Bob Dorn, who died of a heart attack the last week of November, was a writer for the Evening Tribune, the Reader, San Diego Magazine, and most recently for the San Diego Free Press.
He wrote about leaving daily journalism in a Sept. 27, 1979 Reader cover story, "The Last Rewrite," printed below.
Other notable Dorn stories that appeared in the Reader included profiles of Spreckels Theater owner Jaquie Littlefield, gadfly attorney Mike Aguirre, FedMart founder Sol Price, and San Diego Union cartoonist Steve Kelley. See all his stories here.
The Last Rewrite
San Diego Evening Tribune writer calls it quits.
While walking into the Union-Tribune building last month on my way to resign from my job as reporter for the Tribune, I had to slow down a step or two to allow a mechanic to drive a new staff car into its stall. It was an omen, and in times of stress and confusion, omens are no small comfort. You don’t quit after eight years at one place — acquiring friends, a mortgage, strong tastes for good food and drink, and a thin cushion of only a few thousand dollars in savings — without having to confront hard, evil doubts about the wisdom of the act, especially when there’s no other reporting job in your near or distant future. That new Union-Tribune Pinto didn’t push me over the edge, but it brought my decision a measure of certainty. Little more than a week before it’d arrived in the lot, I’d been enraged when a guard told me that advertising clerks were using cars assigned to the reporters’ pool when their own supply of cars had been exhausted, a fact that was significant to me because reporters had never been able to fall back on the use of advertising cars. I’d missed one interview and been late to others because of that policy during the numerous times my own car had been in the shop for repairs. So I’d written a letter to general manager Alex DeBakcsy, arguing that the priorities were reversed. After all, I said, the ultimate business of a newspaper is the gathering of news. DeBakcsy called a day and a half after I’d dropped the letter in his interoffice mail and said he was putting his next-in-command on the problem and that they’d “give it our best shot.” Taking my last step into the building a week after that call, what I saw was a new staff car, Nu-Prep sticker still in the left rear window, that was marked Advertisers’ Service.
There were other ironies on my last day. I’ve kept a page from Tribune editor Fred Kinne’s memo pad on which he scribbled the name Bob Carney and the words Sacramento Union. If I should want to continue in journalism, Kinne told me, I should consider working for this newspaper, which the Copley Press owned until the middle of the decade and which was subsequently sold by Copley to a man the South African government says bought it with South African government money, money that country shelled out in order to better plead its case before the American public. Kinne might as well have leaned across his desk and said he had one piece of advice for me: “Plastics.”
In the eight years I worked at the Evening Tribune, the most common public complaint I heard concerned the paper’s political bias. For years, both local Copley papers were edited and supervised by men like Lt. General V.H. “Brute” Krulak and Captain “Andy” Anderson, fussbudget retired Marine and Navy brass who were capable of issuing orders that stories on anti- war protests refer to the people in the streets as “hooligans,” not demonstrators. It was bias of that sort that prompted reporters to tell me things were better now than in the old days, before I joined. But questionable judgments continue today. Alone among the print media of this city, the Tribune declined to mention that Si Casady would enter the mayoral race against Pete Wilson until Casady made the standard declaration weeks after it was well known he was running. Then, weeks into the open campaigning, the Tribune produced a profile of Pete Wilson written by two reporters who had intended to do a mildly critical article on his Saturday-morning meetings with selected councilmembers. What appeared instead was a story accompanied by a large photo of the boyish mayor that left readers with the impression that all Wilson was doing was spending long hours at his job. This kind of journalistic marshmallow is standard fare from all San Diego papers, and it likely would raise no eyebrows in off-election years, but the
Tribune published it in the middle of the campaign. When Dick Tullar, the Union-Tribune’s advertising director wrote a letter to the editor that argued falsely there was no evidence that the Navy’s proposed new hospital in Florida Canyon poses a threat to the environment or Balboa Park, the Tribune ran the letter and followed it with a note that Tullar is chairman of the chamber of commerce’s military affairs committee. There was no mention of his company position. Of course, any Democratic, renting, mildly antimilitary, antigrowth...oh well, a lot of people...can recite their own lists of partisan wrongs.
However, it is inaccurate to conclude, and certainly foolish to assume, that the Tribune’s politics are ordained in the La Jolla headquarters of Copley Press and interpreted by men like DeBakcsy and Tullar, or even that they are handed down directly from the fifth-floor administrative suite in Mission Valley, where Helen Copley’s and the late Jim Copley’s names shimmer in brass welcome. Life and the Evening Tribune are not so simple as that. For one thing, as nearly as I could determine while I was there, Mrs. Copley is seldom at the newspaper, and if there ever had been a monolith of political attitudes, the Union has gone a long way toward bringing it down, with recent specials on boodling Jaycees, official violence in the jail, private-industry lien-sharks, and especially, Alex Drehsler’s excellent reporting from Nicaragua that was clearly sympathetic to the Sandinistas and in an area of the world where the Somozas and Pinochets have historically been Copley favorites. So some realities previously untouched by Copley newspapers are now being reported. But not nearly so many of them are being reported in the Tribune as in the Union. (It used to be the other way around.) When C. Arnholt Smith fell under federal indictment and lost his U.S. National Bank, the Union ran the story on its second-section page under a headline that merely said the bank was being sold. The Tribune ran a more candid story on its front page, where the nation’s record-breaking bank failure belonged.
The failure of the Tribune these days to report the news clearly and aggressively can only partially be explained by outside political pressure; sometimes stories of no threat to the established body politic of San Diego have been held back. Within the last year, a reporter at the Tribune was tipped to and wrote an article about San Diego Gas and Electric Company’s systematic and massive overcharging of North County homeowners. The story sat a week before the reporter’s source grew frustrated and called the Los Angeles Times. After the story appeared there, the Tribune published a rewritten version of its own reporter’s article that was less clear and tough than his week-old original. Similarly, another Tribune staffer was the first to report University Hospital’s refusal to treat a Mexican-American who had accidentally shot himself in the head, an apparent violation by the hospital of its obligation as a tax-supported institution. But the Tribune broke the news half-heartedly, with a headline and two inches of copy on the first page of the local section; it continued deep inside the paper. The next day, and for a few subsequent days, the other papers ran the story on their front pages. When the Tribune’s reporter asked for an explanation regarding the story’s treatment, he says he was told by an editor, “We just didn’t know what to make of it.”
Other factors have also contributed to blunting the collective senses of the Tribune. For one thing, the paper is now a bureaucracy, choked by a managerial obsession for procedures and supervision. Inferior managers every- where are inclined to add administrators below them who can insulate the top from the heat of the daily struggle. At the Tribune there is a host of flak-catchers who keep things cool for the editors. Where only two years ago the day-side city desk consisted of a city editor, an assistant city editor (known as an ace), and one principal rewrite reporter, there is now a city editor, four aces, and two or three rewrite reporters, nearly all of whom were reporters whose former positions have remained unfilled. The night ace now has an assistant assistant night city editor. (No one yet has invented a convenient shorthand title for him.) The newsroom has gotten so middle-heavy there aren’t enough reporters to cover and write day- and night-breaking stories, and when reporters do turn in stories, a platoon of desk people is avail- able to rewrite them, which they have been doing with increasing frequency. At times, no one knows who rewrote a story or who ordered the rewrite, and a reporter must make the rounds to lodge a protest or ask a question if the rewrite proves to have damaged the story’s sense.
Gone are the days when the Tribune’s newsroom was a freak show reminiscent of The Front Page — a collection of psyches unraveling under the pressures of deadlines, callers complaining of poor coverage and flying saucers in their neighborhoods, and the manic desires of reporters to produce a story that could establish them as stars in the (old) Tribune’s firmament. Under those more traditional newsroom conditions, tensions and hatreds were released promptly. Jack Gregg, a genuinely human and spontaneous man who was city editor before he lost an internal political struggle, occasionally used to escape the tightening noose by standing up on his desk and walking to the next and the next desk in the crowded city room at the old downtown building. Cheers and applause always accompanied Gregg’s Walk. At least once a day, reporter Rex Salmon got requests for an ear-splitting outburst he drew from a bag that included imitations of a vacuum cleaner, donkey, a marching band, and landing jetliner. Now he just sneezes oddly when he makes any sound at all. I once had a water-pistol fight with entertainment editor Wayne Carlson that ranged over two floors and into an elevator that carried three businessmen who never lost their grips on their briefcases. Jack Gregg, once again, donned the burnoose he’d returned with from some Arab country or other and raced through the newsroom toward the wire-service room just as some 30 visiting Japanese newspaper executives were emerging. I mention all of this not simply out of nostalgia. The pallid quality of the newsroom today is symptomatic of the ennui that permeates any tired bureaucracy, be it the postal service, a bank, or the Bureau of Land Management. It is not order and quiet efficiency that characterize the newsroom now; it is simply the silence and boredom of people who are awaiting orders.
Like any bureaucracy, the Tribune responds to pressure from the front office and from large, well- organized interest groups outside the company. It often has been difficult to distinguish one from the other. Until a few years ago, Helen Copley was a board member of Wells Fargo Bank, the California Chamber of Commerce, and Dart Industries. Mrs. Copley ended her service on those outside boards, saying she would have to concentrate her energies on the running of her newspaper chain, but her key executives have maintained their high civic profiles. Before he left to join the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain a few months ago, Copley Press vice president Richard Capen was president of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce. General manager Alex DeBakcsy has chaired the campaign for the United Way and continues his involvement with that organization. Union-Tribune executives and lawyers sit on a blue-chip advisory board to UCSD. With so many direct and high-level ties to the official institutions and agencies of this city, the newspaper’s editors and reporters begin to look over their shoulders before settling down to work. In any number of individual cases, reporters and editors begin to measure success in the same terms as the front office — by how well they’re mingling. The city’s press club was organized by public-relations people, most of them corporate, and it was Tribune reporters and editors who provided the bulk of the club’s active, working-journalist members and officers. Radio and television newspeople and, so far, staff members of the Los Angeles Times’ San Diego edition have stayed away. Far from licking the flaks who bomb the paper with news releases, staffers have taken to joining them. In recent years, the Tribune’s business writer left to start his own public-relations agency, a real estate writer joined another public-relations agency, a politics writer has become an aide to a state senator, and another former reporter has been successively an aide to a councilman and a member of the former business writer’s agency. Such professional intimacy between reporters, former reporters- turned-boosters, and the city’s major institutions probably goes a long way toward explaining the prevailing sunny view of San Diego visible in the paper’s pages.
As it tries to sort out the demands on it, the Tribune must face another problem that may prove to be more ruinous than all others. Since 1971, when I arrived at the paper, circulation has stubbornly hovered at about 125,000, despite a population growth in its circulation area during that time of some 300,000. The $250,000 ad campaign that featured Tribune faces on billboards and upbeat radio and TV spots failed to produce a bulge in circulation figures much larger than a few thousand additional subscribers. The advertising blitz corresponded in some pop cultural way with the advent of happy-talk television news. Television succeeded then probably because it changed its for- mat to conform more closely with that of advertising, while the Tribune campaign might have failed because it merely advertised the same old product. Happy talk, however, has now come to the Tribune, and what is found there is the same post- Bicentennial, post-Watergate bilge found on the supermarket stands. In fact, the only magazine I’ve seen in the city editor’s in-basket is
People. The daily battle at the Tribune now is being waged by editors competing with each other to play to this vast, illusionary supermarket audience that will buy the paper and boost its circulation. These editors try to discover new ways for the paper to appear energetic, fearless, and up to the minute — without its actually being so. Stories are not so much gathered and printed as they are imagined, ordered, and packaged.
In fact, in the past year I began to hear “package” used to describe the day’s paper, or more usually a series of stories on some news that might dominate the day’s paper, even “real” news, as in the Energy Package or the Illegal Alien Package. I was once told to do a story that was to have been part of a Water Package. It was on a day when northern sections of the city were dry because of a miscalculation of water reserves during the shutdown of a Colorado River water pipeline. Would I please write a story on the city’s installation of asbestos-concrete water pipes to accompany the shortage stories? At the time I knew next to nothing about asbestos and the possible hazards of using it in water mains. It did occur to me that this was a story that might more appropriately have been part of an Asbestos Package, but then, water is water, I suppose, with or without asbestos. It really doesn’t matter in this brave, new media world if the connections made between events and ideas are illogical or accidental or incidental. Impact is what counts. Semblance is as good as substance. The package must be made to appear complete and distinct. (As it turned out, I wasn’t able to research and write in one day a story on San Diego’s asbestos pipes and the relationship between cancer and asbestos. My story appeared a day later than planned, thus escaping its packaged fate.) This kind of premeditation may appear to the public as a peccadillo and not particularly perilous to journalism, but soon enough the paper’s preoccupation with its own internal workings, its formulas, distorts the perception of readers and journalists alike. The paper sometimes misses stories because they are not even recognized (“We just didn’t know what to make of it”) and sometimes because they are not considered worth the effort. After all, there will be another paper tomorrow, another package.
In an indifferent atmosphere like that, people burn out. I was one of them. No more cutesy lead sentences were forthcoming. I no longer had any enthusiasm for world-in-a-teacup features, nor did I experience a rush of pride from a genuine front-page story. I couldn’t find satisfaction by practicing my craft as meticulously as I was able. My salvation from the tedium came to lie in grand, sweeping stories of life and death and moral bankruptcy — the bleaker and starker the better. I began to want only to awaken shock and anger in a public I came to think was as diffident as the newsroom. But the more clearly I seemed to perceive the senseless, random, mind- less screw-ups and products of neglect in the city — a sewer system and a high- way network jammed, both of them, to overflowing at a time the mayor and city council reverted to a hospitable growth policy; and a district attorney’s stated belief that a televised shooting revealed a gun hand that was rising in the direction of police when it sure as hell appeared to be falling — the more palpable and evident the public failures became, the less it seemed could be said about them. At times I thought the reform spirit had vanished, or had been drowned in a slop-pot of soap operas, discomania, tits and ass, four-wheel driving, violence, and the worship of good health. In fact, though, I was tired. Never mind the truth or falseness of my vision of San Diego as Rome in the late Third Century. I was simply tired of the Evening Tribune.
But when Samuel C. Brown was shot and killed by a policeman on a recent Thursday afternoon downtown, in front of television cameras, I thought I perceived a news story through a thin layer of jade after a full day’s work. I had been researching a series of police stories, and I was ready to work a little longer. That night I spoke to winos and street types who talked about murder, to councilmen and cops who spoke of shooting “to incapacitate,” and to people at the Knickerbocker Hotel who knew Brown. The main story had already been written by Preston Turegano, and I did two others: one of them a profile of Brown — his extremes and anguish and what he did the day he was shot — the other an attempt to analyze what was seen on the videotape in terms of police shooting policy and of handgun law as cited by a deputy city attorney. I left the newsroom at 2:00 a.m. What appeared in the Tribune nine hours later was not essentially what I had written. Gone was the quotation from a city policy that police shoot “only as a last resort” when lives are endangered. Gone also were the remarks of Councilwoman Maureen O’Connor a day before the shooting that the police have a policy of “shoot to kill.” Missing from the published stories were Assistant Police Chief Bob Burgreen’s explanation that the policy on shooting is “to incapacitate” by aiming at the largest target, the chest, where “it also happens you’re likely to kill that way.” Also absent from the stories was the deputy city attorney’s summation of gun laws (it’s not a crime to carry a handgun openly in public; it is a crime to threaten someone with it or conceal it without a permit to do so). I quoted from a police press release that said it was confirmed Brown had earlier fired a shot but that it wasn’t clear whether the officers who had him in their gun sights were aware of that when they stepped onto the sidewalk. The rewrite man changed the story and wrote that police were answering a call that a man had fired shots. No one, neither cops nor witnesses, had ever said more than one shot had been fired. But the rewrite man did. The suicide motive I reported high in my own story was not mentioned until the end of the rewritten main story. The main story’s opening paragraph had placed the videotapes at the center of the planned investigation of the shooting. But in its place appeared a simple statement that Brown had been shot in front of television cameras the day before, which is what almost all readers knew and had themselves seen.
The city editor told me he did not know who rewrote the story and asked me to call up the people I had quoted in my originals in order to get new quotes, though the old one could have been retrieved from duplicates I submitted. Some of the cuts were accidental, he said; others he agreed with. He then asked me to help another reporter who was back at the Knickerbocker and who had no idea how to follow up on the story. I asked what had been done with a long memo I had writ- ten, which suggested ways to follow up, and he said he didn’t know and looked through a garbage can for the note. Two hours later the reporter who had been at the Knickerbocker came back with my duplicates in his hand and the note he said he had been given by the city editor.
I argued about all this, then put it in a memo to the assistant managing editor and the managing editor; and then I went to a bar with other reporters and complained loudly. The next day, Saturday, the Los Angeles Times appeared with two stories that contained most of what the Tribune had neglected or elected not to use. Monday I tried to break some new ground by calling the Los Angeles and San Francisco police departments for the number of fatal shootings by police in those cities. San Diego has triple the rate of deaths of both those cities, which I wrote for the next day and which included specific numbers and another reference to the written “shoot only as a last resort” policy of San Diego police. That night I got a call at home from the assistant assistant city editor asking if it wouldn’t be better to hold the story a day or so to develop it further, because “it is a sensitive issue.” The next day a truncated version of what I had written (it said simply that San Diego’s killing rate is “well ahead” of L.A. and San Francisco) ran deep inside the paper as the last third of a story about the angle from which the video- tape was recorded. The police department’s shooting policy had again been edited out, and the headline and first two-thirds of the story (written by the police reporter and the city desk) had nothing to do with San Diego’s alarming rate of fatal police shootings.
I turned in my resignation two and a half hours after asking that my name be taken off the story. I went back to the bar, where about 15 Tribune people, most of whom I love, bought me every beer I drank.