Susan Yerkes doesn’t like to call what she used to write a gossip column.
“I never thought of what I wrote as that,” she said. “The word gossip, to me, has an unpleasant connotation, kind of a snarky one. I think of gossip as a kind of negative, personal besmirching.”
But the column that Yerkes wrote, first for the San Antonio Light, and later for the Express-News, fits into what most people would recognize as a gossip column: short items of news, usually about people or about the culture, full of human interest and foibles, though not usually about scandal. Yerkes said she never wrote about divorces.
Yerkes doesn’t work for the Express-News anymore. Neither does former “Around the Town” columnist Ed Tijerina.
Tijerina left behind his column when he took family leave at the time his son was born. When he came back, the paper had cut the column and reassigned him to the obits desk.
“At the time, I thought of it as the ultimate demotion, but writing obits probably saved my newspaper career,” Tijerina said.
He believes that if he had still been writing his column at the time of mass layoffs at the Express-News, he would have been one of the first to go.
Instead, he stayed on to become the paper’s food critic, and eventually its food editor. He rode out the consolidation and layoffs, and eventually found himself in what has become something of a booming beat for writers.
“The part of the paper that used to be the women’s pages, and then became the entertainment section now seems to me to be largely the food pages,” Yerkes said. “And I don’t see people news anymore.”
With a few exceptions — the New York Post’s Page Six, a fixture that helped bring Donald Trump to prominence as a media character, is probably the most prominent, but also columns in St. Louis and Minneapolis — such gossip or “item” columns have largely gone the way of classified ads. Once fixtures of the metropolitan daily, they are conspicuously absent.
Where there used to be two at the Express-News, now there are none. They’ve also disappeared from the San Francisco Chronicle, the Raleigh News and Observer, and The New York Daily News. Some of these were salacious, telling stories of celebrity affairs, pregnancies, and divorces. The syndicated columnists such as The Daily News’s Liz Smith carried these items. Some were largely political, telling the behind-the-scenes stories of regional power brokers. Some, like the one in the Raleigh paper, were basically society columns. And some, including Herb Caen’s in San Francisco, were basically columns with short items showing the daily life of a city — what Ed Tijerina described as a “community column.”
Before writing it all off as frivolous, though, consider what Cleve Mathews, who helped launch NPR’s news division and later taught at the Newhouse School of Communication at Syracuse University, told Yerkes when she was starting out in journalism: “It’s more important to know who is having lunch with who than what people said in their press releases. It’s the connections between people — and knowing who they are and what they’re doing — that will help you understand what’s going on in a place.”
Added Yerkes: “It doesn’t have to be vicious to be interesting.”
Vicious or toothless, for generations the gossip column was a counterweight to the dry, blandly objective tone of many news columns.
The model for pretty much all of the short-item American gossip columns was that of Walter Winchell, an icon important enough to justify Neal Gabler’s nearly 600-page biography of him. Gabler quotes the writer Alexander Woollcott, who, as early as 1933, identified Winchell as a cultural force on par with Walter Lippmann, the patrician political commentator.
“To challenge the mature, elitist, bookish culture of Lippmann,” Gabler wrote, “Winchell had helped inaugurate a new mass culture of celebrity — centered in New York and Hollywood and Washington, fixated on personalities, promulgated by the media, predicated on publicity, dedicated to the ephemeral, and grounded on the principle that notoriety confers power.”
Winchell began as a Broadway columnist in the early 1920s, and it became the first nationally syndicated gossip column in 1929. A year later, Winchell had his first radio show, too.
A Winchell column reads to a contemporary eye like a Twitter feed. A two-sentence item about a quiet divorce in Reno might be followed by a scoop on the finalists to be New York City police commissioner, which in turn would be followed by an announcement of a show or a speech, obviously placed by a publicist. There are no transitions. Everything is rapid-fire, with a whiff of Winchell’s sense of what is and is not moral overlaid on top of it. Most of it doesn’t reveal its sourcing, or if it does, only vaguely.
Winchell was a power broker, too. If he liked you, he gave you favorable coverage. But he could damage your career as well. He was the model for the unscrupulous gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker in the 1957 film “Sweet Smell of Success” (based on a short novel by Ernest Lehman), who shut out the publicist Sidney Falco until Falco did Hunsecker a personal favor by breaking up Hunsecker’s sister’s relationship with a jazz guitarist. Winchell, who was Jewish, spoke out against the rise of Hitler, intertwining himself with politics‚ and did so again after World War II, this time siding with Senator Joseph McCarthy in his anti-Communist crusade — an affiliation that led to a diminishment of Winchell’s stature as McCarthyism also fell out of favor.
Even if Walter Winchell created the standard form of the American newspaper gossip column, stories that we might recognize as gossip are literally as old as the American newspaper itself.
The first newspaper published in the colonies, Publick Occurrences, Both Forreign and Domestick, contained news of smallpox and fires, but also a report of a raid by Native Americans who “brought home several Prisoners, whom they used in a manner too barbarous for any English to approve,” and, even more scandalously, that the king of “France is in much trouble (and fear) not only with us but also with his Son, who has revolted against him lately, and has great reason, if reports be true, that the Father used to lie with the Son’s Wife.”
Benjamin Harris, the paper’s publisher, piled all of these items, one after another, with no headlines to divide them, and not even transitions. As in Winchell’s columns, there is no obvious sourcing.
Harris even writes in what amounts to the mission statement for his paper that “the Publisher will take what pains he can to obtain a Faithful Relation of all such things; and will particularly make himself beholden to such Persons in Boston whom he knows to have been for their own use the diligent Observers of such matters.”
In other words, he promises to get the skinny from the best-connected people in town and share all of the juiciest stories of royal incest with you, dear reader.
Benjamin Harris was the first newspaper publisher in what would become the United States — and also its first gossip columnist. Or at least the first to write in the “items column” form. And as Susan Yerkes pointed out, the earliest newspapers in the American republic were just as personally nasty as anything found in Winchell’s columns.
“The early newspaper tradition was full of vituperative political gossip,” she said. “What comes to mind is Alexander Hamilton. What brought him down was personal scandal, but it was voiced as gossip.”
Even though American gossip columnists have focused on the personal side of the news, they often could not avoid using their power for political ends — as Walter Winchell’s opposition to Hitler and to Communism demonstrated. Similarly, Hedda Hopper, known for her collection of hats and her ability to break Hollywood stars, actually made her national reputation by getting the scoop that James Roosevelt, then the son of the sitting president, Franklin, was divorcing his wife. Hopper used her platform as a columnist to push a conservative agenda in her career, using prurient stories about public figures as a sort of social control, scolding them when they misbehaved.
Jennifer Frost, a scholar who wrote Hopper’s biography, says that gossip, however, is not fundamentally conservative. She said it was “ideologically malleable and can be wielded by anyone. Although Hopper was conservative and used it to her ideological ends, gossip is also a ‘weapon of the weak,’ to borrow James C. Scott’s term, and can be used by the powerless to challenge the powerful.”
At its height in the middle of the 20th century, gossip proliferated across various kinds of publications: standalone celebrity magazines, but also mainstream newspapers and then mass market magazines, such as People, according to Frost. But that proliferation also meant that the power of the nationally syndicated celebrity gossips was diluted.
“In fact, the 1960s, when stars were able to gain independence from the old studio system, was the beginning of the end for Hopper and her colleagues,” Frost said. “I even think social media has led to a decline in gossip for us regular folks too. Now we gossip about ourselves through Facebook.”
But the local columnists held strong at least through the end of the century, and as Politico’s senior media writer, Jack Shafer, pointed out, political writers were, in this period, often really doing work that wasn’t that far removed from that of Walter Winchell or Hedda Hopper.
“A case could be made that William Safire and William Novak were gossip columnists, always happy to carry political water, or to contaminate it,” Shafer said.
And Boston University professor Chris Daly, and author of the book Covering America, pointed out that sportswriters have long “had a practice of emptying their notebooks every so often with odds and ends — the clubhouse equivalent of a gossip column. I’m thinking of The Boston Globe‘s Ernie Roberts, who used to have a column on Saturdays called ‘Thoughts While Shaving.’ It was all one- or two-graf “items” about coaches, players, et cetera,” Daly said.
He also pointed out that Rolling Stone’s “Random Notes” column is basically a music industry gossip column, and that The Boston Globe used to run a column of gossipy items about high-brow writers by the late George Frazier, titled “The Lit’ry Life.” So gossip, as a style, has expanded into worlds outside of celebrity and society: politics, sports, music, and literature are all fair game for personal stories about powerful people.
“I think most news is gossip,” Shafer said. “But I’m not sure how or when the standards changed.”
The traditional items column format of gossip has largely gone away — fading out at least since political scandals such as Gary Hart’s or Bill Clinton’s sex scandals became the stuff of the news pages, which used to be more conservative in their presentation of personal material.
“Some of what used to be reported in gossip column is packaged as straight news these days,” Shafer added, “children born out of wedlock, drug use, sex — extramarital and homosexual. One vessel got bigger while the other contracted.”
Susan Yerkes points to the #metoo movement as a sign of the change, too. “That used to be personal stuff that didn’t come out until you had a court case,” she said.
In San Antonio, she points to the story of former mayor Henry Cisneros’s infidelities as a turning point.
“It was something that everyone in the news was highly aware of,” Yerkes said. “But Henry had gone to the publishers of both major papers and said, ‘this is what’s happening — I’m the mayor — I would prefer that you don’t write about it because it would really blow my ability to get certain programs accomplished,’ and the publishers of the time actually acquiesced and admitted that later.”
But when another writer broke the story, when Cisneros was serving in Bill Clinton’s cabinet, it was Express-News gossip columnist Paul Thompson who was ready with his interview of Linda Medlar, with whom Cisneros had been having an affair.
While gossip has been folded into news that would traditionally have been walled off from it, the conservatism of corporate consolidation of regional newspapers has made many media outlets more risk-averse, another contributing factor in the death of these once-mighty columns.
And there’s the fragmentation of the readership. “It’s media fragmentation, but it’s also societal fragmentation,” Ed Tijerina said. “We have split so much that I think that the audience that would have been interested in reading about things and people they didn’t know about is gone.”
Well, maybe not completely gone. The Sidney Falco–J.J. Hunsecker relationship still exists to some extent today.
While social media has given celebrities and their publicists the ability to reach their audiences directly, without having to negotiate relationships with fickle columnists, there is still an important utility to getting an item placed with a writer at a legacy news organization.
“I can’t do my job without a well-read local daily newspaper with a healthy appetite for gossip,” said publicist Richard Callow, who was described as “a snake” in a St. Louis Magazine profile.
While, according to the profile, some journalists think Callow makes them look bad, “others are addicted to him, because he feeds them the most recent spin or plot twist so reliably, they never have to break a sweat.”
Callow described the gossip column as “the utility drawer in the newspaper kitchen,” because “[n]ot every bit of information fits neatly into a beat or can be stretched into an entire article.”
He still uses columns to place information that can help his clients or damage his clients’ opponents.
“My practice is litigation, regulatory, and politics,” Callow said on Twitter. “Gossip and defense against gossip are important tools in all three areas.”
“Twitter makes all of us into gossip columnists,” he added. “But published gossip from a branded source has a LOT of credibility.”
And gossip can still be found in print.
“It’s no accident that the New York Post is still into gossip,” Jack Shafer said, referring to its owner, Rupert Murdoch.
Murdoch also owned the San Antonio Express-News before selling it to the Hearst Corporation — and William Randolph Hearst also had plenty of appetite for gossip. If the proposition is that corporate ownership is what makes big city dailies less likely to run gossip, Susan Yerkes can think of two exceptions that might help to prove the rule.
“Well, Murdoch is your fallacy,” she said. “And William Randolph Hearst is your other fallacy. Those were the two publishers in our town, so what does that tell you? Well, it was fun.”
And while forms and media will almost certainly continue to change, it seems unlikely that gossip will never go away completely.
Even if Susan Yerkes sees newspapers’ coverage of people’s foibles being eclipsed by food writing, she is ultimately optimistic that the more benign forms of gossip will never go away. As she said, “We’re a country that likes to read about people.”
Take a trip down memory lane with these excerpts from once-ubiquitous columns.
“That actor George Hamilton’s new big interest is modelulu Jean Shrimpton, whose idyll with film star Terence Stamp is reported fini…Israel UN Ambassador Abba Eban (a tall, handsome man) was greeted with affection by many at El Morocco the other midnight…Leaders of the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society have made tentative plans for a nationwide student strike against all colleges and university “involved in any fashion” in the Vietnam war effort. The pinko-punkos have not yet decided on a date for the strike.” — Walter Winchell
“Interesting the change Elia Kazan wrought on Montgomery Clift during the making of “Wild River.” Monty went on the wagon, returned to New York, and bought himself an old house in a quiet neighborhood near the Battery. He’ll begin redecorating and meanwhile is reading properties with directing as his future aim. Glory be, he has a new girl, too!…” — Hedda Hopper
“Over at the Athenian School in Danville, Librarian Mildred Carlock was having so much trouble with her typewriter that she called a repairman. The problem: a mouse had got stuck inside and Mildred had typed it to death.” — Herb Caen
“Doesn’t the longevity of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry say something about riding horses and living longer? . . . The Mets may lose a lot, but their telecasts are very enjoyable viewing. . . . Why can’t we just wish Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson long and happy lives and let it go, already?” — Larry King
“New Jersey Governor Chris Christie recently had a band placed around his stomach to reduce its size so he wouldn’t eat so much, which certainly can work, though it seems like a rather extreme way to lose weight. How about just eating less and exercising?” — Michael Musto