…and I’m not the only one.
I read last week that the first newspaper I worked for, the Contra Costa Times, is folding. This came as no surprise to me. My first beat was reporting for a handful of weeklies under that paper’s umbrella in the late-1990s with a bunch of other aspirational Woodwards and Bernsteins, or at least Stephanopouli.
Nobody got paid anything and we all were hired on a cattle call because our predecessors left the newsroom en masse for cush gigs writing copy for startups like pets.com or eBay or webvan or fogdog or ask or Yahoo! or even Google. (OK, there was just one who went to Google, but still, that counts).
Even then, we were kind of the suckers, or as one alumnus who came in to “visit the newsroom” —like that gross, smoking jock who shows up on campus his postgrad year waiting in the parking lot for his girlfriend to ditch econ to meet him—put it, “The ones already left behind so early in their careers.”
I recall a newsroom team-type lunch function where we gathered around and listened to one of the higher ups in the company (then Knight-Ridder) talk about how they were going to move into the 21st century and beat the online guys at their own game. At that moment, there probably was a window. Search hadn’t totally taken off yet. Classifieds, even the electronic kind, were still the domain of newspapers (only they thought it’d be a good idea to charge—Craigslist took care of all that), content was still king and because of the dearth of reasonable blogging or free CMS platforms, newspapers held the keys there too.
But beyond lip service, nothing in the day-to-day showed any kind of panic or willingness to sacrifice in order to improve. The investment still went towards printing equipment over IT. The organization was top-heavy and, as much as I hate to say this, the more tenured reporters and editors were getting paid too much to just sort of disappear on day-long coffee and cigarette breaks.
The illusion that I would be a career newspaperman—at least the fantasy I had in undergrad—quickly faded. I could not foretell the future, but I definitely didn’t see that model lasting forever. It just didn’t feel right or nimble or noteworthy. What I really wasn’t able to call out until a decade and a half later, was that the newsroom wasn’t an uncomfortable enough place. Things were not great, but they were just OK enough to get by. Those who were used to this were unwilling to change.
And that’s what eventually killed it.
I get those same feelings now as I look at the overall state of this country during this election year. I have yet to talk to anyone who doesn’t feel the CGI ground opening up beneath them. On the left you have Hillary Clinton, who is the embodiment of the continuation of two-plus decades of going easy on Wall Street, continuing endless imperialist wars and kowtowing to corporations and giant monied families with the most to lose. Or, in the prescient words of Chris Hedges, “Hillary Clinton (is) actively working as an impediment to political mobilization and an advocate for political lethargy.”
On the right, you have Donald J. Trump—the draft-dodging the trustafarian son of a real estate magnate—who is also famous for philandering, kicking an old women out of her home, serial lying, bankruptcy filings, making Merv Griffin very rich, Omarosa and not paying taxes. He has become scared, white, aging, monotheistic America’s go-to guy for soundbites. And his rallies are reaching the fevered pitch of Nuremberg in 1934.
So that’s where we’re at with the two-party system. One side is just trying to cover up for the crumbling foundation by doing yet another kitchen remodel and the other has catered to hate for so long it just wants to tear the whole fucking thing down with no plans to rebuild but maybe a needle park will exist there one day.
It fucking sucks. (But let’s also be clear: Hillary is be the lesser of two evils when it comes to frontrunning candidates. But that’s not going far enough with the comparison. It’s like saying the flu is the lesser of two evils when AIDS is the alternative. Donald Trump = America’s AIDS.)
…Back to the paper for a second: I worked the community beat in Martinez, California—that place with the giant refinery on the shores of the Carquinez you drive through on the way to Tahoe. Martinez is the Contra Costa county seat and the hometown of Joe DiMaggio. It was built by lots of proud Italian families and, until they started to shuffle on, there was a Bocce ball game every Sunday where the men and women from the old country would gather with wine and cheese and bread at the courts downtown. The water from the bay would lap under their laughter and it wasn’t hard to see how for a time, it was a charming place to call home.
One weekend day early on, I needed cover art for the next week’s edition and there was a car show in town. I had to file a 500-word story with it. Intro, a couple pull-worthy quotes, maybe a snippet about some exhaust backfiring causing one man to spill his potato salad in his lap—and out.
I was talking to one gentleman, probably in his mid-60s, who had a beautiful Lynndale blue metallic ‘67 Corvette on display. I told him that was one of my favorite year Corvettes because the car was starting to get a little sharper, funkier—just as the country was starting to change. He said he bought it new because he could see things were beginning to look different and the Corvette made him feel “a little better.”
He asked for my card and furrowed his brow. “Pridgen,” he said. “That’s an unusual last name.”
“I guess so.”
“Not related to Billy Pridgen, by any chance?”
“I am. Yessir. That was my grandpa.”
“Well,” he leaned in and opened his mouth wide. “Your grandpa’s responsible for all this stuff.”
Two rows of black-filling back teeth, most of them cigarette butt yellow, stared back at me.
“He was your dentist?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Used to keep me laughing the whole time. I told his receptionist—what was her name?—not to have Billy give me any laughing gas. Just have him tell his stories.”
For whatever reason, I didn’t much feel like dwelling on anecdotes about my grandpa that morning. Though I should have. Maybe I thought everyone in the area still remembered him and this would be a weekly occurrence. Or, more likely, I wanted to meet up with some people for lunch or the Giants game and go about my day. I got the man’s name and folded the notebook in my back pocket. As I turned to go, he said, “You know, I used to work at the paper mill. I knew I wasn’t going to end up being Sinatra or Jimmy Stewart. I was just me. I worked with my hands. I raised a family. I own a home. I’ve got this car. That’s enough. That’s pretty good.”
I remember jotting some of that down on my way back to the car. I tried to smuggle it into the story but the editor told me it sounded a little contrived. She said the nostalgia point was driven home by the fact that we were putting a car show top of the fold in the first place.
I took it as a valuable lesson, though now I’m not sure what to believe. Because now here we are and that paper is gone. Community journalism—which is to say reporting and writing with the intent of covering real people and their causes and celebrations and mistakes and mishaps—is gone. Civility and communal discourse, gone. The job at the paper mill which earned a working man an honest living…and a Corvette, gone. Memories of my grandfather, of the shrinking Italian men sipping Chianti as the sun sets over the East Bay, gone. The notion that there is a choice in this country beyond a sanctimonious hyena and an elitist cog and her surrogates, gone too.
We’ve lost a lot.
Like the fading newsroom of yesterday, our country isn’t yet an uncomfortable enough place for big changes to happen. Things are not great, but they are just OK enough to get by. Those who are used to this are unwilling to alter their direction. And so, instead of doing something now, we swipe to life our handheld screens sold to us by a Machiavellian toy maker in a black mock turtleneck and blue jeans and disappear into cat videos or precious, meaningless text strings about when we’re going to be home.
Looking back in 15 years, because we’re not showing any kind of panic or willingness to sacrifice in order to improve now, these days are going to seem precious by comparison.