Fifty years ago, 17,000 New York City newspaper workers went on strike, shuttering the city's seven daily papers for 114 days. Rooted in fears about new "cold type" printing technology, the strike ended up devastating the city's newspaper culture and launching the careers of a new generation of writers including Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Nora Ephron. Vanity Fair contributor Scott Sherman talks with Bob about the strike and its legacy.
BOB GARFIELD: It's no big news that new technology is menacing traditional media, but it’s not for the first time. In the sixties, computer-generated cold type began doing to thousands of Linotype operators what Gutenberg’s press had done to scribes. Nowhere did the revolution play out more dramatically than in New York City, where in December 1962 the threat of cold type led a consortium of labor unions to strike. New York's seven daily newspapers were closed 114 days, to devastating effect.
Scott Sherman wrote about the strike in a web exclusive for Vanity Fair, titled “The Long Good-Bye.” He describes pre-1962 New York as a thriving newspaper town, in which multiple editions of seven newspapers rolled off the presses throughout the day. Of the seven, the three papers that survived the strike were the Times, the Daily News and the New York Post, which, as Sherman pointed out when we spoke to him last December, was then in a pre-Murdoch incarnation.
SCOTT SHERMAN: The Post was a liberal crusading paper. It went after Joe McCarthy, it went after Richard Nixon. So I think that was the paper that crossed class boundaries more than the others did. Upper class and educated people read the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune. There were two mass market morning tabloids with powerful working class readerships, the Daily News and the New York Daily Mirror. And then you had two afternoon broadsheets, the Hearst-owned New York Journal American and the World-Telegram and Sun.
BOB GARFIELD: The linotype machine was this enormous apparatus that had a keyboard, and it would lay individual letters mechanically and then they would be molded with hot lead into the type that created the impression on the newspaper. How many people did it take to operate?
SCOTT SHERMAN: It took one skilled man to operate it, but it took a number of other people to maintain it. In the 1950s, newspaper publishers, especially at non-union papers, like the Los Angeles Times, began to import into their composing rooms cutting edge computerized typesetting equipment. This created enormous anxiety in the International Typographical Union, the ITU. It had 120,000 members in 600 locals. It was incredibly clean. It was incredibly democratic. And it was incredibly militant.
BOB GARFIELD: The head of the union at the time, Bertram Powers-
SCOTT SHERMAN: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: - believed that he had enough economic leverage to prevent the onward march of technology. What could have possibly made him think that he could impose the status quo on these powerful publishers?
SCOTT SHERMAN: In our own time labor unions are weak, but the story I've written took place in the early 1960s and many of the members of the union were hard core militant labor men; 120,000 ITU members around the country voted to give 3 percent of their weekly paychecks to a strike fund, and that enabled Bert Powers and the ITU to have all the money they needed for the ’62-’63 strike.
BOB GARFIELD: With hindsight though we can see that Powers was maybe the ultimate Luddite. He believed that you could stop the march of industrial progress.
SCOTT SHERMAN: At the center of the strike was really fear of technology and fear of computers. The International Typographical Union got a pay raise at the end of the strike but they granted the publishers the right to bring computerized typesetting into the newspaper composing rooms. They won the strike, but they lost the war.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, this was 1962, obviously, no Internet, no [LAUGHS] cable news, three or four TV stations, radio stations, almost all in the music format. What happens to a city like New York when it loses all seven of its newspapers in one fell swoop and loses them for four months?
SCOTT SHERMAN: Nora Ephron, who got her start during the strike, as did Jimmy Breslin and Gay Talese, told me that it was like the city's lifeblood was cut off. Attendance at funerals declined. People did not know when their friends died.
BOB GARFIELD: Broadway went dark, charities lost donations.
SCOTT SHERMAN: There were civil rights implications because the Congress on Racial Equality, CORE, was leading a boycott against the Sealtest Milk Company, and without the newspapers to publicize this the boycott was undermined. The city’s fight against slumlords was undermined. The building commissioner commented at the time, quote, “There’s a distinct difference between a $500 fine and a $500 fine, plus a story in the Times.
BOB GARFIELD: Of course, 114 days without advertising revenue did harm to all of the properties, and some of them irreparable harm. Tell me what the strike did to the newspapers that were on the edge, to begin with.
SCOTT SHERMAN: The only newspaper that was economically strong in the early sixties in New York was the mighty New York Times.Its principal competitor, the New York Herald Tribune, was greatly weakened by the strike. After the strike was settled, the Times and the Herald Tribune each had to raise their cover price from a nickel to a dime. And because of the settlement of the strike, which led to higher wages for the printers, the Herald Tribune came back to the streets with a much more precarious balance sheet. And so, the strike contributed to the death of the Herald Tribune in 1967. And a few months after the strike, the Mirror, which was a morning competitor to the Daily News, that folded.
BOB GARFIELD: But there were some silver linings to this cloud. You made reference to the literary figures whose careers really took off when they had no daily newspaper job to go to.
SCOTT SHERMAN: Correct. Reporters faced a choice. They could march on a picket line and get strike pay or they could start freelancing. And, in the case of Nora Ephron, Pete Hamill, Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese they used the opportunity to begin careers as freelance journalists. Talese and Wolfe claim that the strike was central to their careers, because it got them writing long form pieces for magazines.
The other thing that happened is with the New York Times not available, people who looked for book reviews had no New York Times Sunday Book Review, so a small group of intellectuals on the Upper West Side, led by Robert Silvers and Robert Lowell and others, took the opportunity to create a biweekly literary periodical, the New York Review of Books.
BOB GARFIELD: And television news, which in 1962 was scarcely developed as a medium, also benefited. Can you tell me how it filled the vacuum left by the newspaper strike?
SCOTT SHERMAN: Most of the local television stations added significant amounts of money to their news budget and they hired large numbers of reporters, and after the strike ended in the spring of ’63, many people who read newspapers never went back to newspapers. They stayed with the local TV news.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, if cold type was the sort of Damocles to the typographers in 1962, the Internet is the same for traditional newspaper employees in 2012. Is there any force out there now that’s the equivalent of Local #6 of the ITU?
SCOTT SHERMAN: For better or worse, we don't have a Bert Powers on the scene. Newspaper employees are more or less defenseless, and it may turn out that the digital newspaper world that's coming, a largely union-free landscape, could turn out to be more exhilarating than the 1960s. But I'm nostalgic about the fact that the thud of the newspaper on our front steps in the morning won’t be there.
BOB GARFIELD: Scott, thank you.
SCOTT SHERMAN: Bob, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Scott Sherman is a contributing writer for The Nation, and he wrote The Long Good-Bye for VanityFair.com.