Bee very afraid

A retired McClatchy Co. staffer laments the dismantling of his old newspaper

Former Sacramento Bee staffer Dick Tracy recalls a long-ago chance encounter with Eleanor McClatchy, daughter of legendary newsman C.K. McClatchy. Presented with new technology in the newsroom, she responded, “What are they going to do with us people?”

Former Sacramento Bee staffer Dick Tracy recalls a long-ago chance encounter with Eleanor McClatchy, daughter of legendary newsman C.K. McClatchy. Presented with new technology in the newsroom, she responded, “What are they going to do with us people?”

See Bites’ column on page 8 for a closer look at this latest round of Bee layoffs.

“This is the way the world ends; not with a bang but a whimper.”

—T.S. Eliot

When I hear of the latest bloodletting at my old newspaper, The Sacramento Bee, my reaction is visceral. The feeling in the pit of my stomach is like watching in horror as people tumbled from the windows and the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11.

The temptation is to make a trip to 21st and Q streets and console those few friends who remain in the newsroom. “You didn’t do this,” I’d say. “You gave it your best. The paper is still making money.”

But not enough to pay off the $2 billion debt incurred when the McClatchy dolphin swallowed the Knight Ridder whale. Fingers point at McClatchy Co. CEO Gary Pruitt as the guy who got “too big for his britches” in making that deal, but they should also point at the 24 board members who bought into the “bigger is better” idea when newspaper revenues were already slipping from the incredible 20 percent profit watermark.

And fingers should point at those new-age execs who think the future of journalism is on the Internet, not on the printed page. It’s increasingly apparent now that this thinking is what drove several high-profile news executives out of the building in recent months.

The economic argument for heading to the Web is convincing: No more paying for ink, paper, presses, pressmen, circulation department (or insurance and maintenance for its vehicles) and several associated departments.

But will McClatchy disappear amid the thousands of other voices on the Internet? The Wall Street Journal recently critiqued the Web pages of 25 top newspapers, and The Sacramento Bee’s came in last on the list: “ is a very poor attempt to get and keep an online audience,” the report begins, ending with, “This may be the worst attempt to create an online version of a newspaper.”

And what of the loyal employees?

Long ago, I was at my desk in the newsroom and looked up to see Eleanor McClatchy standing at a doorway and looking across the jumble of mismatched desks in a room full of reporters. It was a rare visit. We’d just been introduced to IBM Selectric typewriters, and I asked her if she’d seen them. She hadn’t, and asked why they’d replaced manual typewriters.

“So we can type on special sheets of paper that are canned downstairs and turned into tape for the automatic linotypes,” I explained. Seeing her blank expression, I led her to the composing room and into a special air-conditioned room where a printer demonstrated the process.

She watched in silence for a long minute, then turned and asked: “What are they going to do with us people?”

People were still important then. Even during the depths of the Depression, the Bee kept a full staff. Yes, there were pay cuts, but people had jobs. It’s highly unlikely I’ll visit the newsroom—which now resembles the carpeted confines of an insurance agency—ever again. Instead I’ll cherish the memories of a room with worn linoleum floors where the cry of “Boy!” (summoning a copy boy or copy girl) routinely rang from the horseshoe-shaped copy desk. There the “old guys” held sway as copy editors, many wearing green plastic eyeshades for reasons I never fully understood. The most experienced sat in the center of the “U” and dealt stories to the others on the rim.

There was no executive editor then, only a managing editor and one assistant. Unlike the current plethora of “assistants” and “deputies” who slow the newsgathering process with endless meetings, department heads also had just one assistant. The rest of us were there to gather news, and we covered the city and surrounding communities like a blanket.

Meetings were fast and far between. We had a newspaper to put out!

Telephones jangled noisily, typewriters clattered, the sound of the wire service teletypes filled a corner of the room rich with the cloying aroma of cigarettes, cigars and pipes.

Every desk had an oilcan filled with rubber cement, for neatly gluing together half sheets of copy paper. Why half sheets? So a reporter could write a few paragraphs of a story at a time, and the sheets would be snatched from the typewriter, edited and sped to the composing room to be set in type.

The composing room was a world of its own, where printers were skilled in the art of typesetting and reading the results of their work upside down and backwards. The typographer’s union was the strongest in the building, enforcing some arcane practices that ultimately contributed to its destruction.

Pressmen, too, had a powerful union, that chose to look the other way when it was pointed out the walls of the room were as black as the hinges of hell with years of accumulated ink. What about the lungs of those who worked there?

Much has improved over the years at all levels—the absence of smoking in the office, modern furnishings, a pressroom with clean walls. The printers, sadly, never regained their stature following the disastrous 1978 strike.

But one thing we had in the “old days” was an esprit de corps, and each workday was punctuated by laughter: good, honest, let-it-all-out laughter.

With associates packing belongings in cardboard boxes, some ending careers before they really begin, and a corporation almost certain to use Chapter 11 bankruptcy as a life jacket before dropping its print edition, there’s little chance of laughter bouncing off those walls ever again.

And that’s the way the world ends.