Garchik and Close are wearing particularly colorful, loud outfits in an art gallery
Leah Garchik with artist Chuck Close at reopening of SFMOMA in April 2016 (Photo/Courtesy San Francisco Chronicle)

Q&A: This longtime Chronicle columnist remembers newsrooms of yore

Name: Leah Garchik
Age: 71
City: San Francisco
Position: Columnist, San Francisco Chronicle
sfchronicle.com/author/leah-garchik

J.: Your first job at the Chronicle in 1972 was as a part-time, temporary steno clerk. You rose through the organization to a writing job, starting with book reviews. In 1984, you were given a column, and you’ve been writing about people and places in the Bay Area ever since. How has journalism changed over the years?

Leah Garchik: The ways and means of journalism have totally changed, everything about it, from the way it’s done to how it’s perceived to how journalists are viewed. In previous eras, we were the cool kids, the envy of others, because we got to hear the news first. Now everybody gets the news at the same time.

Do you still read print versions of newspapers?

At work during the day now, I’m often flipping through the Chronicle and the New York Times and [looking at] other online sites to see what that man in Washington, D.C., is doing, so I go home a lot more savvy about the day’s news than I did a year ago. The next morning, I still sit down and read the Chronicle and the Times. I want to see the stories again, in print.

What about the evolution of technology?

Technology has changed the level of facility. My first day at work, I asked the office manager for an eraser. At the time, erasers were circular disks with a green brush attached. The brush on the eraser he gave me was bent. Yet on those occasions now when I write about people in tech, it amuses me that they ask which day the piece will be in the paper. They want print copies.

What else has changed?

The demographics. Today there are many, many more women in the newsroom. Also, in olden times, everybody sat at wooden desks in a big room and we all did everything for ourselves. Then we saw an era when we had more managers, more administrators, and some glass-walled offices went up. We had assistants, and we had memo pads with “From the desk of” at the top, with our names on them. With financial cutbacks, all that’s gone now, except the glass-walled offices.

Have journalists changed?

Sartorially, they have. But their mood is always grumpy. That’s part of the profession.

Are you grumpy or cynical?

I am a pretty optimistic person. That’s my response to the world in general. And I still drop any skepticism when I see a wonderful performance or hear beautiful music. Some young writers just starting out — though this does not apply to news reporters, of course — find it’s easy to make a mark by being snarky.

You have said in past interviews that you don’t want to be snarky.

I do not. Still, I am not pulling any punches about the current [Trump] administration. I am free to express myself in the column. I wear a cloak of manners as a writer, and do not pound my fist on a table — but my point of view is there.

You grew up Jewish in Brooklyn and you and your husband, Jerry, have lived in the Haight-Ashbury and been members of San Francisco Congregation Beth Sholom for 43 years. How does your faith influence your life?

I believe in Jewish values and I try to live by them, though probably not in a way that would have pleased my grandparents. My grandfather helped found an Orthodox synagogue. I always say I am a vegetarian, but I don’t think God cares what I eat.

Early on, you made a decision not to care about dressing competitively when you attend gala events or take part in special occasions. How does that feel?

I get to choose what I do, and I have really great experiences that have nothing to do with dressing like the fancy people. I’ve been to the Oscars, the World Series, elegant dinners and theater openings. I’ve met two presidents — Nixon and Clinton. One evening, I attended back-to-back events where I met the Dalai Lama and Prince Charles. It’s just fun to participate in the throbbing life of the city.

Based on your column, you do seem to go everywhere and do everything most nights of the week. Will you keep it up?

My life is pretty hectic, but I have a good time. I love going on vacation, but when I come back and sit at my desk, I remember how much I like to play with words. My job also feeds my curiosity, lets me ask questions. I’ve been really lucky. I can’t believe I got to make a whole career out of what I love to do.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to sueb@jweekly.com.

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.