Remembering The Bulletin
By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (email@example.com) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.
It wasn't flashy, it wasn't glamorous, and it wasn't destined to go the distance. But for many years the Philadelphia Bulletin was the city's leading newspaper. And 10 years and two days after its demise, the Bulletin's alumni gathered with remarkable warmth to pay tribute to the newspaper that had once meant so much to so many readers – its circulation at one point neared 800,000 – and to rediscover each other.
The Bulletin's local focus and its commitment to fairness – sometimes to the point of blandness – had long prevailed. "They used to say Philadelphia was the world's largest small town, and the Bulletin was the world's largest small-town paper," says Peter Binzen, a 30-year veteran of the paper and now a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist. But the times – and Philadelphia – changed, and the Bulletin succumbed to the advent of TV, the shift toward a.m. papers and the aggressive onslaught by the Knight-Ridder-owned Inquirer.
Bulletin veteran Peggy Higgins, now a Philadelphia Daily News copy editor, feared she wouldn't get the turnout of 75 she had promised Colleen's restaurant. Instead, 175 people showed up. She was thrilled by the mood: good vibrations, not recriminations, predominated. "I was so moved by the whole evening. I didn't want it to ever end," says former Bulletin staffer Marci Shatzman, society columnist for the Trentonian in New Jersey.
The Bulletin's demise was devastating for many who had worked for the paper, but it hardly left the region's readers bereft. Remaining were the Inquirer, considered one of the nation's best papers, and the Daily News, also owned by Knight-Ridder, a lively tabloid with a feel of "Philly" often lacking in the Inky.
But, says Phyllis Kaniss, assistant dean of the Annenberg School for Communications, "the two remaining papers target news for two distinct audiences – the Inquirer for the upscale suburban market, the Daily News for the mid-scale city market. They don't really represent alternative voices for the same audience."
Many Bulletin staffers remain in the newspaper business. Familiar Bulletin bylines appear frequently in the city's surviving papers. Predictably, many who left daily journalism, willingly or wrenchingly, gravitated toward public relations. But many have taken entirely new directions.
Craig Ammerman was the paper's last executive editor, leading the spirited but fruitless final charge after the McLean family sold the Bulletin to Charter Co. in 1980. Ammerman was wide-ly praised for his tireless efforts to inject energy and verve into the paper. He has not worked for a newspaper since. "It was a fun experience, except for the final moment," says Ammerman, 43, co-owner of a publishing company. The intensity of the Bulletin experience is clear: Asked about the sports section, he rattles off who covered all the beats and where they are now.
Paula Herbut, the religion writer, found herself "taking stock" after the paper closed. She did some teaching, some P.R. and a six-month stint filling in for the Washington Post's religion writer. Then came law school. At 47, she is a rookie lawyer – yet she adds, "I still may go back to newspapers someday if someone would hire me at my then-advanced age."
For reporter Gunter David, the death of the Bulletin was simply too much. A decade before, he had left his beloved Newark News shortly before it went out of business. An aggressive reporter, David feared that at 52 he would be considered too old for another daily and found himself haunted by "a horrible depression that just wouldn't go away." He sought therapy, which led to a new career: He got a master's degree in family therapy and is now a therapist for employees of three pharmaceutical firms.
The journey was not easy: "Until two or three years ago, I still dreamt about newsrooms," he says. "I woke up one day and told my wife the Inquirer had hired me." But the odyssey may be over: "I no longer think of myself as an ex-newsman who is a therapist. I'm a therapist who used to be a newsman." ###