Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - December 3, 2010

On Deadline: A decade of editing 'a newspaper worth the reading'

by Jay Thorwaldson

As a story in today's Upfront news section conveys, I'll be retiring from the Weekly's editorship at the end of January.

The departure comes after 10 1/2 years of helping produce what I believe is a quality publication, primarily through the efforts of terrific staff members, present and past, and much hard work and dedication. Reviewing past issues on our website shows a huge diversity and creativity and commitment to depth reporting on local issues.

Along the way I have picked up many friends and some non-friends, and sadly even lost a few friends due to what was published. Yet journalism shouldn't be about writing to impress friends, or officials. There always should be some distance even with people you really like and respect — an arms-length relationship that can be a touch lonely.

My retirement also coincides with my 50th year of professional (meaning paid) writing and editing in the journalistic style, in addition to high school and college student-paper work at Los Gatos High School and San Jose State. I got to know the principal in high school over things we published, with the support of a terrific teacher, Elizabeth Girdler, who had a professional background and defended the right of student journalists to go after real stories.

We covered a suicide of a young woman student after she had been rejected for a part in the senior play, then followed up with an investigative article on how few students actually got to be in the student performances from freshman through senior productions — mostly the same kids, in a pretty exclusive clique. The article was discussed at a school board meeting.

At San Jose State, the Spartan Daily wrote about the poor treatment the hundreds of foreign students were getting in circa 1960 and how a number of them were going home with anti-American feelings. And we exposed a great failure of America's high schools in when we wrote about the many hundreds of freshmen who had to take remedial English.

In the post-Sputnik pre-beatnik years, there was huge emphasis on engineering, physics and science.

We moved from the conformist 1950s era into the Beat Generation flip-flops-and-beard period, which flowed quickly into the hippie and antiwar generation of the 1960s and early 1970s.

I developed friendships with local San Jose Mercury reporters, including a veteran who said working for the monopoly paper was turning him into a coffee-drinking slacker. Stories he'd submit would often sit around for a week or two, so why push?

He taught me a valuable lesson: When there is no real competition a newspaper gets lackadaisical and lazy. Competition sharpens and hones a staff, pushes us to a sharp edge. And it's just plain fun to get a solid scoop — getting scooped isn't as much fun, but it's part of the job.

Two other lessons over the years have stuck with me, which I've tried to pass on to other generations of journalism students and staffers.

One is from a job I got between my junior and senior years, editing three weeklies in the west Fresno County communities of Mendota, Firebaugh, San Joaquin-Tranquility. The lesson stemmed from a "newspaper war" with a veteran journalist with 20-plus years experience with the Oakland Tribune. He bought an established paper to the north and informed my 28-year-old publisher (refusing to even shake hands when he came into the office) that "there isn't room in the West Valley for both of us."

He went out of business after my summer tenure. I later figured out that in my inexperienced bumbling around town, asking questions about basic zoning and history and people, that I made people feel larger, good about themselves. The veteran journalist, however, would pipe up even in meetings with advice, often phrased as, "In Oakland, they. ..." He made the locals feel smaller, like country hicks.

Thus my lesson: Journalists should never let their heads outgrow their hat sizes (even if we no longer wear hats).

A decade ago, when I became editor at the Weekly, I wrote a column that recounted my greatest lesson in journalism and life, from which I offer the following excerpt:

The question, "What is good journalism?" has occupied some part of my mind most of my life, through high school and college classes, editing student and real-world papers, being a beat reporter, writing editorials and serving as ombudsman (reader advocate) and teaching for a time at Stanford. Definitions abound. Take your pick.

But my most memorable lesson in community-based journalism was from a summer job I got after high school in Los Gatos: I was hired to research and write the local paper's 75th-anniversary issue. For week upon week I sat in a darkened side room of the town library (pre-air conditioning) and read from endless reels of microfilmed issues of Los Gatos area newspapers from the 1880s on.

One publisher wrote that he had to move "Frank, our compositor," from his front-window location because Frank was getting a crick in his neck from turning to watch young ladies in spring frocks walk down the board sidewalks. Composition then was letter-by-letter handset type.

Slowly, decade after decade, I became aware of a pattern.

A new editor/publisher (usually one in the same) would come to town and write an introductory column in which he (always a "he" in those early days) would pledge sincerely to do an honest, forthright, vigorous, balanced, fair and compassionate job of covering the news of the community.

Years passed in front of my eyeballs, bloodshot from the bright microfilm images in the dark room.

There was a gradual and subtle shift of tone and attitude. The editorials became more strident. There would be scoldings of town officials for actions taken, or not taken. And some curmudgeon-sounding insults, such as "fools," would show up from time to time.

After 10, 15, 20 or more years there would be a farewell editorial, rich with often blunt advice about shaping the future of the town.

And in the very next issue the new editor/publisher would write of his enthusiasm for the community's bright future and pledge to provide fair, balanced, forthright, honest and energetic coverage of the town.

These multiple cycles impressed me deeply. Unearthing them in my summer of celluloid archeology, seeing the patterns, gave me at a young age a telescoped vision of the past that is also the future.

I saw vividly the repetitive cycles of life, generation to generation. I was awed by the "nowness" of the past and future, all intertwined with the individuals striving to live as a community — and those striving to produce a newspaper that is interesting and honestly worth the reading.

To help produce "a newspaper worth the reading" is the best pledge I can make to the "Palo Alto area" community, a region rich with stories well worth the telling.

I hope we have kept that pledge.

Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by PAPD-Critic, a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 5, 2010 at 8:13 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by Bryan Long, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 2, 2011 at 11:06 am

Thanks Jay for your big contribution to Palo Alto! With you stepping down from the responsibilities of editor, we look forward to seeing more of your writings!


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