Freelance writer Rebecca Fairley Raney worked at the San Bernardino Sun from 1990 to 1997. She later wrote an online column about the Internet for the New York Times, covered online campaigning for the paper and the website, and taught journalism at USC Annenberg.
I grew up in a place that was not safe, but it was not dangerous in the same way as San Bernardino. Where I grew up, the dangers were personal and palpable. You knew who to look out for. In San Bernardino, the dangers weren't personal, and they were all the more frightening because of it.
I worked at the Sun in downtown San Bernardino for seven years, and I'm intrigued by the news that the owners of the paper are moving the offices back to downtown.
It's hard to predict the effects of any action on a newspaper, but I can say this: When you go to work in a city that is dark and dangerous, you get a little jumpy. Reporters and editors can become increasingly vicious and crazy. Another thing: Your reporters will not be immune to the truth about the community. And you need to be prepared for the consequences.
I certainly wasn't.
I worked there during the economic crash of the 1990s. I covered the crash, with the lost jobs, the bad mortgages and the declining neighborhoods that came with it. The leaders of that city were not amused. Each year, I worked to be the first reporter to calculate just how high San Bernardino would be on the list of top 10 most dangerous cities in America.
It was worth running the numbers; we came in higher than Detroit! I covered the way the police department changed the way they counted certain crimes, and how the rankings improved.
In the 1970s, San Bernardino was named an All-America City by the National Civic League. It's a real honor, and it goes to places that are really nice. By the mid-1990s, the city had lost its big three employers: Norton Air Force Base, Kaiser Steel and the Santa Fe railroad. Nothing came to replace them.
It was horrifying, really, how quickly the city turned bad. In 10 years, San Bernardino took a dive that has taken 30 years for other cities to experience. For community boosters, it was hard to blame the executives of absentee corporations who shut down the plants. It was hard to blame the city leaders who had approved so much low-income housing in better times.
But it was very easy to blame the newspaper that brings you the endless news about children getting gunned down in the parks, country club neighborhoods losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in value, and the troubling details of the latest shady redevelopment deal.
During the housing boom of the '80s, bad mortgages were made, even in good neighborhoods. Lots of foreclosures followed. I wrote about the mortgages and the foreclosures and the code enforcement complaints, and at one point someone in the newspaper's real estate advertising department left a vaguely threatening message on my voice mail.
To me, that was a whole lot scarier than walking to my car at night.
But walking to the car was no walk in the park.
I remember the paper's security guard, white-haired and red-faced and pleasant. He was able to walk, but you could tell, on some evenings, that the walking really hurt him. Since speed was a component in safety on those streets, it seemed only fair to ask him to just stand outside the guard station and watch, rather than to pain himself by walking all that way.
Part of the problem, too, was my concern for the security guard's safety. In those days, I was 92 pounds and exhausted. (Don't hate me for it; I'm not that thin anymore.) I thought that if something bad happened, I might be able to protect him. But I wasn't sure.
The newspaper was right in the center of town, in walking distance to City Hall, the police station and the county courthouse. The sidewalks in the morning were covered with trash and puke and other stuff. It always smelled like smog and beer. In the early days, when I went out to the sidewalk to smoke, the people on the street would ask for a cigarette. As the economy got worse, they would ask for the shorts off yours.
I wasn't really scared there, but I stayed hyper-alert.
There's perhaps something inherently dangerous about thinking out loud about why you've been safe on the street. In these things, it pays to be superstitious.
The poison on the outside of the building had seeped into the inside, and the duress of being under siege at work brought out the worst in almost everyone.
Outside the building, I had a sense of certainty that no matter what was around the corner, I was probably the angriest person on the block. And if that was true, then I was probably pretty safe.
It's hard for me to assess whether the Sun changed when its new owners moved it to a business park in the foothills north of town. It's hard to make a fair evaluation of a newspaper that was once the center of my life. It's a different paper now, with different owners and different employees. I don't know if, in the new building, people jump whenever someone walks up behind them. But when we worked downtown, we certainly did.
I would venture that only the copy editors seemed to have been spared from the signs of PTSD.
By virtue of working downtown, and hearing the gunfire, and not having to go very far to collect the facts on some of the most horrible things any of us would ever see, we were fully immersed in the dark pool of a dangerous city. If your reporters have only dipped their toes into that pool, and have only gone into the neighborhoods after the police were already there, then they will change when they move downtown. They will become hyper-alert. They will have a harder time buying the idea that the crime isn't all that bad because the numbers weren't tallied right.
They might start doing work that really pisses off the authorities. The editors might have to take more of those difficult phone calls.
One of the great achievements of my career was that I left the Sun of my own volition, and the executive editor at the time was kind enough to tell me that he wanted me to stay.
But shortly before that day came, I was treated to a quintessential San Bernardino experience. Just about everyone who worked there in those days has this kind of story; this one is my favorite.
It was well after 11 o'clock, and there were only me and a couple of copy editors left in the newsroom. At the time, the police desk was in front of the one big window in the newsroom that looked out over D Street.
I was getting ready to leave. I glanced out the window and saw some guys in the parking lot with baseball bats. They were hovering over one of the cars.
"Rick?" I said to one of the copy editors. "What kind of car do you drive?"
He looked up, and he put it together. "No! Not my car!"
He jumped up and ran out the door. The other copy editor ran out too.
"Uh, you guys probably don't want to go out there," I said, as I was calling 911. "Uh, those guys have clubs. They probably have guns."
The copy editors, wan and pale as they were, ran out after the bad guys. Copy editors!
I didn't go out there. I knew the law of the jungle was not on my side.
So I watched as the two guys, just up from their paginators, chased down armed men in the parking lot.
Much to my surprise, they scared them off.
And I am pleased to report that though the car was badly damaged, the copy editors came out fine.