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EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: The Competition Isn’t What It Used to Be

EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: The Competition Isn’t What It Used to Be

Rick Bell

Several weeks ago at a reception for the annual Cox Communications Salute to Teachers, I spent part of the evening reminiscing with a newspaper mentor of mine about a former colleague.

Ann Zivotsky and I were recalling with great fondness our memories of Mary Jane Morgan, who has long since gone on to that great pressroom in the sky. If the term “old school” is overused these days , and it is, labeling everything from whiny pop bands like Duran Duran (“Oh, that’s old school music,” I heard one child of the ’80s say recently) to Tony Gwynn (“He’s an old school ballplayer”) , it nonetheless applies to Mary Jane.

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If there is an old school of journalism, Mary Jane graduated with honors. She smoked heavily , at her desk, in the production room, wherever she could light up another of those skinny brown More cigarettes , and she enjoyed her cocktails after hours , and occasionally during work.

Mary Jane was grouchy, surly and never missed a deadline. A staff of one, she pounded out about 10 stories a week on a clattering old Corona typewriter as the editor of the Mobile Homes Courier. I don’t ever remember her wearing a green visor, but she probably had one stashed in her desk next to her proportional wheel and pica pole.

She was the lone voice of her readership, and she called the tens of thousands of mobile-home residents in North County “my people.” Mary Jane was a woman of hot type and cold, hard facts.

Though the communities of “her people” still live on, the Mobile Homes Courier no longer exists. Its sister paper the San Marcos Courier , where Ann and I first worked together , is out of business too, as is its parent paper, the daily Vista Press, which somehow survived into the early ’90s.

Ann left the Courier for the Citizen in Solana Beach, which was gobbled up by the Oceanside Blade-Tribune, which became the Blade-Citizen, which ultimately merged with the Escondido Times-Advocate to become the North County Times. In a less than a decade, a large portion of our county went from having three daily newspapers to one. That doesn’t even include the San Diego County edition of the Los Angeles Times, which no longer exists, and the afternoon San Diego Tribune, which went the way of most P.M. dailies when it joined the San Diego Union.

There were many nights in communities along the Highway 78 corridor when there would be more journalists in the city council chambers than citizens. The North County Press Club thrived for years , Mary Jane, of course, was an officer , until mergers ultimately forced its membership into the same newsroom.

Still, the fundamental business of gathering information has not changed much over the years. Oh, we now have the Internet to chase down facts, and zoning and “team coverage” and issue-oriented stories dominate news pages. The old axiom “if it bleeds it leads” is by and large shunned by editors.

But a beat writer is still basically a beat writer. And most editors are still crotchety, obsessive ink-stained wretches. Politicians still distrust us as much as we distrust them.

It’s the presentation that has dramatically shifted, and I’m not talking about splashy color layouts. The size of many newspapers has physically shrunk to accommodate advertising, leaving a smaller newshole. Some newspapers run ads on their front pages, and ad-driven supplements are much more frequent these days.

The bottom line has crept into the newsroom, and that’s unlikely to change. One of the more sensational events in our industry occurred this year when former San Jose Mercury News publisher Jay Harris resigned because parent company Knight-Ridder was focused too heavily on its profit margin.

He has become somewhat of a folk hero in journalistic circles. He’s probably earning more these days as a public speaker than he did as a publisher, as he has spoken to just about every journalism group imaginable.

Said Harris in a magazine article shortly after his abrupt March 19 resignation: “A resource so essential to our national democracy should not be managed with the primary goal of satisfying the demands of the market.”

Now that’s old school.

Bell is the Business Journal’s managing editor.

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