What the 1962-63 New York newspaper strike teaches us about our post-newspaper future.

Media criticism.
May 11 2009 7:44 PM

Life After Newspapers

Learning from the 1962-63 New York newspaper strike.

Illustration by Mark Stamaty. Click image to expand.

What would life without newspapers be like?

I avoid making predictions, because very few of my predictions have ever come true. I prefer, instead, to peer down the other end of the telescope, into the past, to inform my sense of what's to come. So when I consider the dead and dying newspapers of our time, and the post-newspaper world everybody is predicting, I can't help but think of the 114-day New York newspaper strike of 1962-63.

The strike (over wages and work rules), and the ensuing publishers' lockout, eliminated the circulation of 5.7 million daily and 7.2 million Sunday newspaper copies. That's a staggering number, considering that the greater New York circulation of the three major dailies still publishing—the New York Times, the Daily News, and the New York Post—stands at about 1.6 million.

No conversation about newspapers' dismal present is complete without some anguished mention of how democracy will go off the rails unless the press is there to set it straight. (See last week's Senate hearings, chaired by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., for an example.) But even though the 1962-63 strike upended New York, neither the dozen newspaper accounts I've read about the strike nor the histories or memoirs from the era that I've pulled down from my shelf make it sound as though democracy and governance disappeared when the New York dailies' lights went out.

Instead, journalists and publishers improvised, and readers, parched for news, features, entertainment, and advertising, experimented with finding new sources. Giving up the daily newspaper habit proved easy for many New Yorkers, Gay Talese writes in his book The Kingdom and the Power: They "watched more television, or read more news magazines more thoroughly, or books, or discovered that New York seemed a more normal and placid place without the daily barrage of blazing headlines from Hearst, the rumored gangland shooting in the News, the threatening international strife in the Times."

According to the New York Times story published after the strike (subscription required), circulation of the Brooklyn Daily, which was not on strike,jumped from 50,000 to 390,000. In-city circulation of TV Guide rose by 350,000 and that of Time magazine by 31,000, or about 10 percent. Out-of-town newspapers like the Philadelphia Bulletin became a hot item. At that time, 750 copies of the Bulletin  per day would ordinarily move on newsstands, but during the strike, 7,000 sold. According to Time magazine, the National Enquirer increased its city press run of 300,000 by 1 million.

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Times-starved readers had friends mail them the Western edition of the New York Times, which was printed during the strike, writes Talese, and for comic effect, The New Yorkernoted that the library of the New York University School of Medicine was now stocking its newspaper rack with copies of the Christian Science Monitor.

A city without dailies turned resourceful. Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones write in The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Timesthat the Times' radio station, WQXR, more than doubled its news time and that nonstriking Times reporters were called on to file live reports. Both NBC TV and NBC radio broadcast a program called The New York Times of the Air on Sundays. According to one historian, the city's first all-news radio outlet got its start during the strike. Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein entered the cultural gap created by the strike, launching the New York Review of Books to replace the newspaper reviews. "We rang up some of the writers we admired most and asked them to contribute something within three weeks," Silvers told New Yorkmagazine in 2006.

The wan Village Voice attracted new readers and advertisers, becoming by decade's end a culture power. Unmoored by the strike were the news divisions of the New York-based TV networks, who could no longer rely on the dailies—especially the Times—to set the official news agenda. For the first time, they had to broadcast their choices of what constituted news, not an echo. Meanwhile, Jim Bellows and staff spent the downtime remaking their daily, the New York Herald Tribune.

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