40 years at a great newspaper


SACRAMENTO — It seems like a long time ago, and it was. Forty years ago today, my first story as a Times staff writer ran in the paper.

It was about Ronald Reagan entering his final year as governor. Although he was a lame duck, I wrote, his political health had “remained relatively stable.”

The piece ran on Page 1. I was in heaven. Not only was I working for the classy, well-paying L.A. Times, but my first offering was played out front.


Unbeknown to most people outside this business, nothing is more important to a news reporter — short of accuracy — than landing on Page 1. That’s really the sole agenda. That and cutting through the political bull if it’s your beat. Those aims are our only real ideology.

That first article was a positive report about Reagan. Typically, a month later, I ripped the guy after legislators smacked him with the first veto override of a California governor in 28 years. The lead paragraph asked whether the Republican was losing his political grip.

Obviously not, looking back on history.

The veto override was on a mental hospital bill authored by then-Assemblyman John Burton (D-San Francisco), who in 1974 was, and now is again, the Democratic state chairman.

My second story for The Times was about Secretary of State Edmund G. Brown Jr. — later known universally as Jerry — qualifying his political reform initiative for the ballot. The Watergate scandal was roaring. And Brown rode his reform proposal — along with the name of his father, former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown — into the governor’s office that year.

And here’s another small-world recollection: After two weeks at the paper, I wrote about the Senate GOP Caucus chairman proposing that special elections to fill legislative vacancies be eliminated and the governor simply choose a replacement. Special elections were too costly and a pain in the neck, argued Sen. John L. Harmer of Glendale.

Fast forward nearly 40 years, and Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) proposed virtually the same thing in one of my recent columns.


So some issues never change — taxes, education, water, corruption. Some players also hang around.

But much is different about journalism.

At the state Capitol, the press corps has dwindled dramatically as newspapers have folded, merged and downsized. Fewer eyes are watching the politicians. When Reagan was governor, major TV stations in Los Angeles and San Francisco operated Capitol bureaus. Now none do.

My hiring increased The Times’ staff in Sacramento to five. Gradually that tripled, then tumbled during layoffs. We’re now at eight, the largest out-of-town news bureau in Sacramento by far. (The Sacramento Bee has a Capitol staff of 10.)

Reporters today are asked to do more because of technology. As everyone has learned, technology’s purpose is not to lighten the workload. It’s to expand the potential work.

In one way, however, we’ve come full circle. I left United Press International for The Times to escape a “deadline every minute” culture that required wire service reporters to constantly update their stories all day. That reduced time for real reporting.

Until recent years, newspaper reporters could spend the day digging into substance before sitting down to write. These days, they’re pressured into blogging and updating, leaving less time for unearthing facts. The public may get the news faster, but in less depth.

But technology has made it much easier for reporters to deliver their work to a newspaper. When I first came to The Times’ Sacramento bureau, we rolled our typewritten tomes around some sort of copier tube and slowly transmitted it to Los Angeles — sometimes successfully, often not.

On the road, we’d try to stake out a pay phone. Cells didn’t exist. Big political campaigns would arrange for phone banks once or twice a day, but that didn’t always suffice. I remember going house to house in neighborhoods begging for a phone to dictate my story written on a bulky portable typewriter.

Today in the bureau, we keyboard our offerings and hit the send button. On the trail, reporters write on laptops and deliver through Wi-Fi, or use iPads and email.

But there are far fewer “Boys on the Bus,” the title of a classic Timothy Crouse book about covering the 1972 presidential campaign. To begin with, they now are more likely to be girls. That’s good. But there aren’t as many buses. Because of financial cutbacks and all the blogging and tweeting, more reporters increasingly follow presidential candidates on live TV and Twitter. Yes, it’s true.

Sacramento politics has changed — both for better and worse.

There’s less corruption, I believe. But the public may think there’s more because it’s easier to uncover — thanks in part to Jerry Brown’s old political reform.

Term limits have robbed the public of legislative experience and competence. But there are exceptions to everything.

In the legislative heyday of the ‘70s, during Jerry Brown’s first governorship, the veteran politicians couldn’t agree on property tax relief, resulting in the unintended consequences of Proposition 13. Property taxes were reduced, but local control was lost, and more power shifted to Sacramento.

And in 1996, before term limits took effect, the Legislature unanimously passed arguably the worst bill in history: energy deregulation, which culminated in power pirates gouging California and Gov. Gray Davis being recalled.

Citizens are more cynical and uncivil today. Blame Vietnam, Watergate, the phantom Iraqi WMD and widening income inequality for the cynicism. Political polarization, trash talk radio and the impersonal Web have fueled the incivility.

Forty years from now? One prediction: The Times will still exist, in some form, and be hiring guys like me to report the news.