Thursday, September 17, 2009

The paper that ‘invented’ foreign news

In a captivating and inspiring new book, John Maxwell Hamilton, a former foreign correspondent who now is dean of the Manship School of Mass Communications at Louisiana State University, gives a great deal of credit to the Chicago Daily News for pioneering foreign news coverage among American newspapers.

Although the Daily News went out of business in 1978, I am happy, as a loyal alumnus, to honor the memory of the paper with this excerpt from Hamilton’s book,
“Journalism’s Roving Eye: A History of American Newsgathering Abroad.”

By John Maxwell Hamilton

While no newspaper accounts all by itself for modern journalism, none has a greater claim than the Daily News, founded in 1875.

The guiding genius was its proprietor, Victor Lawson. Adorned in a black frock coat, top hat, and Prince Albert beard, Lawson was a tough businessman, sharp about collecting what was owed him, creative in gimmicks that promoted sales, and high-mindedness. He rejected advertisements that promised more than they delivered and filled his newspaper with news that was both entertaining and uplifting.

His newsroom was filled with many of the country’s best journalists. Legendary Daily News editor Henry Justin Smith saw “the newspaper as a daily novel written by a score of Balzacs,” said reporter Ben Hecht.

The Daily News, as one historian has noted, was the first newspaper “to articulate a vision of public community.” By 1916, Daily News circulation reached 400,000, or 100,000 more than any other American daily. When Adolph Ochs had wanted to establish his credentials in order to buy the faltering New York Times in 1896, he sought a recommendation from Lawson and later kept a picture of the Chicago newsman in his office.

Lawson’s signal contribution to foreign news came as the Spanish-American War drew to a close. With the United States now a world power, he decided to start a permanent foreign service. “It is no longer desirable, or even safe,” he told an editor, “for public opinion in this country to rely, as it now does, almost exclusively on foreign agencies, most of them subsidized by foreign governments, for their news of foreign countries.”

Lawson embarked on this bold – and expensive – idea as “largely an experiment.” His newsroom thought it folly to write about the world when raucous and corrupt Chicago was spread out before the paper. And anyway, it really wasn’t obvious what a foreign service made up of American journalists systematically reporting for American readers should exactly do. Lawson initially tried a recurring column from London, “Queer Sprigs of Gentility.”

While “Queer Springs” did not last long, the experimentation continued. In 1911 the home office asked for a weekly summary of the best jokes from the European press, a challenge for the Paris bureau since the funniest humor there was too risqué for the Chicago reader. For years the Daily News printed the names of visiting Chicagoans who signed the guest book in overseas bureaus. As a cost-savings at one point, correspondents were commanded to cease using the word “stop” in cables, a decision that led to endless mix-ups.

Over time, however, Lawson’s correspondents became highly accomplished. When World War I broke out, he capitalized on their experience. He deposited gold coin in strategically located overseas banks, where it was drawn on by the 30-odd correspondents he deployed “at the places of impact.” The Daily News, said Editor & Publisher, scored “more beats on the war in its special foreign service than perhaps any other paper in the world.”

Newspaperman Lord Northcliffe called Edward Price Bell, whom Lawson had sent abroad in 1900, “the best American newspaperman London has ever had.” “Our men,” pronounced Bell in turn, “are journalistic intellectuals, with definite personalities, with considerable personal reputations, and charged with duties in the highest realm of newspaper work.”

The Daily News was not about to forget the average reader, who might not care much about foreign affairs. Sports stories were a fixture on the front page, sometimes the banner story. Serialized fiction and Hollywood news entertained readers. “There are more romances told or suggested in a single issue of a metropolitan daily,” Lawson believed, “than you will find in a dozen novels.”

Though the banner story might be on sports, however, the first inside page was filled every day with foreign news, some of it highly specialized. This continued after Lawson died in 1925. Daily News series in 1928 and 1929 included William Stoneman on Schlesweg, Carroll Binder on the Calabria region of Italy, and John W. White on the reasons for South American ill will toward the United States.

“See that glint!” exclaims a character in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1928 Professor Challenger short story, a tale of the mad British scientist’s secret drilling in Sussex to reach the earth’s life force. “That’s the telescope of the Chicago Daily News.”

When the first Pulitzer Prize was given in the category of “correspondence” in 1929, the recipient was Paul Scott Mowrer, who became editor of the newspaper in the 1930s. His brother, Edgar, won the prize a couple of years later for his reporting for the Daily News from Germany. At the high point, more than 100 North American newspapers subscribed to its foreign service.

Will Irwin singled out the Daily News in a 1911 Collier’s article on the state of journalism. “Even should it change hands, should a get-rich-quick policy destroy its character, the ‘News’ would go on paying for a generation by power of its old honesty,” he wrote. And it did, first under Walter Strong (a relative of Lawson’s wife), then under Colonel Frank Knox, and next under John Knight. Each time it sold for a record price.

Each time, too, there was trauma that reminded correspondents of the fragility of excellence. Knox drove off Bell, whom he thought too much an Anglophile. Mowrer left when Knight brought in Basil “Stuffy” Walters, who spun theories about RPUs (reader pulling units) and emphasized bright layouts and story condensation, which made him unpopular with correspondents used to being left alone. It was widely whispered around the newsroom that when Mowrer saw the revamped newspaper, he commented, “They’re putting bobby socks on the Madonna.”

And sure enough, the momentum eventually did peter out.

In the Daily News’ heyday, homebound commuters boarded a train or bus with the newspaper tucked under their arms. With the post-war rise of sprawling suburbs, more and more readers drove their own cars to work. They listened to their radio on the road and watched television in their living rooms.

Getting newspapers to inner city projects was perilous; getting them to the suburbs on time was increasingly difficult because of the distances involved and congested expressways. The morning papers were delivered when most motorists were in bed.

By 1977, the four remaining Daily News correspondents had been recalled. Only once did the last foreign editor get permission to send a stringer on an assignment. The next year, on the same day that a Daily News reporter won the prestigious William Allen White Award for editorial writing, Marshall Field, the last owner, stood on a city room desk and announced the end of the paper.

So, what should the journalistic congregation conclude from this sermon? Great journalism, like the democracy that it is meant to support, cannot be taken for granted. It is, really, an experiment, just as Lawson’s foreign news service always was. His paper is an object lesson in the never-ending need to invent new ways to do journalism. “May the spirit of the writer’s newspaper survive,” wrote one staffer in the paper’s final edition on March 4, “somewhere in newspaper heaven.”



Anonymous Anonymous said...

How ironic that these days Americans have to read foreign newspapers like the Times of London, in order to find out what's going on in their own country.

2:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a lesson here: quality sells....Sigh.

6:17 AM  
Blogger California Girl said...

wonderful excerpt.

I was listening to NPR yesterday as they spoke of the need to sift through internet news nowadays and beware the sources. The discussion went on about objectivity vs POV, Walter Cronkite style journalism vs Keith Olbermann style. I find myself reading more POV and enjoying it less. In depth info is largely unavailable on tv.

4:32 AM  
Blogger The Hypervigilant Observer said...

Ah!...the good old Chicago, once a newspaper-rich city.

Mine was a three newspaper family.

I grew-up buying the Daily News... while delivering the morning Chicago American.

My parents preferred the Sun-Times.

Mike Royko was the biggest DN attraction...but so was the extensive foreign coverage.

The Tribune also had foreign news... but with an annoying conservative bent.

For some reason, I have maintained that lust of foreign news first nurtured in Chicago.

Of course, it's so much easier to feed that interest on the Web...and I do with story links about Latin America and Eastern Europe...on my blog.

Lex Wadelski
Austin, Texas

11:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I strongly suspect that many are over intellectualising who will & who wont pay a subscription fee & what their reasons might be. There would also seem to be something of a confusion as to who actually reads an online newspaper.

Newspaper X may well have a catchment area of (say) 100,000, but there is no reason to make the assumption that only people living in that catchment area make up the readership. As an British expat living in Spain I read many different English language newspapers online, mainly because of the difficulty of buying them here in Spain, but also because I can read the same story from more that one point of view &, to my way of thinking, get a much clearer & (perhaps) better idea of the truth. Most none English speaking countries produce an English language newspaper & that can give a very different slant on a story.

Now we come to paying a fee, while in the process blocking a papers content from being republished elsewhere so as not to under value the product that now carries a price tag. The first thing that seems to be getting ignored is the simple fact that people are now unwilling to transmit personal details over the net unless it is for something they perceive to be worth the “risk”. The small charges being suggested for newspaper subscriptions (& they need to be small) are not going to be felt to be worth that risk. Add to this that many people read a newspaper anonymously & do not want their names & details held with what they already know to be an advertising organisation.

Finally what is the point of offering little more than is already on offer on paper when the net offers potentially so much more? One of the papers I use most is “Japan today” & it is addictive in that it offers the reader the chance to comment live & interact with others who are commenting at the same time. I do feel that it is poorly & over moderated but so far I haven’t found anything better for live discussion of a current news story. Its news stories are on the whole rubbish, but the live comment makes up for that failing. This is something that only the net can add to a newspapers content & gives a strong reason to keep going back, after all have am I not now become a contributor of sorts & do I not want to answer my critics?

Charging a fee on the net is simply not going to work unless something more is going to be offered. Offer me what I now get for free & I will not be interested, unless I am given something that involves me, interactive news gives me a reason to be interested.

2:36 PM  

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