Start the Presses: L.A.'s Herald Examiner Puts a Woman, Mary Anne Dolan, in Charge

updated 11/15/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/15/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

It is as if, one day, Lou Grant had quit and woman reporter Billie Newman had taken over. But that is exactly what has happened at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, where Mary Anne Dolan, 35, has become one of the very few women editors of a major metropolitan paper. As Billie had Lou Grant, so Dolan has a mentor, former Herald Examiner editor James Bellows. And just as Billie bristled at accusations that she was no newshound because she wrote "features"—the kind of timeless pieces nobody stops the presses for—so Dolan argues that she's no softy just because she used to write and edit features at the Washington Star. "My background is more hard news," she insists. "My first story was about a girl killed in a shower. We had photos—a great coup."

In L.A., Dolan usually arrives around 10 a.m. at her stark office in the once elegant, now scruffy Herald building, beneath the dome where William Randolph Hearst used to hold sway. She spends each day (she works all seven) making decisions, from starting a new cartoon (she hired Fritz the Cat's Ralph Bakshi to pen a strip called "Sunset Over L.A.") to launching an investigation (she's proud of a six-part series on drug use in Hollywood reported after John Belushi died of an overdose). At 4 p.m., Dolan meets with her editors to lay out Page One. Long since divorced from former Star reporter Bill Delaney, she lives alone in L.A.'s Rustic Canyon. But wherever she is after-hours—at home reading, writing, playing the piano, or out with friends—when big news breaks, the office calls her.

The Herald Examiner is a paper in trouble, losing up to $10 million a year, by some estimates. Once the star of the Hearst chain, the Examiner, after merging in 1962 with the L.A. Herald-Express, became the largest afternoon daily in the U.S. At the very same time, the Chandler family folded the Mirror, giving the Times a morning monopoly. After that, the "Her-Ex" circulation of more than 700,000 was ravaged by an ugly decade-long strike. Its readership is below 300,000 today, less than a third of the Times'.

In 1978, Hearst hired Bellows from the Washington Star to breathe new life into the Herald Examiner. Bellows brought in talented, if underpaid, young stars, including Dolan, who had quit as assistant managing editor of the Star and turned down an offer from the Washington Post because "I didn't think I could be happy working for a rich and famous newspaper." Bellows is known as a brilliant but uncommunicative editor—he's called "Dr. Mumbles" by his staff. But Dolan understood his language, and they became, she says, "the ultimate newspaper team." When Bellows left last December to take over TV's syndicated Entertainment Tonight, Dolan, then the Herald Examiner's managing editor, took charge. "This was no Eliza Doolittle number," says Dennis Horgan, former special projects editor at the Star. "She worked herself practically to death. She was obsessed with mastering the operation."

Dolan came by her love of words naturally—an Irish grandfather was "a classic wordsmith," and her pathologist father, William, was a storyteller. At Marymount College in Tarrytown, N.Y. she studied Irish literature because "there was something I knew in it, the humor, a relishing of linguistics, a certain blackness of soul, a kind of robustness I could roll around in." Growing up in Arlington, Va., she reluctantly became a debutante to please her mother and hunted birds with her two lawyer brothers and her father. "Definitely yin and yang," she says.

Under Dolan, the Herald Examiner is becoming a morning newspaper—and thus treading on Times turf. But Dolan says she cannot really compete with the Times on its terms. The Herald Examiner is not a newspaper of record and "we don't want to emphasize foreign news." Instead, she says, "I want the Herald Examiner to be the paper people pick up at the same time they switch on the television." Is it working? "The paper is much improved," she says. "I feel pressure to further that improvement and unquestionably to show that I know how to edit a major metropolitan paper with class and some degree of success."

Though circulation has had its ups and downs, the paper was a finalist for a Pulitzer this year for a 16-part series called "Sweatshop: Undercover in the Garment Industry," which Dolan edited. And Dolan herself is becoming a star. Recently, she was asked to endorse a commercial product. "Powerful women need a powerful deodorant," the ad read. Dolan declined.

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