Great While It Lasted  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE NEWSPAPER BUSINESS    
From AJR,   December 2002

Great While It Lasted   

The National Observer, that wonderful weekly, couldn?t survive financially.

By John Morton
John Morton (mortoninc@msn.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     


Every columnist should be allowed to indulge in at least one act of nostalgia, and this month's column is mine.

The subject is the National Observer, a noble experiment in journalism by Dow Jones & Co., and what brought it to mind was a recent reunion of former staffers to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Observer's founding in 1962 and the 25th anniversary of its closing in 1977. I was among them.

The National Observer was the inspiration of Barney Kilgore, then the president of Dow Jones and the man whose genius transformed the Wall Street Journal from a provincial financial daily with a circulation of 32,000, mostly on Wall Street, into the national giant it is today. It was Kilgore's idea that the nation needed a weekly national newspaper that would synthesize all the week's events and current trends into an attractive, convenient package. In effect, the National Observer would offer the kind of quality nonfinancial journalism that the Wall Street Journal featured in its front-page "leaders" (the articles that occupy the left- and right-hand columns).

In the early 1960s I was laboring at a midsize daily in upstate New York and was eager for a larger stage. I tried the usual places, including the New York Times, for which I had written a few articles as a stringer. (I had an unsuccessful interview with Abe Rosenthal, who urged me to "break out of the Binghamton mold," which of course was precisely what I was trying to do.)

But I got a favorable response from a senior editor at the Wall Street Journal who happened to have been a college classmate, and, awhile later, from the National Observer, based in Washington, D.C. I figured at the Journal I'd wind up spending most of my time rewriting financial press releases, in which I had little interest, while the Observer offered real journalism, and so to the Observer I went.

It was a heady experience. Little more than a week after I got there I was sent off to northern Mexico to report on a major Rio Grande flood and spent some hair-raising days in an Army Chinook helicopter that was plucking people off rooftops. Upstate New York it wasn't.

For a serious journalist the Observer was a great place to work. You were given plenty of time to report (often a week or more), generous travel allowances and time to craft lengthy, analytical articles. The greatest pleasure for me was the chance to be around some brilliant writers and editors. Among them was the political writer Jim Perry, who after the Observer closed went on to the Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau. Bruce Cook later wrote the definitive history of the Beat Generation, among other books. Jerry Footlick became an education editor at Newsweek. Diane Shah is now a successful writer of mystery novels. Jim Hampton moved on to become editorial page editor of the Miami Herald. Mike Malloy became editor of the Asian Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong. Wesley Pruden is editor of the Washington Times. Dan Henninger is deputy editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal. Lionel Linder, until his untimely death, was editor of the Commercial Appeal in Memphis and earlier of the Detroit News.

Roscoe Born was an exacting editor who finally drilled into my head the distinction between "that" and "which" and who later wrote a wonderful book, "The Suspended Sentence: A Guide for Writers." Among regular contributors in the early days were Hunter S. Thompson, who was to become famous for his gonzo journalism, and, from Puerto Rico, William Kennedy, who won a Pulitzer in 1984 for his novel "Ironweed."

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Despite the brilliant journalism, though, the National Observer was never a financial success. It was neither a magazine nor wholly a newspaper, both vehicles with which advertisers are familiar, but rather a magazine published in newspaper form. Thus it did not readily fit into any category of most advertisers' budgets.

The type of journalism the Observer pioneered and became noted for--trend articles, analysis of current events, examinations of society's foibles--increasingly was adopted by daily papers. The result was that the National Observer was faced with a declining population of people who felt the paper offered a uniqueness not found in dailies. Circulation peaked at 560,000 in 1973 and dropped to 400,000 at the end.

During its life Dow Jones' management minimized the impact of the Observer's losses on the grounds that it relied on marketing and business operations that Dow Jones had to have anyway. But eventually soaring postal costs and other expenses associated with efforts to stabilize circulation changed the equation, and the parent gave up. It indeed had been a noble experiment.

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