Colossus of Newspapers’ Golden Age
Newsmaker: Roy W. Howard, the Mastermind Behind the Scripps-howard News Empire From the Gilded Age to the Atomic Age— by Patricia Beard (Lyons Press, $26.95). Though largely forgotten today, Roy Howard, along with William Randolph Hearst (the inspiration for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane), dominated the American newspaper world in the first half of the 20th century, when newspapers were the preeminent source of information. Howard’s clout was enormous. He had remarkable access to U.S. Presidents, corporate chieftains, celebrities and world leaders. Indeed, many sought him out, trying to woo his support.
Like many other great entrepreneurs, Howard started life in very modest circumstances. But he was gifted with ample ambition, energy and ability. He was a media rarity, a man who was a first-rate reporter and business executive. Unlike Hearst, Howard was disciplined when it came to spending and never suffered the kind of financial reverses that caused Hearst to lose control of his empire. Only once did Howard pour money into a losing enterprise, the New York World-telegram, figuring a presence in the Big Apple was essential to a newspaper company aspiring to national and global prominence.
Howard had a wonderful knack for inspiring confidences. As this impressive biography notes, “There was something sympathetic about him that led people who were wary of the press to spend hours unburdening themselves, or trying to impress him.” Those who fell under his spell included Franklin Roosevelt (for a while, anyway), Douglas Macarthur (who could have been court-martialed for hinting at the existence of the then supersecret atomic bomb) and the Duke of Windsor.
Howard rose rapidly at the Scripps newspaper chain. He took on the Associated Press, the leading wire service of the time, and gave it withering competition with the heretofore weak and faltering United Press. He also demonstrated a talent for acquiring and starting newspapers. Scripps soon enough became Scripps-howard, and Howard successfully piloted “The Concern” for more than three decades.
The corporate throne never dulled Howard’s appetite for scoops. He interviewed Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1936, winning world headlines when Stalin made it clear to him that Moscow would go to war with Japan if Tokyo menaced the independence of Outer Mongolia. (Indeed, three years later the two countries had severe clashes in that part of the world. The Soviets stunned the Japanese with a military defeat, a critical reason that Japan didn’t join Germany in attacking the Soviet Union in 1941.)
The richest part of this book concerns the 1920s-40s. Howard was a tireless traveler, and his observations about unfolding events make for absorbing reading, particularly in the Pacific, where Japan’s growing militarism led him to advocate building up the U.S. Navy at a time when the U.S. was fervently isolationist.
Also fascinating are Howard’s interactions with various American leaders. His turbulent relations with Franklin Roosevelt are, in a micro way, revealing of how FDR always tried to manipulate people to his ends.
Newsmaker came into being because of Howard’s granddaughter, Pamela Howard, who years after his death came across his diaries. She read them and had them transcribed. They are the foundation of this fine biography. Howard, she relates, could be “scary” with his gruffness. He wasn’t impressed with Pam when she was very young, noting in his diary that his son’s two children “have been very badly spoiled— especially Pam, who is a whiny, posey, self-centered little thing with very bad manners.” “Ouch!” she responds in the book’s prologue. “I was exonerated 15 years later when, after a formal event, he wrote that I had become a ‘fine young lady.’ Phew.”
Her grandfather would have been far more effusive had he been able to see the first-rate biography that Pam’s work with his diaries has inspired.