Cathy's World: Newspaper nostalgia

By CATHERINE SEIPP  |  May 1, 2002 at 9:00 AM
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LOS ANGELES, May 1 (UPI) -- They're trying to start another newspaper in Los Angeles, so now the local media establishment's knickers are in a knot.

A panel called "Tales of the City: Journalism Today" at the Los Angeles Times' Festival of Books last weekend almost immediately began tearing into former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan's plans to start a new paper as an alternative to the Times. Riordan hopes this will debut in September, with a staff of 40 and a circulation of 100,000.

"It's entirely fueled by antipathy," complained panelist Times reporter Barry Siegal about Riordan's latest project.

Well, not entirely. But it is true that the germ of the new paper is Laexaminer.com, a Web site founded by media gadflies Ken Layne and Matt Welch that regularly needles the old harrumphers at the Times.

Veteran TV critic Howard Rosenberg is known as "rancid Howie" on Laexaminer.com. Creaky media critic David Shaw was described this week on the site as "reporting from his cryogenic chamber."

This sort of public tweaking has worked before, at least when it comes to getting attention and a new paper off the ground. The managing editor of the New York Sun, which made its much-anticipated debut last month, is Ira Stoll, whose SmarterTimes.com Web site criticizes the New York Times.

Starting a snarky new big-city second paper may seem a long shot, but as New York magazine's media critic Michael Wolff wrote in the Apr. 29 issue, it's one that just might hit the target.

"As AOL Time Warner becomes the next corporate punch line," Wolff speculated, writing about the New York Sun "as the notion of size and scale and reach and footprint becomes just so yesterday, newspapers could come back again."

Anyway, according to Welch, who was at the Festival of Books, moderator Annie Bardach recalled that there was once a time when she was not "in love with the L.A. Times."

Boy, was there ever. Bardach, a Vanity Fair contributor, used to talk my ear off complaining about the paper's Cuba coverage when I had a column about the Times in the old Buzz magazine. I never exactly got her point, but it seemed to have something to do with the Times coverage not being pro-Castro enough.

As Welch noted on his own Web site, the only positive note about the new L.A. paper came from Jim Bellows, the legendary editor who rejuvenated the old Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in 1978, giving it a few more smart and sassy years of life before it finally folded in 1989.

"Bellows ... tried to cut in with a comment about how, surely, Los Angeles needs a competing newspaper," Welch reported, "but he was quickly drowned out, largely by the sound of the panelists congratulating themselves on their mutual excellence."

All papers benefit from competition, and no one knows this better than Bellows, who before returning to L.A. to run the Her-Ex (he'd been a Times sub-editor) had edited the New York Herald-Tribune in the '60s and the Washington Star in the '70s.

The subtitle of his delightful new memoir, "The Last Editor," says it all: "How I Saved the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times from Dullness and Complacency."

Among Bellows' famous innovations was The Ear, a stylish gossip column in the Star written by Diana McClellan and Louise Lague. When Ben Bradlee, then editor of the Washington Post, began his affair with Sally Quinn, then one of his young feature writers, The Ear followed their every move and dubbed the pair The Fun Couple.

"They were not very much fun, actually," recalls a tart McClellan in the new TV documentary about Bellows, also called "The Last Editor" and currently showing on local PBS stations. (Check www.thelasteditor.com for dates and times.)

Notes Bradlee, still sounding a little grumpy, "Calling us The Fun Couple was the nicest thing they ever said about us."

The Bellows style was such that the only instruction McClellan recalls getting from him was to make The Ear "bip, bip, bip." (Quick and to-the-point, presumably.) His hands-off technique meant that pretty much every writer he hired still adores him.

"In today's world of corporate bottom-line martinets and self-serious poseurs," Rip Rense, who worked under Bellows at the Her-Ex, wrote in his WorldNetDaily.com column last week, "the Bellows style of trust is as quaint as a dial telephone. ... A modern piece of copy can go through six or seven different editors, all hemming or hawing as they suspiciously study sentences as if they were booby-trapped; puzzles that only their keenly trained minds can solve."

For more tales about old newspaper days, I recommend "Local News: Tabloid Pictures from The Los Angeles Herald-Express 1936-1961," edited by actress (and photography fan) Diane Keaton. There's also a new memoir called "The Keystone Kid," by Coy Watson Jr., of the fabulous Watson brothers.

The six Watson boys had been child actors in the silent picture days and grew up to become newspaper photographers for the several papers that once thrived in this city. Their father, Coy Watson Sr., was a stuntman and assistant director. The family lived across the street from Mack Sennett's studio in Echo Park, where the six Watson boys (and three girls) came in handy for casting directors looking for a child of pretty much any age.

Watson pranks are still talked about. At a Forest Lawn funeral with a 21-gun salute, they had a dead duck fall from the sky just after the shots were fired. Outraged by the eviction of families from Chavez Ravine to make way for Dodger Stadium (and annoyed by competition from TV helicopters), they ruined all the footage by getting fellow photogs to lie on the ground spelling out the f-word.

The shadowy allure of the old photos in the Herald-Express, which later merged with the Examiner to become the Herald-Examiner, is vanished now. Former Herald-Express photographer (and Watson brother) Delmar Watson remembered witnessing the beginning of the end in 1949, during the Kathy Fiscus tragedy. This was the little girl who fell down an uncapped well in San Marino, an L.A. suburb, and kept the horrified public enthralled as rescuers worked for three days to retrieve her.

Watson was driving down some L.A. street at 3 a.m. and saw, gathered outside the window of a hardware store, a small crowd watching the latest televised Fiscus update.

Delmar Watson was the star attraction at a Los Angeles Central Library symposium I attended some time ago. He insisted that "only a very small minority" of his old colleagues carried bent tricycles and broken dolls in their car trunks as set dressing for accident scenes, and grumbled a bit about the selection of pictures in "Local News."

Still, these images offer a fascinating view of a vanished world, from abused juvenile delinquents to steely murderesses right out of James M. Cain to that perennial old filler, the cute lost dog.

Now it's true that for all the fondly remembered old newsroom hijinks, the cozy relationship newspapermen used to have with their friends on the police force (a la "L.A. Confidential) should not be so fondly remembered.

Delmar Watson recalled that he and his cronies knew all the police codes and what they meant in the way of likely photo ops. "Drunk woman disturbing the peace naked -- that was the one we all listened for," he said.

Still, there is something about the moral rectitude of the contemporary newsroom that borders on the priggish. A few years ago, a Times photographer lost his job when it turned out that the prize-winning Malibu fire picture he'd shot of a fireman dousing his head with water had been staged. (The fireman HAD been dousing his head; the photog had just asked him to do it again.)

Watson laughed about the fuss made over that. He recalled a colleague from the old days who, while covering a mudslide, found a stuffed deer's head on someone's living room wall and took it outside and buried it, as if the deer were stuck in the mud. "Now, THAT'S doctoring," Watson said.

I keep thinking about something else Delmar Watson said: "Whenever you lose a newspaper, I don't care if its good, bad or whatever, you've lost one hell of a thing.

If you gain one back for a while, as Jim Bellows repeatedly did, that's also one hell of a thing. And so is starting one from scratch, as Riordan and Layne and Welch hope to do. If the smug naysayers don't like it, so much the better."

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