From the desk of Robert E. Liggett, Retired Managing Editor: A newspaper life remembered

April 20, 2001

Nearly a half century of planting word seeds and watching them grow into daily newspapers — an apt metaphor perhaps for an agricultural area — has left a deeply ingrained reluctance to use the pronoun "I."

But journalism is a field that grows ironies as well as bumper crops of news stories, which is what newspapering is to an admitted traditionalist — writing about other people, not ourselves. This is one of those ironies, being asked to write a column of reflections on 21 years in the glass cage that was then the office of the managing editor of the Imperial Valley Press.

This special edition marking the 100th anniversary of the Press perhaps justifies this departure from long-standing personal habit pattern. It also marks the first time since 1988 that the Press has published on Saturday.

It was then that a weak Saturday edition was sacrificed for what has emerged as a stronger Sunday product. This had been a personal dream and I worked hard planning for it, but only as a plant-wide project did it come into being.


Times change. Newspapers change. As a beginning reporter for a small Michigan daily in 1945, television still was bandied in the "someday" context. Several years elapsed before the first snowy-screened set glued us nightly to the uncertain reception on two intermittently receivable channels.

Television since has managed to synthesize news and entertainment and pass it off as hard news, unfortunately leaving the public uncertain about distinguishing between the two. The resultant personalized approach to news inevitably has invaded the columns of newspapers as we are all part of "the media" that is blamed for nearly every societal flaw.

And now, here I am writing a first-person column.

I was an early disciple of the page make-up revolution brought about by the introduction of USA Today, even though it was at first called by detractors as "printed television." The Press gradually transformed its appearance, adding a staff artist to introduce graphics to the makeup.

I came to the Valley via a transfer from the South Bend, Ind., flagship paper of a chain known as Schurz Communications, Inc. I recall being in the office of Franklin Schurz Sr., the president, and being told, "Bob, if we send you out there we would like to have you stay at least five years." That was in 1968.

Certainly one of the highlights of those 21 years, before retirement in 1989, was moving into the new Press building at the end of that first five years. Retired Publisher J.R. "Dick" Fitch and Bobby Carlisle, then production superintendent, get the credit for a building that worked from day one. But a new office in a new building and our first foray into computer-set type was not an incentive for wanting to leave.

Recollections of 21 years in that glass cage would far transcend the 900 allowable words here, but reminiscences are inevitable. Local coverage has always been the forte of this newspaper.

And that local news included everything from the Cesar Chavez lettuce strikes to the frequent temblors that characterize an area situated squarely on the infamous Pacific "ring of fire." The 1979 earthquake is remembered because it destroyed the County Services Building. Two "100-year storms" two years apart uncharacteristically drenched the desert and one of them literally cut the community of Ocotillo in two.

There was the long-running coverage of the late Dr. Ben Yellen and his historic confrontation with the Imperial Irrigation District over the 160-acre limitation, during which he frequently branded the newspaper as "Schurz' prostituted press." His one-man efforts, using little more than a beat-up typewriter and mimeograph machine to produce his famous yellow sheets, ultimately wound up in the nation's highest court. There the colorful doctor lost.

I recall predicting during a staff meeting in the 1970s that "water" would continue to be the big story of the 1980s. I was short on prescience. Water is still the big story, at once the most vital and threatening issue to face the Valley at the advent of a new millennium. I always assigned my most talented writer and reporter on what we called the "water beat."

When I came to the Press in 1968, operating out of little more than a hallway converted into a newsroom in an old building on State Street, there were a total of nine in the editorial department, including the staff photographer. When I retired, there were nearly 30 full- and part-timers, including reporters, editors, photographers, graphics artists and bureau personnel. The paper gradually, through annual budgets, managed to improve salary levels in an effort to encourage staff stability. At the outset, the average tenure was seven months, near the end closer to seven years, even though we could not avoid the role of farm club from which larger papers could recruit.

No names have been mentioned because over 21 years there were too many to single out any one. The staff was for the most part younger, but that kept me thinking and feeling young.

A staff-arranged retirement "roast" at the Barbara Worth Country Club was both surprising and humbling when 250 community leaders and townspeople turned out to write a memorable "30" to a career. That could read "my career," but that would add another personal pronoun.

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