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Oran Asa Leaves a Newspaper Legacy

July 11, 1991|AMY LOUISE KAZMIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a young boy growing up in the city of Orange, Oran Asa dreamed of becoming "the greatest sportswriter in the world."

But when he graduated from Occidental College in 1935--at the height of the Great Depression--there were few openings for aspiring sportswriters.

With no other prospects, Asa accepted a $100-a-month job cleaning the offices of the Highland Park News-Herald. He didn't intend to stay long; just until the economy improved and he could find another job.

But the temporary job as an office boy turned into a lifetime passion. Asa rose through the ranks of the newspaper, and became the publisher-owner in 1957.

Fifty-six years after he took that job, Asa, age 80, is just now leaving.

Troubled with deteriorating health, he has sold Northeast Newspapers--which eventually expanded to a group of eight papers--to Southern California Community Newspapers, a chain of 24 semiweeklies and weeklies in Southeast Los Angeles County and Orange County.

The sale price has not been disclosed.

"It's the end of an era," said Larry Hatler, who serves on the board of directors of the Highland Park Chamber of Commerce. "He was fantastic in his knowledge of this area, in his dedication to the community. Oran Asa was one of the last of those longtime pieces of the original Highland Park."

Kathleen Aberman, president of the Eagle Rock Assn., agreed.

"He was a pillar of the community. I don't think you could be any more plugged into a community than he was," she said.

As the owner and publisher, Asa used his eight newspapers as forums for news that was too small or too localized to be covered in bigger papers. He ran stories about social service club meetings, public hearings, weddings and anniversaries.

"Our mission is to print community news, the news that can't get on television and can't get in the dailies. That's what we live for," said Roger Swanson, who has worked at the papers for 32 years and is now the editor.

But Asa also used his papers as political tools: to defend the best interests of the community as he defined them.

Although the papers never wielded as much clout as more powerful daily newspapers, they raised a persistent voice in debates over community issues.

In recent years, though, the newspapers have had trouble keeping up with the changing community demographics. The staff has fallen from a high of about 10 reporters and editors to six. Only one reporter speaks Spanish, although 60% of the residents within the papers' circulation are Spanish speakers.

Asa was also frustrated by the papers' inability to make inroads into the growing Chinese community in Highland Park, and Eagle Rock's burgeoning Filipino population.

But with such a small staff, Swanson said, "we're not able to cover any community adequately. We're stretched pretty thin."

The papers--which averaged 44 to 48 pages in the '60s and '70s--have been reduced by declining advertising revenue to about eight or 12 pages, Swanson said. And paid and unpaid subscriptions have not increased much since 25 years ago, when they peaked at 90,000, Asa said.

According to his own account, Asa came to the Highland Park News-Herald in 1933, while a history and political science student at Occidental. Seeking a part-time job to help finance his education, he landed in the paper's print shop and worked setting type for 20 hours a week.

After his graduation, he was hired as a copy clerk to clean the office and do odd jobs. After three years, he was sent to display advertising, and a year later, was promoted to reporter.

Asa immediately found himself in the midst of one of the biggest local stories of his time--the battle over the development of the Pasadena Freeway. While following its numerous twists and convolutions over a period of several years, Asa began feeling a strong tie to the community.

The story derived from a fee levied by Los Angeles city officials on Highland Park property owners, to buy the Arroyo Seco riverbed and preserve it as a park.

But in 1936, six years after the land was acquired, city officials began proceedings to turn it over to the state for a freeway between Pasadena and downtown Los Angeles.

Highland Park residents were furious. They mounted numerous legal challenges, and lobbied legislators for repayment.

Asa covered numerous public meetings and protests, and met with people who he said lost their homes because they could not pay the fee.

The campaign for reparations was unsuccessful.

But afterward Asa realized that he felt he was a part of the little community that he believed had been so wronged by greater powers. He never again thought of leaving, and decided to dedicate his career to serving the area.

"I got very upset about it," he said. "It was kind of discouraging. They were always downgrading the community."

In 1946, the publisher of the Highland Park News-Herald, Oliver Jaynes, sold it, and moved to Palm Springs.

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