Steve Dunleavy, last of the newspaper soloists? A Writer's Paper sets

When I first came around, there was some very good newspapermen in New York. But increasingly, they started leaning on this Columbia School of Journalism thing. That you wanted your mom to be proud. That it was a profession.
Journalism is a craft, like being a master plumber. We wore white collars, but we were blue collar.

—Steve Dunleavy

Sad week for the newspaper business, and here I am bemoaning the loss of two conservative institutions in the New York media landscape.

Steve Dunleavy and the New York Sun are, politically, polar opposites of where we stand, but nevertheless we mourn their passing from the news scene.

Dunleavy, now retired, was far from sainthood. He was a man whose tactics, particularly once he reached television’s platform, helped contribute to the Public’s perception of the Devil Media (ironically, the same Public that too-often too-broadly paints the entire media as overly liberal).

And yet, we mourn his retirement still. The New York Times gave him a nice send-off written by Tim Arango and enthused about one of the last true Tabloid Reporters in the two-fisted blue-collar sense exiting the stage.

Even Jimmy Breslin, his one-time rival who first led and then competed with Dunleavy on the Son of Sam story in 1977, had this to say about Dunleavy in the Times’ article:

“In a time of listless reporting, he climbed stairs. And he wrote simple declarative sentences that people could read, as opposed to these 52-word gems that moan, ‘I went to college! I went to graduate school college! Where do I put the period?’ ”

Pete Hamill, another of the last of the great New York columnists, said:

“He always had this energy. I always thought he was writing his columns like he was double-parked. He was a tabloid guy in every fiber of his body. If it didn’t have conflict, he didn’t want to write it.”

Since Breslin, Hamill and Dunleavy — all three from the Silent Generation — were at their height writing on a daily or semi-daily basis, there have been scant few great cityside columnist-reporters in New York. Other than the departed Mike McAlary, a Baby Boomer who died young 10 years ago at 41, I can’t think of another recent columnist that fits the Tab mold, particularly from the next two generations. That’s a reality and an indictment of the dying newspaper business in the last 20 years, which, of course, dovetails with the rise of the Master’s Degree-trained “journalist” (rather than “reporter”) and the rise of the MBAs and Marketers running the newsroom.

Great soloists, as I believe Hamill once called newspaper columnists, are now largely off the scene.

At least Dunleavy is still with us, if not working. On the other hand, The New York Sun, while a recent addition (or rather, re-incarnation, as it took the mantle of a paper that was merged in 1950 and later died off in the ’60s), closed shop after six years. While not near the size and influence of the Big Three in the city, it was a rare Writer’s Paper.

And while I earlier rightly bemoaned the sunset of the Great Tabloid Columnist, and I wholeheartedly agree with Breslin and Dunleavy’s criticism of the over-educated journalist, there still are great newspaper writers and columnists out there that I admire, even if few of them have the soul of a “tabloid guy.” Today, all of them have one less home where they can toil.

The Sun’s staff is out of work at a time when so many more reporters and editors are also looking for new employment. NPR, in a story Monday about the Chicago Tribune’s redesign, reported that the Tribune company has cut more than 500 newsroom positions at its papers nationwide, and some the good ones are getting out voluntarily. So it makes me wonder what NBC’s Anne Thompson is talking about when she says: “If you can write well and gather news, you will always have a job.” (Maybe she meant a non-paying blogging job.)

With dire predictions of more papers folding following a year that will have seen a Summer Olympics and a seismic-shifting Presidential election (regardless of who wins), there will be even fewer Writer’s Papers around.

While we’re discussing Writer’s Papers, it seems you can only apply that term to a paper owned by an individual or family, and not owned by a corporation or part of a chain — or am I merely stating the obvious?

Certainly the newspaper is merely a product to the MBAs and CEOs, who, despite their kowtowing to the stockholders, still could never make them enough money. Call me old-fashioned or elitist, but I think you can put the rise in corporate ownership into the mix of reasons for the long, slow death of newspapers. And that’s a cancer that affects all papers, spreading to the individually owned ones, spreading to the good ones.

The Web picks up much of the slack, and perhaps that was where the Sun failed in not focusing more energy, but there’s a lot of brush to clear on the Web before you find consistent quality. And while plenty of the best reporting is found on the blogs that have no print presence — Talking Points Memo, for one — what’s left of the best writing is still done by the newspaper guys and gals, even if you first consume it online.

Which leads us back to corporate vs. individual ownership, and I think this carries over to the privately owned blogs with good reporting and smart, loyal readers. I’m not saying every paper owned by an individual has good writing (or every individually owned blog has great reporting), but I can’t think of a paper owned by Gannett, Hearst or (shudder) JRC that would be considered a Writer’s Paper. Sure, their newspapers have some good writers (well, maybe not so much at Gannett, where good writing is systematically and thoroughly beaten out of your soul), but none of them are havens for writers. The Sun was, even in its death.


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