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.

Newspaper reporters, untethered from their wage slavery, sought freelance income. Tom Wolfe, for one, ended up contributing to Esquire because of the strike, producing the New Journalism classic "There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmmm …)." Times veteran Talese makes it sound as though the strike essentially liberated Times staffers from their overlords. He writes:

[Timesmen] could see that life went on without The Times, the world went on without The Times, and as the newspaper strike continued they gained in self-confidence and awareness; they explored new areas of the city at a slow pace, they saw new people, thought new thoughts, dressed more casually, acted more impulsively, sensed what it would be like not to be a Timesman—no privileged treatment from politicians, no free tickets from press agents, no guarantee that a telephone call would be returned from an important person; no sense of responsibility to these important people, no restrictions when writing a Times story, no feeling of personal restraint and caution in public dealings or private involvements.

The New York market never really recovered from the great strike. A couple of months after its conclusion, New York daily circulation was down 10 percent from pre-strike levels. Later in the year, Hearst's New York Mirror expired, and eventually the New York Herald Tribune, the New York World Telegram & Sun, and the New York Journal-American joined the Mirror on the heap.

The least reliable source for what the end of newspapers means is usually the newspaper men, who are too stuck in their roles to reimagine the world. About a month into the strike, Times columnist James "Scotty" Reston went on New York's Channel 4 to read his column to viewers, begging an end to the strike. Said Reston (only half kidding, I think):

It's bad enough on the public, but think of a reporter. I've been fielding the Times on my front stoop every morning for 25 years and it's cold and lonely out there now. Besides, how do I know what I think if I can't read what I write?

******

Credit—or blame—the strike with creating the team of Evans and Novak. In 2003, Novak wrote, "[t]he column was given birth by the ultimately unsuccessful efforts of editor James Bellows to save the New York Herald Tribune after the disastrous New York newspaper strike of 1963. Bellows asked Evans, one of the paper's top Washington correspondents, to write a six-day-a-week column. When Evans protested that was too much for one person, Bellows told him to find a partner." With that lame attempt at a sign-off, I have no idea of how to artfully work in my Twitter handle or to suggest that you send e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word strike in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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