Losing Gil Spencer: Another Blow to Philadelphia Journalism

Fearless newspaper editors are hard to come by these days

The last great tabloid newspaper editor died last week. Given the current state of journalism, Philadelphia will never see another editor like F. Gilman Spencer. Spencer, 85, was the charismatic editor of the Daily News from 1975 to 1984. Like a great baseball general manager, he assembled a murderers’ row of columnists who covered the city and uncovered City Hall.

It was a colorful cast of characters who electrified the People Paper’s pages. Think 1993 Phillies. But instead of Dykstra, Daulton and Kruk, the lineup included Dexter, Stone and McKinney. In place of Louisville Sluggers, these heavy hitters used Underwood typewriters.

Murderers and other wanted criminals, fearing police brutality, turned themselves in to Chuck Stone, the bow-tie-sporting columnist who was the eloquent voice for a voiceless black community. Jack McKinney detailed the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, while starting trouble at the Pen & Pencil and other watering holes. Pete Dexter often accompanied McKinney on the late-night rounds, and was known to misplace a company car on occasion. An infamous bar fight almost cost Dexter his life and prompted him to swap a drinking life for a career as a National Book Award-winning novelist.

Dexter once said the only place more unmanageable than the Daily News was the Mexican legislature. In reality, the maestro leading and inspiring this rollicking band of journalistic rebels was Spencer. By all accounts, he enjoyed the daily chaos and hell-raising.

Spencer was a serious newspaperman who didn’t take himself too serious. He liked to have fun, but understood the vital role hard-hitting journalism played in a city with few watchdogs. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1974 at The Trentonian for blistering editorials on New Jersey’s corrupt political machines. Herbert Stern, a U.S. Attorney in New Jersey at the time, had never met Spencer before he nominated him for the award.

“I was just amazed at the unabashed, unrestrained fearlessness with which he attacked the establishment,” Stern said.

That sums up the brand of journalism that jumped from the pages of the Daily News under Spencer. That’s the paper that hooked me on journalism. Page after page was packed with punch. None harder than Richard Aregood’s editorials. Of course, the sports section was the Bible for any local fan.

Chuck Stone was one of my college professors. He instilled in me that the role of journalism was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted. Sounded like a great way to make a living. Spencer and most of the journalistic giants he cultivated were long gone by the time I got to the Daily News in 1997. But the freewheeling culture lived on under his handpicked successor, Zack Stalberg, who left the paper in 2005.

I was living in New York and returned to Philadelphia for Stalberg’s farewell party. I rode the train back to Manhattan with Spencer. It was the highlight of the party. We talked about the newspaper all the way home. Spencer had been gone from the Daily News for 20 years but was current on internal events and feared for the paper’s future. He was right to be. In recent years, the business model for newspapers has been decimated by changing technology, declining circulation, advertising cuts and the recession. Layoffs and budget cuts have reduced the quality of many newspapers, further costing readers.

It’s a vicious cycle that has demoralized newsrooms, chased away quality journalists and emboldened public officials, and their lawyers. Pols know there are fewer reporters to shine a light on their dubious dealings. And even fewer columnists like Dexter or Stone to hold their feet to the fire. Readers, in turn, see less need for a paper without balls. That’s why newspapers, now more than ever, need fearless editors like Spencer to inspire and back their staff. And to stand up to wussy publishers who would rather befriend the political and business class.

Maury Z. Levy was a columnist at The Trentonian under Spencer before leaving for Philadelphia magazine. He wrote that Spencer “took many bullets” for him, and ran “interference” from the publisher who didn’t like the “smart-assed way I wrote.”

One Levy column included the phrase “I almost puked.” The publisher stormed into Spencer’s office and said it upset his wife while she read it over breakfast.

“You’ve got to get rid of this guy,” the publisher said. Spencer responded: “If he goes, I go.” The publisher asked what he should tell his wife. Spencer said: “Tell her to read the fucking Trenton Times.”

It’s sad to say there won’t be another Gil Spencer editing a newspaper in Philadelphia anytime soon.

Paul Davies spent 25 years in the newspaper business, including stops at the Daily News, the Inquirer and the Wall Street Journal. He can be reached at davies2226@yahoo.com.