TIME remembrance

Ben Bradlee’s Electric Glow

Ben Bradlee on Oct. 1, 1995.
Ben Bradlee on Oct. 1, 1995. Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte—Corbis

A former Washington Post reporter remembers a legendary newspaperman who lived off gossip, palled around with the Kennedys and was the most celebrated editor of his time

Charisma is a word, like thunderstorm or orgasm, which sits pretty flat on the page or the screen compared with the actual experience it tries to name. I don’t recall exactly when I first looked it up in the dictionary and read that charisma is a “personal magic of leadership,” a “special magnetic charm.” But I remember exactly when I first felt the full impact of the thing itself.

Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee was gliding through the newsroom of the Washington Post, pushing a sort of force field ahead of him like the bow wave of a vintage Chris-Craft motor yacht. All across the vast expanse of identical desks, faces turned toward him — were pulled in his direction — much as a field of flowers turns toward the sun. We were powerless to look away.

This was after his storied career as editor of the Post had ended. I was the first reporter hired at the paper after Bradlee retired in 1991 to a ceremonial office on the corporate floor upstairs. For that reason, I never saw him clothed in the garb of authority. He no longer held the keys to the front page and the pay scales, so his force didn’t spring from those sources. Nor did it derive from his good looks, his elegance or his many millions worth of company stock.

I realized I was face to face with charisma, a quality I had wrongly believed I understood until Bradlee reached the desk where I was sitting and the bow wave pushed me back in my chair. It is pointless for me to try to describe this essence, because in that moment I realized that it cannot be observed or critiqued. Charisma can only be felt. It is a palpable something-more-ness — magical, magnetic — as rare as the South China tiger. I’ve met famous writers, directors, actors, athletes, billionaires, five Presidents of the United States, and none of them had it like Bradlee.

Which made him an odd fit, in a way, for the newspaper business. Set aside, for the moment, the improbable heroics of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, which would never have happened as they did without the peculiar protagonist Richard M. Nixon. The overwhelming bulk of the newspaper life is forgettable stories cranked out in mediocre fashion, the latest snowstorm, ballgame, traffic accident, charity dinner, Senate election, drought, chicken recipe. Having Bradlee sit down at your table in the Post’s lunchroom, where he often dined with the troops amid the plastic trays and sad salads, was like having Sinatra plop down beside you at a Trailways bus station. Great stuff, but you couldn’t help thinking that something was being squandered, that he really ought to be elsewhere, bedding Grace Kelly at the Hotel Hermitage in Monaco, or stealing the Mona Lisa, or outwitting Dr. No.

Ordinary news hacks — even the best of them — do not pal around, as Bradlee did, with John F. Kennedy and Lauren Bacall. They do not, as Bradlee did, arrange the sale of Newsweek by the Astors to the Grahams. They do not, as Bradlee did, have a sister-in-law whose mysterious death prompts a clandestine visit from the CIA’s top spymaster, desperate to retrieve her diary. They do not, as Bradlee did, live in a mansion that once belonged to Abraham Lincoln’s son.

Yet Ben wore all this with impossible ease, just as he wore his handmade shirts from London’s Jermyn Street as casually as a mortal wears Land’s End. God, those shirts — as beautiful and numerous as Gatsby’s, but minus the stain of anxiety. Only three types of men wore shirts like that: toffs, posers and Ben.

Anyway: impossible ease. He sized people up in an instant (of one failed job applicant he growled simply, “nothing clanks when he walks”) and met them as they were. He was the same fellow chatting with a movie star as he was with my father-in-law, a retired electrician with whom he swapped stories of card games in the Navy. When I introduced him to my nephew, another Benjamin, he bent to look the boy in the eye and said in a brotherly tone, “They can call you Ben, and they can call you Benjamin — but don’t ever let ’em call you Benjie!”

What made Bradlee a great newspaperman was that he had exactly the right blend of intelligence and impatience, plus an infectious hunger to be in the know. Feeding Ben a good bit of gossip was like turning over the last card of an ace-high straight, with his wide-eyed smile as the payout. He also had a restless attention span, so his reporters vied relentlessly to find stories sexy and important enough to catch and hold his interest. Whole sections of the Post went almost entirely unnoticed by him — his response to news that the paper’s dance critic had won the Pulitzer Prize was “Who the hell nominated him?” But the parts of the paper that Bradlee cared about were bright, bewitching and boffo.

(Ben had a thing about ballet coverage. He once summed up his animus toward the New York Times by noting, “it’s a paper with four f-cking dance critics!”)

As Shakespeare would appreciate, these gifts had a downside, and when it was revealed Bradlee experienced the low point of his career. A reporter named Janet Cooke decided to dazzle the editor with an invented story, because she couldn’t find a real one hot enough to do the trick. Plenty of people, inside and outside the newsroom, were skeptical of Cooke’s tall tale of an 8-year-old heroin addict with no last name and rather stilted diction. They noticed that the story was untethered by geography, dates and on-the-record sources. But Bradlee believed in it, and he was all that mattered, bigger than all the skeptics, bigger than the fail-safes, bigger even than the Pulitzer committee that awarded Cooke a prize for feature writing. The prize had to be returned when the lies unraveled.

It was around that time, 1981, that young Don Graham, successor-in-waiting to his remarkable mother, Post publisher Katharine Graham, clearly realized that there would never be — could never be — another Bradlee. Plenty of wannabes stalked the newsroom, wearing bespoke shirts and trying to copy Ben’s way of snarling out cuss words while grinning incandescently. When it came time to anoint Bradlee’s successor, however, Graham passed over all of them in favor of an unglamorous Midwesterner. Len Downie did not push out a bow wave. He was, in some ways, the anti-Ben. But if there was a better all-around newspaper editor, I don’t know who it was.

Ben sailed on as the one and only. In his later years, he groused amiably that he was just a museum piece, his office merely another “stop on the tour” of the Post. As newspaper circulation and profits sank year after year, Bradlee never indulged in second-guessing or armchair quarterbacking — petty pastimes that would have been beneath him. Though he was the most celebrated newspaper editor of his lifetime, perhaps the most celebrated of all time, he pronounced himself baffled by the competitive pressures of the digital age, and thankful that his era was the era of expansion and wealth.

I’m thankful too. For only the adrenaline charge of those go-go years, the generation after World War II, could have drawn such a man to the newspaper game. And the fact that Ben Bradlee was a part of it, never mind the prizes and the books and the movies — just the fact of Bradlee, the force, the charisma, threw an electric glow over the whole business and made it a joy to go to work. Though his ship passed over the horizon, he left a luminous trail dancing in his wake.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the location of the London shirtmaker where Bradlee ordered his dress shirts. It was Turnbull & Asser on Jermyn Street.

Read next: Jill Abramson: Ben Bradlee Was Luminescent

MONEY Advertising

Newspapers Are Charging Extra … to Give You More Ads

stack of newspapers
iStock

Some newspapers plan on charging subscribers extra for certain "premium issues," such as one on Thanksgiving. What makes them "premium"? Loads and loads of Black Friday ads.

Jim Romenesko reported this week that both the Chicago Tribune and the Detroit Free Press have notified subscribers that they will be charged extra to receive issues of the paper published on Thanksgiving Day, and perhaps other days as well. The Tribune informed subscribers that special “premium issues” such as the one on Turkey Day will incur an additional charge of $2 apiece, while the Free Press plans on charging print subscribers the Sunday cover price ($1 more) for the Thanksgiving paper.

Why? Apparently, it’s because the paper will be overloaded with Black Friday circulars. “The Thanksgiving print edition includes Black Friday sale information, coupons and details about incredible door busters!” a Free Press letter told subscribers.

The Thanksgiving papers are heavier than normal editions, so they’re therefore costlier to produce and deliver. Still, ads have traditionally been sold in order to keep newsstand and subscriber prices down. Bizarrely, here we have an instance in which the presence of more ads is being used as a justification to charge customers extra. As the Consumerist pointed out, in the case of the Tribune, “they’re calling this paper a ‘premium issue’ even though the majority of the extra content is advertisements. That companies pay the newspaper for.”

Granted, “extreme couponers” and Black Friday shopping fanatics love such ads. Forrester analyst Sucharita Mulpuru has explained that the pull-out ad sections of Sunday papers are essentially a “destination” that a sizable segment of consumers enjoy wading into and exploring. The fact that Sunday circulars are more of a draw for some “readers” than, say, the editorials or even the sports section has to depress the already depressed journalistic masses to no end.

As for the loyal subscribers who actually read the paper and put up with ads in order to keep print prices down, they’re surely peeved by the moves being attempted by the Chicago Tribune and Detroit Free Press. At least both papers told Romenesko that if subscribers are upset with the extra charges, they can be credited the amounts by calling up customer service.

TIME Media

Here’s a Newspaper You Might Actually Want to Read

PaperLater targets an online audience that's nostalgic for newspapers

The days of reading a newspaper with a cup of Joe might be making a comeback. For those nostalgic for the morning paper — but yearning for the customization possibilities of online news — PaperLater might be for you.

It’s a news service that grabs user-selected online content and collates it into a printed newspaper that’s delivered to your doorstep.

Run by The Newspaper Club, a newspaper printing company based in the U.K., the project is currently in its beta phase and only available to Britons for now.

The company is optimistic. The Newspaper Club head of engineering Tom Taylor told PrintWeek that he expected to be producing thousands of papers per week as soon as more users joined.

But don’t expect the personalized newspaper experience to be cheap: each issue costs $8.37 (£4.99).

[PrintWeek]

TIME newspapers

Jeff Bezos Makes His First Major Move at the Washington Post

Jeff Bezos Launches Bezos Center For Innovation In Seattle
Jeff Bezos David Ryder—Getty Images

In an effort to boost The Washington Post's web traffic and increase its national presence, Amazon's CEO struck a deal with local papers to give their paying customers free access to some of the Post's subscriber content

Just a few months after buying The Washington Post, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is making his first significant change to the newspaper’s business model. Starting in May, the Post will lift its online paywall for subscribers of certain local newspapers, including The Dallas Morning News, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The deal could boost the Post‘s web traffic while also increasing its national presence in areas where it is not distributed in print.

Like many news organizations, the Post allows people to view a limited number of articles online per month, then charges $7.99 every four weeks for unlimited access. The new deal will give subscribers of other papers free access to the Post’s website as well as its smartphone and tablet apps. No money is changing hands between the Post and the local papers, according to the Financial Times.

In the future, the Post could be bundled with other newspapers and even media properties in other sectors. Washington Post President Steve Hills told the Financial Times that digital subscription services such as Amazon Prime and Spotify could one day come packaged with the Post’s content. Bezos is focused on developing “a great digital audience 10 years from now, 20 years from now” rather than immediate profits, Hills said. The newspaper division of The Washington Post Company was losing money before Bezos announced he would buy the flagship paper for $250 million in August.

TIME History

Here’s How You Read the Paper on Your Computer in 1981

And by 1984, newspapers and magazines should have gone completely digital.

There are so many fascinating and wonderful things going on in this news report from 1981.

For starters, it’s about getting the newspaper on computers, so who do they send to cover the story? The science editor, of course.

Then the piece shows off that whimsical old-timey modem. We had one of those in my house: You’d dial a number by hand and then place the receiver down on top of the modem, and the two would scream at each other for a while. If someone called you when you were using the modem, you were disconnected. If you knocked the receiver off the modem by accident, you were disconnected.

This early program was fed by eight newspapers: The Columbus Dispatch, The New York Times, The Virginian-Pilot & Ledger-Star, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, The Los Angeles Times, and The Minneapolis Star and Tribune – my hometown paper. I was two years old in 1981.

The San Francisco Examiner’s David Cole tells the reporter about the experimental nature of the project, saying, “We’re not in it to make money. We’re probably not going to lose a lot, but we aren’t going to make much either.” Nowadays, we’re all in it to make money.

Then there’s this fascinating stat: The reporter says there’s an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 home computer owners in the Bay Area at the time, and that 500 responded by sending back coupons that were used to sign up for the service.

The man in the “fashionable North Beach apartment” who’s profiled in the piece says he’s excited about being able to print out things he’s interested in. Again: He likes the computer version of the paper so that he can print out things he likes on paper.

And here’s the best quote in the whole piece. The reporter says, “This is only the first step in newspapers by computer. Engineers now predict the day will come when we get all our newspapers and magazines by home computer – but that’s a few years off.” The piece then shows a guy selling newspapers, with the reporter saying that “for the moment, at least, this fellow isn’t worried about being out of a job.”

So by 1984, everything should have been completely digital, with delivery people and street vendors in the unemployment lines. Never mind that this system in 1981 took at least two hours to receive the paper, with a $5-per-hour use charge. That was up against a newsstand price of 20 cents for the physical paper.

How to Read the Newspaper on Your Computer in 1981 [Mental Floss]

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