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Veteran journalist on working in newspapers: 'I'm dyin' here'

Long Beach Press-Telegram columnist and author Tim Grobaty
Long Beach Press-Telegram columnist and author Tim Grobaty
Brittany Murray/Long Beach Press-Telegram

Marc Haefele reviews “I’m Dyin' Here: A Life in the Paper,” by Long Beach Press-Telegram columnist Tim Grobaty.

I am a journalist. Specifically, a newspaper columnist. And it’s not a theory that all newspapers will die. It’s a law. It can’t not happen. I’m at the stage of a long career where my job is going to be changing in many ways. All of them bad. We don’t buy ink by the barrel these days. We pick up a half-gallon on the way to work. So, yeah, as a print journalist? Dead as a bobbin boy, dead as a scrivener, dead as a whorehouse pianna-player—so many occupations that once sustained this glorious world.  — Tim Grobaty, "I'm Dying Here"

Hard though it is to believe, it’s 40 years since American newspapers reached their apex of national importance. The papers, with a boost from TV news, had recently succeeded in running a second-term president out of office, getting the nation out of a bad war, electing a new, mostly progressive Congress, and helping to spark the environmental movement. Newspapers were making history, and not just its first draft.

Even more importantly, print journalism seemed not only thrilling and important, but a viable profession, one of very few in the decade that gave us stagflation and a president who told us to trim our aspirations. Newspapers were actually hiring people to write for them. And that’s what happened to people like Long Beach Press-Telegram columnist Tim Grobaty and myself. We bought into a luminous journalistic future that turned out, in fact, not to be there.  Had we thought it through, we might have noticed the storm warnings.  For instance, two-thirds of New York’s daily papers had perished just in the preceding decade.

Then again, even foreknowledge might not have stopped us. We weren’t in the business to get rich. We were there for the sake of what one veteran once called “A ringside seat on life.” There were people to talk to, stories to write, news to report in the eternal present of the Deadline Day. Our personal foresight was blurred: I remember an early-1980s after-work bar-room discussion at which all those present agreed that, with just a $500-a-month apartment and a $500-a week wire service job, we’d be happily fixed for life.

Grobaty had more sense.  He's stuck it out at the P-T for the 40 years that saw his newspaper shed most of its employees and move from its landmark downtown edifice to a former discount shoe store. He managed to marry the right woman, buy a house and raise a family (unlike nearly all of my journalistic contemporaries). He’s also fortunate to "be the only writer on a newspaper who is allowed, encouraged even, to bloviate on any topic at hand."

Now, he says in his early 60s, he "is engaged in a race to the grave with the newspaper itself … The paper is losing a subscriber with the death of every elderly reader in town, and young people aren’t standing in line waiting to inherit that subscription.’’

Grobaty, I feel, must have a special relationship with the people who own his newspaper (Digital First Media) to get away with saying things like that. But he is a Long Beach institution who has declined to move elsewhere because, according to him, he likes it there, and also because, according to him, he is too lazy to move.

He can also be funny, as when he is listing the reasons why he is going to vote for Mitt Romney. Here's one: “We got hit really hard on the head with a snow shovel.”

He can be affectingly somber, as in his piece on 9-11, and the one memorializing the last surviving soldier of World War I.

He can share his amusement with the general shenanigans of an otherwise totally forgotten earthshaking event like Pat Buchanan’s national Reform Party Convention at the local Convention Center.

He can impersonate innocence as a stand-in reporter among the media wolf pack at the OJ trial.

Now and then, without being altogether intrusive, he lightheartedly shares with us what must have been a remarkably miserable childhood.

He loves dogs.

He is always worth reading.

He can even make you think it might be fun to live in Long Beach. You do hope he survives his memoir-collection’s title “I’m Dyin’ Here.” I  would, on his behalf, also hope that his pension or 401k or whatever retirement emolument his skinflint employers offer him might survive, too.

(This article has been edited to correct the name of the current owner of the Long Beach Press-Telegram.)