Of all the stupidities committed by the new owners of the Los Angeles Times, the dumping of Al Martinez is one of worst.
A newspaper is supposed to reach out to its readers. Al has that unique gift. Even after ignorant editors exiled him far to the rear of feature sections, he retained his big and loyal following.
When he donated his papers to the Huntington, the large auditorium was packed. Afterwards, the line to meet him and get a book signed was so long that I gave up. I apologized to him for not waiting, and said I would buy one for him to autograph. He sent me a copy, signed.
It is like that at every Martinez signing, as Kevin Roderick noted. The people come because Al makes a connection with them. They feel he is their friend—and he is. He understands that simple truth about newspapers. The new owners can take all the surveys they want. They will never know as much about readers as Al does—and always did.
My wife, Nancy, and I have been friends with Al and his wife, Joanne (aka Cinelli) for about 50 years
We met at the Oakland Tribune. I was slowly transitioning from copy boy to reporter and Al was newly hired from the Richmond Independent. He quickly became a hot shot on a staff full of them. Al claimed I used to fetch him coffee, but I don’t remember that part.
We labored away under the leadership of our great city editor, Al Reck, and the tyranny of the managing editor, Stanley Norton, a fierce man whose voice had been ruined by his habit of screaming at reporters. One day, several of us were waiting outside Mr. Norton’s office for his tirade, administered to us individually. I remarked to Al that I didn’t mind getting bawled out but I hated to wait in line for it.
Such abuse brought us all close together at work and at the bar across the street, the Hollow Leg. Later Al became a columnist at the Tribune, immensely popular with the readers. The publisher, William F. Knowland, a former right wing senator, didn’t like Al’s liberal political views and took his column away. That’s when he started to look around for another place to work.
Al is not a person who backs down. When he was a Marine in combat in Korea, he ran afoul of a superior. “What are you going to do?” said Al. “Send me to Korea?”
A few of us Tribune veterans had migrated to the Times. We touted Al to Bill Thomas, then the metro editor, who hired him. Al went from general assignment reporter to star feature writer and finally to columnist.
The current buyouts were not mandated to improve the paper. Improvement has nothing to do with it. These are the actions of frightened Tribune executives trying to cut spending to look good so that Sam Zell, the next new owner, won’t fire them. They are short timers, these executives. They don’t care about the paper’s past or its future, except for the immediate bottom line.
Al is the best known of the buyout targets. Other talented people have been forced out . Some were veterans and others in mid career. Management has cut out the guts of the paper and the readers will suffer.