Recalling the Bulletin's obituary, 30 years later

Posted: January 30, 2012

THERE WAS a lot of dazed milling about that day.

Staff members of what was then called The Bulletin didn't quite know what to do or what to think in the face of a disaster that they had all seen coming but were reluctant to accept.

The Bulletin closed on Jan. 29, 1982 - 30 years ago yesterday.

The newsroom at 30th and Market streets was vast and bright, with big windows letting in the light.

I don't remember what the weather was like outside, but inside the mood was uncharacteristically gloomy.

Staffers gathered in small groups to discuss the undiscussable. Some, including me, had offers, but many had no idea what the future held.

I moved to this scrappy tabloid on North Broad Street called the Daily News. I thought it would be a refreshing change from the somewhat rigid character of the ancient broadsheet, and I was right.

I'm still here, trying to keep up with all the technological changes now involved with the production of a newspaper.

Most of The Bulletin staffers eventually found gainful employment - on other newspapers, in public relations, or with companies unrelated to journalism - and some simply retired. I recall that the staff was largely middle-age. Not easy to find work at that age, or to start anew somewhere else.

Others invevitably were lost. One respected writer wound up somewhat of a bum in the park. But his case was exceptional.

I recall that the New York Times sent representatives to Philly to interview prospects. I talked to a very nice woman just for the hell of it. We got along, but I couldn't see myself working in New York. I'm just a country boy, after all.

A few people did go to the Times, and found good careers there.

The death of The Bulletin (It used to be called The Evening and Sunday Bulletin) was, of course, the end of an era, as the saying goes. It died three months short of its 135th birthday, a Philly institution as well-regarded and dependable as the Art Museum.

But the paper's arteries had been clogging for a long time, even though a live-wire editor named Craig Ammerman came in near the end and injected some juice into its veins. It was too late, of course.

The Inquirer, resurgent under another live-wire editor named Gene Roberts, began scooping up Pulitzer Prizes and hacking into The Bulletin's circulation and advertising.

I have no idea what other economic factors were involved, but I'm sure there were plenty, eating away at the old lady's hindquarters.

When I started at the Bulletin in 1958, the circulation was more than 700,000, almost a million on Sunday. It plunged precipitiously over not that many years.

I was the night city editor during the Bulletin's last five years and had what I considered the best newspaper staff, pound-for-pound, in the country. We defied the paper's longstanding reputation for stodginess. We put out a lot of hard-hitting copy.

That wasn't enough either, obviously.

When I started in the business, we wrote on typewriters. Rube Goldberg-like contraptions called linotype machines set the type. There were rows of them in the shop, all clanking away.

Then they were gone. Computers took over. In the newsroom, we soon were typing on computers.

The Daily News and Inquirer share a website called Such an innovation was not imaginable in 1982.

We now watch the TV news to see if we missed anything. There were no TVs in the Bulletin newsroom. If we couldn't get our own stories, they weren't worth getting. TV followed us.

We had the staff, and the space. For many years, there was very little that went on in Philadelphia that The Bulletin didn't cover. Many times, I was the only reporter sitting in meeting rooms covering some worthy organization that earned a little story in the back of the Bulletin and nowhere else.

The Bulletin never fired anybody, not even during the Depression, I was told, unless he or she turned out to be an ax murderer, and I don't recall any of those on the staff.

The stunned atmosphere in the Bulletin newsroom that memorable day 30 years ago has been repeated at other once-well-established newspapers around the country.

But it's different when it happens to you.

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