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The Ink-Stained Memoirs

The Daily News Was a Rollicking Publication With Progressive Practices. So Why Has It Faded From Memory?

May 04, 2003|Rip Rense | Rip Rense last wrote for the magazine about his friendship with former Valley News reporter Joe Shinn.

The old newspaper folk climbed the swaybacked stairs to the third floor. Reaching the top, they pushed open a pair of creaky swinging doors and stepped into a broad, rectangular room. There were rows of desks, as there had been 50 years ago, and plenty of bustle. But the bustle was no longer from a cocky crew of young reporters, editors and photographers. It was from sewing machines and fixed-stare garment workers, all stitching together the most god-awful pair of plaid pants this side of Ringling Bros. The Los Angeles Daily News--the original Los Angeles Daily News, which went out of business Dec. 18, 1954--had become a garment factory.

"It's a sweatshop!" joked onetime Daily News reporter Roy Ringer. "Well," said retired Los Angeles Times reporter Jack Jones, who had started out at the Daily News in 1949, "it was a sweatshop then!"

His former colleagues nodded, with chuckles muted by amazement to be back inside that funky building at 1257 S. Los Angeles St. There the "Only Democratic Newspaper West of the Rockies" had thrived, as had one of the most free-spirited staffs ever to work in a city room, writing stories of a Los Angeles now as gone as the Red Cars. Surviving "Newsies" had reunited to reminisce: Jones, Lu and Jan Haas, Paul Weeks, Roy and Vivian Ringer, Helen Brush (now Brush Jenkins)--and the stories flowed . . . .

Haas met his wife, Jan, a News artist, at a desk near the window. Reporter Weeks presided over weekly steak fry-ups in the library (drinks were a quarter). Ringer triumphantly brought back proofs of stories stolen straight from the Examiner composing room, a couple blocks away, and flirted with his future wife, society writer Vivian Sharp. Photographer Brush climbed to the roof just before dawn and scooped the city on an atomic test blast in Nevada. Jan Haas drew panties on a photograph of Mussolini's mistress as she hung next to Il Duce in 1945. Weeks hid out at a hotel after receiving threats over his crooked vice-cop expose. Jones' first duty as a copy boy was to wake up rewrite man John Clark at 4 a.m. and get him sober.

Fr a newspaper with the blandest of names, the Daily News could not have been more rollicking, downright oddball and, by today's standards, progressive. Consider:

The paper employed women and minorities when this just did not happen, not merely to be trailblazing, as staffers recalled, but because these people happened to be the best candidates for the job.

It was a "bastard tabloid"--neither a broadsheet nor tabloid-sized at six columns--bigger than today's LA Weekly and smaller than The Times.

The pages were peach-colored; in later years, even the building was painted peach. After a wartime period of less-expensive white paper, the News regained its blush with a "The Peach is Back!" parade through downtown, in which the fruit was flung to spectators.

It proudly touted its liberal Democratic editorial perspective in a city of Hearstian sensationalism and stolid Times Republicanism. It was a union paper from the get-go in a nonunion town.

Why, then, is it so forgotten? One often hears tales of the conservative Examiner, which merged with the sensationalist Herald-Express in the early '60s (Diane Keaton assembled an exhibit of Her-Ex photos at the downtown Central Library in 1999). We know about the Mirror and the eternal Times. But the News?

"Yeah, it's faded from everybody's memory," says the 78-year-old Jones. "We're talking about 50 years, and that's just a long time."

There might be another reason.

"The Daily News was very liberal-minded and had a large black and Latino readership," says Rob Wagner, grandson of News reporter Les Wagner and author of "Red Ink, White Lies: The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles Newspapers 1920-1962." "I think the liberal papers of the past have a tendency to get buried under the larger-circulating conservative papers. I can't think of too many liberal papers nationwide that really stand the test of time."

Then there is the fact that the News building was hardly destined to become a landmark, like the Julia Morgan-designed half-mission, half-casbah that is the cherished old Examiner building at 1111 S. Broadway, or even the granite Times complex. The Herald-Express, also an exercise in Hearstian architecture, was flattened for the Santa Monica Freeway.

No, this feisty paper--ever third or fourth in circulation--was housed inside a former car dealership at Pico Boulevard and Los Angeles Street, a squat three-story brick building as pretentious as a pair of old sneakers (and about as fresh-smelling). The un-air-conditioned News confines smoked and rattled to life every day like Jack Benny's old Maxwell. When the presses ran on the first floor--10 times a day, once per edition--the place shook like an earthquake. The presses occasionally caught fire.

Yet the best writers and editors in town lined up to work there.

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