1970. “I knew one who had never been in the mechanical department of his paper. He wouldn’t know a web press from a linotype machine.”
As a young reporter at the Herald Tribune, Richard Wald got to know the men who worked in the paper’s composing room. “It was a fiercely unionized place, a fiercely well-guarded place, run by very intelligent people,” says Wald. “It wasn’t drunken layabouts. The newsroom was drunken layabouts.” In a world where reporters and editors jumped from paper to paper, it was the blue-collar unions that gave each enterprise a certain continuity, if not stability—at least, that’s how they saw it. Says Wald, “They were the newspaper, in their minds. It existed because of them. They made it. They were the manufacturers. That they were manufacturing horseshoes in an automobile era was difficult for everybody, but they were the manufacturers.”
But technology had pronounced a death sentence. After nearly a century, the magnificent Linotype machine, with its unwieldy keyboard and its attached vessel of molten metal, was on the verge of obsolescence as computerized, “cold” typography made inroads everywhere. Operating and maintaining the Linotype process required large numbers of workers, and the process itself was relatively slow and cumbersome. “You knew the unions were going to go out of business, that something was coming,” says Jimmy Breslin. “There were too many people tinkering with freaking machinery.”
The new, computerized typesetting machines unleashed anxiety within the I.T.U. and contributed to the rise, in May 1961, of a dynamic new president of Big Six, a man who could have stepped out of a Dreiser novel. Bertram Powers was born in 1922 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His mother worked in the Harvard cafeteria and died of tuberculosis when he was 11. At 15, Powers was run over by a dump truck, shattering his left hip. Largely abandoned by his father, he quit high school and apprenticed as a Linotype operator. In the 1930s and 1940s, Powers, not unlike the “tramp printers” of the 19th century, moved restlessly among the printshops of Bridgeport, New Haven, Detroit, Chicago, and New York. In 1947, while setting type for the left-wing daily PM,in Manhattan, Powers ran for a seat on Big Six’s executive committee and was defeated. But in 1953 he was elected vice president. Powers quit his day job to become a full-time employee of the union. He was a striking presence—tall and lean, and looking far younger than his years. In a New Yorker profile in 1970, Geoffrey Hellmann described Powers as having “an intense, penetrating, watchful look . . . a controlled ruthlessness; a highly developed political sense; an aversion to small talk; a tendency not to waste words.” Powers also displayed a portside limp that Hellmann pronounced “rather majestic.”
A crazy quilt of 10 unions produced and distributed the city’s newspapers. Powers set out to build common ground among them by creating the Officers Committee for Newspaper Unity, a confederation whose meetings would soon attract crowds of up to 4,000. Within the unity committee, relations between Big Six, which represented production workers, and the Newspaper Guild, which represented reporters and sundry white-collar workers, were strained. Guild contracts expired on October 31; contracts for the other nine unions expired on December 7. That schedule infuriated Powers, because it meant that his printers had to negotiate a contract right after precedent had been set by a weaker, white-collar union. This was a principal issue behind the strike of 1962–63: Powers was determined to dislodge the Guild as the lead negotiator and to achieve a common expiration date for the newspaper-union contracts. He also wanted a $98-a-week pay raise for his members and a 35-hour workweek.
Throughout 1961 and 1962, Powers prepared for a showdown. Today, newspaper employees have acquiesced to the reality of the Internet—what choice do they really have? Powers and his members, in contrast, believed they could halt the future. Even Murray Kempton, a student of the labor movement, called them “Luddites.” Powers prepared for battle by bolstering the Big Six strike fund and by educating his printers about past skirmishes against the city’s press lords. His view, as Big Six members Harry Kelber and Carl Schlesinger later wrote, was that the photoengravers’ walkout of 1953 (which had lasted 11 days) and the newspaper delivery-truck stoppage of 1958 (which had lasted 17 days) had proved unsuccessful “because the unions were not prepared to sustain a prolonged strike.” Those defeats convinced Powers that any successful newspaper strike would have to be a protracted one.
‘The ITU is a menace to the printing trade and particularly to newspapers,” a prominent New York newspaper publisher declared in 1932. “We are simply nursing a viper in our bosom.” The publisher was Adolph S. Ochs, the founder of the modern-day New York Times. In 1962, Ochs’s newsroom heirs belonged to the Publishers Association of New York City, whose membership roster included representatives of the city dailies as well as newspapers on Long Island. The newspaper publishers had no shortage of authentic grievances against the unions. For instance, time-honored “featherbedding” practices in the composing room—printers had the right to reset any type (such as in advertisements or stock-market tables) that had originated in an outside shop—cost the owners $1.2 million a year. Radio and TV were beginning to drain advertising away from newspapers, and several of the dailies were fragile. As the December 1962 strike deadline approached, the publishers presented their offer. They would agree to a pay raise of only $9.20 per week—far short of Big Six’s demand—and they insisted on the freedom to set stock-exchange and financial tables using computer-produced Teletypesetter tape provided by Associated Press and United Press International. Powers, for his part, was determined to keep his men off the technological “slag pile.”
On the evening of December 7, both sides huddled for a marathon session at the New Yorker Hotel, on Eighth Avenue. The atmosphere was toxic. The publishers had selected as their chief representative Amory H. Bradford, the pipe-smoking vice president of The New York Times. Bradford would later become an alcoholic drifter and then a detoxified New Age therapist, crisscrossing the country in his van, but in 1962 he was a force to be reckoned with: almost 50 years old, a graduate of Yale (class of ’34, Skull and Bones), and famous for his hauteur. As for Bert Powers, labor reporter A. H. Raskin of the Times (who wrote a celebrated postmortem of the strike) quoted a government peacemaker who characterized him as “honest, clean, democratic—and impossible.”
The tension between Powers and Bradford was only one aspect of the deadlock. The two sides were simply too far apart in their fears, expectations, and demands. At 1:56 a.m., after Powers had lowered his threshold for a weekly wage increase to a still daunting $38, a member of the I.T.U. negotiating team, responding to a mediator’s request to “stop the clock,” replied, “It’s too late.” At two a.m., Powers called a strike against the four newspapers that he deemed to be economically sound: The New York Times, the Daily News, The Journal-American, and The World-Telegram & Sun. The other newspapers were left alone—Powers did not want to be accused of pushing ailing papers into the grave. But the Publishers Association had its own code of solidarity, and three hours after the strike was announced, the owners of the Herald Tribune, the Post, the Mirror, and The Long Island Star-Journalshut down their presses and locked out their workers. What the Times would call “the strike to end all newspaper strikes” was on.
‘Those were grim times in New York,” Nora Ephron remarked in 2009. “It was like part of the blood supply of the city was cut off.” The disappearance of newspapers reverberated widely.
Three hundred and fifty blind, crippled, and elderly newsdealers were forced out of business; 5,000 hotel and restaurant workers were discharged; welfare agencies reported that, without the ads they placed in newspapers, offers to take in orphaned and needy children dropped from roughly 100 per month to zero; charity balls were canceled. Without printed obituaries, attendance at wakes and funerals declined, and flower shops suffered. “A lot of people just don’t know when their friends die,” a florist told Newsweek. Promotion, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and as Christmas approached, improvisation filled the void. In the windows of Stern’s Department Store, attractive models scrawled daily specials on blackboards. On Madison Avenue, employees from a P.R. firm held up signs with the latest news and gossip about their clients.
Newspaper readers had to subsist on crumbs and scraps: the Manchester Guardian, The Newark Evening News, the Brooklyn Eagle, the Village Voice, and even The Harvard Crimson (which put out a special New York edition). Deprived of the seven newspapers he ingested each day, A. J. Liebling turned to The Wall Street Journal, the London Observer, The Journal of Commerce, and a longtime favorite, The Las Vegas Sun—“a grand escape,” he wrote, “when I weary of the graying world around me.”
A city without The New York Times inspired rage and scorn, ambivalence and relief. A “Talk of the Town” item in The New Yorker lamented a weekend without the “fragrant, steamy deep-dish apple pie of the Sunday Times.” James Reston—pillar of the Establishment, Washington bureau chief and columnist for the Times, and intimate of the Sulzberger family, to whom he directed a controversial entreaty to use non-union shops—was allowed to read his column on New York’s Channel 4 in early January 1963: “Striking the Times is like striking an old lady and deprives the community of all kinds of essential information. If some beautiful girl gets married this week, the television may let us see her gliding radiantly from the church. But what about all those ugly girls who get married every Sunday in the Times?”
A city without newspapers was a city in which civic activity was impeded, as two out-of-workTimes reporters hired by the Columbia Journalism Review soon documented. Without the daily papers, the Health Department’s campaign against venereal disease was “seriously impaired.” So was the fight against slumlords: “There’s a distinct difference,” the city’s building commissioner said, “between a $500 fine and a $500 fine plus a story in the Times.” The New York chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality discovered that, without newspaper attention, its boycott of the Sealtest Milk Company was considerably undermined. The newspaper strike, the C.J.R. study concluded, had “deprived the public of its watchdog.”
‘It was one of those stalemate situations,” says Gabe Pressman, the venerable New York television journalist. “It went on day after day, week after week. We thought it would be over quickly, but it wasn’t.” The round-the-clock negotiations encompassed a cast that included Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Goldberg, and New York City mayor Robert F. Wagner. But nothing and no one could break the deadlock, prompting Wagner to declare, “Both sides deserve each other.”
If the printers were guilty of mulish recalcitrance, the publishers were guilty of hubris and arrogance. Throughout the strike, the publishers believed that victory was within their grasp. On February 6, 1963, more than 80,000 I.T.U. members were poised to cast ballots for (or against) a 3 percent assessment on their weekly gross earnings, which would be used to bolster the I.T.U.’s dwindling national strike fund. The publishers knew that a similar I.T.U. referendum had been defeated a few months earlier and that a concurrent newspaper strike in Cleveland was putting enormous pressure on the I.T.U.’s financial resources. But an old tradition of labor-movement militancy asserted itself: by a margin of 62,913 to 21,869, the printers approved the 3 percent assessment. Bert Powers had all the money he needed to replenish his coffers.
The unity of the newspaper owners eroded before that of the printers. On February 28, during a cheerless meeting of the Publishers Association, the Post’s Dorothy Schiff stood up and declared, “I want you to know I’m resigning from the association and resuming publication Monday.” Newspaper publishers rarely make good copy, but Schiff, nearly 59, was an exception. “Now I can stop taking tranquilizers,” she remarked after announcing her decision. In her youth, the granddaughter of the financier Jacob Schiff had had affairs with Lord Beaverbrook, the newspaper baron, and, quite possibly, with Franklin D. Roosevelt (even though she always denied it); she would later collect four husbands. In the depth of its reporting and the quality of its prose, the Post, had never soared as high as the Herald Tribune or The New York Times, but the paper honored its liberal convictions with the causes it took up (the New Deal, civil rights) and the enemies it pursued (Joseph McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, Walter Winchell, Robert Moses, Richard Nixon). Now Schiff was ready to end the lockout at the Post, and on March 4, to the delight of New Yorkers, who lined up in Times Square to get it, the resurrected paper hit the newsstands. Some of the other publishers never forgave Dorothy Schiff for breaking ranks. “It was a traitorous act,” Marian Heiskell, the wife of Times publisher Orvil Dryfoos, told Schiff’s biographer, Marilyn Nissenson, “and it certainly prolonged the strike.”
During those 114 days, jobless newspaper workers hauled laundry, drove cabs, shoveled coal, and sorted mail. Some reporters worked on short-lived strike papers. A few with particular talent and flair—such as Walter Kerr and Judith Crist, of the Herald Tribune—were hired by local TV stations, which expanded their beachhead in the news-and-culture business. On the Upper West Side, a cluster of editors and writers—Robert Silvers, Jason and Barbara Epstein, and Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick—took advantage of the strike to launch a highbrow, London-style literary periodical, The New York Review of Books. All of them had long despaired of the quality of the city’s literary supplements and were fully aware that the strike had deprived book publishers of venues in which they could advertise. “One morning in January,” Robert Silvers remembers, “Jason rang me and said that this was a time when we could start a book review without having any capital.” Edited and assembled in an apartment on West 67th Street, the premiere issue of The New York Review of Books contained essays and poetry by Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, William Styron, Gore Vidal, and Robert Penn Warren. Silvers remains at the helm to this day.
The strike also created an opening for literary-minded newspaper writers who felt handcuffed by the city desk. Gay Talese was happy enough at the Times but yearned to paint on a larger canvas. “So in 1962,” Talese says, “when that strike terminated our involvement as daily journalists, for the first time in my life I knew what it was like to have time to research in a way that I wanted to.” The result was an Esquire profile of Peter O’Toole, who had just finished Lawrence of Arabia, and a major boost for Talese’s career as a long-form journalist.
“For me personally,” says Tom Wolfe, “the strike had good unintended consequences, which is to say I was forced to start freelancing. I had never written a magazine article in my life, except for little trivial things in Sunday supplements. You had a choice of walking on a picket line carrying a sign and getting strike pay from the union, which was pretty meager, or just taking your chances.” Wolfe, too, began to make a name for himself, as did Nora Ephron.
Among the reporters locked out of the New York Post was the 28-year-old Pete Hamill. He wrote briefly for a strike paper; he produced a few pieces for Police Gazette; he read the novels of Raymond Chandler and Stendhal. As the strike wore on, he sold an article to The Saturday Evening Post for $1,500, a sum equal to 10 weeks of toil under the watchful eye ofPost editor Paul Sann, whose advice to young reporters was “concrete nouns, active verbs, and details.” When Dorothy Schiff reopened the newspaper, Hamill was exultant. As he writes in his evergreen memoir, A Drinking Life, “Don’t get used to being too happy, you Irish bum, Paul Sann said when I took him for a fast drink after work. No matter what happens, he said, newspapers will always break your fucking heart.”
On March 8, 1963, at the Commodore Hotel, the stalemate was finally broken, thanks in large part to the indefatigable exertions of Mayor Wagner’s chief labor negotiator, Theodore W. Kheel, who died in 2010 at the age of 96. “We set before their majesties a dainty dish, which proved irresistible,” Kheel toldTime. “It had just the right mixture of sweets and spices suitable for both palates.” Bert Powers got his entrées and his desserts: a joint expiration date for the union contracts, along with a muscular new profile for Big Six; a weekly wage increase of $12.63; a shorter workweek; and an open-ended pledge from the publishers that the unions would share in the financial savings from Teletypesetter machines—which the publishers got the right to install, a crucial early step in the modernization of composing rooms. Big Six stalwarts, after vociferous initial resistance, approved the package in balloting at Madison Square Garden, and the other unions eventually went along, though not without some resistance, especially from the photoengravers. “This whole thing ought to be settled over in the psychopathic ward,” one mediator, pale with rage, told one of his associates, according to the Times’s A. H. Raskin.
it’s so nice to see you again! declared the Journal-American in the first post-strike edition to reach the streets. read all about it/oh, what a beautiful morning, announced the Herald Tribune. The Mirror chimed in: new york’s alive again!/we said “we’ll be seeing you!” here we are after 114 days.
The 1963 contract saddled the New York publishers with millions of dollars in new costs, and the Times and the Herald Tribune were immediately forced to raise their price from a nickel to a dime. For the Herald Tribune, it was an ominous foreshadowing of serious difficulties to come. Few publications in the history of New York inspired a higher degree of admiration and loyalty: if the Times was frequently viewed as a lumbering elephant, the Herald Tribunewas a sleek puma, more elegant and readable than the Gray Lady. The New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, who worked there in the early 1930s, told Richard Kluger, “The Times was just a dull newspaper as far as we were concerned. We didn’t even think we were in competition with it.” The Tribune had a remarkable roster of talent: Walter Lippmann, Red Smith, Virgil Thomson, Walter Kerr, Kenneth Tynan, Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe. When it resumed publication, its daily circulation was down 92,000 copies, while its annual payroll was up by $1,262,000. The World-Telegram and the Journal-American also experienced significant drops in circulation.
When the Herald Tribune perished, in 1966, before an ill-fated merger with the World-Telegram and the Journal-American that provoked fresh rounds of labor agitation, Jimmy Breslin composed a bitter lamentation in Life: “The people who worked on the production had no regard for the newspaper at all. Their allegiance was to a union, not a newspaper.” Breslin stands by those words today.
Bert Powers could not have been surprised by the collapse of the fusion paper, The World Journal Tribune, in May 1967. He had predicted in the early 1960s that only a trio of New York newspapers would remain by 1970, and he was right. Those left standing were the stately Times, the pugnacious Daily News, and the financially troubled New York Post, which Dorothy Schiff would eventually sell to an eager young publisher from Australia, Rupert Murdoch. Its days as a liberal bulwark were over.
Print’s loss was television’s gain. During the 1962–63 strike, many newspaper readers shifted their loyalty to the television, permanently. Local TV news stations sensed an opportunity and grabbed it. WCBS added $50,000 a week to its news budget and hired 18 newspaper reporters. At WNBC, says Pressman, “we doubled the size of the newscast. We went to a half-hour, which was Nirvana.” Gay Talese concluded simply, “Some New Yorkers would learn to live without newspapers and would never return as regular readers.”
For Bert Powers and Big Six, the strike of 1962–63 was a Pyrrhic victory: countless American newspapers embraced “cold type” in the 1960s, with devastating consequences for the typographers. In September 1973, Powers disguised himself as an apprentice at the Daily News—“he always had a youngish face,” says his old comrade Carl Schlesinger—and sneaked into the Printing Trades Show at the Coliseum, on Columbus Circle, to see for himself the latest Compstar photocomposing equipment. Was the Compstar “worthwhile?,” he asked a salesman. Worthwhile enough to make unionized printers irrelevant, the salesman replied. In May 1974, Big Six struck the Daily News and got a chilling surprise: the News had achieved the technological capability to print two million papers a day even with all the printers on strike. But Powers did not retreat: in his negotiations with the Times that same year, he somehow pulled a rabbit out of a hat in the form of an unprecedented lifetime-employment guarantee for hundreds of Big Six printers, in exchange for the paper’s right to fully automate. The agreement did indeed keep his current members off the slag pile, but the cost to Big Six was high, because it choked off the local’s ability to bring younger printers into composing rooms. In July 1978 the Times made a complete transition from hot metal to computerized typesetting, and only one I.T.U. member covered by the 1974 job guarantee remains on the Times payroll.
Now, hot metal is history, and computerized typesetting is inexorably giving way to digital technology on the Web. Newspaper unions have reached their nadir, and old-school newspaper journalists are mostly defenseless in the face of current trends. For good or ill, there is no Bert Powers on hand to defend beleaguered employees at troubled newspapers. Indeed, we may have seen the last of the great American newspaper strikes. A fragmented, union-free journalistic landscape—shorn of printing presses and ink and paper, and containing millions of Web sites—could turn out to be more inclusive and exhilarating than what existed in the newspaper-saturated 1960s. We’ll see. But the mornings won’t be as beautiful without that thud of the daily newspaper on the front step.
Television’s glare catapulted Bert Powers into a household name in New York during the ’62–’63 strike, but within a decade he had largely faded into the shadows. In 1970, a New York Times article mangled his title and misspelled his name as “Bertrand,” endowing a blue-collar union man with an irksome tinge of the genteel. In 1976, Powers and his wife moved from Massapequa, Long Island, to an apartment on East 10th Street, which was close to Big Six headquarters and the ghosts of Union Square. His local was shrinking, and his best years were behind him. The old newspaper saloons had receded into history and cobwebs. Jimmy Breslin has lamented the fact that, after a day’s work, New York reporters now visit the gym instead of today’s equivalent of Bleeck’s, of which there isn’t one. (The space that housed Bleeck’s is now a run-of-the-mill office building.) Powers died in 2006, with a multifarious understanding of what Pete Hamill learned in a New York saloon in 1963: no matter what happens, newspapers will always break your heart.