November 27December 4, 1997
Nearly Everybody Remembers It
When the Philadelphia Bulletin shut down its presses in 1982, a few months shy of its 135th birthday, it was the city's dominant paper. At a circulation of over 700,000, it was also the largest evening newspaper in North America.
Now, in the hardcover Nearly Everybody Read It: Snapshots of the Philadelphia Bulletin, just released by Philadelphia's Camino Books, veterans of the paper talk about why it was successfuland offer some reasons why it failed.
Edited by self-described "newspaper wretch" and Philadelphia Inquirer business columnist Peter Binzen, Nearly Everybody Read It assembles essays by such writers as Harry G. Toland, Rem Rieder, James M. Perry, John F. Morrison, Hans Knight, Rose DeWolf, Henry R. Darling, Joseph R. Daughen, Adrian Lee, Claude Lewis, Polly Platt, Robert Williams and James Smart. Excerpted essays appear from Rex Polier and Pierre C. Fraley.
The stories provide a nostalgic and quirky glimpse of the newspaper with the famous "Nearly Everybody Reads the Bulletin" ad campaign. The paper that used to airbrush clothing onto risqué comic strip characters. The paper that still used homing pigeons only 50 years ago. A paper that remained family-owned (and painstakingly middle-of-the-road) till almost the very end. A paper that existed at a time when journalism was very different.
"When I started there was really no prestige attached to journalism," said Binzen, who worked at the Bulletin for 30 years. "It was the newspaper 'game.' A game we played for fun; we didn't take ourselves too seriously. And the pay was lousy."
When William L. McLean bought the Bulletin in 1895, it was the smallest of the city's 13 (!) daily newspapers. Taken over by his son, Robert, in 1931, the paper shot to a circulation of almost 800,000 in the '40s.
Nearly Everybody Read It offers various reasons for the paper's eventual demise, none of them definitive: Its pockets weren't deep enough to combat the chains, suburban sprawl hurt distribution, the city became less inviting and, of course, television took over the way people devoured their evening news.
The biggest challenge, Binzen said, was choosing the columnists to contribute to the book. He said he regrets not being able to choose more, and he knows he hurt some feelings in his omissions, but he tried his best to represent all aspects of the writing.
That writing mirrored Robert "the Major" McLean's philosophy of news and decency, and stands in stark contrast to today's right-to-know-everything mentality that finds MTV reporters asking the president, "Boxers or briefs?"
Binzen quotes the Major as asserting, "I think the Bulletin operates on a principle which in the long run is unbeatable. This is that it enters the reader's home as a guest. Therefore, it should behave as a guest, telling the news rather than shouting it."
For all its family values, the Bulletin still had a reputation as a sexist, racist newspaper. But, according to the contributors to Nearly Everybody Read It, it was no more racist or sexist than the time in which it thrived.
"There was no question it was a white boys' club," Rose DeWolf said. "But it had women reporters way back when. It was no more racist or sexist than other newspapers. It had all the faults of the other papers, but it wasn't that bad."
DeWolf's essay recalls times her column would mysteriously disappear, and a hotly contested headline in the 1960s that declared "Housewife Also a Neurosurgeon." But she also remembers getting the editors to satirize the sexes fairly in "Today's Chuckle," a little joke that ran every day (except the last) on the front page.
"Newspapers have personalities the way people do," DeWolf said. "The Bulletin surely had its own personality. And when it went, a friend went."
Claude Lewis rounds out the book with his chapter, "I Battled Frank Rizzo Through My Column."
"I really didn't want to work on it," Lewis said of his initial response to Binzen's request he contribute to the book. "It happened, and it had been gone 14 or 15 years. I really just did it to get [Binzen] off my back. Now, I'm glad I did. Some of my fondest memories are there."
Former Bulletin staffers will have a chance to reminisce with each other at an upcoming party in their old 30th and Market building Dec. 10.