It is a day of unrelenting light in Southern California, a moment in the burgeoning spring that forces the sun into every crevice of one’s life, whether he wants it or not. I am writing in our gazebo where diagonals of light trace criss-cross patterns on the tiled floor, and the warmth on my back offers relief from autumn’s chill.
Given all of that, it is not a happy time for me. I am saying goodbye to the Seattle Post Intelligencer, the Rocky Mountain News, the Tucson Citizen and, perhaps, to all of print journalism. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye and goodbye. Newspapers that I have never read or don’t know about, strangled into silence by the foundering economy, have shut down and others, like the San Francisco Chronicle, may soon turn off the lights in their news rooms.
Some have fled into digital journalism, struggling to survive in an arena that requires a new way of thinking, blasting news, as it were, into cyberspace and hoping that the next generation of readers will be willing to abandon coffee and the morning paper for flashes of information on a computer screen.
I hope nothing but the best for those who rush into the new era, including the newspaper I recently left, the venerable Los Angeles Times, but Like many older readers, if the day ever comes when daily newspapers no longer fill the street corner racks or thump on my doorstep in the morning, I will be even more disconnected from this world than I already am.
I fell in love with newspapering in high school, and when I was hired by the 30,000-circulation Richmond Independent in 1952 I felt that my life had begun. They were the glory days. Newspapers were the primary source of information, straddling an era characterized by plays like “The Front Page,” with its lunatic take on the boozy, low-paying kind of journalism that existed in the ‘30s, and “Foreign Correspondent,” idealizing the dedicated war correspondent who would risk his life to bring us the news during World War II. We were a combination of Ernie Pyle and a Broadway drunk.
Reminiscing, I can still hear the clickety-clacking of linotype machines, the endless chatter of wire service equipment, the drone of police radio monitors that no one listened to but everyone heard, shouts of “copy boy!” and telephones that never stopped ringing. We used our typewriters like weapons, slamming the carriage to reload the sentences, charging past deadlines with breathless dedication, feeling very much like the world was waiting for what we were writing, and maybe it was.
Eras end, sometimes too quietly to be noticed. The economics of journalism were altering the landscape. As the cost of newsprint rose and unions demanded better wages, Hearst’s Oakland Post Enquirer folded, and across the bay the News followed soon thereafter; then the Call and the Bulletin merged, and died. Only the Chronicle and the Examiner survived, at war with each other, and very shortly thereafter the Examiner went down.
Television news began assuming greater importance as the 1960s exploded into riots and mass protests, bringing instantaneous images to the screen that categorized a culture in transition. We saw satellites circling the Earth, mushroom clouds rising against dark horizons of the Cold War and a fury on the streets unlike any we had ever seen, demanding a new day for the people’s republic of Amerika.
In so many ways it was the beginning of the end for print journalism and for the joyous clash of professionalism and party time. The Knowland-owned Oakland Tribune, an afternoon daily, was trimming its staff, cutting expenses and dropping suburban sections. The warm embrace of the family daily had turned suddenly icy.
The L.A. Times I joined in 1972 maintained a little of the rollicking flavor of old newspapering, but eventually rose to a new standard of professionalism under Otis Chandler. Drunks weren’t tolerated anymore, smoking wasn’t allowed in the building, and the approach to news gathering and reporting was less haphazard. But it was still the same game in so many ways, the deadlines, the breaking news, the front page felonies, the governmental debacles, the liars, the crooks, the bylines and the banner headlines.
Now a new age of Americans is turning away from us to begin receiving in online snippets the only news it cares about. So here we are, saying goodbye to all those print journals and preparing to say goodbye to others. A company that specializes in distressed products just bought the San Diego Union-Tribune and it wouldn’t surprise me to see its name on the masthead— The San Diego Platinum Equity Union-Tribune—the way ballparks bear the names of the companies that own them. Is that how print journalism will end up, pimping for dollars?
I lived through newspapering’s best era, when we were a band of brothers in a job that was both demanding and fulfilling, respected and condemned, and always vital to the free flow of information. But things change. Continents move, oceans dry up and mountains erode. What newspapering will become will be determined by the shifting notions of a new culture. But the way we were was special. We were the sons and daughters of a trade that flashed and burned brightly for two centuries, and we never forgot our responsibilities.
Remember us when you’re sipping coffee at a laptop and wondering what in the hell you’re going to wrap fish in now.
Al Martinez on Everything Else
Al Martinez is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Los Angeles Times, author of a dozen books, an Emmy-nominated creator of prime time television shows, a travel writer, humorist and general hell-raiser. Try him. He’s addictive.
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