The excited young reporter called in from the airplane crash site, sure he had captured the essence of the tragedy. He couldn't wait to read the series of graphs he had lovingly crafted about the scene.
But as the cub began to dictate his precious offering, the man on the other end of the phone cut him off. "Hold on a minute, Shakespeare," the rewrite man barked. "Before any of that, just give me the tail number."
Eric Malnic was a newspaperman. And, as any good newspaperman knows, you need the facts first. With a plane's tail number, you can track its provenance and safety record. The poetry could come later.
Malnic brought that sense of mission to everything he did in a five-decade career at the Los Angeles Times. While some journalists tired of figuring out the latest weather system or reason behind another drive-by shooting, Malnic remained endlessly engaged. His colleagues were better for his verve. Times readers were better for his insight and clear writing, often on the biggest stories of the day.
When Malnic died Tuesday at 73, it reminded a lot of journalists in L.A. and beyond not just of the serious business of putting out the news, but of the thrills and whimsy that could be had along the way. He taught a lesson that would apply in any job, or in life — to work with a sense of high purpose but be prepared to see that purpose crumble in the face of human frailty, often your own.
"There was a certain amount of glamour and swagger in the stories he would tell," said Richard Fausset, the reporter who had to hold back his sterling prose to deliver the plane's tail number that day. "The reporters and the paper were at the center of these dramas. What he said sounded like a road map for what might lie ahead for me, if I was lucky."
Malnic seemed in awe of his good fortune, to live within breathing distance of history. Before his death from cancer and numerous complications, he would recall that June night in 1968, when he had been assigned to help run the city desk. He was the "kid," being given a look by the old-timers. Nothing much was supposed to happen since the coverage of the California primary election had been well planned.
Then came the call from the Ambassador Hotel and he ran to tell then-Managing Editor Frank Haven.
Malnic recalled what happened next in an essay he wrote at the end of his long career. "Kennedy's been shot!" Malnic yelled. His essay described what happened next: "They looked at me as though I was clearly nuts. 'Kennedy's been shot!' I yelled again, and they knew it was true.
"There was a silence that lasted a long second or two, and then Haven spoke. 'Tell them to stop the presses,' he said quietly. In my 47 years at the paper, it was the only time I ever heard anyone utter that phrase."
Doyle McManus, The Times' Washington columnist, recalled Malnic as a quintessential Californian. He took pride not only in his newspaper work, but in the avocados he farmed in the San Gabriel Valley and in the flying that he learned in mid-life so he would be a better aviation writer. Malnic could be the tough-talking one-time Army Intelligence man one minute and the next the former Williams College English major, gently waxing about his love of books.
Bracingly candid about a lot of things, he didn't hesitate to talk about his alcoholism and recovery. He marveled at the changing demographics of the newsroom. When he started as a copy boy in the late 1950s, minorities were commonly referred to with pejoratives. Women had the barest toehold in the "hard" news sections. But over the decades the veteran reporter came to relish working with an increasingly diverse staff. He talked about how much better it had made the paper.
When he told stories about the old days he would lift his eyebrows and his eyes would gleam. (He would have loathed that cliché but his eyes really did have a spark when he spun a tale.) There was the one about the photographer who planted teddy bears and dolls at crash scenes to make the pictures more compelling. There was the one about the reporter dispatched to a train crash who, instead, filed updates from the newsroom hangout, the Redwood. There was the one about the make-believe character, Phlange Welder, who reporters jammed into gossip columns and obscure corners of the paper.
Malnic would chuckle deeply but also shake his head. "Thank God that crap doesn't go on any more," he would tell his young colleagues. "Those were not the good old days," he would say, recalled fellow reporter Bob Pool. The good old days were right here and now, working for a paper with higher standards and aspirations.
Malnic loved the competition of newspapers. That's why he paid off a bunch of cabbies to make themselves scarce at the Fresno airport, to get the jump on rival reporters flying in to cover an earthquake. That's why he refused to accept that authorities had closed the scene of a fatal train collision to reporters. He rented a four-wheel drive to get there.