Saturday, June 28, 2008

Ticking Away an Era

They’re shutting down DeLauer’s, the 24-hour news stand in Oakland at 13th and Broadway. It’s just around the corner from the Tribune Tower, which not too long ago was abandoned by the newspaper and now sits like a haunted castle, its clock ticking away the fading hours of an era.
DeLauer’s has been in that same spot for 101 years, selling newspapers and magazines from all over the world. I used to hang out there when I worked the night shift at the Trib. It’s where cops sometimes gathered before the sun rose when their shifts were done and there was no place else to go.
Old man DeLauer, who is 91, inherited the stand from his father. He left it to his accountant to say that no one was reading newspapers anymore; they were getting their news online. At least all the news they cared about: whether Angelina Jolie was pregnant and who the poor, troubled Britney Spears was dating now that the kids had been taken away and her life had become a sad joke.
A friend emailed me the story about DeLauer’s that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. Its closing didn’t really surprise me. The news stand belonged to a period when newsboys shouted “wuxtry!” on downtown corners and when people who couldn’t afford to buy anything crowded into DeLauer’s to stand around reading magazines without paying. Nobody hassled them. They were a part of the scene.
For awhile there was a dwarf in his 50s who sold papers on the corner not far from the news stand. He was about four feet tall and a little peculiar. Never spoke to anyone, not even a thank you when someone bought a paper. He just shouted his wares and made up stuff on dull news days. It was like, “Wuxtry, Read all about it! Murder in Oakland! Blonde bombshell found dead!” One had to wonder what those who bought the paper thought when there was no blonde bombshell murder story in it.
In the 1950s The Trib competed with Hearst’s Oakland Post Enquirer. Across the bay there was the Chronicle, the Examiner, the News, the Call and the Bulletin. They dropped one by one, sometimes two by two after they merged. Today, only the Chronicle exists in any kind of viable form. The Examiner, once touted by Hearst as “Monarch of the Dailies,” is a shabby little distorted mirror image of what it was.
When I left the Tribune to come south in 1972 newspapers were already beginning to show signs of dissipation as television news coverage increased. Bill Knowland was the Trib’s publisher and had begun shutting down the suburban sections and laying off reporters. A rewrite man I remember only as Fitz was the first to go.
A small, edgy guy, his hands trembled and his face twitched under pressure, which on an afternoon daily was just about all the time. How he ever got on rewrite was a mystery of the age.
We all felt pretty sorry for him and tried to help, but with Stanley Norton hovering over him screaming and cursing, there wasn’t a lot we could do. Norton was the assistant managing editor but acted more like one of the old time city editors, loud in his conduct and brutal in his style. He had polio as a kid and dragged one foot, coming at you like some kind of creature out of a nightmare, predating Freddy Krueger by 40 years.
The Trib was a pretty good newspaper back then. Its circulation was the best in the Bay Area for awhile, up to about 350,000. It ran the Post Enquirer out of town and was competing with the Chronicle and Examiner when I left. It began falling apart after Knowland gave up a seat in the U.S. Senate to run for governor and lost. He took over the paper, and that was the end, my friend.
Another beat in the funeral drumming of an era occurred when the bar across the street called the Hollow Leg closed shortly after Nels died. He was not only the best bartender in town but a guy we considered our friend. He’d pour free drinks when the owner wasn’t looking and filled us in on what the downtown honchos were talking about when they gathered to drink at the Leg. Just before he died, he gave me a white German shepherd puppy that we brought to L.A. when my career at the Trib fell apart and Otis Chandler beckoned from the Times.
What I left behind in Oakland was a block of time that was already receding into history, like the Jazz Age or the Big Band era. None of us fully realized it down here. The L.A. Times under Otis Chandler was going strong. We had come onto the world stage, a big, rich, muscular daily emerging from what had been an angry little right-wing rag. New bureaus were opening across the nation and around the world; new talent added a glow to a newspaper envied by just about every working journalist in the country.
I had the job of a special writer, often criss-crossing the country by air and land to see how the people were doing during various recessions and gasoline crises. How were they managing when a changing job market tossed them aside, when they couldn’t buy gasoline or afford to pay rent? How were they feeling about America? Sound familiar? Everything old is new again.
I covered presidential elections and followed guys like Alex Haley across the country when “Roots” was storming the nation, and Howard Jarvis when Proposition 13 was altering the nature or property taxes. I spent time with Rosa Parks in Detroit and tracked down former presidential press secretaries going back to the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
It was a dream job, but all dreams end. The Times began unraveling when the Chandlers sold it to the Chicago Tribune, at best a second class newspaper, and making money became more important than making history. I was writing a column by then, but it was more whimsy than newsy, and whimsy wasn’t playing on Spring Street as far as the new editors were concerned.
Moved from Metro into a corner of Calendar, I was silent witness to the slow devolution of what Chandler had built, eventually blind-sided by a graceless little man into a forced buyout. John Montorio was an assistant managing editor in charge of features and just never did like me personally, probably because I wouldn’t pal around with him at lunch and listen to his rants against other staff members. I’ve never been a gossip and sure as hell wasn’t into back-biting.
The readers brought me back with thousands of emails, letters and phone calls. A new editor, the one we have now, fired Montorio. He was an anomaly on a staff of otherwise good, qualified people who aren’t out to get you and who know how much we’re all in this together.
I’m back out front now, every Monday in the California section. More buyouts and layoffs are in the wind, so who knows how long any of us are going to last? We’re facing down the Internet Age, which is a new peril to print journalism. The kids don’t read newspapers anymore, we’re told, so we’re trying desperately to be a part of the new trend, jazzing up the product to suit the tastes of the MTV Generation, and edging into their Internet world.
I see the demise of DeLauer’s as a sign of the shifting fortunes of reader-oriented publications. We’re fighting back by rethinking the product, redesigning the pages and galloping into cyberspace like acolytes on a holy mission. There are those who predict the end of print journalism, which will be a sad day for anyone wanting more than snippets of news.
I’m going to keep doing pretty much what I do, which no one has been able to define, not in more than half a century in newspapering. I believe that as one era collapses into another, smart people are still going to read writing that creates images and transports them to new biomes of the imagination. I’ll be there doing what I do until I can’t do it anymore, remembering DeLauer’s and the guy on the corner selling fantasies.


Ann Shields said...

Enjoyed your memory down memory lane via the newsparper's ever changing world. I, too, was a victim of the buyout of the Times by the Chicag Trib. Had a column in the Ventura Ccunty section where I interviewed authors who came to town for book signings. So, me the Chicago gal, got dumped by my home town paper. But there are still plenty of us diehard newspaper fans who get thrilled by the bounce of the paper on the driveway. Love your whimsy, if that's what they call it. I sure can't curl up with my laptop for news on the internet.
Keep on trucking, Al.
your ventura fan

jbellman said...

Hey, Al - These days, I'm often tempted to drop my home subscription to the LA Times, increasingly frustrated at how much they don't cover, even more frustrated at how much they miss or get wrong when they do cover it. But I can't give it up, for the same reason Orson Welles offered when friends assayed the wreck of his filmmaking career and told him he should've stuck to the theater. "That's like saying I would have been better off had I never married that woman. But I love her, you see." I'm a Chicago boy myself, but that doesn't begin to explain it. Writers like you are the last of the breed - may you ride it 'til you can't ride it no more!

Dan said...

There is something to be said about unraveling the paper, taking in the aroma of ink, cradling it over coffee and then the journey to wash the ink from my hands....I will have my daily paper (Times) until it is not available. Things change and some I don't like...getting news off the internet is like having sex alone.
Keep up the blog and keep up the stories you are a gem in LA.

joB said...

My husband sold newspapers on the main drag in Portland, OR, when he was 11 yrs old. Times sure change and it's a pity! I lived in CA for 27 years and left in '86. The LA Times and your column were part of that 27 years. I still miss it.

Watch 'n Wait said...

Ah, Al...there's no way I would give up my daily LA Times. Here in San Diego I go out to breakfast in Old Town every morning and that paper goes right along with me. First thing I read is the front section, then go looking for your column. Wouldn't miss it for the world. Am so glad too that you email when you put a new post up. Carry on!

Suzanne said...

Ditto what so many others have said. A newspaper brings a joy that few other things do and can't be replaced by stories you read through your monitor.

I am also one of those who was angry about what happened last year. I'm so glad that you've found this forum -- as well as continuing to proudly write the same types of columns that you've written and enjoyed. Thanks for still being there.

Glogal said...

I go all the way back to Matt Weinstock, then relied on Jack Smith for my humane whimsey (reality) fix.You keep me anchored to the good memories of a long ago life that my grandchildren will never know--------please hang in there with Cinelli 'til the lights go out.


La Mirada Bob said...

Great blog, Al. It is going to my four daughters and their families in Utah, Michigan (including Detroit) and North Carolina. They all know about Al from conversations with Grampa.

Long-time RN said...

Oh the times they are a changing. Still haven't given up on the morning paper and coffee routine here in the great Midwest. Ironically, if it weren't for the net, this reader would have missed out on your wonderful column. Keep on keepin' on.

Richrorex said...

Thirty second sound bites will never satisfy intelligent people. As it is, I must read a story in at least two daily newspapers before I will entertain the notion that it might be true. With TV and the Internet, tere is very little occason to vet the story and veracity has never been a long suit with them.
Keep going Al, so few of your compatriots are left.

dr.john85 said...

Dear Al,

Newspapers are being bought out by fewer and fewer companies across the nation. We have little if any investigative reporting left. The companies which own these newspapers then merge or are bought out by other companies with newspapers. Soon, we will all be reading what the newspapers' parent corporations want them to print: the same stuff. I read German medical literature in German. I was quite shocked to read about their large population of artificial heart patients who live rather normal lives with their artificial heats in tow, about the size of an oxygen tank one sees hooked to a person with COPD or emphysema.

Americans don't know that artificial hearts didn't end with Barney Clark. There is so much we are not being told, and I wonder why.

Yes, good times and good ages pass. I am compelled to leave clinical medicine because I am cost-ineffective. I am not compliant. Compliant people are all the rage in medicine these days.

I can empathize with your situation and your feelings as we pass into the 21st Century where ignorance is bliss.


dbleiffer said...

Al, and friends ...
Don't forget there is a sad parallel in TV to Al's story on promt publishing. One sad day, a suit in windowed office high above the streets of NY had a thought ... "The News Department is costing a lot of money when it could make a lot of money ... let's send somebody from Entertainment over to check it out." From that moment on, the bottom line started moving from NEWS to FISCAL and road that anchored the famous names of TVs early days changed course. Soon gone by death or pressure were the Morrows, Huntleys and Cronkites. Many TVs were bought because NEWS was NEWS ... my dad finally gave in and bought a big box (with AM/FM and turntable - Hoffman Easy-Vision, with a greenish tint on the screen) to see the politcal conventions in the mid 50s. It was The Big News in LA. Today, PBS stands pretty much alone in line with the old days of reporting and the night's newscasts on the Commercials are so dirven by breaks and self-promotion (which is NOT news) one can't see back to what once was.
"Good night Chet, good night David ... and good night for NBC News (que Beethoven's Ningth, second movement).

Lynn C. said...

Your blog brought back memories of growing up in Chicago with three fairly decent newspapers with news vendors on almost every corner. Everything in print was not true but you got a good idea by reading all three papers. I am sorry the Chicago Trib has been the downfall of the L.A. Times. I am happy we still have you to keep us "thinking". Thanks!

Elaine Williamson said...

I feel like a dinosaur as I drink my coffee and read my morning newspaper, way up here in Anchorage. I'll still be doing it in 20 years only the newspaper will be 4 pages, and mostly ads at that. One plus with the internet is that I can read "good" papers like the LA Times and I can read your column. And the 'net brings me your blog, so it's not all bad. But I do miss the ritual of settling down with the news of the world, page by page, getting dirty fingers in the process. This is all progress, I know - but I don't have to like it!

Kanani said...

This weekend I stayed at a throwback motel in Palm Springs. I didn't take a computer. Only this wanting final draft of a novel --all 500 pages of it, to edit it in the comfort of my room with the little AC blasting on high.

Because I had no computer (and what a relaxing time it was!) I read the Saturday and Sunday editions of two newspapers (which included the LA Times).

It has been awhile since I took the time to read every single page. But I really enjoyed it, despite the fact that the news seems "light."

Anyway, I love your stories. Keep them coming.
And... sorry about Ken Reich." He died as a journalist would like --writing and shooting off smart and wise dispatches up to the very end.

Kanani said...

Where I stayed: Casa Cody

Jerry Miller said...

Re: the little guy selling papers: Wuk stra Wuk stra, 54 people swindled. Wuk stra, wuk stra, 54 people swindled. (I'll take a paper, here's your dime --- hey, wait, there's nothing here about 54 people swindled!) Wuk stra Wuk stra 55 people swindled. Wuk stra, wuk stra, 55 people swindled !!!

Chumplet said...

The dailies may be suffering, but it seems the smaller community newspapers are reinventing themselves at every turn.

With free distribution and money made from advertising and online endeavours, it seems our little newspaper group isn't ready to give up soon.

I remember walking down the street with my dog late at night to write my sports column in the small building on Charles Street because I didn't have a typewriter. Years later, after I had my first child, I approached the newspaper again, which had then merged with a neighbouring paper.

We morphed from melted wax to Macs over the years. We are now region wide with several warehouses and printing plants, and are still going strong.

John said...

DeLauer's is closing....

Well, I can't say I'm surprised given what's been happening to other newsstands and independent book stores throughout the nation, but it's just one more of my places that will now exist only in memory.

I rowed crew for three years in high school (my school was very small but we did pretty well - even went to the national championships one year). I rode the bus to our practices on Lake Merritt and and usually arrived quite early so I spent many early morning hours browsing newspapers and periodicals from around the world. Der Spiegel was a favorite as was 'people-watching' - 5:00am was a great time for it! Afternoon pre-practice time was reserved for an old used book store just a block or two away. I don't remember the name of the store, but I'll never forget the smell and feel of those old and wonderful books.

Chumplet said...

Just a quick note to say I just dropped off my youngest son for his very first job (second if you count his paper route when he was ten) at our newspaper's distribution centre.

Now he'll have ink on his hands, too.

Kanani said...

YAY! Chumplet. I'm glad to hear your small paper is doing well. Keep going. I love papers. There's nothing like sitting down with a cup of coffee and just reading.

Michele McGee-Yepiz said...

Nieces/nephews occasionally arrive at my front door before I’m out of bed and have retrieve The Times. I’m amazed how many don’t know to collect the paper from the stoop and bring it to me. A daily paper isn’t part of their lives. They don’t watch national broadcast news, instead getting their information from The Daily Show and Colbert Report.
After absorbing the factual news during the day, I enjoy ending it with a laugh, so stay awake to watch The Daily Show, when it isn’t a rerun.

Jerry Miller said...

Michele, didn't you love it in the Times two weeks ago when Doonesbury had a panel that said in an effort to cut the budget, the Daily Show laid off its writers and just reported the news straight. And nobody noticed - they just yukked it up as always.

Russ M said...

Al, there’s a happy irony in this article, which chronicles the slow demise of print journalism yet at the same time exemplifies the kind of great writing that will always find a venue and readers eager to enjoy it.

Eric said...

Thank you for sharing this illuminating story of change - and decline.

Better technology does not guarantee a better life - as your article documents with wit and humor.

John E said...

This is a great one, and says more about the news industry with implication than outright resentment. Keep up the good work. J