It pains to write this, but the coronavirus probably will be an extinction level event for most print newspapers. This is not a shocking new development; the Nieman Journalism Lab started the death watch even before the National Emergency was declared. Go back to the 2008-2009 recession and find pundits were warning that print was unlikely to survive another economic downturn – newspapers were like a flotilla of Titanics all drifting towards the iceberg zones. And so here we are today; sans charitable bailouts from billionaires or megacorps, lots of ships are soon to sink together into the cold sea.
This is not the place to go into all the reasons why this is happening, but some are well hashed over: Printing presses can keep rolling only so long without advertisers to pay for the paper and ink. Too many newspapers were being run by the MBA-types who saw journalism as little different from selling soup – if the demand slacks off, keep the profits high via cutbacks. Many were even taken over by hedge funds and investors who saw them only as cash cows to be milked dry; a must-read is a 2018 article, “This Is How a Newspaper Dies” (the term “harvesting market position” will definitely be on the quiz).
The deeper problem for newspapers is that nobody’s reading them. U.S. circulation is the lowest it’s ever been since they began keeping records in 1940. Why is that? It’s not like we’ve become a sub-literate society; Americans are typically spending over six hours a day online and not all of it is looking at cat videos (I hope). And particularly now in the spring of 2020 we’re news-junkies, with 89% of U.S. adults following the latest about coronavirus closely – only not via newspapers. We’ve given up on newspapers, but as I’ve said for over 25 years: Readers did not give up on newspapers until newspapers abandoned their readers.
The change is apparent simply in the paper’s heft; today’s offerings are scrawny things compared to what we used to read not all that long ago. To the right are the Press Democrat front pages from May 22, 1970 and 2020, both days being a Friday. The text content of the modern edition would have filled less than one-quarter of the earlier page (modern size not to scale – both were the same height). There’s now just not much there there. And keep in mind this is not to pick on the PD; you would see the same devolution in any mid-size U.S. daily.
It may seem surprising but once upon a time newspapers were a primary source of entertainment. Sure, some people cared most about box scores or what stores had on sale, but every edition was packed with lots of other items to amuse, astonish or inform. What’s changed today is summed up in that keyword, lots – if there was nothing to interest you on the current page, turn to the next one, or read the page after that. Today there is no “page after that” because most papers have become little more than broadsheets, and the stuff filling the pages is too often wire service synopsis. In that 1970 edition, Every. Single. News. Page. had one or more local items.
Newspapers also engaged readers with stories that carried on for more than a week. Some of my favorites are BONFIRE OF THE HOODOOS about a political stunt that got out of hand, MR. CONTEST EDITOR IS DISAPPOINTED IN YOU about a subscription drive that drove the town nuts, and THE WORLD ACCORDING TO HOBOES, where the PD’s 19 year-old cub reporter wrote a memorable series on what it was like living as a tramp.
The main element missing isn’t QUANTITY of news, but the QUALITY. Whenever I search old newspapers for particular items about local history I also read (or skim) the rest of those editions as well and I do it for pleasure – a well-written story is always a joy, no matter where you find it.
Papers from the 1950s-1960s are particularly fun because that was the Golden Age of columnists. The San Francisco Chronicle had Stanton Delaplane and Herb Caen; the Argus-Courier offered “peopleologist” Bill Soberanes and Ed Mannion; the Press Democrat served up Gaye LeBaron and Bony Saludes. Those newspapers would do themselves a favor by reprinting selections from those columns. Here’s my personal favorite Gaye LeBaron item:
A small girl-child (eyes at desk-edge level) came into the Children’s Library yesterday and asked librarian Venus Gordon for “The Cat in the Hat, please.”
Receiving her copy she went to a small table, made her self comfortable in one of the short chairs, opened the book and smiled disarmingly up into Mrs. Gordon’s eyes.
“You know, of course,” she said, “I can’t read.” (Aug. 26, 1960)
By reading the entire paper I also stumble across treasures. While researching the 1969 earthquake I found people were saddened because it struck just as a TV show called, “Then Came Bronson” was about to air. A guy later told LeBaron that some group should contact NBC for film of that episode and have a showing at a local theater to raise money for charity. (You can watch that episode, “A Famine Where Abundance Lies” online, but I sure don’t recommend it.)
It turned out the attraction was that the series was created by Denne Petitclerc, who started as a PD staff sports writer in 1950 and became one of the finest crime reporters and feature writers found anywhere – there’s no question in my mind he would have been awarded a Pulitzer if he hadn’t “gone Hollywood.”
Denne Bart Petitclerc wrote for the Press Democrat until 1956 when he left for the Miami Herald, and while here won several journalism awards. As a public speaker he was also in demand and seems to have been an overall popular fellow around Santa Rosa. No wonder that locals wanted to see the show he had developed.
Copyright restrictions block me from providing more than a sample of his works, but all can be read via Newspapers.Com, which is available on computers at the Sonoma County Library. There are dozens more Petitclerc articles like these.
The brown-haired man with the pleasant ruddy face wanders into a grocery store looking for all the world like a painter.
He smiles at the man behind the counter, selects a few items from the shelves, carefully including a box of pablum, “for my baby,” he explains.
He crumples a shopping list in his hand and puts it into the pocket of his paint – smeared overalls. “I guess I haven’t forgotten anything,” he says. “My wife gets plenty sore if I do.”
He chats casually with the grocer while the items are checked, telling, perhaps, of a little piece of property he’d like to buy up by the doctor’s place. “You know the spot.”
Then he calmly explains that he’s new to the community, doing painting for the doctor, “nice fella, Doc.”
He sure is, the grocer agrees, as he is handed a check signed by the doctor. “My pay,” smiles the man. “it sure don’t go far now days. No, sir.”
He endorses it, picks up the change, and the groceries, and walks out, leaving the grocer behind thinking, “there’s a nice young fella.”
And with a bad check.
That is the method of operation of 39-year-old Walter DeMeter, California’s most wanted criminal, who has passed more than $50,000 in forged checks in the state since 1947. And DeMeter may be in Sonoma County today… (Feb. 8, 1954)
They’ll talk about Big Jim Antone and the fight he had with the octopus for a long time.
Big Jim is a bulldozer operator in Santa Rosa for Tom McLain, and a lot of man at 265 pounds.
And his boss, Mr. McLain tells about the way he can stretch a chain around a truck-motor and lift it right off the frame, lifting with his two big arms.
So, Big Jim went abalone fishing yesterday morning at Fort Ross, and got out into the water just after daybreak. It was raining, and the sea was heavy, but that didn’t distrub Jim, who was raised at Jenner-by-the-Sea, and who’s as fine an abalone fisherman as there is anywhere.
He went out along the rocks until the water splashed above his chest – he says that the abalone are bigger out there – and was prying around with his hand for the rough shells attached to the rock.
Then suddenly something that felt like a muscled piece of wire wrapped around his left arm. He pulled back. Another tentacle attached itself to his body. And another. And another.
“I never saw so many arms,” he said later.
The tentacles were as thick as a main’s forearm, and held fast to his body by milky-white suction cups.
Big Jim found it was useless to try to tear them from his arms. There was only one thing to do… (April 6, 1954)
[He pulled the 40 lb. octopus from the rocks and walked to shore with it still wrapped around his body.]
Grady Hayes sat in the darkness in the back of the patrol car and talked in a high-pitched voice and winced when the car hit a bump because of the steel handcuffs that locked his two big arms behind his back.
“I could have chopped you down, easy,” he said, “but I didn’t have no intention of hurtin’ anybody.”
He had, a half hour before, been captured at the Jack Willen ranch, Hot Springs Rd., and now we were driving down the twisting ridge-line towards Highway 101, six miles away. Looking out through the windshield you could see the lights of Geyserville flickering in the distance in the darkness. Hayes was talking to Deputy Cole.
“I was in the brush last night when you came up to that culvert and shouted,” he said thickly, hardly audible, “and you was about four feet away.”
He was wearing a pink wool shirt and grey slacks that were dusty and ripped from the brush, and he had on a tan felt hat that looked as dapper as the day he left San Francisco and came to the remote cabin in the hills 15 miles west of Cloverdale and shot and wounded his estranged wife and two children… (June 2, 1955)
When sheriff’s deputies Fred Muenster and Joe Sweeney dragged the shivering, sad-eyed boy ashore at Bodega Bay last week, he looked for all the world a picture of youthful innocence, lost and confused.
Indeed he did. He said he was lost and hungry end had taken a skiff to a moored boat in the harbor and only taken “a little food” to sustain his life. Yes, indeed he had.
A boy to be pitied and helped. After all, weren’t we all lost boys once? Sure we were.
Out of their own pockets, the officers fed him. Nice boy. They brought him back to the County jail at Santa Rosa, and he warmed himself in an office. He had an uncle in Annapolis. He could go there. He was wandering from Tracy to see his uncle. He was only 18.
Poor chap. “You know,” he said, “my name is pronounced differently in England. Have you ever had anything to do with royalty? I’m it.” He confided with a bearing of dignity. “I’ve got a big inheritance in England. Someday, when I get a stake, I’m going there and claim it.”
Well, he, heh, boys, you know boys with imagination? Sure you do.
“Ever been arrested before?” he was asked.
“Oh, no, sir, never in my whole life. Honestly never…” (Oct. 20, 1955)
[The kid was burglarizing summer homes near Guerneville.]
Another serious author who worked at the Press Democrat 1949-1952 was Frank Herbert, who went on to write the DUNE sci-fi novels. He was a staff writer and photographer, so much of what he turned out was mundane (“Eagles Honor Mrs. Lingron, Mother of 8 Sons, Daughters”) but they sometimes gave him a featured column – complete with portrait! – which could be less predictable.
His strangest contribution to the PD was probably the column titled, “To One Part Verne, Add Galley of Zomb, Drop in Heathcliffe and expect Occidental,” again here excerpted for copyright:
It was a green morning and I woke up to find that my bed had three sides instead of two. The third side was a surrealist extension into the fourth dimension and the minute I stepped onto the floor over that ‘side I knew it would be one of “those” days.
In the first place, my wife found a note in the bottom of the kitchen garbage can which read:
“I can’t live without you.”
It was signed, “Verne.”
We don’t know any Verne. We puzzled over the darned thing for a while and finally decided it was a scrap from a short story one of us had written and thrown away, (with good reason.)…
[They decide to drive to Occidental before dinner.]
…At the west end of Coleman Valley the road began to climb in a series of steeply pitched switchbacks. Up, up, up, it climbed, into the mist. At the top there was wind-whipped fog, a low moaning of wind through brown grass and ghost figures of sheep only dimly seen at the limit of visibility. It looked like a cheap illustration for an Emile Bronte novel. We expected Kathy to come striding over the next rise, shrilling “Heathcliffe! Heathcliffe!”
Thus far, you will note, that since taking that inscrutable turn we had seen no human beings…
…Around us, weird rock shapes rose from the sere grass. The fog-rimmed scene became more and more Brontes-like. We expected to see a “thing” gibbering at us at any moment. And then the road started down. More switchbacks, the fog thinning. Another farmyard, dilapidated buildings and no people. (The last outpost.)
And at the bottom there was sunshine. We gloried in it. There was a car approaching us. We laughed. A human being must be driving it, we said. The car drew closer, slowed; we passed. The driver looked at us. His eyes were red-rimmed, hair straggled down over his forehead, there was a scar along his left cheek. He sped away behind us.
“In heaven’s name, who was that?” my wife asked.
“Heathcliffe,” I said. We drove back to the world of the living . . . and dinner. (Aug. 26, 1950)
In a Sept. 29, 1950 column on L. Ron Hubbard’s book Dianetics (which Herbert thought should be required reading) he compared it to medieval jousting: “…we are still bogged down in the fifth or sixth century A. D. Meanwhile the mind in its perception of its environment plods gaily on, lance in hand, armor buckled, helmet on, visor down. We are the only creatures in the universe with helmets containing visors with built-in mirrors. Pull down the visor and Zoot! You are staring yourself in the eyes.” No, I don’t know what it means, either.
He may have gotten away with some of these things because he wrote a series on nuclear war which the PD sold separately as a popular pamphlet, “Survival and the Atom,” which the paper promised had “all of the facts ‘Mr. Average Civilian’ needs to know to survive in an atomic attack.”
After Herbert left Santa Rosa he later wrote “The Santaroga Barrier,” a novel which takes place in a small California town where residents “appear maddeningly self-satisfied with their quaint, local lifestyle” – although the town as described was actually Ukiah, where he had profiled the newly-opened Masonite plant. (It’s really a terrible book; don’t let your curiosity get the better of you.)
Herbert was never as good a writer as Petitclerc, and it’s doubtful few flipped through the paper looking for what Frank Herbert had to say. But you didn’t open the Press Democrat in the morning just in hopes of reading Petitclerc’s gems; the paper always entertained readers with well-written news stories by its stable of staff writers.
Want to know what’s missing from most papers today? It’s the staff; newsrooms are like the sad last day of the going-out-of-business sale, where only a skeleton crew is sticking around to sell the display cases and that neon “open” sign in the window. According to Pew, newsroom staffing has fallen by half since 2008. That’s why all too often your local newspaper feels like it was produced by office workers filling in a template. Here’s a rewrite of local press releases or what was on the police scanner. Here are enough summaries of national/world news to fill section one. A column by a retired sports writer. Two (three?) big color photos for the front page. Support Local Journalism.
Forget missing out on having a stellar talent such as the likes of Petitclerc; today there’s no reporter here who could match Bony Saludes’ coverage of the 1961 murder spree by a 33 year-old “self-styled hypnotist,” and who along with Dick Torkelson, kept us titillated about the sinful ruttings of Lou Gottlieb and the Morning Star Ranch.
Pete Golis is still on hand as a columnist emeritus, but he was a young go-getter on the Healdsburg beat when he told us in 1966 about three members of a family claiming they had a close encounter with a spaceship. (Too bad Frank Herbert still wasn’t around.) Otto Becker of Alexander Valley said his son and daughter-in-law also saw the 6-story tall “saucer-like” ship which had red and yellow rays pouring off the edges of the saucer “like water.” It made a rhythmic “sput… sput… sput” noise, he said, so he thought at first it might be the old pump on the property. “I’m 73 years old and I’ve seen fireballs back east, but this had motors…it was controlled by some kind of human beings.” Golis told the story as matter-of-fact as if it concerned a herd of stray cows – and you can bet it was the topic everyone talked about later that day around the water cooler.
All that is what we’re set to lose (or in many cases, have already lost). It’s not the physical bundle of newsprint that will be missed; it’s that it represented the best work of a team of crack professionals to create and organize the story of our common selves. Snapping off the rubber band and opening the paper was always the first best part of your morning, even more so because you could always rely on it being there again tomorrow.