By Susan LaTempa
It feels to a lot of readers--and journalists--that we've lived through unusually turbulent times at Los Angeles newspapers in recent years, with the shape-shifting but ever-beset L.A. Times typically at the center of the story.
But if you step back for an historic perspective, you'll find that 'twas ever thus for L.A. journalism--and then some.
From their start in the early 1850s, local newspapers--and/or their owners, publishers, and editors--came and went as frequently as other get-ahead schemes. Newspapers were aligned with political parties. Editors ran for office, castigated their competitors in print, and sought printing business from government agencies.
As editor for "Paperback L.A.," the "casual anthology" series from Prospect Park Books, I've been poking around the increasingly accessible archives of early Los Angeles newspapers, including The Star/La Estrella and The Los Angeles Daily Herald, from which I drew excerpts for the books. I'm not a historian, but I've been a newspaper and magazine staff writer and editor, so I read those old columns of newsprint with sympathy and, it turns out, some envy.
If you ask me, L.A.'s first fifty years of newspapering, before yellow journalism was even invented, were way more colorful than its last fifty years.
Editors Put the Passion in Passionate
For example, I've seen nothing in modern times like the exchange of invective in print that led to a gun battle in the streets, which happened in 1879 between Joseph Lynch, editor of the Herald, and William Spaulding, acting editor of the Evening Express. The issue was the influence of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company on politics; Lynch had described Spaulding as a "pismire," or ant, "of a dog-like and snarling temper." Spaulding later wrote that both of them missed all their shots. "As I continued to fire, I advanced, and when the fracas was over, I was standing in the middle of the street, and he was in the barber shop." The feud didn't go on forever: Their newspapers were merged by Hearst in 1931.
You Think You Have a Communications Problem?
The 1850s and '60s were get-a-foothold time for journalists in our small town surrounded by cattle ranches and vineyards, isolated, until 1860, by the lack of telegraph communications. There was little local news except for crime and vigilante reports. Newsgathering tactics included getting your buddies to write letters from their camping trips and scissoring news out of other papers. San Francisco and East Coast publications were happy to exchange issues for reciprocal re-use, but, according to an early Star editor, news took "from two to six weeks and in one instance fifty-two days" to arrive.
Things had improved with the arrival of the telegraph, but what's that notice on Page 2 of the first issue of the new Daily Herald? (Page 2 carried the breaking news, with the pride of place on Page 1 going to poetry and advertisements.) It seems that editor/publisher Charles A. Storke wasn't having a good day: The (actual) wires were down, and there was no news.
Poetry Was Actually Popular
Poetry and politics were the pillars of editorial content in L.A.'s early newspapers. Various papers actively advocated for Whigs, Democrats (and their subgroups, including Copperheads and Chivalry Democrats), even those pesky pro-abolition Republicans--but poetry was something everyone could appreciate. It held sway until the strategy of covering agriculture news became a turn-of-the century winner for the Los Angeles Weekly Herald. Poetry's local queen, Josephine Smith, signed herself "Ina" and was later (by then named Ina Donna Coolbrith) designated poet laureate by the state legislature.
Multiculturalism: the Old Normal
The Star/La Estrella, a weekly, was L.A.'s first newspaper, begun by and for newly dominant Americans in 1851, and it was bilingual from the start. La Crónica, a Spanish-language paper from 1872-92, started as a weekly and became a semi-weekly. By the late 1870s, there were also German- and French-language newspapers; by 1910, Japanese, Swedish, and Slavic. The California Owl, targeting African American readers, was founded in 1897 (later becoming The Eagle); the Bnai Brith Messenger began the same year (named Emanu-El at first) for the large Jewish community. William Spaulding recalled that weekly City Council meetings, with all discussion translated into the three languages (Spanish, English, French) spoken by the various councilmen, were so long and repetitive he could have his copy "ready to turn in to the printer, subheds and all, as soon as I reached the office."
We should know a lot more than we do about Francisco Ramírez, a trilingual (English, Spanish, French) fourteen-year-old Californio who worked for a year as compositor and translator when The Star/La Estrella began, then returned to L.A. after schooling to found the Spanish-language El Clamor Público at age seventeen. El Clamor incorporated occasional English sections and, for a while, a regular French page. Ramirez was an ardent Republican who railed against the (widely prevalent) lynching of Mexicans. He ran for state senator in 1863, losing to Star editor Henry Hamilton. Hamilton, an Irish immigrant, was known for colorful partisan editorials that bitterly opposed Lincoln. Under him, the Star was excluded from the U.S. mails for a year in 1862 because it had been used "for the purpose of overthrowing the government of the U.S." A few months later, he was arrested, held for ten days, and released after taking a loyalty oath. He continued his anti-administration editorials and took his views to the state legislature.
Big Personalities on the Left
E.W. Scripps, the founder of the Los Angeles Record, the evening penny paper aimed at working-class readers, was a self-described "Damned Old Crank" who portrayed himself as an accidental capitalist but attracted a talented and energetic band of idealist-journalists, including Rueben W. Borough. As Borough remembered about his years there before WWI, "We were for civil liberties and we fought tooth and nail against every effort to prevent equal justice to racial and political minorities. We defended the Wobblies. A Wobbly was pretty hard to defend in a legal action, but he was entitled to defense and he got it." Even further to the left was Ricardo Flores Magón, a Mexican revolutionary born in Oaxaca who, beginning in 1910, published his banned anti-Diaz newspaper, Regeneración, from L.A. for several years in between stints in U.S. jails for advocating the abolishment of private property, along with other offenses.
A Real Newspaper Town
By the beginning of the 20th century, L.A. was a real newspaper town, with another four papers--The Times, The Evening Express, The Evening Herald, and The Examiner--joining the larger-circulation survivors from the first fifty years. The fraught commercial strategy of selling papers through sensationalized politics was updated to include some Hollywood spice.
And now here we are--online, evolved far beyond divisive debates because we have so many choices. Ignoring innuendo and and demagogic leaders because we are so well informed. Right? Right?
Susan LaTempa is the editor of the newly released Paperback L.A. Book 2: Studios, Salesmen, Shrines, Surfspots, and its predecessor, Paperback L.A. Book 1: Clothes, Coffee, Crushes, Crimes. The series features works by a broadly diverse roster that includes Eve Babitz, Chester Himes, Vin Scully, Lisa See, Jonathan Gold, Susan Sontag, Harry Shearer, Ray Bradbury, Naomi Hirahara, Hector Tobar, and many more.