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Thursday, April 20, 2006 | Wow. The San Diego Union-Tribune has won the Pulitzer Prize. Wow. It’s all I can say.
It is a personal reaction. I worked for the old San Diego Union, the morning paper, for 20 years. When I first reported for work, in the summer of 1972, the Union, and her sister the Evening Tribune, were still in the “old building” downtown, at the corner of Second and Broadway. We parked on the street in those days and went down every two hours to feed the meter. The desks were crammed in so tight, you had to climb into your chair like a fighter pilot into a cockpit. We used typewriters. On the copy desk were scissors and paste pots. In the wire room, the teletypes of AP and UPI brought word in from around the world in a measured, contrapuntal rhythm I can still hear in my bones.
I am fortunate to be just old enough to have rubbed elbows with the last of the glamorous old school of journalists, the green-eyeshade, red-eyeball guys. Not old enough to have actually known a rewrite man or, the mother of all wishes, to have become one, but old enough to work with some people who did.
Those guys felt about journalism the way Texans feel about the Alamo. Hell, all of us out on the city room floor would draw swords for journalism. But the Union, in 1972, was not a very good paper. Neil Morgan can give you the story from inside the managers’ cloakroom. My recollections, the source of my “Wow” reaction this week, all come from the floor, or the street.
The Union didn’t command much respect, in my experience. I dreaded going to press conferences and watching other reporters feign surprise, and inquire with an evil grin, “What’s the Union doing here?”
Ask somebody else about the politics and the policies in those days. My impression, and it is my own impression, from the reporter’s side, came to be that the Union was the morning newspaper for a bubble world, inside which mostly good news happened, nobody in the community was accountable for anything, God was a Republican, and if people wanted bad news, or news about Democrats, why, they could buy the L.A. Times.
In everyday reporting life, it worked this way. I was assigned one night to cover a speech being given by a major Marxist intellectual at UCSD, where Herbert Marcuse was on the faculty. “Give me a 12-inch story,” said the night ACE (assistant city editor) as I headed for the door. “No quotes.” The Marxist talked for more than two hours. When I stood up to leave, I was surprised my body parted easily from the chair.
Back at the office, I pounded out 12 inches, no quotes, gave it to the ACE. A minute later, he called me over. “Take out this, this, and this,” he said, checking grafs that summarized topics the speaker had touched. I rewrote to six inches, handed it back. A minute later, he called me over. “Take these out,” he said. With a limp resignation that was rapidly becoming familiar, I took the copy, went back, typed three short grafs of the barest information (he was there, he spoke, he left), and that was the story in the paper the next morning. My job that night was to prove that the Union had sent a reporter to cover the speech.
We formed a softball team and named it “The Sacred Cows.” When no one in management complained, I had an impish moment of supposition that no one in the Union front office knew what a sacred cow was.
Otto Bos, a damn good reporter, who covered City Hall, was our star pitcher. We had a lot of good players, and good reporters, at the Union in the old building, but we always knew we were outnumbered by the sacred cows. “It’ll get better in the new building,” we liked to say.
We moved into the new building in Mission Valley one autumn weekend in 1973. In one of those impossibly strange turns of events, the very first paper published in the new building was headlined by the death of publisher Jim Copley. After a time of transition, Helen Copley took the active reins of publisher.
Which brings us to Jeannette Branin, who must be mentioned by anyone passing around credit for this Union-Tribune Pulitzer. If you ask me, it started with her.
Jeannette, who edited the food pages, was a platinum blonde with black eyes that flashed and a gorgeous, throaty laugh that rippled out in smiles across the newsroom several times a day.
Jeannette was no-nonsense. As Helen was becoming publisher, she called reporters in by groups for an informal hour of give-and-take. In her group, Jeannette stood up and, in her respectful, Kansan matter-of-fact way, head tilted slightly, said, “Mrs. Copley, do you know that your newspaper has sacred cows?”
That is not an exact quote. Someone in that group may remember it exactly. It was all over the newsroom before the end of the day. After that, things did start to get better. I know, sometimes it has been hard to tell. Of course a little local competition always helps. And now the Union-Tribune has won a Pulitzer. Wow.
Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at