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February 27, 1998

The other day, this column reported on the noisy controversy kicked up by the decision of the publisher of the New York Times to add something so unremarkable as color to news pages of the venerable old "gray lady." Most papers in markets of all sizes have chosen to do that in recent years. The argument over the Times' decision is likely to continue and perhaps even grow in intensity until readers either reconcile themselves to such a "revolutionary" change or the publisher backs off and drops the new look. Fat chance that will happen.

All this debate drove me to haul out a coffee table book I purchased some time ago at the estate sale which followed the death of my neighbor and long-time friend, Paul W. Cress. The book contains half-size photographic reproductions of memorable page ones from the Times between 1920 and 1978. The amount of history covered by that time span is brought home when you see it so graphically presented in a book of this sort. The headlines and the stories themselves are clearly legible and they make fascinating reading for anyone with the slightest interest in the background of world developments, some of them still swirling and very much in progress.

The New York newspaper has been a reliable, solid as a rock medium for covering events of the day throughout the world for well over a century. It has survived many upheavals in the newspaper business in the boroughs that make up the New York City megalopolis and its influence extends well beyond that geographic area. It's safe to say that readers throughout the world have turned to that paper for decades in order to learn what's going on around the globe. They still do. The paper's reporters, special writers, columnists and editors are in a class by themselves. "All the news that's fit to print" is more than a boastful slogan. The Times provides nothing less. Its character and reputation are not being impugned in the present debate. The editorial policy is something else, but for the most part its bias is confined to the editorial page. Liberals love it. Conservatives are less enthused. But that has nothing to do with the controversy at hand.

I understand the paper has raised the single copy price of its famed Sunday editon from $3.50 to $3.95, but that apparently is not at issue in this brouhaha.

The page one reproductions in the coffee table book I purchased from the Paul W. Cress estate begin with January 11, 1920, when the formal World War peace accord was signed in Paris, and President Wilson was preparing to call for the first meeting of the new League of Nations. The final page is from August 7, 1978, when the top story tells of the death of Pope Paul VI at the Vatican. From that first page one to the last, the general appearance of the New York Times was unchanged. The constant through all those years, and for decades prior to and subsequent to it, was the quality and extent of the paper's coverage. Color pictures and fancy-shmansy typographical tricks had nothing to do with it. The paper will continue to be a successful and highly reliable quality newspaper well after this tempest subsides.