During my 40-plus years in the newspaper profession, I worked for three different papers: a small (and later, medium-size) daily, the former “Escondido Times-Advocate:” a brand-new, but ill-fated weekly, “The Reporter;” and a large daily, the “San Diego Union¬-Tribune.” The job on any newspaper regardless of size is essentially the same, but what a world of difference in the workplace.
The Daily Times-Advocate
Without question, the 27 years I was with the Times-Advocate, especially during the 13 years of Carl Appleby’s ownership, were the happiest days of my professional life. Perhaps this was because I literally grew up with the paper. I was a 20-year-old kid with no experience, starting as a raw sports writer on a very small paper of about 4,000 circulation and advancing to become the editor at the age of 33 in charge of 20 other persons on a thriving, respected medium-size daily of about 35,000 circulation.
When I started at the T-A in 1952, it had fewer than 20 total employees; when I left in 1979, it had about 200 employees. I knew most of them on a first-name basis. This was one factor that made this particular workplace more like “family.” While I had seen some turnover in those 27 years, there were a few of those colleagues who had been with the T-A for more than a few years. From among them, I forged three close and intimate friendships that lasted more than 50 years.
The early days at the T-A — pre-Carl Appleby — were still “good” years, but they were lean years from a salary standpoint. But they were learning years, and I still was advancing, as then publisher Fred Speers promoted me to city editor and then to the first managing editor (in 1961) the T-A had ever had.
The Times-Advocate began a dramatic transformation in 1965 when Carl Appleby became owner and publisher. (He had retained me, and promoted me to editor.) It was under his guidance that the T-A became a respected newspaper throughout the state; it was literally award-winning, having been awarded first place in general excellence in the state (by the California Newspaper Publishers’ Association) and in the country (by the National Newspaper Association).
It was because of Carl that I was able to interact with other editors and newspaper-related organizations, exchanging ideas. He permitted me to spend time outside the T-A on activities that benefited me, but also the T-A itself. During those 13 years as Carl’s editor, I had lectured in the journalism departments of eight western universities, including the University of Oregon, Northern Arizona University and the University of Southern California.
I was a member of the American Society of Newspaper Editors; a past chairman of the CNPA’s state editors’ conference; a past chairman of the CNPA’s editor-in-residence program (matching editors with college journalism departments); and a co-founder and charter chairman of the Southern California Editors and Educators Journalism Council. I also was privileged to attend editors’ conferences in New York City, Washington, D.C., Honolulu and Atlanta. I mention all this not to blow my own horn, but to show the generosity and understanding of a publisher such as Carl Appleby. Nor would my absence from the newspaper have been possible without the aid of my right-hand associate and best friend, managing editor George Cordry, with whom I had worked for 25 years.
That is why working for the T-A was the happiest time of my professional life. When Carl sold the T-A in 1977 to the Tribune Co. of Chicago, I chose to stay while the other five departmental managers left, but I knew that things would never be the same. I stayed for another year and a half, resigning in August 1979, after 27 years almost to the day, knowing that I was not compatible with corporate management. My resignation was accepted on the spot. (I was given six weeks of severance pay.)
When I arrived home that afternoon and told my wife, we sat on our back patio and I literally began to cry. Most people would understand.
The Weekly Reporter
After leaving the Times-Advocate, I was a “man of leisure” for several months, deciding what I was going to do about future employment. My severance pay, my portion of a T-A profit-sharing plan and deferred compensation were sufficient to meet my financial obligations. In May 1980, nine months after my resignation, my wife and I moved to western Pennsylvania, about 70 miles north of Pittsburgh, to become partners with relatives in a restaurant and lounge. I was the managing partner. After about a year, I sold my share in the business to our relatives and my wife and I purchased a music store in partnership with our older daughter and son-in-law.
It was during this time that the country had gone into a deep recession, as interest rates had risen to 20 percent, businesses were closing and unemployment was rising. In our little town of 6,000 population, 2,000 people were out of work. Our business was suffering.
It was on a Sunday in April 1983 when I received a telephone call at home from Jim Fermin, a former colleague in the T-A’s advertising department. He was calling from Escondido, asking if I was interested in becoming editor of a new weekly newspaper he was planning to start. The paper would be going up against the Tribune Co.-owned Times-Advocate. Jim said he had 20 local investors willing to finance the operation, and that I could hire two other persons of my choosing for the news staff.
After conferring with my wife about our probable return to Escondido and the fact that our move East had been a financial disaster because of the economy, she agreed and I left Greenville, Pennsylvania, driving alone 2,300 miles across country to Escondido.
It was in mid-April 1983 that 10 of us, including six former employees of the T-A owned by Carl Appleby, began organizing “The Reporter,” a 16- page, two-section weekly that would be mailed free to 30,000 residents in Escondido and San Marcos. The front page featured a column we dubbed “About People,” which was similar to “The Prowler” column featured in the old T-A years ago. The front page of the second section was our lead sports page. The first edition, printed by the Encinitas Coast-Dispatch¸ was published in June 1983.
Our offices were in a make-shift couple of rooms in an oil company building on West Mission Avenue. We knew it would be difficult competing for advertising against the Tribune’s T-A, and it was. We also knew we had to be something different from the T-A, so we decided to ignore police and crime news and concentrate on telling stories about people. Fermin and I and our investors knew there was still some animosity toward the present T-A, even after five years since Carl had sold. It was because of this that we believed there was a chance that a weekly that offered an alternative could succeed.
But it was not to be. We were unable to sustain enough revenue from advertising to continue publication, and investors were unwilling to contribute any more cash to finance the operation. So, in December 1984, 17 months after start-up, “The Reporter” was sold for $50,000 to Robert Herring, an Escondido businessman who owned Industrial Circuits in Saber Springs. Herring kept the paper afloat another year, but finally closed the operation for lack of advertising.
I learned a new respect for weekly papers in the year and a half in which I was involved with the struggling “Reporter.” It was sometimes a seven-days-a-week job.
The San Diego Union-Tribune
After the experiment with “The Reporter” came to a disappointing ending, I was out of work for almost six months before obtaining a position in June 1985 with the then San Diego Tribune, the afternoon newspaper of the Copley organization, whose flagship was the morning San Diego Union. I was hired as an editorial page copy editor, but eventually was named the letters editor.
I was with the Tribune for seven years until 1992 when it discontinued publication, merging with the Union to become the San Diego Union- Tribune. I was among the fortunate employees who survived the merger and was retained on the new Union- Tribune. Several hundred employees lost their jobs as a result of the merger. I retained the title of copy editor, but I essentially became a full-time letters editor. We were receiving an estimated 100 letters a day, and all of them had to be at least perused.
At the time, the U-T operation was in a five-story building in Mission Valley with more than 1,000 employees. The Tribune news staff, of which I was a part, had been on the third floor, and the editorial staff was in an office just off the main newsroom. After the merger, the editorial staff’s 11 employees were isolated on the fourth floor, while the main news staff remained on the third floor. (The top floor of the building housed a company cafeteria and the publisher’s office.) I had four different supervisors during the last five years I was with the company.
Here I was now a part of more than 1,000 employees after working for a medium-size daily which, at its peak, had about 200 employees; and then a weekly paper with 10 employees. What a world of difference. I now was just a face in the crowd, a number on an employee list. And the 60-mile, round-trip to and from San Diego was a drag, after living and working in the same town (Escondido) all those years. There were days I even could ride my bicycle to work.
I certainly couldn’t complain about the salary and benefits working at the Union-Tribune. But there was something about the workplace in which I just didn’t fit. So when I reached 65 in January 1997, I retired. It has been almost 20 years since that day, but the memories remain.
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Ron Kenney was a reporter and editor with the former Daily Times- Advocate from 1952 to 1979 and was a copy editor on the pages of the San Diego Union-Tribune from 1985 to 1997.