The Los Angeles Times columnist Pulitzer Prize winner tells a poignant story about the death of a newspaper.
It’s 1965, and 24-year-old William Colfax, an ex-marine wounded in Vietnam, limps into the city room of the storied San Francisco Herald. He’s come for an interview with renowned City Editor Gerald Burns. As Colfax arrives, a staffer leaves—on a stretcher, victim of a fatal heart attack. Which, as Burns points out, is a case of fortuitous timing. Hired to fill this sudden vacancy (“He covered chaos for us. Any kind of chaos,” Burns tells him), Colfax is at once plunged—sink or swim—into the vortex that is the antiwar movement. He survives, flourishes actually, because—talented, stubborn, curious and thick-skinned—he’s the stuff of born reporters. But the Herald does not survive. Owned and operated by the Stafford family for decades, the cracks in its foundation have been apparent for a while, though only few were eager to look. Now cracks have widened into faults impossible to ignore. Mismanagement is partly to blame, together with the remorseless pressure of television—both of which might be explanation enough. And yet the critical factor lies elsewhere, Colfax is convinced. Death came to the Herald, he believes, because it was part of the old, and the on-rushing new simply overwhelmed it. In December 1973, the paper (having “held solidly to a fading ethos”) shuts down. Over the course of eight years, Colfax has made good friends, lost some of them painfully, fallen in and out of love, and mastered his trade. And when in the newspaper’s darkened, deserted city room he drinks a final toast to the Herald, he knows he’s seen the last of its kind.
A turbulent period and setting fully realized. Martinez (City of Angles, 1996, etc.) writes compassionately about it all, “writes with fire and meaning”—to borrow the phrase he uses for his hero.