Today was a day of ups and downs for me in my reading about journalists and the newspaper business. I don’t know whether to make heads or tails of it. I’ll just tell you how it went.
I started by reading at elle.com an exciting profile of Jane Mayer, stellar investigative reporter for The New Yorker.
Later, I came across a depressing tweet saying John McMurtrie had been laid off as book editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. I enjoyed his personal photos of Mt. Tamalpais, an old stomping ground, as well as his writing for the paper.
The sad layoff reminded me of a conversation with a Hearst Communications executive in 2001. The Hearst person said the Chronicle was “bleeding” money even then. Hearst bought the paper in 2000. My father, Bob Robertson, worked there in the Chronicle heydays — not counting labor struggles — of the early 1960s.
This all led me back to Carl Nolte’s wonderful history of the Chronicle in 1999. (https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/134-Years-of-the-Chronicle-2924997.php).
My retired and long-suffering sports writer friends, some photographer friends, too, probably would like this paragraph of Nolte’s history:
“In 1910, The Chronicle sent a staff of 16 of its own people, plus Jack London and Rex Beach, to cover the Jack Johnson-James Jeffries fight in Reno. The writers filed 40,000 words; the photographers developed their pictures on a special train hired for the occasion.”
I expect just about every newspaper person would appreciate this 19th century detail:
“Much of the paper consisted of pieces of theater news, bright little anecdotes and jokes — some of them written by Mark Twain, who contributed items in exchange for office space. Bret Harte, then a clerk at the Mint, also wrote pieces for the paper. Much to its later regret, The Dramatic Chronicle never saw fit to give either man a byline.”
Nolte’s history reminded me of both the magical and treacherous sides of San Francisco, much as Oakley Hall’s wonderful Ambrose Bierce mysteries did.
It also reminded me of the recipe for the Chronicle’s one-time great madness. I know critics are familiar with the argument but I would like for their stuffinesses to be confronted with it again. This passage refers to editor Scott Newhall taking the helm in the early 1950s:
“Under Newhall, the paper touched off one of the last of the West’s great newspaper circulation wars, primarily against the San Francisco Examiner, then the largest paper north of Los Angeles.
“His aim was simple: to get more readers. It was, he said, a bit like a circus. Once the customers were in the tent, they would see that The Chronicle had something to offer.
“To do it, Newhall turned the paper back to its roots — it again became irreverent, it held up a mirror to the West, informed the readers and had a good time doing it.
‘The Chronicle went after stories with a vengeance, scooped the opposition and ran rings around them with lively writing and imagination.”
The paper could be serious: “The Chronicle was the first to assign a reporter full-time to cover a new and deadly disease — AIDS,” Nolte reported. It also could be silly and a hell of a lot of fun. One of my favorite campaigns was an alleged investigation of over-the-counter coffee in 1963: “A Great City’s People Forced to Drink Swill.”
I don’t know. Maybe I just love a good headline. Which now reminds me of a great copy editor, headline writer and news editor who we lost just last week: Ken Walston, recently retired from the Albuquerque Journal. (Update. Link to obit published 04-01-19: https://www.abqjournal.com/1286639/colleagues-mourn-loss-of-former-editor.html
Ken Walston was a top-shelf kind of newspaper person: skilled but calm; diligent but courteous; careful but funny. If you ever wondered how the newspaper actually became a newspaper every day, what kind of people held newspaper production together, you needed to look no farther than Ken. For 41 years, a key person in the newsroom.
As I say, it’s been an up and down day.