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From the Stacks: “The ‘Star’ Winks Out”

August 15, 1981


In light of the Washington Post's recent surprise sale to Amazon's founder, it perhaps seems all too appropriate that the Washington Star shuttered its doors 32 years ago today. On that slightly wistful note, we bring you our original reporting on the paper's demise, as published in The New Republic.

After word came that the Washington Star would cease publication on August 7, the first reaction of the talented young reporters on the paper was what you might expect: shock, dismay, grief. But within a few days, according to several of them, these same young reporters began to shudder each time they heard a rumor that someone, somehow, might step in and save the paper at the last moment. Job offers from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and other prestigious publications had begun to pour in, and they were contingent on the folding of the Star. It is compelling testimony to the paper’s evisceration under the management of Time Inc. that its disappearance would so clearly provide a career boost to many of the people who worked for it. 

As has been pointed out in the numerous postmortems, as well as in the recent spate of critical articles (in the Washington Monthly, the Columbia Journalism Review, and the Wall Street Journal) that preceded the paper’s demise, the Washington Star was a good newspaper, possibly the best afternoon paper in the country, with some of the finest journalists in the profession: Mary McGrory, John Fialka, Lyle Denniston, Jack Germond, Jules Witcover. But it has been pointed out just as consistently that there was no reason for people who read the Washington Post in the morning to read the Washington Star in the afternoon. And in spite of the historical decline of competing major metropolitan dailies (A. J. Liebling observed back in 1960, “If a journalist is working in a town where there are two ownerships, he is even money to become unemployed any minute”), the Star, three years and $85 million after being bought by Time Inc., had become lifeless, predictable, and superfluous.

The day after the announcement of the planned closing of the Star, managing editor Stanley Cloud, appearing on a local public affairs television show, conceded that the paper failed to create a clear identity to distinguish it from the Post, and that Time moved “too slowly and cautiously” with the paper, a trait he said was a hallmark of the corporation’s style. But neither the Star’s readers nor its reporters were clear about what the paper was moving toward. “There was never any clear direction, and no real idea of whom the Star wanted to reach,” said one Star reporter.

Certainly the Star was a different newspaper under Time Inc. than it had been in the oft-lamented days of stewardship under editor James Bellows, who was brought in by Joe Allbritton, the owner from 1974-77. Knowing that the Star could not shake the grip of the Washington Post, Bellows made the Star a paper to be read in addition to the wide-ranging Post. His Star was full of long analytical pieces and irreverent features. Two of his features were so successful—the gossip column “Ear” and expanded television coverage—that they were copied by the Post (the latter successfully, the former not). But Time’s Star quickly became a pale imitation of the Post, full of short, hard news stories, so the dominant paper had no reason to look over its shoulder to see what tricks the upstart was pulling.

The anger of the Star employees is not just at the loss, however temporary, of their jobs. It is fueled by a sense of betrayal. When Time Inc. took over, it brought along its record as a winner. People felt that the Star was finally going to get the resources and commitment needed to give it a fair shot. Instead, over the three years of Time ownership, it was systematically reduced to a newspaper many of its own employees found unnecessary. Staff disgust at the visionless Time management is not, however, directed at some faceless “they.” Star staffers evidence a certain satisfaction in knowing exactly whom to fault: editor Murray J. Gart. As Gregg Easterbrook wrote in his article on the Star’s “suicide” in the Washington Monthly, Gart acted as a banana republic dictator who was hated and feared by his subjects. He is described as a man distrustful of all but officially sanctioned news. “All the sub-editors were afraid of Murray so they didn’t even propose anything he wouldn’t like, and Murray didn’t like analytical stories, investigative stories, feature stories, or anything over 20 inches,” said one reporter. This led to frustrated reporters and bored readers. 

The Star did become more comprehensive than it had been under Bellows. But because it didn’t have the staff or news space of the Post, it became a sort of summary of its competitor without the analytical, investigative, and feature stories the Post does so well. In addition, Gart sacrificed valuable front-page space for a digest of the day’s news, in essence a summary of a summary.

Instances of Gart’s staff-crushing and the inferred motives for his acts have appeared with such consistency in the press, it’s as if medieval troubadours are securing the legend of a malevolent ruler. For instance, Gart killed a three-month investigation by reporter Howie Kurtz on local housing discrimination because, it is assumed, Gart either feared offending advertisers or feared investigations. He removed film critic Tom Dowling from his beat after Dowling panned The Empire Strikes Back the week the movie received a cover panegyric in Time. Embarrassed by an editorial attacking the qualifications of friend and Time Inc. director Thomas Watson to be Garter’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, he “requested” some good things be said about Watson. Upon Watson’s confirmation they were duly reported. Complaints that Star reporters had to be flacks for the owners were endemic. Mary McGrory said on television that the paper was expected to be a “court circular” for Time Inc.

Managing editor Gloud admitted, “It’s true Murray is and was a little uncomfortable with the concept of investigative reporting; he didn’t know how to put it to good use,” but his view of Gart does not reflect the corporate line. Time Inc. spokesman Donald M. Wilson said that under Gart’s control the paper had many controversial pieces. When asked to name a few, several days after the announcement of the Star’s folding, he cited the comic strip “Doonesbury” and the columns of feature writer Judy Bachrach, one of the few Star staffers with near total freedom. Unfortunately her talent was exceeded by her tastelessness. Recently she treated her readers to an exclusive, if secondhand, report from London on Prince Charles’s prowess, or lack thereof, in bed. Don’t fret for Shy Di, however; she won’t know what she's missing. Bachrach, in a subsequent column, speculated at length about the young woman’s virginity. Well, at least Bachrach gave readers something to talk about.

Gart has dismissed the Post as “Pravda on the Potomac.” But if the Post was Pravda, then the Star was Izvestia. According to Star staffers, any story that appeared in the Post had better be in that day’s Star. Instead of encouraging Star reporters to challenge the Post’s coverage, the concession to the Post’s dominance did little for staff morale. One local reporter was happily writing a memo to his editors citing the mistaken figures in a Post property tax story—which the reporter had covered weeks earlier—when he discovered a rewrite of the Post story, mistakes and all, in the Star’s first edition.

Time Inc. was not bereft of ideas for the Star. Unfortunately, whatever the merits of two major and expensive innovations—zoned metropolitan coverage, and a morning edition—their execution was so inadequate that it only added to the paper’s decline. “Zoned local coverage was probably the Star’s best opportunity, but the financial resources were not there,” said Bruce Thorp, newspaper analyst with the brokerage firm John Muir & Go. “The [five] local editions started to look like each other. You could see Fairfax County stories in the Montgomery County edition.” It soon became clear the zoned editions were not going to attract the readers who either felt their concerns were skimped on by the Post, or who wanted more insight than is provided by a string of semiweekly suburban Washington papers.

One Star local reporter said he learned his lesson after several of his ideas for longer analytic pieces were shot down; he simply read the suburban paper and rewrote it. Investigative stories usually were out of the question in any case, since the bureaus were so understaffed that the reporters out there had little time to do anything beyond routine news stories. “Toward the end, the only reason I could see for publishing was simply that the Washington Star had been coming out for 128 years,” he said. These young reporters were further demoralized because the normal route for advancement, doing tough, provocative local stories, was short-circuited since Gart had little interest in local news and only reluctantly put it on the front page. 

Newspaper habits are hard to change, and one of the most difficult tasks is to convince people to buy a paper at a different time of day than they’re used to. The advent of the morning edition of the Star represented the worst of all worlds: in essence, it created a 24-hour-a-day newspaper without an increase in staff; it was an inadequate challenge to the Post’s ownership of the morning market; and it established deadlines that made it impossible to have fresh news in most of the paper’s afternoon editions. And the a.m. edition was only available for street sale, not for home delivery. The few readers who chose to purchase the morning Star also chose to forgo the afternoon edition. 

The statistics on the Star’s readership were devastating: the Star’s recent circulation was 323,000 daily and 294,000 Sunday, compared to the Post’s 618,000 daily and 845,000 Sunday. When Time Inc. bought the Star in 1978, its circulation was 329,000 daily and 316,000 Sunday. In order to beef up advertising and circulation, the Star heavily discounted its advertising and subscription rates. But the Star was not able to attract 30 percent of the area’s newspaper advertising revenue, which is considered the minimum figure for survival, and the discounting meant that what ad volume there was did not bring in enough money. When the recession of 1980 hit, it undid whatever small gains the Star had made in advertising linage; area advertisers didn’t have money for a second newspaper, and when advertising volume goes down, so does reader interest. At the end the Star was taking in 15 cents of every newspaper advertising dollar in this city. The other 85 cents went to the Post

Since the announcement of the folding there have been accusations that the Post’s advertising tactics helped squeeze the last bit of life out of the Star. The Post raised its rates significantly in the last year, thus seemingly making it impossible for merchants to buy space in two newspapers. There have also been allegations that Post salespeople threatened advertisers loyal to the Star that when the Star folded, as they promised it would, the advertisers would get bad placement when they turned to the Post. Robert McCormick, the Post’s vice president of advertising, dismissed the charges as “nonsense.” Financial analyst Bruce Thorp said that no particular tactic of the Post’s was critical to the Star’s demise. “There have been lawsuits by failing newspapers that the dominant newspaper cut ad rates in order to hurt the competition. No serious antitrust charges have been raised in this case. The trend has been going against the Star for 30 years. Nothing unusual happened in the last few months.” 

Although Time Inc. did not come through with enough money to make the initial investments in zoned local sections and a morning edition pay off, it did put more money into promotion than the paper had done in years. But even the promotion campaigns were lifeless. The most recent ad showed two newspapers side by side. Slowly one unidentified paper lists and falls over as the announcer declares that some newspapers are slanted and biased. The unbiased, unslanted, and still standing newspaper is revealed to be the Star. The ad is a virtual celebration of dullness.

Could the Star have been saved if it were more shrewdly managed? One popular theory is that a Bellows-like paper, with the promotional resources of Time Inc., might have had a chance; or a really strong local paper, not the halfhearted product that was tried, might have steadied the decline of reader; or that a tabloid with emphasis on sports and extensive and irreverent coverage of government—the only game in town—would have provided a personality distinctly different from that of the Post

For decades the leitmotif of the newspaper business has been the dirge. Evening papers in particular have been vulnerable for a variety of reasons: a switch to television for evening news; later starting work days, which leave time to read a morning paper; the difficulty of distribution through evening rush hour. Added to this, the Star was forced to compete with one of the strongest and best newspapers in the country. Perhaps nothing could have saved Washington from becoming a one-newspaper town. But in spite of its $85 million. Time Inc. never brought to it the commitment and daring of the company which early in its existence created Time, Life, and Fortune. It seems that since the Star couldn’t be plugged into a formula for success—à la People and Money—that it was just a matter of time before Time Inc. cut its losses. There is no guarantee that if Time Inc. had done it right—if it had fulfilled people’s expectations and used its resources and the Star’s staff to create something glorious—it would have, as newspapers must, made money. But Time Inc. didn’t do it right. And this city’s mourning of another lost voice is tinged with regret for what that voice might have been.