Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Portrait of a publisher in papers’ golden age

Ken Whyte, author of The Uncrowned King, talks about his book on William Randolph Hearst:

“This book is a counterpart to Citizen Kane, it's another look at Hearst as a young man, and it shows him as a talented journalist and a guy with a strong sense of the common good, fighting for the cause of the common man, who was very good at what he did, one of the best newspapermen at a time when it really meant something. It's something that nobody's used to hearing about Hearst, so I was battling these misapprehensions about Hearst, which are so big in the culture because of things like Citizen Kane.”

Besides banishing old Hearst myths, the book also paints a vivid and fascinating picture of a world before TV or movies, where newspapers ruled and competition for readers was vicious. Whyte says that this sustained his interest in the project, and admits to a fondness for the period made more acute by his part in the Post’s battle with the Globe & Mail – what will probably be the last national newspaper war this country will ever see.

“It's not just that there were 47 newspapers in New York at the time,” Whyte says, “but the papers were growing and spinning out new features and adding sports sections and life sections and weekend supplements and colour comics and op-ed pages and developed the single recurring columnist, all of these innovations and talent was really valued and editors were paid like bank executives. That was a time to be a newspaperman, absolutely.”

“It's changed a lot and we don't invest in talent and we don't innovate anymore. All the essential elements of a newspaper today were produced in the 19th century, with the exception of the advertising supplements - the home section, the travel section, the car section. Basically everything for readers has been there for a hundred years. We've ceased to innovate and we've ceased to grow and talent doesn't matter as much. We think that we've been in decline for five or ten years - I think we've been in decline for a hundred years.”

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