The last real newspaper
How being turned down for a job at the Herald Examiner saved one reporter’s career
By Kevin Uhrich 01/08/2014
Reading Lionel Rolfe’s story this week about the loss of journalism’s soul evoked a few memories of my own inglorious start in this evolving business more than three decades ago.
It all began when I was pumping gas and fixing tires for movie stars and music moguls at a Union 76 station during the day and selling magazines and cigarettes to some of those same people at night across the street at the Sherman Oaks Newsstand — both businesses still operating on the south side of Ventura Boulevard, where Van Nuys Boulevard turns into Beverly Glen, the road to Beverly Hills. At 19, I had come to California with four high school friends from a small town in Pennsylvania. What little free time I had was spent away from our little apartment, often at the library at Katherine and Moorpark avenues, writing letters mostly, but also filing entries in a journal that I was keeping of our adventure. At the newsstand, I was exposed to some of the great magazines and newspapers of the time, 1979, the top three among those being the LA Times, the then-Valley News and the LA Herald Examiner.
I lived in the Valley, and would later attend LA Valley College, then Cal State Northridge, but the Herald was by far my favorite, with its hard-hitting coverage of crime and public corruption, not to mention its incomparable sports page. This was real, power-challenging journalism, I thought. So, believing myself to be a writer, one day I took off from work on the corner and set out on my very first assignment: Find the Herald Examiner and become a reporter. I knew the building was downtown, but not exactly where. I got off the bus at Pershing Square, asked a mailman for directions, and finally found the famous Julia Morgan-designed building several blocks away, at the corner of 11th Street and Broadway.
At the back entrance, two ladies in blue shirts greeted me and asked what I wanted. “I want to be a writer,” I said boldly. Such chutzpah, they must have thought as they chuckled at my brash pronouncement. “I’m sorry,” one lady said. “We don’t have openings in editorial, but we do need a pressman. It’s the graveyard shift. Would you like to apply for that?”
“Absolutely,” I jumped, and by the end of the week I was part of a crew working the overnight shift. It was then that I learned about the decade-long labor strike, which started in 1967 and severely crippled the paper’s circulation. In less than a year, and still without a car, another strike — this time by drivers with the Rapid Transit District, now the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — would end my brief career in the messy, inky world of newspaper printing, a world which I had come to love.
Ten years passed and I was still in “the business.” By this time I had gone to college and become a reporter, only with another equally hard-charging daily, The Enterprise of Simi Valley. I had never really lost the desire to write for the Herald, though, and one day in 1989 got up the guts to apply again, this time with the right people. It happened they loved my clips, and they liked me too, inviting me to drink with them after work at Corky’s Bar, a dark and friendly little dive located directly across 11th Street from the back entrance to the plant — where I had first applied a decade prior.
Yet, for all the love, they didn’t call back. My dream to return to the paper as a writer was quickly becoming a nightmare. I got hold of my contact, then-Assistant City Editor Bill Johnson, who apologized, saying it was all up to City Editor Larry Burrough, and Larry wasn’t responding to Bill’s inquiries. So I called the notoriously gruff Burrough and asked him what was up. “Oh, yeah,” he said, “you,” indicating that he at least knew who I was. “I gave that job to an intern.”
What? I simply couldn’t believe this. An intern? Dejected and disappointed, I resumed my old position at The Enterprise. Then, a few weeks later, in early November 1989, we learned that the Herald had folded. The paper had been for sale since July, but never did anyone think it would close. If I had been hired, it would have been for only a few weeks or months. Then what? Burrough couldn’t very well tell me that the paper was shutting down. Very few people knew that until it published its last edition on Nov. 2. In essence, he had done me a big favor by not hiring me.
Shortly after the announcement, the LA Press Club hosted a going-away party for the newspaper’s staff at its headquarters, then at the LA Equestrian Center in Burbank. I attended the event, having once worked at the paper, and spotted Burrough, wearing dark glasses, black leather pants and matching jacket, with what was left of his thinning reddish hair pulled into a small ponytail. We had never actually met and I wanted to thank him for not ruining my life in that period of corporate uncertainty.
“Mr. Burrough,” I called after him as he walked toward the bathroom. “I’m Kevin Uhrich, the guy you didn’t hire.”
“Oh, you. You owe me one, motherf*****,” he said with a sly smirk crossing his lips.
Indeed, I do owe him one — namely my career.
No one can say what might have happened if Burrough had hired me for that brief time. But it might not have included taking the seat I occupy today at the Pasadena Weekly, the old P-Dub, which, even with its many changes and challenges, has captured my journalistic soul over all these years.