The newsroom of the Stockton Record was always humming in the seventies before computers and sound-dampening cubicles quieted the scene. The hum came from the simultaneous clacking of 30 or 40 IBM Selectric typewriters at various hunt-and-peck speeds combined with actual telephones with rotary dials ringing on some desks while at others the handsets were cradled on shoulders as reporters spoke, listened and took notes on wood pulp paper, soon to be converted to copy for editors to massage into deadline stories.
There were also editors conferring with or assigning stories to reporters, and story sources being interviewed at reporters’ desks. Copy clerks (University of the Pacific student interns mostly) were busy tearing wire stories from the rolls of paper streaming from teletype machines constantly so noisy they were sequestered in their own separate room, then running — not walking – piles of national and international stories to editors for them to sort and prioritize.
The newsroom was scented with the faint aroma of coffee cooling in ancient stained cups on World War II era battleship-gray metal desks. Hugh Wright, our courthouse beat reporter, while on his break from covering trials, visited the photo lab regularly with his steaming cup of coffee to regale me with the latest lawyer jokes while I was making prints in the darkroom. But did he ever bring me a cup? No, but his jokes were funny and brightened my day so I didn’t mind.
All this and more was going on at once in a cavernous room long before computers and sound-dampening cubicles toned it down. Fusing together, this hum of discordant harmonies formed the sweet, almost musical sound that’s never heard in today’s journalistic deserts. We didn’t know it then, but this was an analog atmosphere that would be gone forever in the not-too-distant future. First, computers took the place of the reporters’ Selectrics, and later still, the dissemination of the printed product combined with online distribution. Then came advertising and circulation revenue challenges causing rapidly diminishing staffs with many newspapers finally giving up and closing. Some even scrapped the print version altogether in favor of the digital model. Not just in Stockton but industry wide and the connection to the community prized by many readers began to fray and weaken with limited local coverage.
The Stockton Record has survived where many have not. But that once-humming newsroom of somewhere north of 70 people has dwindled to fewer than a dozen, last I heard. Could be fewer by now. Their headquarters once occupying two downtown city blocks has been sold and they now rent much smaller offices. Sadly, the physical product now has only a few local stories, on some days none, being replaced by wire copy from national feeds.
The golden era of the humming metropolitan daily newspaper’s editorial newsroom is but a fond memory. Those cacophonous newsrooms of old are mere whispers of their once essential selves. The Record’s newsroom had a large enough staff to report on community events and tragic events and school districts and restaurant reviews and live theater reviews and court trials and film reviews and county government and city government and state government and high school sports and college sports and lifestyle stories and obituaries and stories about people living beyond 100 years. It even had a full section of local and national business news every day. Before it went to morning delivery it had three early editions, one for the foothills we called the Motherlode, one for Manteca and Tracy we called the South County, and Lodi combined with Stockton was the local edition. If breaking news happened before 11am we could get it in the final edition and on front porches that afternoon, often more quickly than the local TV stations. It was a form of news that people, including myself, took for granted, thinking it would last forever. It was a community resource where people were welcome to come in and browse through hard-bound past issues of the paper. It was vital reading for people who wanted a source of connection to the events and personalities of their community and a sense of belonging.
I must have handled thousands of assignments. Most were routine with some more memorable than others, such as this one: Eric Best and I left town, predawn, to get to the Dublin Federal Correctional Institution in time for Patty Hearst’s release in February, 1979. Eric did his reporting and I found a foothold and, in spite of a pushy crowd of national and international media, I managed to get some good shots. I drove the 50 miles back to Stockton, how fast I won’t say (possible statute of limitations issues), and Eric wrote his story on a notepad while chomping on a Snicker bar he found in my glove box. We made our deadline. Good work, we thought. But there was no time to bask in the afterglow. There never was. The paper was always hungry for more. Back to work. Note to self: Remind Eric he still owes me for that candy bar.
In my 16 years there, the editors who selected the stories and designed pages were an integral part of the local workforce. They worked closely with the “back shop” composers, the people who pasted waxed copy and photograph halftones to the make-up pages, the modern (in the 70s) process that replaced hot lead type and photo engraving. They were as dedicated to the final product as the rest of us and would occasionally find an error of fact or punctuation that managed to escape previous editors’ scrutiny. This was one more layer of local quality control. Now, interestingly, that process is located in Austin, Texas and lacks that local touch – news judgment, that intangible and irreplaceable quality of experience, training and leadership which takes something most modern newspapers don’t want or can’t afford to spend: TIME. Not to mention money.
We liked to think this newspaper, with thousands of moving parts, ran like a well-oiled machine. In reality it could get messy when the gears of this imperfect machine would occasionally jam with differing opinions among creative people. Nonetheless, we all shared the common goal of putting out a good newspaper, of serving our readers. On the days that we succeeded, sweet. When we missed the mark we thought, we’re lucky, we get another chance tomorrow.
I count myself among the luckiest to have spent a good portion of my professional life amidst that atmosphere of controlled chaos.
I was one of two staff photographers then. Doris Horstman was the newsroom receptionist (indescribably more, really, but that was her title.) She had been there longer than even most old-timers could remember yet was as enthusiastic about her work as the day she was hired. My phone in the photo department rang. It was Doris telling me my 10 o’clock mugshot was here. “Send him back,” I said, knowing she wouldn’t. She always escorted our guests wherever they needed to go and gave them a friendly sense of welcome.
There were brief introductions and a firmer-than-expected handshake as I began arranging the studio lighting and a posing stool while chatting with my new subject, hoping to create a friendly atmosphere in which to quickly get a few good pictures. Turns out my attempt at conviviality was unnecessary. He was already fully engaged, curious about my process and as instantly friendly as anyone I’ve ever met.
I’ve often described my newspaper career as a fine way to meet people at their best, at their worst and everywhere in between. On this day I was meeting someone who brings me joy today, decades later, when I recall my brief encounter with him. Often my photo assignment slips had only a name and the word “mugshot,” with no supporting information regarding the story line. I asked this happy man what brought him in front of my camera. “The bus,” he chuckled at his own joke. He proudly continued that Vince Perrin, one of our feature writers at the time, was doing a story about his 100th birthday.
I thought he was kidding me. The bounce in both his step and attitude told me otherwise, not to mention his robust physical appearance and jovial state of mind. I must admit I was a bit skeptical. But the assignment was official and I had no time to fact check.
My typical workday was long on assignments and short on time. This day was no different. The portrait –mugshot– session only lasted minutes and we said our brief goodbyes.
I had rolls of film to develop, edit and print — by hand in chemicals, pre-digital — and caption before lunch and then more assignments before my end of shift. My sense of time management, and the fact that I never knew precisely when editors would need a given set of photographs, told me to get it done now. From about 8 or 10 Kodak Tri-X 35mm negatives I chose what I thought best captured my 10am mugshot’s character. After I got a print I liked, I made a couple extras for Vince to send to him. At the last minute I decided to make one for myself. There was just something special about this man who had lived a full century. That print languished in a box of extras that I wouldn’t see again for years.
Wouldn’t you know it… I didn’t write his name on the back of the print. But that does not diminish my memory of a man who changed my way of thinking about aging. I’ll never remember his name, but he is immortal to me.
I want to be like him when I grow up.
Postscript – As we finished with the pictures, I mentioned to him, a man who was in his 70s when I was born, that I would have guessed his age to be much younger and I thought he was wearing all those years very well. In a raspy almost-whisper and wise wink, he touched the brim of his hat, looked around to make sure we were alone as if he was about to tell me a secret, and said before swaggering back out to the front of the newsroom, “Hey, man, black don’t crack.”
Rich Turner explored, photographed, and aerial photo-mapped Antarctica as a Navy photographer, was a newspaper photojournalist for 19 years, and has operated his own fine art photography studio since 1990. “Delta Grandeur”, his traveling exhibit, is now touring California museums and libraries. His most recent passion is spreading the word far and wide about what an amazing place the Delta and Greater Bay Area is. With the help of very talented writers, artists and photographers, publishing this magazine seems a good way to do that.