Philadelphia Evening Bulletin history: ‘Nearly Everybody Read It,’ a 1998 book from Peter Binzen

The importance, sway and influence of one of the world’s most dominant 20th century newspapers was the focus of the 1998 collection of essays about the once powerful Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, edited by its former education reporter Peter Binzen, who also wrote Whitetown USA.

Dubbed ‘Nearly Everybody Read It,’ a riff off the paper’s legendary slogan, the 163-page book has nearly 20 essays from former Bulletin reporters and editors, including its first female and black correspondents. For 135 years, the family owned paper was a powerhouse among a rich daily newspaper tradition in Philadelphia.

A central story line of the book was the Bulletin’s battle with the Inquirer, its chief rival, and how, in the end, the Inquirer, considered by many to be the chain response to the family-owned operation, won. Through all the bluster, I thought there were four primary reasons that rang most true to me:

  1. The Bulletin fundamentally failed to innovate, remaining an afternoon daily as circulation fell with growing TV news audiences, increasing transportation costs due to traffic and changing news cycles.
  2. The Bulletin failed to develop the revenue to stay competitive, including a premature sale of its nascent TV station, denying alcohol advertising and other funding methods that kept it lagging behind the Knight-Ridder funded Inquirer.
  3. The Bulletin resisted aggressive editorial reconfiguration, following the investigative spirit of the 1970s that soared the reputation of the Inquirer behind editor Gene Roberts, and pushed out its own innovative editor George Packard.
  4. The Bulletin came up short in following the suburban trend, having its 1947 purchase of the Camden Courier Post denied by the U.S. Department of Justice for anti-monopoly concerns was a large blow.

As I often do when reading something relevant to the news and innovation conversations I so adore, I wanted to share some choice thoughts from the book.

  • “…streetwise reporters like Bill Storm, who taught me it was important to always have two kinds of gin: the good stuff for martinis, and lesser brands for fools who might want to mix it with tonic.” (p. ix)
  •  “I was based in the City Hall press room of 212, a place where there was always a pinochle game in progress.” (p. xii)
  • In naming the colorful cast of reporters around him, Rem Rieder mentions Harry Karafin, the Inquirer reporter who was later convicted in 1968 of blackmailing sources and died in prison. (p. xii)
  • The Bulletin was so focused on its family-friendly image that it was known to have its three-pages of comics airbrushed of any potentially suggestive material, squashed coverage of the much hyped Kinsey sexuality reports and refused liquor ads longer after its competitors gave in to accept the ample resources. (p. 2)
  • A claim of 13 daily newspapers in 1905, something I’m trying to confirm. (p. 2)
  • The Bulletin’s circulation went from 600,000 in 1942 to 700,000 in 1946 to an all-time peak of 773,943 in 1947, all under the McLean family. (p. 7)
  • Part of a 1947 deal to purchase the Philadelphia Record for $13 million, the Bulletin also bought radio station WCAU, which had recently started broadcasting TV to the merely 14,000 televisions in the country. By 1957, WCAU-TV was making more profit than the Bulletin, yet was sold to CBS for $20 million, considered now to be ‘dirt cheap.’ (p. 7)
  • In an effort to push into the burgeoning suburbs, the Bulletin also acquired in the deal the then-small Camden Courier-Post, but the U.S. Justice Department forced its divestiture under anti-monopoly policy. (p. 7)
  • Robert ‘The Major’ McLean was a legend, leading the Bulletin to being the best selling afternoon newspaper in North America into the 1950s and beyond. (p. 8)
  • “In 1951, the newspaper was thriving and the City of Philadelphia seemed to have a lot going for it too…three decades later, virtually all of those institutions had moved out of town or gone out of business. Philadelphia became a different, less inviting place.” Binzen’s entire description of the city is compelling. (p. 9)
  • “…the Bulletin’s policy was to cover every aspect of life in the Philadelphia region. It covered every nickel holdup, every grassfire, every meeting of the city’s zoning board and its park commission. It covered the courts very closely as well as the Register of Wills.” (p. 10)
  • In 1964, McLean family bought the News-Press in Santa Barbara, Calif. for a westward expansion (p. 11)
  • A 1964 expose series on police corruption, directed by city editor Earl Selby, won the Bulletin and Philadelphia its first Pulitzer. (p. 11)
  • Inquirer was changing; new editor Gene Roberts earned the paper its first Pulitzer in 1975, starting a streak of 17 before 1990, though they occasionally overreached being sued for libel often, including a $30 million award, the largest libel award in the history of American journalism eventually settled out of court in 1996. (p. 13) As an aside, two years later, the Inquirer was sued by its own reporter Ralph Cipriano in a wild story.
  • Great story about sending a copy boy to New York to send a letter back to Philadelphia (also, apparently the Bulletin Almanac existed) (p. 15)
  • “Bruno Richard Hauptmann has kept, at long last, his rendezvous with death.” This begins a beautiful Bulletin story from reporter Harry Proctor on the Linbergh baby’s killer’s execution. (p. 21)
  • FDR nominated for second term in Philadelphia and gave speech at the University of Pennsylvania, where newspaper extras were sold. (p. 22)
  • Bulletin reporters submitted letters to encourage real reader submission, including mentioning fertilizing gardens with dead cats (p. 24)
  • Coverage of a Charles Bailey heart surgery under a compromise that if it didn’t go well, it wouldn’t be reported on. Is that an ethical concern? (p. 28)
  • In 1953, the Bulletin refused to publish a reporter’s account of the Kinsey sexual story. (p. 30)
  • Thorazine story: ethics questions and innovation on Philly (p. 31)
  • Chick Coop, surgeon general who recommended cigarette warnings was University of Pennsylvania doctor (p. 34)
  • Summer of 1954, progressive Mayor Joe Clark fluoridated the city’s water (p. 34)
  • Features editor Paul Cranston was among  (p. 38)
  • Lucille Ball offered to buy the Bulletin film critic a TV, as she refused to take on the technology, though the reporter refused. (p. 40)
  • In late 1940s, the paper had 750,000 in circulation across 7 editions between 64-96 pages, including a process that could see a 9:20 a.m. story on the newsstand by 10 a.m. (p. 47)
  • Homing pigeons were used to take photo negatives from sporting or other distant, ongoing live events to the newsroom. (p. 48)
  • In a sign of the future of reader interaction, the Bulletin editors tried to drum up more reader letters. (p. 49)
  • Reporters making sure to go out into the field with plenty of dimes to call the newsroom from a pay phone. (p. 56)
  • Newsroom rewritemen who took phone calls from in-the-field reporters and turned in beautiful copy but never got bylines were unsung heroes, including Fred McCord, who once wrote that “the soles of Depression-era job seekers were worn so thin they could feel the difference underfoot between a nickel and a dime.” (p. 57)
  • “Let the story sing and put the facts in the sidebar.” (p. 58)
  • To get through to the Governor about a controversial execution, Paul Cranston landed in a balloon in his front yard. (p. 68)
  • Dennis the Menace comic strip was first bought by the Bulletin and Cranston (p. 69)
  • Sending a reporter to the Assembly, a fancy Main Line dance referenced earlier (p. 70)
  • Like in Harrisburg and other newsroom, PR agents would bring liquor around Christmas to the reporters and ‘the Divvy’ would divide the liquor among the most senior reporters. (p. 76)
  • A source threatened suicide if a story ran, the editor said ‘if he jumps, we’ll have  second day story’ (p. 82)
  • In 1947, the Philadelphia Record closes because of strike by its union and the paper is bought by the Bulletin (p. 83)
  • A reporter hid in a closet to a railroad scoop (p. 83)
  • Transit authority gave a fifth of whiskey to all transit reporters in good graces (p. 84)
  • The Bulletin was so locally focused, that a newsroom joke was that when World War III started, the lead of its story would be the impact on Kensington. (p. 85)
  • The Bulletin was so notoriously fearful of taking a strong stand editorially, that when it endorsed Joe Clark for mayor, he was quoted as saying ‘How could you tell?’ (p. 87)
  • Editorial page writer Don Rose, author of eight books, was the father of 12 and, at his death in 1964, 74 grandchildren. (p. 87)
  • The Bulletin’s first female Philly editorial writer came in 1969 (p. 91)
  • Overall from editorial to news to cartoons to advertising, it was a restrained paper timid and losing ground to a resurgent Inquirer
  • April 12 1847 Bulletin first launches by Alexander Cummings, known as the Cummings Evening Telegraphic Bulletin (p. 93)
  • The Bulletin was last in circulation of 13 dailies in Philly with 7,000 daily papers, when bought by Robert McLean in 1895. 10 years later it was number one. McLean family owned paper until 1980 (p. 94)
  • Bulletin headquarters were at Juniper and Filbert from 1908 to 1955, when the Bulletin moved to the building across from 30th St, Then the Bulletin had 2,500 employees and 720,000 circulation.
  • In 1951, at a party at the Pen and Pencil Club celebrating a reporter leaving, she was given a clock with the engraving ‘Her copy is always on time.’ (p. 94)
  • Bulletin reporter George Staab went to Horatio Hackett School at York and Frankford near where I live, though he never graduated high school (p. 94)
  • More stories of the city editor submitting letters to the editor (p. 98)
  • The Virgin Mary’s figure is spotted in West Fairmount Park and tens of thousands come to see her (p. 101)
  • In 1963, Nicaragua President Samoza knew the Bulletin and its slogan (p. 107)
  • One reporter was covering a fatal stabbing. Said editor Toughill: “Is it black? Then fuck it.” Black crime was ordinary. (p. 112)
  • That same editor used a secret phone in a courtroom to call in the results of a a controversial crime to beat everyone else. (p. 112)
  • Philadelphia Record owned the New York Post. (p. 112)
  • Controversial law-and-order mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo, before that, the primary police informant on the 1964 cop corruption series that gave the Bulletin and Philadelphia its first Pulitzer
  • Though black communities were often ignored in the 1940s and 1950s, that started to change in the 1960s, including a big feature on the black community (p. 117)
  • In covering the Civil Rights movement in the South, a Bulletin and Washington Post reporter sat together in first class, but the New York Times reporter sheepishly admitted his paper would only pay for coach (p. 122)
  • The Penn Central Railroad bankruptcy was the country’s largest (p. 123)
  • “Part of the tension [in news writing] comes from the irrational fear that maybe you won’t be able to bring it off this time.” (p. 130)
  • How Martin Luther King Jr. changed in the course of a few years as one Bulletin reporter covered him (p. 131)
  • In representing the distrust and disdain Bulletin reporters had for the Inquirer, one reporter tells the story of sitting next an Inquirer reporter at an event and afterward the Inquirer reporter saying ‘let’s get together and we can go over your notes.” (p. 132)
  • One reporter’s story of surviving Nazi-held Vienna (p. 138)
  • “Bad idea, kid. You’re thinking big. This is Philadelphia — think small.” an editor tells a reporter (p. 140)
  • “If it ain’t local, forget it” (p. 143)
  • An old-timer on leave came in to keep the Newspaper Guild out of the Bulletin 1975 (p. 143)
  • “To some, all this is no big deal. For me, it was close to everything. A dream made real by a rumpled press card.” said Hans Knight (p. 145)
  • One editor told a woman applicant that the Bulletin didn’t need a female reporter because ‘we already have one.’ She made it in and eventually covered Israel Prime Minister Golda Meir (p. 148)
  • “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” said New Yorker writer AJ Liebling (p. 150)
  • If bulletin didn’t have a story, it didn’t happen p150, claim staff bigger than inqy and daily news together
  • Orrin Evans was the first and only black Bulletin reporter when Claude Lewis came in 1967 (p. 153)
  • Evans was moved that Lewis was offered the Harrisburg bureau, something Evans could have never gotten when he had started because of racial prejudices (p. 155)
  • Story of Lewis taking advantage of an off-the-record conversation with a prosecutor (p. 157)
  • One reason black reporter hires went up in the 1960s was that leading black celebrities would only be interviewed by black reporters, so many younger, less experienced blacks were hired over whites, which caused resentment. (p. 157)
  • Lewis was beaten by police during the 1968 Democratic National Convention (p. 158)
  • Lewis became the first black columnist (p. 159)
  • Reporters fought Editor George Packard, who was making many changes to the Bulletin, eventually, he became too divisive and was asked to leave, another way that Gene Roberts and the Inquirer continued to innovate and win the battle (p. 161)
  • The 20th annual Association of Black Journalists conference was held triumphantly back in Philadelphia (p. 163)

3 thoughts on “Philadelphia Evening Bulletin history: ‘Nearly Everybody Read It,’ a 1998 book from Peter Binzen”

  1. Thanks for posting this. The Bulletin is just another example of a magical part of Philadelphia’s past, one that seems rarely remembered in a city and suburbs with what can seem like an awfully short memory.

    I worked at resurrected 21st century version of The Bulletin on and off from 2006-2010. While the business model was flawed, and arguably a terrible economic period for a startup generally, there was a lot in the character and approach to reporting that calls back to the original.

    What’s so striking about your excerpts here is how simultaneously more aggressive and cutthroat reporting seemed then, and yet how healthy or relaxed or unselfconscious the era seemed.

  2. As a young belgian student spending the summer of 1967 in Lansdale (PA-19446), I used to read the Evening Bulletin every day.
    Back to Belgium, I never could forget this newspaper which was thrown every day on the porch of my uncle’s home. 45 years later, I still keep articles which I did cut out from its pages of July and August 1967
    It was a great newspaper.
    So sad to hear it doesn’t exist anymore.

  3. Apparently no one thought the interminable columns on soft pretzels, by James Smart and Michael von Moschzisker, were part of its downfall.

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