Covering news in the ‘olden days’
I wrote this as a guest commentary for the Tehachapi News, the weekly newspaper in my hometown (where my husband and I returned to live last summer). It seems appropriate to share here:
The odd set of circumstances that I call my life means that I’m celebrating a milestone of sorts this summer. Fifty years ago, as a young reporter for the Tehachapi News, I covered meetings of the Tehachapi City Council and Tehachapi Unified School District Board of Trustees for the first time.
And 50 years later, I am again attending and writing news stories about these governmental bodies.
This is not, of course, the same as covering them for all of 50 years. Still, I find it surreal at times.
In June 1972, I returned to my hometown to work at the newspaper (after studying journalism at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo). Publishers Dick and Warren Johnson were brothers, having taken over from their father, Walter Johnson, in 1961. He had been the publisher since 1943.
The news office in those days was located on East F Street, where Thai-Hachapi restaurant is today. City Hall was on the corner of F and Robinson streets (where the planning department is today) and the school district office was in the small block building on Snyder Avenue.
Most of the population of the area lived in town at the time and the city council and school board were the main sources of news. Council meetings were on the first and third Mondays of the month and the school board meetings on the second and fourth Mondays. My bosses told me that the boards set the meetings on those nights so they could be covered by the newspaper in a timely manner. We went to press every Tuesday afternoon. The paper was dated Wednesday, but it was sold door-to-door by newsboys around dinner time on Tuesdays. Subscribers who lived in the country received the paper by mail on Wednesday. Back then just about everyone in town read the Tehachapi News cover to cover every week.
Through the years, living in Tehachapi and other places, I spent about half of my working years in journalism — as a reporter, editor and newspaper manager. The other half I worked in education and government. It is amazing to me that the total adds up to about 50 years. And that I now occupy a number of hours every week doing exactly what I did 50 years ago — reviewing agendas, sitting through meetings and doing my best to report on actions of the Tehachapi City Council and local school board.
That process, by the way, is not much different than it was in 1972. The technology has changed, of course. Back then, after the Monday night meetings were finished, I returned to the news office where I processed black and white film in a darkroom at the back of the building, then pounded out my story on an old manual typewriter. Early Tuesday morning Joan Johnson would arrive to typeset the story. This meant she had to retype everything I had written on a special machine to put the text into columns. By about 11 a.m. the “paste up” of the paper was complete and one of the Johnsons would drive the pages down to Arvin, then wait for the edition to be printed.
What else has changed?
I don’t know when, but many years ago the school board changed its meetings from Monday nights to Tuesday nights. For a weekly newspaper published on Wednesday, Tuesday night is the worst possible time for a governmental meeting to be scheduled. Eventually, of course, the internet was developed and now news can be published online any day of the week. But some people still rely on a print newspaper for local news and for them the scheduling of the school board meeting on Tuesday nights is unfortunate.
Then, as now, the school board had seven members. They were elected by everyone in the school district but each had to live in one of seven specific territories (rather than current method of two each from three territories and one from anywhere in the district). Because there were so few people living in some of the outlying areas (Sand Canyon, Cummings Valley and Keene), some members served for decades but there was more turnover for the four seats representing areas in and around the city.
Quite a few people attended school board meetings and often waited in the back room at the school district office while the board was in closed session so they could hear what action might be reported. This was before school employees had collective bargaining. Instead, the school board was required by the Winton Act to “meet and confer” with teachers and other employees. Hanging out with school employees to wait to see what the board might decide in closed session was often more interesting than the actual board meetings.
California’s Brown Act, intended to keep the public’s business public, was enacted in 1953, but the school board in the early 1970s was not always compliant. The board created quite a stir when it created and filled an administrative position during a meeting without any notice on the agenda. Despite public outcry, the board and administration were unapologetic.
The city council in 1972 was much more “hands on” in its management of the city than today. Instead of a city manager, the council employed a city administrator with far less power. But City Manager Larry Cook took time to meet with me several times a month to go over the council and planning commission agendas. The city contracted for services of an attorney and engineer who also attended the meetings. The elected City Clerk (Kay Koski) kept minutes of the meeting. Some matters, as now, were handled by the appointed planning commission.
In those days council members actually discussed the matters before them and then developed the motions they were going to make during the meeting (as opposed to relying on staff reports and draft motions). On more than one occasion council members asked me if I thought there was a better way to phrase a motion.
The city had a police department and fire department in 1972. In addition to covering governmental meetings, one of my jobs at the newspaper each week was to write up the police reports. In those days the Kern County Sheriff’s substation was at City Hall, across the hall from the police chief’s office. I was allowed to go into both offices and make notes from hand-written reports on clipboards hanging on the wall, then ask Police Chief John Smith or Deputy Ben Austin whatever questions I might have.
When fires occurred, a loud horn went off at the fire station (where current City Hall is located). I don’t remember the sequence, but you could tell by the number of horn blasts whether the fire was in the city or outside the city. I remember the fire horn waking me up in the night many times — then driving to the fire station where one of the volunteer firefighters would have written the address of the call on a blackboard before the fire engine took off. Typically, I could talk with Chief Tony Anthony after the fire was out to get whatever details were needed for a story — and then head back to the news office to develop my film.
Those were, of course, the olden days. When I was 20, I would never have believed that I would again be reporting local news in Tehachapi 50 years later. But as one of my favorite songs goes, “something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day,” and I am glad for the experience — and the memories.
It’s hard for me to believe this year is nearly half over.
I’ve been busy with life — and writing.
We just celebrated a big event in our family, the wedding of our son. That allowed a wonderful family gathering that was only disrupted a bit by COVID-19, keeping a few family members away. We are hoping for many more happy gatherings.
In addition to writing for my hometown newspaper, I’ve had other assignments come my way and I’ve been happy to help. In a few instances, I think my writing has helped shine the light on opportunities for public involvement and that is most gratifying.
The First Amendment, our freedom of expression and our right to know is under attack and I will continue to do my part to help shine the light and stand up for the public.
Looking forward to the remainder of the year I have ideas for more stories and hope I will be able to tell them.
“There’s always a story. It’s all stories, really. The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything’s got a story in it. Change the story, change the world.”
― Terry Pratchett, “A Hat Full of Sky”