It’s certainly premature to write the obituary, but I began to grieve at the loss of one of my oldest friends last Friday. I shouldn’t be grieving, because my friend has been one of the most widely known figures in San Benito County for nearly 140 years.
I’m speaking, of course, of the Free Lance, the voice of San Benito County since there was a San Benito County. There was no “thud” in our driveway last Friday, signaling the arrival of a publication that’s chronicled who died, who cried, who lied and who got pie-eyed as only small town newspapers can.
The Free Lance remains, both as a weekly newspaper and as a lively presence on the Web. But that cruelest master — capitalism — dictates that the public pay for its supper, in the form of paid Web subscriptions and/or paid subscriptions for the paper version. The free ride and my daily habit of checking the Free Lance out on line ended last week.
Paying for content seems only fair, but to be frank, I probably won’t bother. It’s not that the handful of talented people who have elected to carry on as staff members are not continuing to do good work. They are. But we all swim in a media minestrone, and there’s plenty of information out there. Moreover, past attempts at sustaining a subscription were plagued with difficulties too numerous to recount here. That, combined with the looming advent of a free Web-based community news source that I’m committed to contributing to, means that I probably won’t bother.
That new media source — found on your friendly, local computer at http://www.BenitoLink.com — is populated with many of my former coworkers from my years at the Free Lance, along with some other people who know one end of a pencil from the other. I began working in the Sixth Street office in 1978, left briefly a few days before 1998, and in the process earned myself the dubious distinction of having served longer as editor than any other person, living or dead.
Speaking of dead, one of the most lurid chapters in the early years of the Free Lance involves a duel fought on the steps of the County Courthouse, involving the editor of the Free Lance and a competing newspaper. The Free Lance editor came up on the short end of the disagreement, and such was his standing in the community that his killer was subsequently acquitted.
But that was before my time, as this essay attests.
After I stopped coming into the office every day, I continued as a columnist, dabbled in a few other things, and returned to the fold as publisher of the dearly departed Weekend Pinnacle from 2005-2009, whereupon the newspaper industry’s well-documented contractions landed a pink slip on my desk.
But, really, I’ve never left newspapers, and I miss some of the most creative — and creatively interesting — friends I’ve ever had as the result of working there every day. When I started, the newsroom was filled with tobacco smoke, and stories were assembled on antique typewriters loaded with cheap paper. The combination of paper, rubber cement and smoldering cigarettes resulted in so many blazing wastebaskets that office fires didn’t even rouse comment. The guilty party would simply move the fire to the sidewalk and go back to work while it burned itself out.
Times change, and so did the newspaper. Tobacco was banned, the typewriters junked. The paper got better, and the community responded. But it never got less interesting than those earliest days.
If I ever produce a novel, it will certainly be an almost entirely true account of life in a small town daily, located in the small town of Hollister, California. An attorney will probably insist that I include a flyleaf that begins with something like “Any resemblance to actual persons or events is strictly …” And know this now: That will be a lie.
It’s hardly necessary to point out that the retail landscape in Hollister, San Juan Bautista and every other town and city in the world has changed. As a kid, I could pick up a pair of Converse sneakers while my Dad bought a pound of nails down San Benito Street and my Mom shopped for fabric at Baughman’s Department Store. Every afternoon, kids would hawk copies of the Free Lance up and down the street.
But that belongs to an era that included Norman Rockwell, and only two channels on our black-and-white TV sets. We may miss that time, but we all participated in killing it as our own shopping habits changed. It may or may not be time to thank nice Mr. Gutenberg for the moveable type that made printing newspapers possible, and then to move along. Delivering the news on paper is both expensive and cumbersome. But there’s something inescapably satisfying about holding a tangible thing, the essence of a community’s life.
Once, when we were experiencing some bumps in our circulation, a gentleman called to complain that the rhythm of his day was altered for the worse when he didn’t get his Free Lance. We talked for a while, and he finally disclosed how essential the paper was to his daily well being. The paper accompanied him to the bathroom each day, and without it, he suffered from bouts of irregularity.
That’s a weighty responsibility.
When it was announced that the free ride for the Free Lance online was about to come to an end, the staff at the paper was big enough not to take down a string of snarky comments from people complaining about the quality of the product they had been receiving free of charge. I think it’s safe to say that they won’t pay for subscriptions, since they felt free to complain about the quality of a product they were not paying for in the first place.
Gathering the news of a community is time-consuming, expensive, frustrating, thrilling, emotionally draining and profoundly rewarding. I think the community should be grateful for the decades of devotion from giants like Wayne Norton, Millard Hoyle, Vince Chan, Marian Pearce, Herman Wrede and countless others.
It’s been a good run, and I believe this latest development doesn’t signal the last lap of the race.
I hold the people who continue soldiering on, going to heroic lengths to deliver the Free Lance to readers each week, in the highest regard. And I fervently hope that these thoughts will never be regarded as the prologue to an obituary.