News people from what can now be regarded as the golden age of newspapering in the Tri-Valley gathered last Saturday for a reunion.
Most had worked for competing publishers, Floyd Sparks (The Herald) and Dean Lesher (The Times) when they battled for readers in the growing Livermore and San Ramon valleys in the 1970s and the 1980s. The editors, including two of the first editors I worked for as a teen-ager and a 20-something, have long retired.
Folks traveled from as far away as Vancouver, San Diego and Las Vegas to share memories of good, old-fashioned newspaper wars with both publishers investing in news coverage to build readership and gain an edge with advertisers. The battle was joined when Lesher bought the Pleasanton Times and launched the Valley Times in the early 1970s and established an Alameda County foothold to battle with Sparks who had purchased the Herald in 1964.
For perspective, remember this was almost a decade before Stoneridge Mall opened and before both Bishop Ranch (planned as a housing tract) and Hacienda Business Park were on the radar screen. Meanwhile Joan Kinney Seppala founded The Independent in Livermore, a publication that survives to this day. Joan and her husband, Lynn, both attended.
In those days, we had a mixture of reporters—youngsters like me being mentored by experienced folks in their 50s or more. And plenty of them—one person covering each community, a person covering cops and courts, a reporter assigned to the national labs plus an education reporter and one or two general assignment folks. Compare that to the combined dailies today with three reporters total for the area from Alamo through Livermore.
One of my delightful surprises Saturday was seeing John Oliver, still with us at 92 and living in Vancouver, WA. John was one of the editors I worked for and later, we reversed roles when I became editor and he was covering business and writing columns.
Fred Dickey, a Herald editor now living north of San Diego, recalled how he opened the Saturday paper in his first week on the job and saw an 8-column (most papers were eight columns in those days) spread across the top of the sports page touting the “bowling tip of the week.” It featured Granada Bowl proprietor and chief marketer, Dennis Fanucchi, and led to changes in the leadership of the sports department soon thereafter.
For perspective, I joined the Herald as a 17-year-old high school senior and left it in my mid-50s after stints as sports editor, city editor, managing editor, editor and associate publisher that covered parts of five decades (60s to 2000s). I was unusual in that gathering because many had worked for both publications and most had moved onto to papers elsewhere with a few leaving for PR gigs.
Looking back, I realize how fortunate I was to spend part of my newspapering career working for a family-owned newspaper—something that was common until the publishers aged and sold off to corporate news companies in the 80s and 90s. The conglomerates grew as demands from institutional investors forced the sale of the Times group and its parent (Knight-Ridder) in 2006 as the housing bubble started to pop and the internet continued to change the revenue model.
Move ahead to today and the economic model for daily publishing has shifted dramatically as advertisers have shifted to the internet and mobile devices. That’s why you see historic publications such as the New Orleans Times-Picayune go to three hard-copy editions weekly and layoff one-third of the news staff.
The business model that still has some legs is the combination of weekly hard copy and aggressive online coverage that the Pleasanton Weekly has pursued. What’s so challenging for citizens is that competitive news organizations drove quality coverage and there is precious little of that today.