Top Line Book Corner: ‘Newspaper Titan’ Details Life of First Woman Editor-in-Chief, Cissy Patterson

Nov 15, 2011 4:45pm

How does a 49-year-old woman with no journalism experience rise to become the master of the most powerful daily newspaper in all of Washington? The same way a man would – through ruthless, dogged pursuit of news that could sell. A little shameless self-promotion helped Cissy Patterson too.

“She put her stamp on everything she did – right or wrong,” Amanda Smith, author of ‘Newspaper Titan: The Infamous Life and Monumental Times of Cissy Patterson,’ told ABC’s ‘Top Line‘ today.

Cissy Patterson was from a journalistic family and always wanted to have her own newspaper, said Smith. She finally got one when she took over William Randolph Hearst’s floundering Washington Herald.

“She was very innovative. People don’t often give her credit for that,” said Smith. “She actually initiated the 24-hour news cycle in Washington.”

Watch more “Top Line” interviews with news makers.

Patterson later bought the Herald’s sister newspaper, The Washington Times (no relation to the modern-day Washington Times), and began publishing the Washington Times-Herald. By 1945, Smith says in her book, the Times-Herald was clearing an annual profit of more than $1 million.

There are “a lot of parallels between her and, say, Arianna Huffington,” said Smith. “The Washington Times-Herald was in many ways a lot like the Huffington Post nowadays.”

Patterson had the good fortune to be prescient in her staffing decisions. In the 1930s, the fiery editor-in-chief was laughed at for hiring female reporters and editors. But when the war came in 1941, “Cissy Patterson’s Times-Herald was actually in a much better position than a lot of newspapers around the country that lost a lot of their manpower and a lot of their reporters to the war,” said Smith.

Patterson’s own life was worthy of headlines. When she was in her teens, the debutante and scion of the Chicago Tribune empire fell in love with and married a Polish count. The man turned out to be a brute who beat her, took every penny Patterson’s parents gave them, and eventually kidnapped their child, said Smith. The Czar of Russia stepped in to help Patterson get her daughter back.

“Cissy managed to disentangle herself from that terrible relationship and … after sort of false starts in acting and in writing novels, found her calling and went into newspaper publishing,” said Smith.

Patterson would eventually turn the Washington Times-Herald, perennially ranked fifth in town, said Smith, into the most widely read daily in Washington, D.C.

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