Tue07292014

A journalist’s back roads: Editor’s Notebook

This year marks 30 years since I began working as a journalist at the Spartan Daily, San Jose State University’s newspaper. Just to give you an idea of how long ago that was: We were working with newsprint and manual typewriters.

I had the plant operations beat. One of the first memorable quotes I collected was from a maintenance guy who said: “I don’t know what the problem is – but we’re working on it.”

I was also working on becoming a journalist, with unremarkable results. “Not skeptical enough with his sources,” one editor quipped.

Still, I knew this job was for me. What I loved about it was the camaraderie that quickly developed among staff members. There was a real team spirit in that dusty old newsroom at Dwight Bentel Hall. Not unlike a successful football team, we worked together well, had each other’s backs and had kind of an us-against-the-world mentality. The “against” also translated to the paper’s advertising department, whose members were viewed as the enemy – sharply dressed wannabe business executives who sold ads for the paper. We used to picture ourselves as the unsung heroes in ratty T-shirts living off fast food, while the ad guys wore suits and ties and did power lunches. Silly, of course, but that’s how it was.

I knew I was in the right business when I found myself spending pretty much all my waking hours at the paper and actually forgot I had a final for my statistics class. It seemed nothing else mattered but being at that paper. I believe, after all these years, that at least a half dozen of my classmates still see each other regularly.

Naturally, when the gig was up, I wanted more. After graduating, I spent my early career at small newspapers, many of them out in the boonies. The first newspaper I worked for that had actual computers was in Amador County, of all places.

Interesting about Amador, and this was around 1987: I didn’t particularly hit it off with the staff, which eyed me warily as some “flatlander” from the Bay Area. But I have some fond memories of my experiences there as a reporter. The failures are more interesting than the successes, so I’ll relate one of my most galling goofs.

I had the opportunity to interview the Onion Field killer, Gregory Powell, who had just been transferred to the then-newly opened Mule Creek State Prison in Ione. Powell and another suspect became infamous for their involvement in the murder of a Los Angeles police officer whose body was left in an onion field. The story became the subject of a popular book.

At the Amador paper, there was no separation between reporters and photographers: You were both. So, equipped with my camera and notebook, I passed through the million or so checkpoints to get to Powell. The interview went fairly well and I took a few snaps. It wasn’t until I got on the outside that I realized – no film in the camera!

Thanks to the kind professionalism of Jan Polin, the prison’s public relations person, I got a second chance to “shoot” Powell, this time as part of a contingent of reporters. You should have seen their mouths drop when Powell recognized me and said, “Bruce!” as if greeting a long-lost friend.

Such memories stick out among the hundreds of stories and thousands of people that have come and gone in the three decades I’ve had the privilege of working on newspapers. I still have that privilege, thanks to Los Altos and the Town Crier.

Bruce Barton is editor-in-chief of the Town Crier.

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