Media Bistro’s Fish Bowl L.A., an online gossip column about Los Angeles media, has been polling readers lately about what they’d like to see added — or dropped — from the increasingly beleaguered Los Angeles Times. I can practically hear the snickering about the suggestion from Johnny Carson’s ex-wife Joanne, who suggested “stories about pet heroes, pet success stories, and pet human-interest stories.”
I admit I sort of snickered too, at first. But then I realized that if the paper is really serious about attracting younger readers, the ex-Mrs. Carson is probably more on target than a passel of posturing editors.
I haven’t thought about this for years, but I’ve been reading the Times since I was very small, and Joanne Carson’s suggestion reminded me how as a child I used to excitedly look forward to the Pets column every Sunday in the back of what was then called Home magazine. This wasn’t actually a very good column — for years, in fact, it seemed basically just dog and cat breed descriptions cribbed from the World Book — but every kid I knew loved it. The column also anchored a page of ads for local breeders, so it served that useful purpose too.
Flash forward a number of years, to the early ‘80s, when I was a staff feature writer at the Los Angeles Daily News, a suburban paper in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley.
One day the mail there brought a plaintive little letter from a nine-year-old girl, who wrote me that her mom was sick and hadn’t been working much and was having a hard time paying bills. So could I please write an article asking each of my readers to send her mom one dollar? Because then they’d have lots of money.
The careful hand printing (this was way before e-mail), as well as the far-fetchedness of the whole scheme convinced me that this was a letter from an actual child and not a scam artist posing as one. Because I remembered having the same odd notions about money when I was young: Why couldn’t everyone in the world take turns sending everyone else a dime? Then everyone could eventually be a millionaire!
Anyway, I looked up the phone numbers of various private charities and social-service agencies, and sent them on to my correspondent along with a letter explaining why I couldn’t do what she wanted, but that perhaps she should talk to her teacher or another nice adult she knew about what was going on at home. And also, if she called the phone numbers of the organizations I’d enclosed, some people there could probably help her and her mom.
I forgot about the whole thing until about a week later, when a tired and embarrassed sounding woman called to thank me for answering her daughter’s letter — and also to say that they weren’t really in such dire straits anyway. Then she put her daughter on the phone so the girl could thank me herself.
Of course, the one thing I really wanted to know was why the girl had picked out my byline, of all the bylines in the Daily News.
“Because you wrote the story on the fish doctor!” the girl answered immediately.
Oh, right, I remembered I had written a story not long before, about a man who’d built up a little business for himself taking care of the aquariums in office buildings and dentist waiting rooms.
The Daily News was at that time (and probably still is, actually) a notoriously cheapskate operation that made all its feature writers produce several stories per week. So I’d completely forgotten about that fish-doctor piece — just like I forgot about most pieces I wrote then almost as soon as I finished them.
The Daily News was the polar opposite of the L.A. Times, where feature writers are typically paid very comfortable salaries even if they don’t produce much copy at all. The Tribune Co.’s L.A. outpost, in fact, is seen by Tribune people as so bloated that a Chicago Tribune editor once told me they often refer to the Times as “Baby Huey.”
Anyway, I remembered from my own childhood the kinds of newspaper stories that kids notice and read. So although picking out the byline of someone who wrote a feature story about a fish doctor did seem sort of nuts, it also made perfect sense that this was the one story in the paper a child would notice.
Of course I know that human-interest stories about pets don’t win Pulitzer Prizes and aren’t exactly the glamorous, career-building stories that reporters and editors want to write. But people, especially children, do want to read them. It seems to me that in this day of shrinking circulation, those in charge of newspapers really could do worse than to keep that in mind.
— Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.