August 3 - August 9, 1995

History Lesson

B y  J e f f  S m i t h 


IT WAS NINETEEN hundred and sixty-eight, prehistory as far as most of you are concerned, and the world was a different sort of place. Not kinder, not gentler, not slower nor more leisurely--for that you'd have to go back another hundred years--but less complicated in certain respects.

I was alive back then, in fact I was 22 years old and had just gone to work for The Arizona Daily Star. I remember going in to see Frank Johnson, the managing editor, and reminding him of the times 12 years earlier when he was city editor and Vic Thornton was managing editor and Vic's kid, Donald, was my best friend and we used to hang around the newsroom and run up on the roof to check the rain gauge, and spit down on the sidewalk along Stone Avenue. Oh, and my brother, Dave, worked at the Star back then too. He was in college and worked a 50-hour-week part-time job at the paper, for peanuts.

The point of all this nostalgic chitchat was to hit Frank up for a job. He nodded and handed me an application and pointed to a typewriter outside of his glass-walled office and said to fill it out. I was a hunt 'n' pecker back then and it took me a half hour to get it done. I took it back to Frank and he read the part where I owned up to a couple of nights in jail for underage drinking, and he said Tony VonIsser wouldn't like that so fill out a fresh one and forget about the jail time. At that point I'd rather have spent the rest of my life unemployed than have to sweat through that typing job again, but Frank didn't sound like it was an option. He said my brother had turned out to be literate, so maybe there was something genetic in the family and he hired me on the spot.

"Three months from now if we don't like you we'll fire you. If you don't like us, you can quit. It's a hundred and twenty a week, before taxes." Thus spake Mr. Johnson.

The Star and the Citizen were housed together, along with all the ad departments and the composing room and the presses and the newsprint and all the variegated stuff it took to put out two daily newspapers, in a building the size of an average mortuary, at 208 N. Stone Ave. The alley behind 208 N. Stone was about three inches wider than my shoulders, and yet the circulation drivers and newsprint deliverers horsed their trucks in and out of there, four editions a day. We hadn't even heard of computers or cathode ray tubes or fax machines or photo offset printing, and you know what? Our deadlines were later and still the papers got delivered earlier than they do today, after all the labor-saving improvements of the Great Technological Revolution.

Ah, but you say, That was back in the antediluvian period when but a handful of doughty souls braved the hostile desert. Newspapers then must have been scarcely better read than the old Tombstone Epitaph. Think again. The Tucson Citizen today has little more than half the daily circulation in had at its peak before moving to South Park Avenue and Irvington Road.

Nope, say what you will about progress, economies of scale, quantum leaps in technology, labor-saving devices and globe-shrinking communications, by every measurable standard our news media circa 1968 provided better coverage, in greater depth, reported and written by more knowledgeable news gatherers, and got it to you sooner.


Because both papers were owned by Tucson families with generations of roots in the community, and broad circles of friends and business associates to answer to. Admittedly this sometimes tended to taint editorial views toward the biases of these families and their various circles of cronies, but it did keep the worker bees buzzing. Today, with out-of-town ownership of both daily papers the bottom line is the bottom line. Meaning the motive is profit.

Staff sizes--per capita, in the instance of the Star, and in actual body-count at the Citizen--have shrunk in the past almost-three decades. Dependence on second- and third-rate wire and syndicate copy has risen. So has the fluff factor. So too--and this is the most maddening for those of us who endured the whims of ex-publishers' heirs and ancestors--has the dominion of the local business community.

The Chamber of Commerce mentality has invaded the newsrooms, not by the backdoor through the advertising department, but via the front office. Gannett and its mercenary publishers in particular have invited the local business bull geese to cozy up on the leatherette couches in front of the E&P desks and asked What can we do to make the news a more uplifting medium for your message?

But that's not what I really wanted to talk about today. What's actually on my mind is this ludicrously expensive computer I bought two weeks ago, and how thus far it has only stymied me in my quest to serve the needs of you, my reader(s). I know I did a similar bleat two issues back, but hell, it hasn't gotten any better. Theoretically I can read The Weekly, the Star, the Library of Congress and the Rosetta Stone, without having to get out of bed in the morning. At my fingertips, via this computer keyboard, I am supposed to be linked with every other literate being on the planet. In nanoseconds.

Then how come I have not been able to read a published paragraph, contact another living soul, or even hear the ring of my own telephone, for the better part of a week? Damn, there was a young lady who'd been trying to call me to set up an afternoon of drunken debauchery, but every time she rang my number my computer or my fax machine or some resident gnome within the works set up this shrieking in her ear and refused to ring my phone. She finally got through one morning when I pitched a fit and unplugged every electrical gadget in the house. When I dial in to connect with the Internet, as soon as I get on the World Wide Web, the frigging modem hangs up and doesn't tell me.

I'm surfing in a waveless environment: your basic day at the beach, without an ocean. Picture yourself 20 miles west of Yuma for the rest of your life, no canteen, no umbrella, and you can approach understanding how I feel.

I know it's going to get better. I know that Wil and Doug and Dan and Jim and all the boys and girls at Circuit City are not going to see my $3,700 flushed down the loo. They know how irascible I can be when my panties get bunched.

But Jesus it was simpler when I had a typewriter and paper, and if the whole world went to shit...

...there was the pencil.

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August 3 - August 9, 1995

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