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Home > Opinion
Death of an editor

Tom Plate (Pacific 
Perspectives) / 8 January 2014

Real newspapermen take chances; managers play it safe

Legendary American newspaperman Don Forst, who died at 81, was a terrific (and sometimes terrifying) newspaper editor. Even his most severe critics had to admit that. The embarrassing truth is that one reason many of them were so critical is that they knew in their hearts they were not half the editor he was. Real editors take chances. Editorial “managers” play it safe. It is the difference between the riverboat gambler and the quiet accountant.

Forst was a force wherever he worked. He was a close colleague and mentor of mine at Long Island Newsday, when he was a top news editor and I was a young op-ed page editor; at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, when he was managing editor and I was its editorial page editor; and at New York Newsday, when he was the top editor and I was its editorial page editor.

For decades Newsday had been a delightfully strange amalgam, tabloid in size but broadsheet in editorial vision. Over my career I’d worked at a number of newspaper organisations but on the whole, Newsday was the best organisation. When David Laventhol, the founder of modern Newsday on Long Island, convinced the parent company Times-Mirror (RIP) in Los Angeles to dive into the insane New York newspaper market by starting New York Newsday, Don was his choice to be editor.

Competing against the well-entrenched New York Daily News and the over-the-top New York Post was no cushy challenge, but Don was relentless and always up to it. His strenuous efforts to get the new Newsday noticed ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime. When the temperature in the city once rose above 100 degrees Farenheit, he had an egg fried (sunny-side up), placed on a sidewalk, its picture taken and a suitable headline provided: Hot enough to fry an egg!  That drove his colleagues at Long Island Newsday into a lather of “editorial irresponsibility” but in New York it played cool like the cool joke it was.

He orchestrated coverage of a terrible subway smashup that led to the newspaper winning a Pulitzer. Before the new management cruelly closed New York Newsday, his paper had won two. Like many media people, Don lacked inner tranquility. Patience was not at the top of his list of virtues. Neither was tolerance of mediocrity or editorial bureaucracy.  

I found this not alarming but somewhat reassuring. You see, in the insanely competitive print media environment of New York, a totally sane editor may not be what’s needed; in fact, really terrific editors tend to be not “all there”, to be perfectly honest. Like my British mentor David English, the late founder of the modern Daily Mail, or Benjamin Bradlee, the legendary editor of The Washington Post, who offered me my first job in newspapers, Don took the view that while the constitution of the United States of America did protect newspapers, it didn’t absolutely require people to read them. And so reader boredom would be their death, and such death would be not proud.

Don was always honest with himself. When People magazine invited him to an interview for a top job, he bought a high white fedora for the occasion and showed up looking like some loony hood — Al Pacino in Scarface. ‘You can have me,’ he was saying to the people, ‘but then you have to accept the kind of man who would wear this hat.’ The people didn’t. Later, Don, with typical self-reflection, was to say they made the right decision.

The most iconic story concerns dozens of burglaries in Boston, perpetrated by a midget miscreant. A former circus performer, the burglar managed to penetrate into the city’s most luxurious penthouses. On the night of the bag guy’s capture, Don proposed to the staff that the newspaper publish a life-size picture on its tabloid page. They would run the first third of him on page one, then ‘jump’ the rest of him to two inside pages. String the three pages together, paste it up on your refrigerator, and you had a life-size picture of the midget burglar.

Staffers protested: “You’re insane, you can’t ‘jump the midget. It’s insensitive…’ etc etc.  Don countered: ‘But people are always complaining about distortion in the media. This picture would be life-sized!’ He never ran the picture. The “responsible” staffers talked him out of it. He later told me he would never forgive himself for the failure of nerve. He said: “How many chances in life do you get to jump a midget?”

Veteran US journalist Tom Plate is a professor at Loyola Marymount University

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