26 February 2009

We lose money on every sale but we make it up on volume

I was walking across the town of Mendocino recently. Sandwiched between two paperbacks I had purchased at my local independent bookstore was a fresh copy of the San Francisco Chronicle.

It occurred to me, and not for the first time, that I was lugging around dinosaurs. Books printed on paper? See: Kindle and Ebooks. The Chron? Losing a million dollars a month, and still cutting back, so far back that soon there may be no newspaper at all.

Headline: “Chronicle faces cuts in staff, expenses.”

I worked for the Chron once, when I was still in high school, back in the previous century. I played Copy Boy. I never did see a Copy Girl. Copy Boys responded to shouts of “Boy!” from reporters out of paper and carbons (Remember carbons? Remember paper?) or copy editors (Remember copy editors?) who needed galleys taken somewhere, or columnists who wanted a fresh cup of coffee.

Late at night we gathered up icky sticky paste pots and cleaned them and refilled them in the bathroom. Then we cleaned the bathroom. We were the lowest of the low on the city room floor. But we could see everyone, hear everything, and best of all we were completely invisible.

We Copy Boys had a table all to ourselves. Stationed just behind us was Entertainment Editor Judy Stone, sister or daughter, I don’t remember, of the famous lefty writer “Izzy” I. F. Stone.

We could feel the city down there on 5th and Mission, across from the old Mint, at the edge of skid row and the Tenderloin. Sam Spade had just left the building, and you could smell his cologne in the elevator. Upstairs were the linotype machines, dinosaurs even then. Downstairs was a huge printing plant, and you could smell that, too. There were no computers, no cell phones, none of that.

In those days the De Young family owned the Chron, and Hearst ran The Examiner over on 3rd and Market, an afternoon rag, not a worthy competitor. As each edition of the EX hit the streets copies were delivered to Chronicle editors who scrutinized it for leads.

Ink, paper, sweat, a lot of running around, and a lot of energy. To a high school kid it felt like heaven in the real world. The memories still are sweet.

These days the already greatly-reduced Chronicle spends ten dollars on each copy of the Sunday paper and sells it for four. The Chron runs a great free web site but online it’s darned hard to figure out how to subscribe to the paper. Might as well read it for free online. Does anyone else remember the days when newsboys stood on corners selling papers to passing commuters or pedestrians? Get-chur pay-per...!!!

By the way, John Coate, the current General Manager of KZYX&Z had a lot to do with inventing the Chron’s online presence. And he did a great job.

The most important issue for newspapers is how to pay for reporters and the infrastructure that supports them. Subscriptions don’t cover it, class ads don’t cover it, and the web provides only a trickle of income.

I still love reading the paper even though I also read it online. Herb Caen is long gone, but now I read everything Jon Carroll writes, and Sports, and the editorials, and the geeky page, and other stuff, too.

I still get a big kick from headlines such as “Lincecum’s goal: doing even better this season” or “Toxics lurk beneath bay.” I think of Dashiell Hammett when I come across a headline like this: “Decomposed body found in deserted home.” “Wind farm blows into the delta” must have made some editor smile.

I have a message for Hearst, now owner of the Chron: Don’t give up. Don’t let it go. Too many memories, too many laughs, too many good things to just go away. Fix it. That’s right. Just fix it.

Now I’m going to pour a second cup of coffee and read the obituaries. Good times.


I don’t know Bill Roddy, but his America Hurrah web site is full of memories and photos. For one thing, he remembers being a Copy Boy on the 1941 Examiner.

Another Copy Boy memory, from an interview with journalist Tom Tugend:

"After I was discharged (from service in the Korean War), I got a job as a copy boy on the San Francisco Chronicle. That was one of the few ways to get in [to journalism]. If you made it, they made you a reporter. I was a copy boy for nine months. Herb Caen was there. Pierre Salinger. Other copy boys included a former philosophy professor and a socialite lawyer from New York. All odd balls. The most intelligent group of people I've known putting carbon sheets between sheets of paper and getting coffee for the reporters.

The entire interview


David said...

Thanks Tony. I admit to having a Kindle although I still buy books and newspapers. I would venture that my house has more books than a small library. I’ve got three giant floor to ceiling shelves plus maybe a half dozen smaller bookshelves and all are full so I’ve got books on window sills and in boxes in corners and under tables not to mention a small storage room that’s practically inaccessible. I can’t give them up since I often search for a book I read years ago to find a quote, etc. I love books (obviously) and I find the Kindle very handy especially when going on trips. It pleases my wife that she can now pack a lot more of her junk in our suitcases since I have all my books, reports, and other reading materials in my Kindle. One drawback is that the wireless connection doesn’t work in Mendocino so it isn’t good for newspapers although I can get them on my computer and transfer them to the Kindle. Also, Amazon is a terrible marketer and could learn a lot from Apple (disclosure: I don’t own any Apple products except for an iPOD—the smallest and cheapest which I use mostly for free podcasts). Another drawback is that many of the eclectic books I like aren't yet in the Kindle format. I too lament the decline of the newspaper industry. I met a number of reporters at the Sacto Bee and Chron that were friends of my brother (he died at 33 over 30 years ago). When I went to Stanford one of the guys on the floor of my dorm was Bob Theriot—his mother was a De Young—no idea whatever happened to him as he was not a close friend. Thanks again for your thoughts. David

Dixie said...

Tony, thanks for the column today about the Chronicle and being a copy boy; enjoyed it. Isn't this transition a tough one.
I hope they find a way to stay afloat.
Dixie Shipp

Jude Lutge said...

Hi Tony,

When the article came out about the dire straits of the Chronicle, it was the only thing my friends and I talked about on Facebook and on the phone. It is unimaginable to consider its demise. When Glenn and I had The New Varsity Theatre in Palo Alto with its repertory cinema format Herb Caen used to write about us from time to time. One I remember contained pithy comments on the movie running one night - "The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes." The Chron has been with us our whole lives in so many ways. I loved your blog and your copy boy memories.

kudzu said...

Thanks for the memories! I wasn't a copy boy, but from age thirteen I have written (at various stages of my life) for newspapers. I was there when we had to type carbons, so all copy had to be totally pristine -- I can still feel that cheap paper we used, white for the editor, yellow for the copy. And I found the sound of the teletype machine oddly comforting as it spat out the news from the wire services.

I loved the press room and the smell of ink and the noise, crossing through it to "file thumbprints in the morgue".

My first full-time job was working in the women's section (naturally) when I was seventeen. My editor was a chain-smoking dwarf named Winnie Mason who knew every address in town and made scenes if I made mistakes.

I don't subscribe to the Chronicle but I read it online now; I have the New York Times delivered daily to have something worth holding in my hands every morning.

I am still writing for a newspaper: PACIFIC SUN in Marin County. I pray for its health each day!

And by the way, Judy Stone was Izzy's sister.

Pat Fusco, San Anselmo

Katy Tahja said...

>Hey Copy Boy...You're being read by a woman who actually knew how to take
> lead type letters and compose headlines for the local weekly newspaper in
> Coronado in the 1960's and read them backwards! Katy

Anonymous said...

Subject: Newspapers, Newspapers

Hi Tony:

On the very morning that Scripp's Rocky Mountain News published its last edition your column really hits the mark. Fifth and Mission. That's where I began my first broadcast job at KRON, which was owned by the Chronicle. My "office" was a hotel room at the Pickwick that I shared with another documentary writer. Channel four was ensconced in the bowels of the Chronicle building, still broadcasting in black and white (most of the country's stations had gone color).

I too experienced the clatter of the Linotype's and the smell of ink. I put myself through grad school as the photographer and photo-engraver for the Athens (OH) Messenger. My darkroom was directly beneath the ink tanks, and when the motors cranked up everything in the room shook. I was handed a 4x5 Speed Graphic with which to shoot. Eventually I turned the editor on to the quality and flexibility of 35mm, and edited the paper's first photo essays.

The computer screen will never replace the look and FEEL of a real newspaper. I get the NY Times daily headlines, but relish the feel of the Sunday paper that our carrier brings. By the way, my association with newspapers actually began as a carrier for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In in the wintertime I sometimes delivering papers in snow up to my waist. But enough nostalgia. I suppose it's the end of an era. Quelle dommage.


Little River

Pam Glenn said...

A friend sent me your WOB column for March 1, which I
enjoyed reading. I recently heard someone on NPR describe
his feelings about the collapse of the daily paper, and he
added a really interesting point that I, as a mostly-non-
reader, hadn't fully appreciated before: As the papers
that are giving up their hard-copy lives shift to on-line
forms, they may very well also give up, or greatly reduce,
their court and local government and event reporting--the
things that this speaker felt were the papers' important
contribution to informed community citizenship.

Thank you for your article. And best of luck. I hope that
Hearst has the wherewithal to save all the large and smaller
elements of a good paper--whatever format they finally decide
to issue it in--and a good, dedicated, hardworking staff.

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