- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 30, 2002

By Jim Bellows
Andrews McMeel, $28.95,
349 pages, illus.

Jim Bellows was the flamboyant editor of four metropolitan newspapers. One folded while he was at its helm. The other three had the grace to wait until after he left.
That's one reason why his memoir is titled "The Last Editor." Another reason, I suspect, is because he thinks today's metropolitan daily editors for the most part don't measure up to his standards or ability. Maybe yes, maybe no. But there is no doubt that Mr. Bellows was a very good editor, aggressive, imaginative, combative, totally dedicated to putting out an exciting, interesting, must-read product. It is too bad his memoir doesn't measure up to that standard.
Mr. Bellows, however, thinks it does, which is probably one reason why it's not as good as it might have been. In his acknowledgments at book's end, he tells us that the people he worked with through the years "constitute a who's who of literary and media America" who … "made of my autobiography a sparkling anthology."
Well, not quite.
Certainly, because Mr. Bellows had an interesting career, there are parts of the book that sparkle. There are large segments, however, that don't, and toward the end both Mr. Bellows and his story kind of fade into the sunset together. Understandably, but unfortunately, the book is more about Mr. Bellows than it is about the excitement of being an editor and a newspaper man (these days they are called journalists.) And while a newspaper revolves around its editor and that editor may lead it to greatness, it is the reporters and writers and columnists, not the editors, who are perceived by the readers and advertisers as the ones who bring distinction to a paper. Outside of the newspaper profession how many people know who the good editors are?
There is no doubt that Mr. Bellows was one of those special editors who come up with good ideas and who have a gift for picking out and inspiring men and women who go on to become outstanding journalists.Avid newspaper readers as well as members of the profession will recognize the names of some of the reporters and writers and columnists who worked for Mr. Bellows over the years and it is to his credit that with few exceptions they enjoyed working for him and remain his fans. To some he gave their start. Others he stumbled on and made better use of their talents. These include the author Tom Wolfe, columnists Jimmy Breslin, Maureen Dowd, Mary McGrory, Bob Novak and Rowland Evans, and Jack Germond and Jules Witcover.
Although Mr. Bellows went from editing newspapers to magazines to television to the Internet, all with mixed degrees of success, there is no doubt he had the most fun running failing metropolitan newspapers and doing his best to keep them alive. Despite his best efforts, however, the New York Herald Tribune folded under him as it lost its fight with the New York Times. And he escaped or was pushed out of the Miami News, the Washington Star and the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, always in the nick of time, as each lost its battle against a bigger, richer, more powerful adversary.
That he failed, however, was not his fault. At each paper, because he was imaginative and daring and had that knack for spotting talent, the editorial product was better when he left than when he arrived, probably much better.
But editors and reporters and columnists all eventually have to face up to the hard reality of the newspaper business if a newspaper doesn't make money it eventually folds, no matter how good, how bright, how exciting its editorial content. They learn it comes as a shock to most of them that no owner or publisher is willing to watch his money go down the drain indefinitely with no apparent change in sight, even if he is as rich as John Hay Whitney, who owned the Herald Tribune, or if the troubled paper is one of several otherwise successful papers under the same ownership. And no newspaper, no matter how good its editorial content, can survive on that alone; it must have advertising and it must have circulation.
In each case, when Mr. Bellows took over a paper, that paper was short on both advertising and circulation and its editorial content at best was routine, if not dull. Mr. Bellows made each one sparkle with better and innovative reporting, better writing, sharper, more interesting columns. He mentions several times, (rather proudly, it seems) that he is a mumbler who used nearly incoherent phrases and arm gestures to give orders and inspire his staffs. Whatever it was, it worked.
The trouble is, there is only so much even the best of editors can do and after a while what he does becomes repetitive, so by the time Mr. Bellows took over at his last paper, the Herald-Examiner, there wasn't much to do that he hadn't done before. I suspect that the most fun Mr. Bellows had, and he believes newspapering should be fun, was at the moribund (when he arrived) Washington Star.
At the Star Mr. Bellows re-instigated a long-dormant but greatly needed rivalry with the city's other paper, the dominant Washington Post, and took great pleasure in having his paper not only needle The Post but tweak from time to time its owner, the now late and then redoubtable Katherine Graham, and her editor, Ben Bradlee. Old timers in Washington will remember The Ear, a Star gossip column that quickly became must reading for politicians, journalists and members of the Georgetown social set, which in some cases are one and the same.It was Mr. Bellows' idea and he used it not only to peddle gossip but also to rile Mrs. Graham and Mr. Bradlee.
It was great fun while it lasted, but The Star had been bought by an unimaginative Texas mortician and banker, Joe Allbritton, who didn't understand newspapering and who was more interested in being a part of Washington society than he was in taking on The Post. As a result, though Mr. Bellows didn't recognize it until too late, The Star was doomed under Mr. Allbritton's ownership from the beginning. In an effort to appear to be modest, which also is not his strong point, Mr. Bellows litters his book with parenthetical boxes containing quotes and statements largely about him and mostly from people who worked for him. All, with one or two exceptions, are laudatory. It's one way to let the reader know how good he would have us think he was without his having to come right out and say so any more often than he does. In the case of The Star Mr. Bellows uses a quote from an announcement of an awards banquet that reads in part "… editor Jim Bellows has worked miracles to keep the Washington Star alive and growing … " Regardless, in the end Mr. Bellows and Mr. Allbritton, who never really got along, parted by mutual agreement, and The Star eventually was sold to Time Inc., which shortly thereafter folded it.
Although Mr. Bellows failed to keep alive any of the papers he edited, the reason is understandable. They were unsaveable. For the most part his efforts can be likened to trying to bail out the Titanic to keep it from sinking. And Mr. Bellows knows this and perhaps knew it at the time. But the challenge was there and that is what intrigued him. He relishes the fact that whenever he took over the second paper in town he gave the competition a real run for its money and forced it to become a better paper before his own paper ran out of its money or its publisher ran out of desire. That is why the subtitle of "The Last Editor" proudly boasts, "How I saved the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times from dullness and complacency."
That line would have been more accurate if he had inserted the word "temporarily" after the "How I …"
It must have come as a surprise to Mr. Bellows to realize that his greatest career success came after he left the newspaper business. He accepted a job as managing editor of a failing and floundering show called Entertainment Tonight and using the same techniques he had used as a newspaper editor he turned it into a longtime success. But from there it appears that he merely bounced around from television to magazines to the Internet until retirement. And it's all pretty much afterthought, just an old newspaper editor jumping from job to job as his career winds down.
It's not exciting; it's almost sad.
Sad, too, is Mr. Bellows' confession about how he deserted his wife and two daughters for another woman. He knows he did wrong, apologizes for it, but clearly would not undo what he did if given a second chance.
Perhaps he writes about it because he feels the need for public confession, but in general his love life as he tells it is not particularly interesting and only detracts from the book. The space it occupies might better have been used to provide more anecdotes about what has been in many respects an unusual career in one of the more exciting professions.

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was a political advisor to President Ronald Reagan.

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