Last week, a friend sent an email titled “Why I still read newspapers.” I expected a pithy essay on the importance of newspapers in a digital age.
Instead, what I got were photos of quirky headlines clipped from newspapers: “Federal agents raid gun shop: Find weapons,” “Cow urine makes for juicy lemonade” and “Homeless survive winter: Now what?”
Although I couldn’t help chuckling, I think there are other reasons for subscribing to old-fashioned newspapers. They do have their uses, after all. Pack boxes with them when you’re moving. Toss them on the floor to soak up spilled milk. Sprinkle them with vinegar and use them to clean mirrors.
Hell, they’re even great for kids’ papier-mâché projects.
But what makes me sad is that the younger generation doesn’t read newspapers — especially the newsprint variety. That thought came home to me last month when I joined former Oakland Tribune colleagues for a tour of the old Tribune Tower, where I worked in the features department from 1980 to 1992. The newsroom is now home to a call center. The old circulation department is now the site of a sleek gastropub called Tribune Tavern. The presses are gone.
In October 1992, the managing editor called us into the newsroom for a grim announcement. The Tribune, hemorrhaging for years, was being sold to a newspaper conglomerate. I had just sold my home, following a divorce. Now the condo I was ready to close on was out of financial reach. Soon, I was out of a job. Bemoaning my fate, I told people I was “50, homeless, single and unemployed.”
Although I lost that condo, it didn’t take me long to find another job, but it wasn’t a match. My boss said I didn’t understand “corporate culture,” that I viewed the work through a journalist’s eyes, as an outsider. Fortunately, I found a place where journalists and outsiders fit in: the Jewish Bulletin, the forerunner of J. Soon I bought a different condo, which I sold after marrying a man I met through the Bulletin’s Such-a-Match ads. We’ll celebrate our 15th anniversary in February.
So I owe a lot to J., which is one reason I’m back after retiring in 2005, and I love this industry.
I’m one of the lucky ones. At lunch in the Tribune Tavern, I sat next to the sole remaining Tribune reporter from the old days. Meanwhile, the entity that bought the Tribune is owned in part by a media management company that likes to put newspapers on the chopping block and sell the real estate.
Tom Henderson, a third-generation Oaklander, is also one of the lucky ones. Three years ago, he bought the Tribune Tower for $8 million in a foreclosure sale. Now he’s putting millions into remodeling, with the help of overseas investors. He graciously led us old-timers on a tour, pointing out what had changed, what had not. The 1924 clock tower, reportedly modeled after the campanile of Venice’s San Marco Basilica, still stands. But the newsroom was unrecognizable in its freshly painted incarnation as a call center. The place was too clean.
For years, when I saw the Tribune clock on the skyline as I drove along Interstate 880, my eyes would tear up. At the time, I was crying for me — for a lost career, for remembrances of the days when I interviewed the famous and the infamous.
Although I held a number of positions, my favorite was the “nuts-and-sluts” beat. I loved interviewing quirky celebrities. Among them: Andy Warhol’s superstar Ultra Violet, who arrived at the Tribune in an unpleasantly aromatic violet gown; the Scarlot Harlot (aka Carol Leigh, a Jewish girl from New York), a filmmaker and activist who coined the term “sex worker”; and Barry Minkow, whose immensely successful carpet-cleaning business turned out to be a Ponzi scheme. Born Jewish, he converted to Christianity in prison, became a minister and fraud investigator, and is now in prison again — for insider trading and defrauding his own church.
Today I rarely write about nuts, sluts or infamous Jews, but I’m glad to be back in the business. Yet the shrinking of the daily newspapers where I once worked saddens me, and it’s not just personal. When our teenage grandson comes over, he devours the newspapers, grilling us about what’s going on in the world. Try having those conversations with people who don’t read. It’s a greater loss than we realize.