The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer


You don't always know, at the moment, when you are brushing elbows with somebody special. I first saw Louis B. Seltzer one summer day, thirty-five years ago or thereabouts, when as a very junior reporter I was covering the Cuyahoga County Court House for The Cleveland News. Into the reporters' room, one dull afternoon, there wandered a slight, sandy-haired, baby-faced young man who more or less looked as if he had lost his way and would not quite know what to do after he found it; he disclosed that he was Louie Seltzer and that he worked for The Cleveland Press, and he picked up a telephone and mumbled something into it. Then he sauntered away, and the afternoon game of blackjack was resumed. It did not seem as if anybody in particular had appeared.

About two days later I began to see the light, when I learned that this innocent had beaten the daylights out of me on a story of some interest to my City Editor; but it was quite a few years before I realized that I had then met one of the most remarkable men whom the rather unusual city of Cleveland has produced in this century. Nobody knew it at the time, but he was then beginning an extremely useful career in the course of which he would finally emerge as Mr. Cleveland. This career has had an impact which has often driven strong men to the use of very strong language, but its ultimate effect has been very good indeed. It would be possible to argue that he is today the best and most effective newspaper editor in America.

Cleveland is not entirely like other American cities. It is immense, industrious, wealthy, full of energy and also of contradictions, a singular blend of satisfied conservatism and restless liberalism. It is at all times ready to boast of its baseball team and of its symphony orchestra, of the pious solidity of its bankers and of its maverick tradition in politics; it seems to sprawl across half of northern Ohio, and strangers occasionally find it hard to say just what the city is all about. A friends of mine who recently moved there from the East says he is not convinced that there really is any such city. There is, he admits, a vast place where raw materials are turned into finished goods, and where the finished goods in turn are changed into money - but a city? He is not sure.

Seltzer himself would have little patience with such an attitude. If the city itself is a slightly uneasy blend of the Western Reserve and the children of all of middle Europe, a town which narrowly missed becoming Detroit and which has been half regretful and half elated over that miss every since, it is primarily a lot of people - upwards of a million of them. It is the distillation of all of their dreams and needs, their victories and defeats, their times of confusion and their moments of insight. Understanding the city itself is not so hard if you begin by understanding people; if the whole of the city is sometimes greater than the sum of its parts, the same is true of every human individual.

Seltzer starts with the people, and he never lets himself get very far away from them. Somewhere in this account of his life he undertakes to define the job of editing a newspaper. Properly speaking, he says, editing is "the endless, sometimes thankless job of keeping at the primary business of living with, understanding, and being sympathetic toward all people."

This job he is well qualified to perform. No door-to-door political campaigner ever did a more thorough, consistent job of keeping in touch with his constituents than this editor has done. When the Scripps-Howard organization turned The Cleveland Press over to Seltzer, nearly thirty years ago, he reflected on the responsibility that had come to him and concluded that it was above everything else important for him to get into the job "something of the human qualities that the people whom I had visited wanted so much."

To that credo he has been consistently faithful, and The Press today is his elongated shadow. Like its Editor, the paper is frequently exasperating, and sometimes it is mistaken, but it is never in the least stuffy. If The Press speaks with many voices and at times falls into error and self-contradiction, it never strikes the note of father-knows-best: for better or for worse -- and net it is very much for the better -- it stays close to the people. This is a boast which not too many metropolitan newspapers are able to make.

The era of personal journalism in the United States is supposed to be dead, and one of the things chiefly responsible for its death is alleged to be the newspaper chain. The career of Louis Seltzer indicates that personal journalism is as lively as it ever was - and, be it noted, he is Editor of a chain newspaper. All that is needed, apparently, is a personality of force and fresh intelligence.

Such a personality exists here. The personality is one of the things that have helped to give Cleveland its own distinctive character; it is also one of the things of which Cleveland (and American journalism in general) has most right to be proud.


June 14, 1956