Back in the day when seven or eight newspapers competed for readership in big cities across the land tales of creative backstabbing and derring-do by everyone from reporters to bundle spotters were commonplace.
In San Francisco, where your editor sharpened his pen and carried a notepad for far, far too many years, the stories of day-to-day competition between giants like Hearst and Theriot were legion -- and legendary. In the Front Page days of the 20s, 30s, and 40s it was dog-eat dog, kill or be killed, get the story before the competition or be kicked to the curb.
And in Depression-era America, getting kicked to the curb could be a death sentence, so "The Boys" and few gals who made up the Fourth Estate back then got creative in their efforts to make sure they came out ahead while the other guy or gal and their paper didn't come out at all.
This journalistic monkey wrenching took many forms, I was told by the paunchy, world-weary and deeply jaded word warriors who brought me into "the business." One was fond of hanging a neatly-lettered "Out of Order" sign on the nearest available courtroom payphone, lazily trailing behind as his speedier, younger colleague from the Chronicle puffed up to the perfectly good instrument with the latest word on a "guilty" verdict only to spy the sign and wheeze away in search of a "functioning" blower -- and leaving the Examiner man to remove his sign and phone his desk at leisure.
There were other tricks of the trade, up to and including jacking up the rear axle of a competitor's city car and phoning in a dummy jail escape story to watch the ensuing calamity of a newsman with an exclusive in his jaws try to figure out why his tachometer was revving into the stratosphere but his car was not going anywhere. Another old trick, used by the bundle spotters and delivery drivers crisscrossing the city with stacks of papers in the wee small hours, was to leave stacks of extra papers on a street corner while scooping up the competition's news racks -- papers and all -- and throwing them into their truck when no one was looking.
That the racks were jettisoned from the end of Pier 32 into the Bay (ecology hadn't been invented, yet) held little interest for the boys or their hijinks, unless of course their racks were being hijacked and it was their papers that ended up sleeping with the fishes. Turnabout is fair play, after all.
It was interesting then, to see this week that the owners of at least one local publication were screaming "foul" after several of their newsracks turned up and were photographed in the dumpster of a larger competitor -- who allegedly tried to peddle the story that the police had instructed them to "clean up" non-compliant news racks that happened to be on their corners.
Hmm. While "The Baron," "Scoop" Glover, and the "Silver Fox" may have smiled wistful smiles behind their Thin Man mustaches, shrugged, and explained the move away with a "that's the way the cookie crumbles," this kind of thing does not play as well as it did back in the 20s.
Lawyers are being unholstered and accusations of First Amendment violations are being tossed around. The whole escapade has reminded your editor of the political haboob which boiled up and consumed then-Police Chief Richard Hongisto after he ordered his men to gather up the racks of a gay newspaper running an unflattering caricature and story about him in 1992.
That kind of thing just isn't done in San Francisco, ahem, no sir -- and Hongisto ended his brief term as chief soon afterward. I guess those dog-eat-dog times are back, only with consequences for those who get caught.
It sounded like things were more fun back in the Old Days -- at least, if you believe those press room stories, that is.