Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
History Quarterly Digital Archives

Source: July 2003 Volume 40 Number 3, Pages 97–106


Peter Binzen

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Illustration from page 97

I've been asked to talk about the Philadelphia Bulletin (1847-1982) where I worked as a reporter, columnist and editor for more than 30 years. I feel comfortable addressing this group since my wife, Virginia, and I lived in Easttown for 24 years before moving to Tredyffrin 17 years ago. Let me explain how we got to this neck of the woods.

I grew up in Montclair, a suburb of New York City. It seems to me that North Jersey and South Jersey are like separate countries. And, of course, New York and Philadelphia are very different cities. As a kid, I can only remember visiting Philadelphia once, and the visit was brief. My Dad got tickets to the Army-Navy football game one year and the five of us - Mother, Dad, my two brothers and I - drove down to Municipal Stadium at the foot of Broad Street. It started raining shortly after we left home and by the time we got to the stadium it was pouring. Of course, the game would be played but my mother announced that she wasn't going to watch it in a rainstorm. Dad wasn't going without her. So he turned the car around and we all went home. End of visit to the City of Brotherly Love.

My next visit was more propitious. Here's the background. I served in the mountain infantry in World War II and, after graduating from college in 1947, got a job with the United Press in New York. My boss at the UP was a former war correspondent named Bill Dickinson. He was not only a fine editor, but an enormously attractive man. After just a few months, I left the UP to join the staff of a 50,000-circulation daily in Passaic, New Jersey, but I kept in touch with Bill Dickinson.

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In 1950, I sailed to France as a freelance journalist, making my headquarters in Paris. To this day, I love Paris and I love France. In January 1951, a college friend came over for a ski vacation and we picked the least expensive place we could find in Austria. It was there, on a ski slope in the Tirol, that I met an Aussie beauty named Virginia Flower. A native of Brisbane, she had been living with her mother in Scotland and when her Sydney cousin arrived they, too, decided to go skiing and they selected the same el cheapo resort that my friend and I had found. To shorten the story, Virginia and I had marvelous days in Paris before being married in London in June 1951. I then flew home ahead of my bride to look for a job. Of course, the first man I called was Bill Dickinson who by that time had become an editor at the Philadelphia Bulletin.

He arranged for me to be interviewed by the Bulletin's city editor. So on a hot day in July, I boarded a Pennsylvania Railroad train in Newark, rode to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia and then was transported by what the locals called the "Chinese Wall" to Broad Street Station, across from City Hall. The Bulletin Building was at Juniper and Filbert Streets on the other side of City Hall. The city room was on the ninth floor. The city editor was an ersatz Kentucky colonel named Stanley G. Thompson. The title was ersatz but there was nothing phony about Stanley Thompson. I would soon discover that he was an extraordinarily demanding editor who earned the respect of his entire staff despite being a social conservative. And this at a time when McCarthyism was rampant and civil liberties were under attack. Knowing that I had spent a month in Tito's Yugoslavia the previous summer, the city editor asked me straight out if I was a Communist. Later that day I learned that he checked out my denial by telephoning the minister of the Presbyterian church I occasionally attended in Upper Montclair. Mr. Thompson, as we all called him, was one of a kind. Despite his foibles, I came to have enormous regard for him. He made clear at the outset that if there was to be a choice between time with family or time with the Bulletin, the newspaper would always come first. It always did.

After the interview, I bought a copy of the Saturday Evening Post, had lunch at Horn & Hardart on Arch Street and took the PTC up to Lehigh Avenue to see the A's play. You get the idea. Times have changed in the last half century. Actually, Philly seemed to have a lot going for it in 1951. Its population had risen from just over one million in 1890 to over two million in 1950. It was the nation's 4th largest city, a manufacturing center where Budd made rail cars, Stetson made hats, Philco made radios, and Disston made saws. It was home for the Pennsy, America's largest railroad, and for the spunky Reading. Two large oil companies, Atlantic Refining and Sun, were headquartered in Philadelphia, as was Curtis Publishing whose Saturday Evening Post was the largest magazine in the country. The Bulletin was the largest evening paper. Also in Philadelphia were eight large banks and five department stores.

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Of course, the city totally dominated its region. When Virginia and I arrived, Chester County was largely farmland. There were probably more cows than cars in Tredyffrin. Chesterbrook was pasture. So was the site of the Great Valley Corporate Center. Levittown was asparagus fields, King of Prussia was an inn, not a giant shopping center. And so on.

Philadelphia had been governed by Republicans for 67 years but that was about to change. In November 1951, Clark and Dilworth captured City Hall and the Dems have clutched it to their bosoms ever since. Make of that what you will.

Knowing nothing about the city, I did some research. I found that H. L. Mencken led the gang of detractors. He described Philly as the most Pecksniffian of cities, meaning it was fatuous and hypocritical. But what did the bigot from Baltimore know anyway?

Much earlier, Mark Twain had compared us to Boston and NYC. In Boston, he said, they ask how much do you know; in New York, how much are you worth; in Philadelphia, who were your parents? There might have been some truth to that as late as 1951 but no more.

Stanley Walker, who edited the Public Ledger in the 1940's, thought Philadelphia was duller than seven Sundays in Flatbush. He had a point. Hotels were 2nd rate; restaurants, too. Downtown was boring. Again, that's changed a lot.

Struthers Burt's analysis was more balanced. He said Philadelphia presented a Quaker facade to the world: subdued, careful, moderate, puritanical but never ascetic, honest but shrewd, modest but firm. Among its defects he cited conformism, anti-intellectualism, materialism, and lack of enthusiasm.

Digby Baltzell spoke of the Proper Philadelphia habit of disparaging exceptional achievement. He referred to it as a deeply rooted tradition. As many of you know, Digby, who lived in Center City, coined the acronym WASP.

Nathaniel Burt, a writer like his father Struthers, likened Philadelphia to a bottle of wine: "a fine vintage, warm, rich, flavorful, but there's a drop of bitterness in the bottom of the glass." I wondered if that wine analogy held water.

Maybe the most notorious description of the City of Brotherly Love had come from muckraker Lincoln Steffens way back in 1902. You're no doubt familiar with his knock on Philadelphia as "corrupt and contented," and saddled with the worst city government in the country.

Less well known is what Steffens added. He labeled Philadelphians "good and

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intelligent" and said they "enjoyed great and widely distributed prosperity." They gave Steffens a "sense of more leisure and repose than any community I have ever dwelt in."

Finally, were the ruminations of a hometown boy, Christopher Morley, author of Kitty Foyle, among other books. He described the ancient and noble city of Philadelphia as a surprisingly large town at the confluence of the Biddle and Drexel families. He said it was wholly surrounded by cricket teams, fox hunters, beagle packs, and the Pennsylvania Railroad. I might note that all but the last in that list are still extant.

And Morley termed this city the first to foresee the advantages of both a federal constitution and oatmeal as breakfast food.

Morley may have had a point there, too. One of the sharp-tongued reporters at the Bulletin whom I got to know and love, used to describe the paper's publisher, Major Robert McLean, as an "oatmeal eating Presbyterian."

The paper, whose staff I joined in 1951, was unlike the New York Herald Tribune, the World Telegram, and Times that I had grown up on. Here was a big-city paper that covered nearly every grassfire and every $5 holdup. That regularly published the names of husbands and wives marking their 50th wedding anniversaries. That reported the sighting of the first robin every spring. That rejected liquor advertising despite a significant loss of revenue. A paper that as late as the 1950s used homing pigeons to fly photos to its sports department from ballparks and racetracks. A paper that refused to publish science writer Pierre Fraley's account of Alfred Kinsey's 1953 report on female sexual behavior for fear of offending its readers' sensibilities even though Fraley had spent nearly a week in Bloomington, Indiana, preparing his report. His reporting was fine but the subject was verboten at the Bulletin.

In light of today's anything goes reporting on the private parts of presidents and xrated proclivities routinely shown on cable TV, you might wonder how the Bulletin lasted as long as it did. It lasted because, as the Saturday Evening Post once observed, it was tailored to the city of Philadelphia. It was provincial but so was Philadelphia, which was known as "America's biggest small town."

In 1951, television was still in its infancy, and for most people newspapers were the only source of information about what was going on in their community. The Bulletin did an outstanding job of meeting that responsibility. It was a family newspaper with high standards of taste and decency. It might have been dull but it was never dirty. Major McLean once put it this way: "I think the Bulletin operates on a principle which in the long-run is unbeatable. This is that it enters the reader's home as a guest. Therefore, it should behave as a guest, telling the news rather than shouting it."

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He was wrong, of course. His principle failed to survive a collapse in the nation's standards of journalistic taste and decency. And yet, in his time he was absolutely right.

The Major's father, William L. McLean, borrowed $17,000 to buy the Bulletin in 1895. It had been founded in 1847 but appeared to be going nowhere. With a staff of six and a circulation of 6,300 it was the smallest of Philadelphia's 13 dailies.

Not much is known about William L. McLean but he must have been some kind of a genius. In 10 years under his ownership, the Bulletin became Philadelphia's premier paper with a circulation of more than 200,000. From last to first in a single decade, it remained the dominant paper here for 16 years and in much of that time it was the largest evening newspaper in North America with a circulation of more than 700,000.

On the Bulletin's 100th birthday in 1947, Time magazine paid it a tribute. Sort of. Reflecting on the paper's ranking as the nation's number one afternoon daily, Time said the Bulletin offered "all the news (no matter how trivial), sold in good time and told in good taste." It noted accurately that when characters in some of its comic strips were scantily clad, Bulletin artists would paint their clothes right back.

Time disagreed with critics who said that "only in Philadelphia would nearly everybody read the Bulletin" "The Bulletin may be unspectacular," said Time, "but it is a good newspaper."

You must understand what newspapering was like back then. What is spoken of now as the elite profession of journalism was dismissed as the "newspaper game," a recreational pursuit not to be taken seriously. Russell Baker, who began with the Baltimore Sun in 1947 and enjoyed a great career at the New York Times, wrote with only slight exaggeration that when he started, "newspaper work was for life's losers. Newspapermen occupied the social pit. Respectable folks did not want their daughters to marry one."

I guess I was wise never to have broached the subject with Virginia's mother, the estimable Elisabeth Farfan. I'm glad she never saw the inside of the Bulletin's newsroom. Bob Williams, who contributed an essay to our book, started at the Bulletin in 1930. His description of the newsroom then as having the appearance of a second-hand furniture store would apply as well to 1951.

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Williams wrote: "Reporters sat at battered desks that might have been hand-me-downs from other departments of the newspaper where appearances mattered. If two chairs matched, it was an accident. Beside most desks were spittoons for tobacco-chewing reporters. Nearly everybody smoked and stamped out their butts on the floor. Occasionally, wastebaskets caught fire from carelessly tossed cigarettes and matches. Most of the Bulletin's staffers were two-finger pounders and most of the typewriters were ancient Underwoods."

And so it went. And yet from such chaos the Bulletin's staff produced seven daily editions, with the first deadline at 9:20 in the morning and the final one at 5 in the afternoon. All of us learned what Adrian Lee termed the "crankiness of the typewriters and the tyranny of the clock."

As an "auslander" from North Jersey, I was an anomaly in the newsroom; most of the Bulletin's reporters and editors were homegrown Philadelphians. And a great many, perhaps most of them, had never gone to college. They were graduates of Philadelphia's public high schools back in the days when city teachers taught and city kids learned. Northeast High School alone produced more than two-dozen Bulletin reporters and editors. Former Bulletin columnist, Jim Smart, another contributor to our book, Nearly Everybody Read It, was a Northeast grad as was the aforementioned Bob Williams.

In hiring locals, the Bulletin gained staffers who knew the city, knew its streets and neighborhoods. This knowledge was essential in putting together, say, crime stories or fire stories on deadline. A stranger wouldn't know the difference between Wissahickon or Wyndmoor, or between Torresdale or Tioga. But the local guy would.

Bulletin reporters came out of the rowhouses of Kensington and South Philly. They shared interests and aspirations with the men and women who lived in those rowhouses and who waited for the thud of the Bulletin on their front steps every afternoon to find out what was going on in the world. It was said that if a housewife sitting on her front stoop saw a fire engine go by in the morning she could learn where it went by reading the Bulletin in the afternoon.

Of course, that kind of saturation coverage doesn't exist today. The Philadelphia metro area sprawls over too wide an area. But I remember standing on the platform at 30th Street waiting for the Paoli Local in the afternoon and noting that virtually every commuter was holding a Bulletin. Now most of them seem to be talking on their cell phones or listening to music over their headsets.

It was in the city neighborhoods, however, that the Bulletin drew its strength.

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Here the affinity between paper and reader was very close. Adrian Lee described the heartbreaking experience of knocking on the door of a rowhouse where a child had just been killed to get what was known as a "house-end" - a summary of the child's life and, if possible, a photograph. Lee wrote in our book that hearing a family member murmur, "Mother, it's the Bulletin" and then hear the response "yes", as if the Bulletin was expected and it was all right, was one of the most astonishing experiences of his life. It was as if the Bulletin itself was a member of the grieving family.

After a stint on the niteside, I was assigned to rewrite. The Bulletin had half a dozen rewritemen who sat like oarsmen in a racing shell, one in front of the other along a long narrow table a few feet from the copy desk. Instead of an oar, each rewriteman had a telephone headset and a typewriter on a shelf that extended out at an angle from the table. Some of the paper's best newspapermen worked on the rewrite bank, taking notes from the field and converting them into concise, comprehensive, accurate stories on deadline. Rewritemen rarely got bylines but they produced much of the copy for each of the day's seven editions. Without embroidery or stretching the facts they could breathe life into seemingly mundane stories making them interesting for a wide readership.

At first, I found rewrite extremely difficult and nerve wracking. Searching for the correct word or phrase while a copy editor is screaming to hurry up was, I found, challenging to say the least. It was a proud day when I finally got the hang of it. But rewrite is now a lost art. Papers don't have seven daily editions any more. There is more time to prepare stories and less need for speedy rewrite. And the truth is that the Bulletin needed rewritemen because not all of its reporters were comfortable with written words. The malaprops of one fellow were legendary. Phoning in a tragedy at a lake one day, he told the rewriteman that "the drowning man was philandering around in the water." At an amusement park, he said that "the police chief gave orders to dismangle the Ferris wheel." And covering a political rally, he reported that "Dilworth was half nuts, he made rational statements."

In the late 50s, the Bulletin's education reporter left and the job was open for takers. Although I had learned in the U.S. Army never to volunteer for anything, I went ahead and asked for the school beat. And my years as an education reporter proved to be the most meaningful of all my years at the paper. It was a time of change at the school board with reformers replacing hidebound conservatives. There were great stories to be written and I had virtually no competition. The result was that the education reporting helped me gain a Nieman Fellowship for a year of study at Harvard in 1961. Our whole family - there were 3 kids and a fourth on the way - moved up to Cambridge for a truly marvelous experience.

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Our daughter Kate was born while we were there but that didn't stop the intrepid Virginia from joining me in attending an art history course at the Fogg. The Nassaus came up for a weekend of skiing. All in all, it was a wonderful break from the rigors of deadline reporting and the research completed at Harvard's Graduate School of Education provided background for my first book, Whitetown USA, published by Random House.

My spouse played a key role there. I was back at the Bulletin covering education when Virginia joined me at a weekend conference in the Poconos for college administrators. In attendance was a young professor named Peter Caws who was serving as a consultant to the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Virginia met him and his wife, MaryAnn, and the four of us became friends. When Peter Caws learned of my reporting on the city schools, he encouraged me to apply for a grant from Carnegie to write a book on the subject. Thanks to him I got the grant and wrote the book. And thanks to Virginia for finding him.

Actually, it wasn't as simple as all that. In my pitch to Carnegie, I said that I would teach fourth grade for half a year in a predominantly white working class school in Philadelphia and for half a half year in a mostly black school in the ghetto. I had never taught school and the kids saw right through me. In a day and a half at the Elkin School in Kensington, they reduced me to a quivering mass of jelly. It was the most humiliating experience of my life. Ever since that awful experience I have held city teachers in high regard and respect.

Throughout this period, the Bulletin far outpaced the Inquirer in circulation and coverage. The "Inky" was then owned by Walter Annenberg, a marvelous philanthropist, but a truly dreadful publisher in my opinion. It was fun to compete against him. But in 1969 Annenberg sold the Inquirer to Knight Newspapers, and everything changed. Over all, I believe that giant newspaper chains have damaged the industry by taking over family-owned papers. But that was not so in this case. Under Knight, which later became Knight-Ridder, the Inquirer vastly improved.

In our Nieman group of a dozen reporters at Harvard there had been a young North Carolinian named Gene Roberts. We became friends. Roberts went on to the Detroit Free Press and then to the New York Times, first as a correspondent and then as national editor.

In the fall of 1972, Roberts was named executive editor of the Inquirer. Nothing was the same ever again. It turned out that the "Inky" had somehow ended up with one of the most charismatic characters in journalism. Roberts talked slow, walked with a shuffle, and his conversation with people often resulted in long silences.

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But here was an editor who knew exactly what to do and how to do it. Soon the word went out across the country that the "Inky" was a hot paper and its executive editor was a guy reporters and editors would die for. His magnetism was amazing. Talented people stood in line to work at Broad and Callowhill. Roberts saw to it that big stories were provocatively written and packaged beautifully with fine graphics, photos; the works. This was a skill that the Bulletin never learned. And Roberts assigned a small staff just to submit his paper's best stories for consideration for journalism prizes. These stories were often very long, much too long in my opinion. I don't know how many readers read them from start to finish. But the judges did. The "Inky" won its first Pulitzer Prize in 1975, and before Roberts left in 1990 it had won nearly 20 of them. I was the Bulletin's metro editor for four years in that span, and watching our fierce competitor consistently win national awards for journalistic excellence was very painful.

This may sound like sour grapes but it's a fact that the Bulletin never tried very hard to win journalism prizes. Major McLean discouraged us from doing so. He thought that in aiming for prizes we might overlook the basic unsensational hard news that readers want and need and for which the Bulletin was known. His staff did not agree but the Major owned the presses.

Roberts' impact can hardly be exaggerated. All through the 1950's and 60s, the Bulletin held a solid circulation lead over the "Inky" We had about 700,000 circulation, the "Inky" about 600,000, and the Daily News about 200,000. We had started a Sunday paper after taking over the old Philadelphia Record in 1947, but the "Inky" had a huge lead on Sunday and, although we made inroads, we never caught up.

Besides finding it tough to compete against Roberts, we suffered from changes in the region. The city's alarming loss of population in the 60s and 70s led to our loss of circulation. The Inquirer was hurt, too, but it did not depend as heavily as the Bulletin on rowhouse readership. Our advertising revenues declined as department stores like Lit Brothers and Snellenburgs shut down and major corporations fled the city for the Sunbelt. One key advertiser, Strawbridge & Clothier, stuck with the Bulletin to the bitter end. But John Wanamaker, among many others, deserted us even before we lost our circulation lead. They were apparently bedazzled by the "Inky's" string of Pulitzers.

Roberts enjoyed such national esteem that for a time he seemed to operate with an open checkbook. Certainly, his newsroom budget was far greater than ours. In fact I believe the Inquirer lost money through much of the 1970s. Its losses may have been as great as the Bulletins. But the Inquirer could sustain these losses because of its ownership by a huge national chain with proverbial deep pockets. The family-owned Bulletin lacked such financial resources.

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When its losses became too great, the McLean family sold the Bulletin in 1980. And its final owner, the Charter Company, could not make a go of it, either. Charter closed down the Bulletin on January 28, 1982, less than three months short of its 135th birthday. Yet it held the circulation lead over the Inquirer until the final six months of its life.

You might have expected the Inquirer to flourish after the death of its longtime competitor. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, that hasn't happened. Whereas the Bulletin, Inquirer and Daily News once had a combined circulation of about 1.5 million, the "Inky" and Daily News together today have no more than 600,000. Both papers are struggling. The Daily News regularly loses money, and the "Inky" isn't making the 25 percent profits that its parent in San Jose wants. The result has been steady cutbacks in staff and coverage. This summer its Sunday magazine will cease publication.

So newspapering in Philadelphia is not the relatively carefree business it once was. However, it still attracts a wonderful bunch of men and women who make me proud to be in the same business.

Looking back on more than half a century of journalism what I find most striking is the change in the newsroom. What one encounters in newsrooms today is the sterile soundlessness of computerized workstations. You might be in an insurance office. As Adrian Lee wrote, raising your voice in a newsroom today would be like shouting in church.

In my mind's eye, I can see and hear the Bulletin newsroom of yesteryear: noisy, crowded, and chaotic; a cacophony of clattering typewriters and teletypes and cries of "Copy!" from rewritemen on deadline. I miss all that. I sure do. But I consider myself damn lucky to have it and to still be soldiering along. So thanks for listening.

After 134 years, a Philadelphia voice is silent


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