Pages 608-615


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THE PAPER                                                                             Pages 608-615



The lone ranger



…[John] Denson’s touch made itself evident in the March 19, 1961 issue, only a few days after he got to the paper. The entire top left quarter of the front page was devoted to the first part of a weeklong series on Cuba under Castro as reported by the Tribune’s UN correspondent, Joseph Newman, who had spent nearly a month watching the island in the process of transforming itself from a bourgeois revolutionary state to a Marxist-Leninist regime with undeniable authoritarian tendencies.

Too lacking in detail to pass for first-class investigative journalism, the series was nevertheless readable and prescient, and John Denson gave it maximum impact with typographical sleight of hand. Instead of a conventional headline, he put on it a provocative label: “CUBA-S.S.R?” It was set all in capitals, as Tribune heads had not been in more than forty years, and italics for added vibrancy, and floated in ample white space to attract maximum attention. By use of the question mark, a Denson trademark, the heading served to pose the issue in the fewest possible words – a shorthand instantly comprehensible to all but the dimmest readers. The clinching, overdrawn subheadline, “Communist Gun at the Head of Latin America,” was substantiated only by a silhouetted picture of a Castro-like figure in military fatigues holding a pistol in an extended arm and aiming it at Newman’s story. A boldface box in the white space beside the picture explained what the series was about, and tucked into a corner of the wide-column text was a sidebar on Newman’s background with a half-column picture of him incised. Typographically intricate, unmistakably sensationalist in the tone and implications of its framing, discordant with the rest of the front page, the apparatus of its presentation commanded the reader’s eye and lured him in.

Denson soon thereafter introduced the interpretive news technique practiced at Newsweek by supplementing a report on President Kennedy’s officially positive reaction to the outcome of a Southeast Asia Treaty Organization conference in Bangkok, summoned to consider collective action in the Laotian crisis. A large box next to the story carried two side-by-side columns, one headed “SEATO: What We Wanted,” the other “What We Got.” By tersely comparing and contrasting, the box disclosed how American aims were compromised; it was a useful corrective to the White House claim of satisfaction. And the “We” in the boxed heads pierced the traditional veil of editorial objectivity by acknowledging that the reader, the members of his government, and the creators of his newspaper were all countrymen who presumably shared a national interest. The following day, the Tribune’s story on the new municipal budget for New York featured a large chart labeled “How the Budget Grows,” a graphic civics lesson instantly absorbed.






THE PAPER                                                                             Pages 608-615



At a more rapid pace thereafter, Denson swept away the old front-page architecture, essentially vertical in structure, with its heaviest thrust to the reader’s upper right and the rest a stylized patchwork of mostly one- and two-column headlines that snugly filled the space between column rules and marched predictably down the page. In the old format, everything seemed to be slotted, only slightly less so than on the front page of the Times, which appeared to vary little day after day in its good, gray, understated fashion. Denson’s papers rarely looked the same two days running. His modular approach, using chunks of type and artwork as building blocks of infinitely various sizes and shapes, pulled apart the staid verticality of the page and started each day with a fresh canvas. The format ought to accommodate the news, not the other way around. Stories now slashed across the page horizontally, they were boxed or indented or set wide-measure, they were matched as twin or triple “readouts” conveying different aspects of the same major story and run as dependencies of a catchall main head. Headlines, in unorthodox lengths and shapes, were set flush left and right in the old Tribune fashion, or centered and surrounded by white space for readability and starkness, or indented less radically but enough to achieve a cleaner look, or underlined or boxed and enclosed by rules on the top and sides in a “hood,” or staggered flush left on the top line and flush right on the bottom. Italic type, with its graceful cursives, was used more generously and blended for enhanced contrast and variety. And the headlined words themselves were no longer conceived as a mere repetition of the opening paragraph or two of the story but as cryptic enticement or flavorful toppings, like “The Windy City? – It’s N.Y. / During the Easter Parade,” which in nearly every element was a departure from past practice. There was Denson’s favorite interrogatory opener, followed by the abrupt dash dictating a reflective pause, then the conversational contraction “It’s” and the informal abbreviation of “New York”; even the “the” in front of “Easter Parade” went against conventional headlinese, which usually dropped all articles to gain a kind of telegraphic urgency. When the Russians sent their first cosmonaut into space – a feat almost every Tribune reader knew about before he received the April 13 issue – Denson picked up where the television coverage left off. “How a Man Got Out of /This World . . . and Where/Do We Go from Here?” his headline read in part; it said nothing at all, really, but conveyed a celebratory sense of the epochal achievement; in this case, his “We” meant not America but all mankind – his way of personalizing the outsized event for the reader to share in it better.






THE PAPER                                                                             Pages 608-615



In the week of April 17, only a month after Denson began, his jarring techniques were put to full use as the Bay of Pigs fiasco unfolded, producing news sensations day after day. On Monday, the top one-third of the front page was devoted to the first of three articles on an extensive interview with Soviet premier Khrushchev by Walter Lippmann, accompanied by candid photographs of the two men paired at opposite sides of the page, as if putting the journalist-philosopher on a par with the Russian leader as world statesman. The top of the Tribune’s front page was no longer necessarily reserved for the most important news of the day by the conventional definition of the word. It was now an element of a conscious composition. Denson’s boxed headline, “Khrushchev to Lippmann – Face to Face. No. 1,” did not even pretend that hot news had emerged from their exchange, but here was something new and thought-provoking and unavailable on TV screens the night before. The main hard-news story below the Lippmann piece was a miniature eight-column banner set in capitals, “CASTRO – ‘KENNEDY IS LIKE A CAT . . . ,’ ” which even with its two-column subheadline did not make clear that the Cuban leader’s comment was in response to an air attack on his military airfields by anti-Communist rebels under U.S. protection. The reader learned that by reading the story; the headline was there to draw him into it. To the left, the third leading element on the page was headlined “Here’s the Story/ Eichmann Will Tell,” with an overline or “kicker” that proclaimed with Hearstian immodesty, “Exclusive Interview!” The interview by Robert Bird was in fact with the Nazi war criminal’s lawyer on the eve of his trial in Jerusalem; again the headline said nothing of substance and by the very omission challenged the reader to delve into the text. The stories themselves were hardly a departure from Tribune style, but now they were invitingly gift-wrapped. It was typographical showmanship.

The top of the next day’s paper was devoted to a horizontal band of five paragraphs of equal depth, each tightly summarizing the Bay of Pigs misadventure from a different perspective – “On the Invasion Front,” “In New York,” “In Washington,” “In Latin America,” and “In Moscow” – and together providing the reader with a sense of the magnitude of the drama as his eye swept across the page and gobbled up the wide-measure, extra-leaded, easy-to-read capsulizations. The banner below did not waste itself repeating what readers had already learned from TV and radio but sought instead to relay the sense of crisis in a conversationally elliptical manner: “CIVIL WAR IN CUBA. . . ‘5,000 ASHORE’ . . . / THE FIRST 24 HOURS MAY DECIDE IT.”

The next day’s main headline took an openly jingoist tone: “Kennedy Tells Off Khrushchev/. . . We’ll Meet Force With Force.” And the flanking subheadings on the two prime related stories showed Denson’s headlining at its most provocatively direct – “Bluster, Not Bomb, / That’s What U.S./Expects From Reds” – and tauntingly speculative: ”Does Khrushchev / Seek to Paralyze / U.S. With Fear?” All across the top ran an inch-high box with the overline “A MESSAGE FROM THE ANTI-CASTRO UNDERGROUND IN CUBA TO AMERICANS,” and beneath it the text: “If Cuba is not liberated now, there will not be another Latin American nation with the guts to shake off the Communists.” Beneath, in Denson’s mosaic of East-West confrontation, ran a horizontal gallery of pictures of five involved world leaders, wearing suitably somber expressions, with captions that disclosed latest developments; Khrushchev’s read: “Moscow expresses joy at the Cuban people’s victory.” The main stories were yoked by a headline that projected an almost wistful quality: “WHERE’S CASTRO – WAR VICTIM? / KENNEDY – A PROMISE TO CUBA.” A lot of sizzle, not much steak, and the merest hint of a verb.






THE PAPER                                                                             Pages 608-615



By the weekend, it was time for reflection and evaluation as the din of the aborted invasion faded. “THE STRANGE AND TANGLED STORY OF CUBA – FROM ALL SIDES,” said the overline above the five text blocks at the top of the page; each bore a small italic headline that compactly gave a different angle as elaborated in stories below: the invaders’ assessment (“It’s No `Defeat’ “), Castro’s (“It Was Crushing”), the responsible people in Washington (“Who Said `Go’ “), the reasons the attack failed (“What Upset It”), and the likely consequences (“The Next Round”). The précis under “What Upset It” read in its entirety:


What went wrong? A number of miscalculations, Washington sources now say. For one, there was an underestimation of how much Fidel Castro’s strength had been beefed up by Communist aid jet fighters, tanks, artillery – and by Red technicians. Rebel sources said – after landing – they were surprised at the amount of hardware thrown against them by Castro forces and the speed with which it was used. Another surprise was the professionalism displayed by the Castro troops in using the Communist-supplied weapons. The biggest overestimation was in the number of Cubans who would defect to the rebels when the invasion was triggered. The Premier apparently has a tighter hold on the Cuban people than had been estimated.


It was the merest gloss on a complex of factors, as was each of the other four pieces of exactly the same length, but such editorial compression required care and skill; for many readers, the bare-bones treatment was all they had the time or interest to absorb.

The week ended with another outbreak of civil war. Denson led off the Sunday paper with a big boxed overline, “Two Great Crises Rock the Free World,” and below it the main linking head, “Algeria: Revolt Gains, De Gaulle Acts;/Cuba: Ike Confers, Mr. K. Threatens.” Wherever he could, Denson tried to tie together stories related in subject or, as here, in scale. Previously, “Ike” had been an impermissible indignity in Tribune headlines, although “Eisenhower” took up a great deal of space; “Mr. K.,” which Denson would soon shorten to just “K,” would have been an unthinkable abomination to designate a head of state. But people called him Ike – it was an affectionate nickname, after all. And the Soviet leader’s name was equally space-consuming in headlines and even harder to spell, so why not shrink him to a single letter – he wasn’t our icon.

In his diary, Tribune copy editor John Price expressed great ambivalence toward Denson’s revolutionary methods. They were more packaging than journalism, he wrote, and were based on too few facts and too much innuendo and guesswork; it was essential now to read the Times, Price felt, to know what was really happening in the world. But John Price was a professional student of global affairs, with an ideologue’s interest in the struggles of socialism; how many readers wanted as much detailed reporting from their morning paper? How many had the time? And as Price acknowledged of the Densonized Tribune: “This is a thoroughly professional job . . . silly but expert silliness.”






THE PAPER                                                                             Pages 608-615



Without question, Denson’s new packaging was capturing attention in the nation’s media capital. The New Yorker – on a deft satirical putdown by Roger Angell titled “Syndrome? What Syndrome?” – described the emotional collapse of a fictional Tribune reader overdosed by Denson’s questioning headlines. Whitney was amused; Denson was not, perhaps because his existence went unnoted in the piece. What left the paper’s business managers unamused was the disruption of the production process that Denson’s custom-tailoring of the front page was causing. Standard typesetting specifications did not apply to page-one story candidates because there was no longer such a thing as a standard page one; copy was set in various widths as Denson’s eye and taste dictated. As a result, many stories were held back from the composing room till the last minute, causing bottlenecks. And when the page proofs came up and Denson was displeased, considerable resetting and recomposition were required. The paper was running late. And the more refinements Denson devised, the later the paper ran. Near the end of April, general manager Tom Robinson sent Denson a memo from the production department head, who demanded to know, “Have we any deadlines or are we on a when, as and if basis . . . [?]”  One night, after a 9:02 P.M. press start – two minutes late – Denson had stopped the press four minutes later to change the lead headline, remove a border from around a picture, and transpose a cutoff rule. “How many papers did that sell?” the foreman wondered. A few days later, business manager Barney Cameron, who was responsible for the production department, warned of disaster “if we are to continue with complete disregard for copy deadlines, copy flow and edition closing times .... As I have been saying . . . for the past two weeks [which included the Bay of Pigs crisis], something simply must be done to change the situation.”

But Denson’s paper was selling. Circulation for April was up 40,000 over April 1960 – a figure somewhat buoyed by the extraordinary news events yet surely traceable in some measure to the eye-catching new format. In May, a less spectacular news month, circulation was up more than 20,000 from the year before. By June, Denson’s news-compacting methods were coming into their own. When the Supreme Court issued a flurry of complicated rulings on the same day, Denson gathered them under an omnibus headline, “SUPREME COURT – GOD, BIRTH CONTROL, EVIDENCE, UNION MONEY IN POLITICS,” summarized each in a tight package, and referred interested readers to detailed accounts on the inside. His conception of reader service was further amplified a few mornings later following Kennedy’s TV report to the nation on his Vienna meeting with Khrushchev and talks with other European leaders. The Times ran the full text of the President’s remarks, but the Tribune broke out carefully selected excerpts and labeled each by subject in an inviting sampler across the top of the page. The main headline read: “What Kennedy Meant: We’re in Trouble; / K Sure of Conquest Without Great War,” and before White House correspondent David Wise’s interpretive lead article, an intervening double-column “precede” set in italics began: “As the President made his candidly serious report to the nation on his conversations abroad, this was the crisis news elsewhere…,” and a series of four terse short-paragraph summaries, each set off by a decorative printer’s mark, followed. John Denson was more interested in sweep than depth. But he could also turn expansive. When Pope John XXIII issued his 25,000-word encyclical Pacem in Terris, on the duty of prosperous nations toward needy and backward people, Denson played it as part of a historic trilogy and presented it across a whole page in digest form with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on conditions of the working class and Pius XI’s 1931 treatise on justice in labor-management relations as a means of preventing class warfare. Denson may not have cared for Pontiffs past or present, but he knew good copy when he saw it.






THE PAPER                                                                             Pages 608-615



His early work revitalizing the Tribune won mixed grades from the profession. In mid-July, Time noted that the paper was trying hard to find a level of its own amid such uncertainty about where it should be and that its old front page, which used to win beauty contests, had taken on the look of “a parquet floor – all overblown pictures, klaxon headlines…and framed summaries of the major news.” Indeed, the Tribune under Denson seemed “more summary than news” to Time. But an extensive and far more favorable commentary on Denson’s efforts appeared about the same time in Saturday Review, which said the Herald Tribune was being talked about over the past few months as it had not been for years. Written by Robert Shaplen, a former Tribune city reporter and by then a fixture on The New Yorker, the piece reported that the Densonized paper was enjoying the largest circulation gains of any daily in the city and spelled out the editorial philosophy of “its lively new editor.” Denson told Shaplen he wanted his paper read, not just printed, and hoped to make it useful to busy people in a busy town and to establish “a warm relationship between the writer and the reader” by means of a format that tried to humanize the news. He was working to turn the Tribune’s lack of bulk into a virtue through “brightness, clarity, explanation, and significance.... We want to talk to our readers as if we were chatting with them in the living room [and saying,] `Hey, pals, this is the way it is, this is the score.’ “ The Times had succeeded by being formal and aloof; the Tribune would regenerate itself by becoming informal and engaged. “I want,” said Denson, “to make the Herald Tribune a heart paper again.” At times his stints in the Hearst organization showed through.

Over at the Times, John Denson’s innovations were watched with uneasy contempt for their debasement of classic Tribune craftsmanship but also with grudging admiration for their catchiness and shrewdness. Harrison Salisbury, then attached to the Times city staff, remembered how managing editor Turner Catledge began returning to the city room after supper, as he had not done for a long time, to be on hand when Denson’s city edition came up. For fifteen years, the Times had been outdistancing the Tribune to such an extent that they were hardly in the same race any longer, but suddenly, Salisbury said, there was a fear that Denson’s jazzed-up version “just might catch on.” Catledge would invade the sacrosanct confines of assistant managing editor Theodore Bernstein’s “bullpen,” the equivalent of the Tribune’s night desk, and sit down to study what typographic flimflammery Denson had wrought that night. Sometimes, as a result, he ordered changes in emphasis or news play in his paper, but mostly he just watched Denson’s experimenting with rapt attention. “After a few months he decided it wouldn’t work,” said Salisbury.






THE PAPER                                                                             Pages 608-615



By the end of August – the date Walter Thayer had asked him to have whatever changes he planned ready for introduction to the public – Denson was becoming a celebrity as he never had been while on Newsweek. Appearing on “WCBS-TV Views the Press,” he explained that the Tribune’s purpose was not only to clarify the news but to “cleanse” it as well: “We must be on guard against the words of statesmen who say things they do not mean. We should be on the alert for politicians who often say the opposite of what they really believe. We must escape somehow from the propagandists and the publicists who fill news columns that lazy newsmen have been handing over to them.”

Inside the Tribune office, he was not a beloved figure. Oscillating between crusty gregariousness and studied aloofness, he took no man’s counsel. With a fearsome visage, eyes bulging, face flushing, teeth clicking as he worked, trimming text blocks he had ordered to fit a precise hole and dreaming up headlines of a kind no one else seemed able to get just right, he looked like a mad genius, wrapped in cigarette smoke, redoubtable and combustible and half the time on the verge of apoplexy over the exigencies of the clock and the ineptness of subordinates. They called him the Lone Ranger.

From Newsweek he brought two devoted young aides with him – Tribmen referred to them as his Tontos – to protect him and see that his strange ideas were carried out. Tall, dapper Freeman Fulbright, with Clark Kent good looks and a toothpaste-ad smile, was the more forceful of the pair, though his primary duty, in the view of city-room veterans, was “to hold John’s coat for him.”  More emotionally supportive was Robert Albert, affable, self-effacing, and highly literate, who Denson-watchers said “held John together.” Among older Tribune hands, Denson latched on to the genial and unthreatening Frank Kelley, who had been serving as foreign editor, and brought him into his tiny inner circle of assistants. Titles hardly mattered anymore; being a Denson assistant was about as high as a man could hope to rise now.

Only one editor seemed to operate as a free, happily functioning spirit in Denson’s city room – Murray Michael Weiss, called Buddy, who had defected to the Times and was brought back after six months to be Denson’s city editor. An NYU English major who at twenty-one began working on the Tribune as a clerk in 1945 after military service, Weiss swung over to the night desk and received an intensified trade education under Everett Kallgren while during the day pursuing a master’s degree at Teachers College. Bright, quick, and feisty, he was made assistant day city editor in 1959 and put his teaching career aside. Shifting to the Times as assistant makeup editor for more money and security, he found work there unfulfilling; there were so many people “and not enough honest work for everyone to do.” Back at the Tribune, radiating energy and warmth, Weiss had all the tools Denson needed in the man to run the city room: he knew type, layout, production, good writing, and how New York worked. And he had keen judgment of news and of people, instinctively grasping what was eating them and how to lighten spirits with a wisecrack. High-domed, short-haired, and wide-eyed, Weiss was the best-liked man on the news side in the last years of the Herald Tribune.







THE PAPER                                                                             Pages 608-615



But while John Denson was there, it was his show and no one else’s, not even Jock Whitney’s. Very thoughtfully, very carefully, he was downgrading the paper to make it more readable and accessible to masses who had never considered taking it. And it was beginning to catch on. “He understood what readers were interested in,” said Buddy Weiss. His methods and high-handedness caused wide resentment among the older deskmen, who felt their skills rendered useless. Most, though, like John Price, understood what he was up to and went along because, as assistant night editor William Taylor put it, “the alternative seemed to be the death of the paper.”




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