My Herald Examiner days


I had just accepted a job offer from the Los Angeles Herald Examiner to become an editorial writer and op-ed columnist when I realized I might be making a terrible mistake.

It was late in the day on January 22, 1987 when I left the office after a promising first interview. On my way to my car, I spotted a Herald newsrack featuring the paper's "afternoon wrap," which was the morning edition with an added four-page wraparound section for late-breaking news. On the front page above the fold was a story about R. Budd Dwyer, the Pennsylvania state treasurer. That morning, a day before he was scheduled to be sentenced to prison on bribery related convictions, Dwyer held a press conference to proclaim his innocence--and then pulled out a Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum and blew his brains out in front of the stunned reporters. The Herald fronted a pair of photos: the first showed Dwyer brandishing the weapon; the second, with the gun in his mouth pulling the trigger.

This was not what I thought I was signing up for.

My previous job had been writing editorials and producing documentaries for a radio station whose owners considered public service programming not just a ruse to keep their license, but a solemn obligation. Its sleek and modern Hollywood offices looked more like an insurance firm than a typical radio station.

The Herald, by contrast, was located at the bottom of downtown, in more ways than one. Its once-splendid 1913 Julia Morgan-designed Mission Revival building had gone to seed, the ground-floor arched windows long-since covered over as a result of vandalism during the punishing 1967-1977 strike. Its beautiful lobby and graceful staircase to the second-floor newsroom were virtually all that was left of the original interior; the rest looked like a cheap 1950s-era retrofit.

Still, after a second interview with the editor-in-chief, I took the job. It would be the first and last newspaper I would ever work for. The Herald was already ailing when I joined, and for the nearly three years I was there, it was on life support. The final six months were like a prolonged death rattle, and after a few feeble attempts to rally, on November 2, 1989, it gave a last gasp and expired.

Thirty years ago this week, at the age of 86, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner died. It wasn't easy, but those Herald days were some of the most fun and rewarding experiences in my career.

Let me tell you why.

I was hired by an editorial page editor five years my junior--lucky for me, because a more senior editor never would have taken a chance on a radio guy with no print experience. Was it innovative out-of-the-box thinking, or sheer desperation? Either way, it was my lucky break. As a distant second to the Times in circulation and advertising, the Herald had nothing to lose, and could afford to gamble. Long shots, after all, were all it had left.

Every morning our editorial page staff would meet, and as our editor barked out "OK, what have you got?" we frantically riffed on our underdeveloped ideas. I'd offer, "I think we need to do something about the Israeli settlements," and the editor would fire back,"OK, what are we going to say? Land for peace?" I'd be thinking, "Middle East peace plan? Yeah, 600 words ought to do it."

We each churned out 4-6 editorials a week, with a punishing deadline of 2 p.m. The writing process itself only added to the pressure. Where my radio station had spoiled me with my own IBM PC, our overworked Coyote network at the Herald often crashed--invariably around deadline--and you could hear the cursing and shouts of desperation wafting up from the newsroom one floor below us.

Now and then, I had an eerie reminder of what it meant to be part of "legacy" news organization. There was mysterious pile of several hundred dust-covered Underwood manual typewriters in an otherwise empty office nearby. Once I found a ruler in my desk with the name "Ribicoff" inked on it, and realized with a start it had once belonged to Sarai Ribicoff, an editorial writer who had preceded me. A Phi Beta Kappa Yale graduate and niece of Connecticut Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, Sarai had been shot and killed in a street robbery near her Venice apartment seven years earlier; she was just 23.

I also learned about "the power of the press," and the reality checks about that power. In 1988, County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, first elected to the Board of Supervisors when Harry S Truman was still president, ran for reelection to a 10th term, despite a debilitating stroke that had severely limited his effectiveness. His district was roughly 70% people of color, and we thought it was time for a younger, healthier candidate, so we endorsed his long-shot challenger, the mayor of Carson and an African-American. A furious Hahn told the Times in an interview that he wasn't about to let the Herald run him out of office--and he didn't, an ailing white man in a heavily minority district still winning reelection with 85% of the vote.

We also notched a few David-and-Goliath wins that year. We were one of the only outlets to endorse Prop. 103, sponsored by a protégé of Ralph Nader and considered the most radical of five competing insurance-related measures on the ballot, three of them sponsored by the insurance industry. Voters approved 103 and rejected the others; last year, a study by the Consumer Federation of America found that California drivers have saved themselves $154 billion in premiums over the past 30 years.

That same election, we also stood nearly alone in opposing Armand Hammer's Occidental Petroleum scheme to operate slant-drilling coastal oil platforms at the base of the Pacific Palisades cliffs. Mayor Tom Bradley, the LA Times, most of the heavy-hitting consultants and lobbyists, and nearly the whole political establishment lined up with Oxy to push the drilling plan. Mayor Tom sent in Mickey Kantor and his delegation to lobby for our editorial endorsement. Kantor, a longtime Westsider himself, railed against supposedly greedy Westside homeowners who were depriving the city's communities of color of public services funded by oil revenues, just to protect their wealthy enclaves.

They failed. We wrote a full column Sunday editorial against the plan, endorsing instead Councilmembers Zev Yaroslavsky and Marvin Braude's initiative to protect the coast. Hammer pulled his ads from the paper and personally called the Hearst CEO in New York to clip our wings. But even though the Herald was losing millions every month, the CEO told him to take hike. The public stood with us and defeated the drilling plan, Zev personally called to thank us and to say how much the Herald's editorial support had meant to their underdog campaign.

But by the spring of 1989, the string was running out. When our union contract came up, Hearst gave us a first and last best offer, telling us that if we didn't accept it they'd shut the paper. Our negotiating committee wanted to accept it, but many of the reporters wanted to stand and fight. After an incredibly bitter all-day union meeting at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, we voted to authorize another strike.

Things were by then so stressful that I was almost continuously playing my cassette of Pete Seeger and Utah Phillips labor songs just to lift my sagging spirits. But before anything else happened, our negotiators caved and accepted the Hearst offer. Then we learned that Hearst had been lying to us across the bargaining table the whole time and was secretly negotiating to sell the paper. In response, our union filed an unfair labor charge with the National Labor Relations Board--but then quietly withdrew it without explanation. The reporters were so upset with the union that our shop steward quit--so one night after work over drinks at Corky's, the dive bar across the street, I found myself drafted to become the new shop steward.

For the next six months, I advocated for my members and represented them at grievance hearings. I think I may have saved one or two jobs. But the union and its contract were ultimately of no use. Rumors of a possible sale--or imminent closure--hung in the air like circling vultures; we were practically delirious with anxiety and exhaustion. Then, on Halloween, I got a call from a friend at the LA Times. Had I heard that the Hearst brass were in town, huddling in a downtown hotel? Something about a big announcement. On behalf of my members, I asked our local management about it. They claimed to know nothing.

The next day, November 1, the Herald's editor sent word that there was to be an all-hands-on-deck meeting in the newsroom that afternoon. We knew this was it. As we all gathered anxiously, Hearst newspaper division chief Robert Danzig, in a scene straight out of a movie, stood on a desk and grimly announced that they were closing the paper and that the next day's edition would be the Herald's last edition. Tears of sorrow, tears of relief--and then we trooped back to our computer terminals to write our final copy. We spent the next day cleaning out our desks, fielding condolence calls, and raiding the morgue for the clips we hoped would see us into our next journalism job. KTLA interviewed me as I was boxing up all my stuff. "What are your plans?" the reporter asked. I answered, "I don't have any idea."

As it turned out, I was one of the lucky ones. I was recruited again, this time to join a political staff as a press deputy. And that's where I stayed for the next 26 years, as the journalism world as I had known it collapsed entirely.

There have been many times when I mourned the loss of my journalism career, but very few times when I regretted my decision to leave it behind. The Times circulation peaked the year after the Herald closed, and it's been an accelerating slide ever since.

Yet I would not have traded my Herald days for anything. My tenure there was relatively brief, but it completely changed my life. I made some lifelong friends, I did work that I'm proud of, and occasionally, somebody even still remembers me.

For all of its final decade, the Herald was fighting a losing war--with changing public taste, with technology, with the economy, with time itself. On November 2, we survivors will gather for an informal 30th anniversary reunion, and I'm reminded of the famous lines from Shakespeare's "Henry V," as the king exhorts his men into the final momentous, glorious battle of Agincourt:

"From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here..."

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