The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer
THE NEXT MORNING was different. The first day's excitement was behind me. The future was ahead.
"What kind of a paper should The Cleveland Press be?" was the big question in my mind. "How can we find out what kind of a newspaper we ought to publish for the people of Cleveland?"
From the moment I entered the newspaper business I became subtly aware of a legend to the effect that a good reporter is endowed with some sixth, or seventh, sense. The notion prevailed that newspapermen are "born and not made" -- that the great newspaperman is a man extraordinarily endowed with some kind of divine omniscience out of which he unerringly does the right thing at the right time, and with which he
intuitively senses not only what is happening but when and where and how things are going to happen.
This never seemed to me to make sense. After all, people's interests do change. A city grows. Its problems and requirements become different. A newspaperman could hardly afford to rely on mere instinct.
Modern facilities have made newspapers bigger. They have vast networks of wire services, syndicated features, and ready-made material from which to create themselves each day. But somehow I felt, as I became Editor of The Press, that modern newspapers had separated themselves from the people for whom they were really being published.
Questions were revolving around in my mind about the nature of a newspaper, what direction ours should take, what flavor it should have. I had suspected over the years that my knowledge of the city in which I was born and reared and had worked was rather limited. Now I had the feeling that my understanding of it was wholly inadequate, and mostly superficial. It was knowledge gained only by pivoting around in a very circumscribed area of the community -- seeing the public officials, the politicians, the businessmen concentrated largely in the center of the town.
The easiest thing in the world is to drift into habit. Most people in our business restrict themselves to the downtown area of the cities, where their papers are published. They eat in the same places every day, visit with the same people, talk about the same things, and falsely assume that this represents the interests of their
communities and the world in which they live -- and for which they publish papers.
My office was, of course, located in the red-brick building at Ninth and Rockwell, where the paper was published each day -- almost at the center of downtown Cleveland. Now I had another idea. It was to move my office out into the town itself. Not literally, of course -- the paper would still be run from the desk where Victor Morgan had first hired me a dozen years before, and I would necessarily spend some hours a day there. But I wanted to move myself out -- physically, for some hours of the day, and psychologically, to discover what was in the minds of the people of Cleveland.
I talked the whole matter over with Ray Huber. It is a common impression among newspaper readers that advertisers exert a great influence upon the editorial policies of papers -- that they can, under the economic threat of their advertising dollars, get into a paper, or keep out of it, whatever they wish. The words of Ray Huber that morning, better than any I could improvise, set this straight.
"I believe you are right, Louie," Ray said. "What we don't know about the people who read our paper would fill more volumes than that library you keep on the fourth floor. We know so little about them it is painful to think about.
"We have got away from the people. They look at us as virtual strangers. They think we are in a cold business of publishing and selling news and advertising. They don't know us. We don't know them.
"They do not realize that the advertisers in our paper invest their dollars for only one purpose -- and no other -- and that is to move off of their shelves the merchandise they have there for buyers. They have no other purpose -- and they should not have -- and, for practical purposes, they don't have.
"You know what I would say to any advertiser who called me to ask that something be kept out, or in, simply because he paid dollars to us for space in this paper? I would tell him frankly to go to hell -- and that would be the end of it."
Ray Huber is a straightforward, hard-hitting business executive, with a deep, abiding belief in the newspaper business, and a respect amounting almost to reverence for the sanctity of the editorial columns of a paper. I was blessed with him as a business partner. Later, when he was elevated to the General Business Managership of the Scripps-Howard Newspapers and eventually moved his offices to New York, I was again fortunate to have as his successor, John G. Meilink. Meilink was promoted from the Advertising Managership of the paper to Huber's key job, and he had, if anything, an even more pronounced regard for the editorial operation of the paper. Since he had been schooled under Ray Huber, he believed as implicitly that the success or failure of a newspaper centered around the caliber of the paper produced by the Editorial Department.
"You could spend your time no more profitably for the eventual strength of this newspaper than the way you are outlining," Ray Huber commented, in connec-
tion with my plan to move out into the city and try to find out what our readers wanted.
That was the start of a way of newspaper life I have never stopped. For months I left The Press office after some of my inevitable responsibilities had been discharged, and, putting my hat on, I went out into the neighborhoods, the stores, the saloons, the schools, the shops and offices of the town. Hour after hour I trudged from one to the other -- asking questions, searching for information, trying to find out what people wanted or expected of their newspaper, what they didn't like, what they wanted more of, their current opinions about newspapers in general and our own in particular.
I had many interesting experiences. I had doors opened for me, and doors abruptly slammed in my face. One lady said, "I have heard of many ways that you slick salesmen have of getting into somebody's house but this one really takes the cake. Get out!"
She meant it, and the broom in her hand made what she said even more authoritative.
I still looked young, and I still found that sometimes people would not take me seriously. The bartender in a South East saloon looked me over with a distinctly hostile eye when I started to ask him some questions.
"Buddy," he said, "you ain't going to get anything to drink in this place for two reasons, because I don't think you got the money to pay for it, and because you're too young. So, on your way!"
In one factory I arrived just as the shift was being changed. This, I thought, was an ideal time to talk to
some of the workers. I didn't get very far. The factory at that moment, without my being aware of it, was having labor trouble, and the foreman immediately tagged me as a labor agitator.
"Come on," he said, adding physical force at the scruff of my neck to his words. "Get out of here -- and stay out! We don't want the likes of you around here!"
By and large, however, my experiences were altogether agreeable. I found that most people were willing, and in many instances eager, to talk about their newspaper -- and that they had some very worthwhile ideas, criticisms, and counsel to offer. It took a long time -- many months -- but I kept at it persistently and methodically, visiting practically every part of the community.
Fragment by fragment, piece by piece, I gradually put together a pattern of what the people of my home town expected and wanted of their paper. I disproved, to a far greater degree than I had anticipated, the popular notion that people who work on newspapers automatically acquire the wisdom to decide what people want. I realized how completely wrong some of my own ideas were -- how outmoded much of the thinking in newspaper offices was -- how far the interests and the intelligence of people outstripped much of the material that was dished out for them.
I determined then and there that for the rest of my newspaper career I would keep my cruising range among the people who read our paper just as wide as time and energy allowed.
The basic thing I discovered was that people wanted a paper to be close to them, to be friendly -- a paper that
they could call on in emergencies and that would fight for them when they had trouble. I learned that the processes of government were so far removed from them that they couldn't get attention or action when they wanted something done -- when they had a complaint to make or a suggestion to offer. I learned, likewise, that the thing people want most of all is attention, to be recognized, to have someone to call, to talk with.
The overwhelming percentage of the people with whom I talked had never been interviewed by a newspaperman before. Some of them had appeared in newspapers, in either the news columns or in pictures -- and sometimes under adverse circumstances. With them I had to talk longer, to explain the ways of newspapers, why they did what they did, or thought they had to. Simply chatting and making a few explanations had the effect, in some instances, of removing bitternesses which had lasted a generation or even, in at least a dozen cases, had been handed down from grandparents to parents to children.
We at The Press were a relatively young group of men and women. We were not satisfied with our paper, and we wanted to strengthen it. That people bought the paper for the information it contained, the features it printed, the opinions it expressed, the way it did things, we knew. But we also were aware that all newspapers in one way or another did these things -- that one newspaper might have access to one group of services while others had another kind available.
In addition to this, we knew, there was need for a unique and distinctive personality. E. W. Scripps had
given The Cleveland Press that quality; others who had followed him had projected and extended it. But times change, and the personality and techniques of newspapers also are required to change. We felt that our paper in particular needed to change, to shift its emphasis, to adapt itself to today's requirements -- and, most important of all, to get into it something of the human qualities that the people whom I had visited wanted.
Things like that cannot be accomplished overnight. To change a newspaper's sense of direction, to innovate, to experiment, to introduce new techniques and make the necessary revisions of basic approach requires time and painstaking effort.
We kept unfailingly open the line of communication with our readers. We invited them to the office. We visited them at their homes and offices and factories -- many of us. We kept at it unceasingly.
At the top of Page One we put the paper's slogan -- the slogan which directly resulted from pilgrimages out into the neighborhoods among the people themselves. It reads:
"The Newspaper That Serves Its Readers."
That is our heart, that is our purpose, that is our institutional determination. True, we must be basically a good newspaper. We must have upon our staff men and women of unquestioned authority in the many specialized fields that modern life in its complicated pattern has set up -- like Real Estate, Pets, Science, Sports, Women's Interests, Gardening, Babies, Golden
Agers, and the many other interests covering the whole gamut of life from the cradle into the twilight of the years. But beyond this we want to render services to the people who come to us. We want them to come -- to call us in an hour of need or crisis -- to make us their friend -- to turn to us when the impulse moves them -- and to rely on us when they can get action or counsel in no other way.
Our office is constantly filled with people. They come to us at all hours of the day with all kinds of problems. They receive at our hands the warm consideration we have brought into our professional lives to give them.
People are quick to discern. They are quick to recognize the sincere from the spurious. They will not be deceived. You either feel for them or you don't. They either feel for you or they don't. It is just that simple.
This reciprocal relationship is not something that comes in a day -- or a month -- or a year. It takes many years, and the unceasing work of a total organization laboring in the same direction to bring it about.
Even though you were born in the city in which you have made up your mind to live all your life, it is not possible at any moment to say that you know it. You don't. Under the impact of the swift and steadily accelerating change that is taking place in a fermenting America, it is imperative, at all times, to keep at the business of knowing your home town. William Allen White had said it to me years before:
"You will never get to know your town as well as you should. It is always changing. People are born.
People die. The times are different. Their interests alter. Life goes on -- but always in an ever-changing pattern.
"The change may be subtle. You may not always see it at first. You will have to stay with it, study it, know it, live with it. Even then, you may not know it altogether for what it is.
"Change on the other hand may be abrupt and clearly visible. It is then that you must be prepared to meet it squarely, head-on, not tomorrow, but today -- the very moment you observe it. Tomorrow may be too late. People will not wait for you. You must be in step with them at all times -- not too far ahead, not too far behind, but always in step. It takes a lot of knowing, and an everlasting dedication to the job of being with the people in your home town always, and forever."
Bill White was right, more right for today than for the time in which he said it, back in 1924 -- or than I then realized. I was to know as the years went forward that the editing of a newspaper is not adherence to any single pattern, created in and directed toward a single time. It is the endless, sometimes thankless job of keeping at the primary business of living with, understanding, and being sympathetic toward all people.
I was to learn, also, that people tend to ignore the counsel of a newspaper with which they have, as with any other business, a strictly cash-and-carry relationship -- a newspaper which puts down the paper at morning or night with only a cold, impersonal treatment of the news and opinion of the day. With that kind of
newspaper people have only a fleeting and cold relationship. But with a newspaper which makes an earnest effort to live with its readers, to serve them as perhaps no other agency does, to anticipate their wishes, there develops a friend-to-friend relationship. When that kind of paper expresses an opinion or makes a suggestion, there is a far greater degree of friendly receptivity for it.
In a very real sense we started out to make The Cleveland Press a paper which belongs to its readers. Whatever is done is for them, and our main purpose is to serve them in every way it is humanly possible to do so.
We may print our paper at Ninth and Rockwell, but we try to keep our offices out in the community itself -- not exclusively at the point where the papers roll off the presses.
The Press has published a booklet for the people who come to visit our offices, as we are happy always to have them do. In it I tried to describe our paper -- and this is the way we all believe our paper should be regarded, both by ourselves and by others:
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