Ticking Away an Era

September 17, 2008 at 11:13 pm

First published SATURDAY, JUNE 28, 2008

      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.