The Boston Evening Transcript: A Light Jab at the Past

The sinking of the BOSTON EVENING THANSCRIPT is a loss which is still lamented in Boston. The paper, which in its percise and independent way had set a singular standard in American journalism, went down with all hands in 1941. But before it sank, those dedicated members of its staff, like CHARLES W. MORTON note the associate editor of the ATLANTIC, suffered through a series of hopes and despairs which Mr, Morton will relate in this and successive issues.

WHEN I went to work for the Boston Evening Transcript as a news reporter at the beginning of 1930, it seemed to me a wonderfully good break. I was thirty years old, and it had taken me almost eight years to disentangle myself from the hardware business. Yet, with barely a year of newspapering behind me, I was on the staff of this celebrated sheet. True, its Circulation was somewhere around 38,000, but many of us, in office conjectures, felt that this figure could be boosted to 40,000 — perhaps even 45,000 — if we all pitched in on the news side. The fact that our circulation was slightly junior to that of evening papers in Passaic, New Jersey, Canton, Ohio, and Elmira, New York, impressed none of us. All we knew about circulation was that the Transcript, in some mysterious way, could get along without it.

The Depression was just at its onset. I doubt that any of us understood at the time why the stock market crash of a few months earlier did in fact mean the inevitable end of the paper. Our general reaction was that things were tough for the moment, so tough that they could only change for the better. Yet the real situation was that the Transcript had depended almost exclusively on financial advertising announcing new issues of all sorts of securities. On this category of display space, the Transcript’s rate was approximately the same as that of the New York Daily News, which had a circulation more than twenty-five times as large as ours. The paper might have lived comfortably on this income had it continued, with relatively high revenues and the low production costs of a small circulation. But when financial advertising stopped, as it did, the paper had to begin suddenly to live on its fat.

At the beginning of 1930, in spite of the portents, the Transcript’s news staff was far from pessimistic. There was a vague legend in the city room that whenever circulation shot up again to the 45,000 mark, the department stores would suddenly reinstate their advertising in the Transcript. The legend had a strange quality of reality for us; it was almost as if a committee representing the department stores would meet on a certain day, summon our advertising manager, and bestow on him a packet of lavish contracts. Meanwhile, as we were given to imagining, the committee was watching closely our circulation figures, awaiting only the reassurance of that additional five or seven thousand readers. At the time of my arrival, the paper was losing not more than $500 a day. My own part in this deficit was a wage of $55 a week and an expense account that ranged between $3 and $4 a month. The department store situation, we felt, was temporary, even though it had obtained for decades. It was bound to improve and eventually to bring a general lift in city room salaries. This would be especially true in the case of later arrivals, such as myself, who naturally received less pay than the veterans. It was one of the very first inequalities which would be ironed out just as soon as the department stores saw the light.

WORKING conditions at the Transcript were generally regarded by Boston newspapermen as ideal. The first of its three editions on weekdays closed at 10:30 A.M., and the local staff did not have to report for work until 8:15 A.M. Unlike morningpaper people, we were able to sleep nights. We had Sundays off, closed at 1:15 P.M. on Saturdays. We were allowed as much as fifteen or twenty minutes for lunch. If a man appeared five minutes late of a morning, in some instances he was not even admonished.

Practically everything in the Transcript was in a department. We had one called “Patriotic and Historical”; another was “The Churchman Afield”; and we had a big one entitled “Genealogical.” Even our sports page was subdivided, with specialists who covered nothing but golf, or yachting, or horses and dogs.

So great was the degree of specialization that almost anything remotely relating to a department was handed over to its proprietor for expert treatment. Every year, for instance, a considerable number of Bostonians would be announced as ticket holders in the Irish Sweepstakes, and the news staff was sent out among them to find out what the winners would do with the money. These stories at times were odd and amusing, and the Boston Irish must have bought enough sweepstakes tickets over the years to build hospitals for most of the Western world. But no matter how numerous or queer the stories, the disposition of them was always assigned to the horse-and-dog editor, on the theory that these winnings were resulting from a horse race, the Grand National or the Derby. Ordinary news judgments confronted by such a circumstance, so the reasoning went, would be incompetent.

I have forgotten some of the nomenclature, but there were also departments dealing with schools and colleges, women’s clubs, banks and real estate, necrology, and so on. By and large, the proprietor of one of these departments did nothing else. He was a specialist, an expert — indeed, he was known as an “editor,” and in dealings with the outside world would casually refer to himself as “one of the editors of the Boston Evening Transcript.” In this sense, the paper must have had twenty or thirty editors. Their day was more leisurely than that of the news staff; they seemed to have to do a great deal of reading in the office, thumbing through the trade journals of their specialty, boning up on the latest caper among Sealyham breeders or road builders. Occasionally one would seize shears and a pot and paste up, verbatim, a long release from a press agent or advertising agency, and this would appear intact a few days later in the larger Wednesday or Saturday edition. Probably no other paper ever brought such joy and astonishment to publicists, and one can only imagine their reactions at finding the whole handout in a Saturday Transcript without even its lead rewritten, let alone abridged.

These “editors” were obliged to spend considerable time away from the office, at meetings and conventions. They traveled widely, but the technique was usually the same, and the signed story, arriving in great lumps of Western Union copy, usually bore a strange similarity to the mimeographed material which had already reached the office as third-class mail, advance copy.

I had been on the Transcript staff for about two weeks when I finally asked one of the other news reporters about one of the hard-reading editors.

“What does that fellow do?” I inquired.

The answer was brief but definitive: “If it isn’t banks, he doesn’t do it.”

With so many desks occupied by editors, the Transcript maintained no rewrite staff as such. There would not have been room for one, and I dare say it would have seemed a needless expense. The news staff, consequently, did its own legwork and its own writing. If the story were in town and the hour suitable, the staff man rushed back to the office and wrote his story. He had to write his own heads, incidentally, and usually had to decide how big a head the story deserved. He then read copy on himself and as often as not popped the story, without further reading by anyone, into a tube to the composing room. It was up to the make-up man upstairs, then, to shuffle things around and locate them as he saw fit. If the reporter was particularly attracted by his story, he would mark it “Page One.” If he had doubts about its future, he would even add “Must.” In this way, the city editor undoubtedly found a lot of news in the paper each evening which he had never seen before. We were not altogether sure who the managing editor was at any given moment, but the same would have been true in his case. I don’t intend to imply that we had any great turnover in managing editors but rather that the title and function were, for some years at any rate, a matter of conjecture.

Again for reasons obscure to me, this somewhat informal system seemed to work out happily enough. In the early part of the day, a certain amount of copy was read and pondered, but along toward closing time, the common practice was to railroad as much of it as seemed necessary. This gave the city editor an abundance of free time, so that he was able to keep a vigilant eye on how long the news staff took for lunch.

Apart from the assortment of editors, the Transcript’s news staff included the normal list of beat men — city hall, waterfront, police headquarters, and such — a wholly unpredictable string of suburban correspondents, many of whom were unheard from for months on end, and a hard core of a half-dozen or so writing reporters. We were all virtuosos, possessed, in the face of constantly diminishing evidence to support it, by the belief that all Boston, and much of the outside world, depended breathlessly each day on what we were about to write. Whereas this may have been true of press agents and public relations artificers, who would have been foolish indeed to omit clipping the first edition, in which so much of their “advance” copy was served forth intact, I doubt that other parts of the paper produced quite the impact on the reader that the writing of them did on us.

The average age of our circulation must have been the highest iu the land, but we plugged along at the run of the news without realizing that the department of “Recent Deaths” was probably the hottest piece of reading matter in the paper for most of the customers When the Transcript finally suspended publication in 1941, I overheard a dialogue between two elderly Bostonians which afforded a fair hindsight, it seems to me, on how we had been doing. The Christian Science Monitor, a paper celebrated for its reluctance to mention death from any cause whatever, was falling heir, temporarily, to some of the Transcript’s circulation, and the two Bostonians were comparing notes.

The conversation, as they reached for their evening papers, went:

“Too bad about the Transcript.”

“Great paper.”

“What are you reading now?’!


“I’m trying the Monitor.”

“Well, I tried the Monitor a while ago, but I didn’t like it. Couldn’t tell who’s dead or anything.”

I MUST pull up for a moment at this point to explain that the Transcript’s interest in necrology as something calling for the maximum journalistic effort was matched only by the attention it paid to football and the stock market. Nothing threw the city room into so much high-speed sleuthing and telephoning as a first-rank bereavement. A system of research into maiden names, grandparents, undergraduate clubs at Harvard, Junior League, Sewing Circle, and funeral arrangements was immediately set in motion. Anyone passing our two telephone booths could tell by the unctuous tones of the reporter inside that he was talking to the newly bereft relative of an influential corpse. A bedside manner beyond reproach, it became a stunt of the first order, part of the office repertory of conversational histrionics; the man who could get the most spuriously funereal or excessively sympathetic note into the clichés of the occasion rightly counted himself an artist, esteemed by all.

Great lumps of trivial detail which no other paper would have dreamed of publishing thus fortified the Transcript’s obits. We were especially interested in the deaths of Harvard graduates and anyone with early New England ancestry, and this latter category would embrace at full length even those families which were no longer rich. When a really big death came along, someone who met all the tests — old family, Harvard, still rich — the response would be about the same as to a general conflagration. Other prominent citizens would be telephoned and induced to say for publication that they deeply regretted the death; our obituary editor would turn to; the male society editor of the Transcript would put in one of his rare appearances in the city room to see that no reference work lay unconsulted; other news projects were sidetracked as the pursuit of funeral arrangements was loosed. After a fury of telephoning, typing, pasting, and scanning, the obit would be sent along, the most lavish journalistic compliment the deceased had ever received. The extent of the obit was bound to surprise even the most infatuate relatives and friends of its subject.

If the Transcript went to town on a death, it outdid itself on a funeral. Whereas the death might have turned up first in the morning papers, most funerals were held during the Transcript’s working hours. Here was another chance to demonstrate the solid virtues of an evening sheet, to teach the A.M.’S a lesson in how to clean up on a big story and leave nothing for the next day. It was not uncommon for us to send more staff to a funeral than to a murder trial, even though church services and burial seemed to have been worked out, as a general thing, on a fairly stable basis that is, without disorders, arrests, or whatever it was that we expected to have happen at the obsequies which called for the vigilance of a smart news staff. It was no particular trick to get the names of the clergy, pallbearers, and the musical program over the phone, but we covered the funerals just the same to make sure that no slip-ups occurred. We spent most of our time outside, leaning up against churches, although in a fit of tenacity I once elbowed my way into a sort of minstrels’ gallery at the funeral of a prominent banker and market rigger and sat in the middle of a bosomy quartet of female vocalists. A variation of this kind was well regarded by the rest of the city staff, in that it was hard to do and had, at the same time, a certain useless quality which appealed to all of us.

I believe it would be fair to take our obits as representing the ideal Transcript story. The obit was always too long, for the executives held that the longer the story, the harder the reporter had worked, an end in itself. A short story could not be so desirable as a long one, since it meant that the reporter had been frittering away his time in lunchrooms or worse — a correct estimate, I must add, since we did go to almost any lengths to get out of the office for a few hours.

The obit had a great deal less standing with other papers in Boston. This enabled the Transcript to harvest richly in the field of obituaries and to feel at ease in an appreciation of news values which other editors did not have enough sense to comprehend. The obit was authoritative, exhaustive, and uninteresting. It required more work than it was worth, and it was a story which other papers usually managed to do without. It was, in sum, what we used to call a “technical scoop.”

It sounds absurd to say that the Transcript had a commercial interest in funerals, that what we published under “Recent Deaths” was by way of being a “reader,” like one of the pasted-up stories describing plans for the regional convention of Frigidaire salesmen. I am sure that none of our executives, consciously, expected the legatees of a Transcript death to start an advertising campaign in the paper as a result of the handsome obit. But I could not escape the notion, watching so many pallbearers shouldering their burdens, that an excellent reason must underlie our interest. Wiser heads than mine had figured it out, and I was willing to give it a whirl. Although it was hard for me to see what use the beneficiaries of a Boston trust might want to make of our advertising columns, the answer might lie somewhere in the overlapping and mysterious intricacies of high finance. Perhaps the deceased himself had been the stumbling block, cherishing an old prejudice against the Transcript and preventing his associates from giving us a little business. Perhaps even now they were re-examining, in the light of our unique performance, their earlier judgments of newspaper media and rates. With the old man out of the way, a fresh approach was possible. New ties could be cemented in sorrow or in relief or whatever, and things would pick up again for the Transcript.

As I say, no one formally enunciated any such motives. I doubt if I could have discerned them at the time, yet they are perfectly plain to me today, and they offer almost the only explanation of why so many dissimilar people worked so hard for so little at projects so completely wide of the mark. Only good could follow such drudgery, we felt. But like the department stores, the heirs and successors never did get around to laying it on the line. A friend or flunky of the deceased with some literary flair or reputation would favor us with a memoir for the editorial page a week or two later, but that was about all. We even made a final stab at the proceedings in probate court, reporting faithfully the public bequests — the sums to be shared equally by the Animal Rescue League, the New England Home for Little Wanderers, the Boston Seaman’s Friend Society, the Boston Society for the Care of Girls, the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, Trinity Church, and such — and the story always ended: “The residuary estate is to be held in trust for the widow during her lifetime. . . . It was not that we actually expected to be mentioned in the will, yet my own vague impression was that the testator would have put the Transcript down on his list if he had only realized our great need.

A HORDE of charitable organizations preyed upon the Transcript in its latter years. No scheming merchant, if we had been blessed with the advertising of local retailers, would have coerced the paper into so many puffs, endorsements, and general publicity as these welfare organizations unblushingly exacted from the Transcript. True, they did carry paid announcements in the paper each week, but, I suspect, at nominal rates, and for every line of what they were buying, they obtained without charge truly fantastic hospitality for their press releases. Like the fifty-fifty hash of rabbit and horse, one rabbit for one horse, the deal amounted to a half column of free space for every line of advertising. It became another of the despairing stunts with which the city staff idled away its time to see who could get into the paper verbatim the longest and worst press releases from this swarm of vultures.

Here again was a curious motivation. One would not expect a staff genuinely striving for the paper’s success to cripple its pages with such pitiful rubbish. In this case, the whole thing was a queer, reverse English attempt to rid ourselves of the city editor.

As I have said, the news staff was an oddly assorted group, but it had a common characteristic, the blend of ignorance, egotism, and enthusiasm with which each of us viewed the Transcript and our own part in it. We were going to save the paper in spite of itself, and most of our momentum was spent on that hapless functionary, the city editor, who was in fact the only executive with whom we had to deal. So firmly was the discipline of our relationship fixed that none of us ever gave him a flat refusal or denounced him to his face, and it seems unlikely that he would have known what we were talking about had we tried to straighten him out. He was only the inheritor of the attitudes which he applied to us, but we detested him and, again in our innocence, were sure that, given his head, he would commit some supreme folly which would eliminate him. Thus, when it came to letting a handout from the Anti-Vivisection Society drivel move along without the touch of a pencil, we counted it a bitter medicine for the paper but one which might at least cure the Transcript of its city editor. Someone was bound to see the stuff and complain.

I recall putting up a whole treatise, unabridged, from the M.S.P.C.A. on how to boil a live lobster without causing it pain, although the biological authority for the recipe was really no more than the fiat of the Society’s publicity man. If anyone really cares, the method, as I remember it, was to start the lobster off in lukewarm water and bring it slowly to the boil. This is not only at direct variance with the approved water’s-cdge theory of beginning with boiling water, but if you stop to think of it, it sounds like a prolongation and refinement of whatever discomfort the lobster experiences. The press release explained that the lukewarm water made the lobster groggy and that it yielded up the spirit hardly aware that anything unusual was going on. I have mentioned this press release at times in trying to explain the Transcript, but it was always taken to be mere facetiousness on my part. All I can say is that I am w’illing to bet anyone that a deadpan telephone inquiry or visit to the M.S.P.C.A. will bring, even today, an official written instruction on how to boil a live lobster without hurting it enough to give the Society grounds for action. (I have never seen any similar release from the Society with respect to oysters.)

I worked for the Transcript almost seven years. In five of them we were each presented with a turkey on Thanksgiving, or rather with a turkey order on some market. In the sixth there was no turkey order. We took three pay cuts — a 10, a 20, and a 40 per cent reduction; it may have been two twenties instead of the forty. At any rate, I left the paper in the summer of 1936 on a Saturday afternoon. With one stratagem or another, my wage had curved up slightly from its low. After running my legs off for six and a half years, I was getting only $10 a week less than when I had started.

(To be continued)