I lost a good friend recently – a friend and a mentor.
His name was James H. Smith. He hired me to be the editor in chief of the Sacramento Union in 1990. That’s when I met him. But I knew him by reputation. His professional experience left no doubt about his love and passion of the newspaper business – which I shared.
A Marine captain, he began his newspaper career as labor relations manager at the San Diego Union-Tribune, working closely with the legendary Jim Copley. He also served as a high-level consultant to the Christian Science Monitor.
Later, he was named president of the San Antonio Express-News before joining the Sacramento Bee as general manager in 1974. Three years later he was named publisher of the Washington Star, working with another one of my mentors, Editor James Bellows, who hired me in 1979 at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.
Jim went on to launch local business journals in the West, including successful efforts in San Jose and Orange County, California.
In 1990, he returned to Sacramento to serve as publisher of the Sacramento Union, the oldest daily west of the Mississippi. It was the paper that gave an unknown writer by the name of Samuel Clemens his first professional assignment. Clemens was better known as Mark Twain. The Union was also original home of writers Bret Harte and Herb Cain.
In 1992, both Jim and I resigned from the Sacramento Union over issues with the paper’s ownership. Together we started the Western Journalism Center, a nonprofit corporation promoting investigative reporting and training for young journalists. We also worked together on an ill-fated effort to buy the daily newspaper.
In 1997, I launched WorldNetDaily.com, the first independent news agency on the Internet, which required my full-time energies because of its rapid growth. Jim and his wife, Audrey, became more involved in the Western Journalism Center, taking over the leadership from me by 1999.
He retired in 2005. But that’s just the professional stuff. Jim was also a gentleman’s gentleman. He looked like and had the mannerisms of Jimmy Stewart. He could be tough when he needed to be, but I never saw him get angry.
Born in 1922 in Elyria, Ohio, he joined the Army and transferred to the Marine Corps in World War II, rose to lieutenant and trained Marines as a tank officer at Camp Pendleton. He earned a degree in industrial labor relations from Cornell University in 1948 and worked in the steel industry before going into newspapers.
He was as decent a man as I ever met. He died at the ripe old age of 91. He and Audrey were always energetic, full of life and good cheer.
They were enthusiastic supporters of my work from the day I met them.
I learned a lot from Jim Smith. I learned much from Jim Bellows, my other senior mentor.
Smith was a businessman. Bellows a newsman’s newsman.
The latter passed away in 2009, one of the architects of what we call “the new journalism” during the 1960s and 1970s. He was the legendary editor of the New York Herald Tribune during its 1960s renaissance, shepherding young writers like Judith Crist, Tom Wolfe, Dick Schapp, Jimmy Breslin, Denis Hamill, Gail Sheehy and Maureen Dowd. He hired Esquire editor Clay Felker to create a Sunday supplement that, within two years, became New York magazine.
Bellows went on to serve as associate editor of the Los Angeles Times, which he rightly called “the velvet coffin,” and then the Washington Star before taking over the reins of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.
At the Herald Examiner, Bellows brought in Felker and Schapp and columnists like Ben Stein and Tom Bethell.
Smith was the consummate newspaper businessman who inspired in me a sense of entrepreneurism. Bellows turned newspapering into an art form with an appreciation of provocative and entertaining headlines.
I was blessed to work closely with both of them. They loved competition. They both loved leading underdog newspapers. I shared their passion. They inspired it. They taught me more than I can say. I was privileged to call them mentors and friends.
What I owe them is beyond evaluation and can never be repaid.
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