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‘The newspapers will always break your heart’

Sixty-two springs ago, I went looking for my first newspaper job while at home in New Jersey, during what was probably not yet known as the spring break from my senior year in college.

So, still a student, that morning I joined the commuters on the Lackawanna train to Manhattan to see if any of the seven dailies I had been reading all my life might be interested in hiring a beginning reporter — or even a copy boy.

I started at the New York Herald Tribune, the paper with the best writers, but the receptionist told me they were only interviewing people from The Brooklyn Eagle. Walt Whitman’s old newspaper had just folded after 114 years. 

A guard in the lobby at the Times said the same thing, and so did the people at the Daily News and the World Telegram. This left only the Post and the two Hearst papers, the morning tabloid Mirror and the afternoon Journal-American. But I had gotten the message. I would be starting my journalism career out of town, in Wheeling, West Virginia,  to be exact. Quite a disappointment for someone who had wanted to work for a New York paper ever since he started reading Ernie Pyle’s wartime columns in the World-Telegram when he was 12.

But that day wasn’t about me and my deflated ambitions: It was the beginning of a major upheaval in the profession I was about to enter. Within a decade or so, New York’s newspaper population would be reduced from seven in 1955 to the three still there, the Times, Post and Daily News. 

All this reminiscence was prompted by the death of a slightly older contemporary, the great Jimmy Breslin. His obituary writers reported that Breslin had gotten off to an early and successful start by skipping college and working as a teenage copy boy and reporter at The Long Island Press.

From Long Island, Breslin would go to the Journal American as a sports reporter, write a hilarious book about the horrendous first year of Casey Stengel’s New York Mets, “Can’t Anybody Here Play this Game?” and find himself, at the age of 35, after nearly 20 years of newspapering, a columnist with the legendary writers’ newspaper, the Herald-Tribune. There he joined a roster of immortals — Red Smith, Walter Lippmann, Walter Kerr, Tom Wolfe and Kenneth Tynan. 

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Breslin would be counted among the pioneers of “the new journalism,” a device that he considered nothing more than a revival of Charles Dickens’ way of telling a story. But no one did it quite like Breslin. He made a highly readable specialty of dramatizing the role of the little guy in the big story, most notably in his interview with the $3.01-an-hour worker who dug John Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. But that same story also included a moving portrait of one of the principals, Jacqueline Kennedy: 

“She walked with tight steps and her head was high and she followed the body of her murdered husband through the streets of Washington.”

Not long after, a 114-day strike by the city’s Luddite printers and compositors would destroy the writers’ newspaper, along with the Mirror, Journal-American and World-Telegram. The strike, culminating in the loss of these papers, would end the careers of dozens of reporters and editors, but would free the talented Breslin and Wolfe at the Trib, Pete Hamill at the Post and Gay Talese of the Times to begin writing for magazines and then, nonfiction books and novels.

Breslin would work the Trib’s Sunday magazine, “New York,” but “repeatedly succumbed to the sirens of daily journalism” and later would write for the other surviving dailies, but never for the Times, which he considered unreadable. He seemed to be a part of just about every big story from the 1960s to the ‘90s while becoming a highly acclaimed writer of novels, biographies and a memoir.

His published correspondence with the serial killer Son of Sam led to the killer’s arrest and Breslin’s observation that Sam, aka David Berkowitz, was the only killer he knew who could properly use the semicolon.

With the death of Breslin, the last of that generation of star reporters, the writers you’d buy a paper to read, is down to two I can think of, Talese and Hamill. 

And it was Hamill who wrote about an old editor taking him out for a drink after the long strike and telling him, “Don’t get too used to being happy, you Irish bum. No matter what happens, the newspapers will always break your ……. heart.” 

 

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at dahles@hotmail.com.