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Empty newsroom echoes with sound of restless spirits

Standing in the center of a vacated newspaper city room is like being in a haunted house, listening for voices and the clamor that accompany the presence of restless spirits.

I can hear the clatter of typewriters that were old 50 years ago, the rattle of wire service machines that carried three competing organizations and the shouts of “Boy!” that called young editorial assistants to rewrite row.

I can feel the tremor of the building when the presses began to roll and sense the gasping “whoosh” of the copy desk vacuum tube as finished stories flew to composing. I can hear telephones ringing and a jumble of voices from police scanners on the city desk.

Across barriers of time and space, the past is creeping back.

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This was once the beating heart of the Oakland Tribune, occupying a six-story building adjacent to the 310-foot brick tower that has stood like a sentinel over downtown Oakland for 84 years. There’s still a Tribune, but it’s only a shadow of what it was and it isn’t at 13th and Franklin anymore.

It’s owned by a company that calls itself the Bay Area Newspaper Group (BANG, if you’re feeling whimsical), and the Trib at about 55,000 circulation is just one of a family of small newspapers, far from the 350,000-circulation giant that drove Hearst’s Post Enquirer out of town in 1950. It’s housed out near the Oakland Coliseum.

I worked at the Trib and returned when I heard that the offices were being abandoned, moving from the tower that once held its history, and mine. Dave Newhouse, a lanky, soft-spoken man, took me around. He’s been with the paper 41 years and still writes a column three days a week. Columnists don’t let go easily.

The afternoon Trib was big time back then, dominated by a legendary city editor named Al Reck, a half-century later still the best editor I’ve ever had. He rarely raised his voice, but when Al chewed you out, quietly and in an almost civil manner, you learned something, and the lesson stayed with you. There was Assistant Managing Editor Stanley Norton too, a vision out of hell, who dragged a bad leg as he stomped toward you, roaring like some kind of primeval swamp creature and waving the story you’d just turned in -- which he probably hated. Worst of all, he yelled into your face and you caught the spray of his usually pointless rage. Stanley died of tuberculosis, and for a terrible few weeks we wondered if he was going to take the whole damned spittle-sprayed staff with him.

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We were a brotherhood of young lions back then, working hard through a half-dozen deadlines a day and drinking hard at the Hollow Leg, a bar across the street. The Leg ceased to exist years ago, after Nels the bartender died, taking the policy of every-third-drink-free with him. He left me his dog, a white German Shepherd named Pooh.

Martinis fueled our frantic quest to be better than the newspapers across the bay, working all night if we had to just to get an edge on the arrogance of the Chronicle or the bully boy attitude of the Examiner.

Today only the Chron (and a shadow of the Ex), is left of the large newspapers, and it’s in financial trouble, like almost every other major paper in the country.

I sat by a pillar at a right angle to the city desk then. Later, when I began writing a column, I moved into an office, past sports and photos, down a hallway they called “the tunnel.” Item-columnist Bill Fiset shared the room with me, and was in misery a good deal of the time because there weren’t a lot of item-worthy people in Oakland. He yearned for his years on rewrite and sighed more than once in an exaggerated tone of melancholy, “Those were the days my friend . . .”

The Tribune was owned by the Knowland family and began to fade when the old man, JRK, died and his bland and humorless son Bill took over. He’d been a U.S. senator but gave it up to run against Pat Brown for governor. Bill was “Mr. Republican” in California, but Brown, who was Jerry’s father, beat him soundly, leaving him to publish the Tribune.

We were an epoch out of “Front Page” journalism: fun, crazy, self-assured, kicking in doors, crawling in windows, working with cops in ways that just don’t exist anymore. We did it, we told ourselves, for the people’s right to know, and affixed it like a knight’s pennant to the end of a spear. One reporter was psychotic, another an ex-con, another a double Ph.D. A photographer was a Hell’s Angel.

I came south when the Trib began to die, but a lot of the hell-raising attitudes have stayed with me, even though it’s all different now, quieter, saner, more professional. But still . . .

As I stood in the abandoned city room contemplating the ghosts, I was just as glad I was in L.A., but when I turned to leave I thought I heard a ghostly whisper. The voice, full of pain and melancholy, said, “Those were the days, my friend.”

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In some ways I guess they were.

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almtz13@aol.com


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