Wednesday, March 18, 2015
The Courthouse Pressroom
Last week I had to pay a visit to the county courthouse to get a certified marriage certificate, in connection with my wife’s retirement. We downloaded the forms ahead of time and filled them out. And I remembered the wedding date without having to look it up.
I walked into the County Recorder’s office shortly before 11 a.m. and a woman behind the counter came up to one of the windows.
“How can I help you?” she asked.
“I need to prove I’m married,” I replied.
“Are you?” she asked, arching an eyebrow.
Touche! But hey, if you spend eight hours a day in the County Recorder’s office, you probably have to amuse yourself any way you can.
That isn’t the story I want to tell today, however. That story has to do with what I saw at the courthouse on my way to and from the Recorder’s office.
Just Like ‘The Front Page’
In my salad days as a reporter, I spent a lot of time at the county courthouse. It wasn’t my regular beat, but I was often sent over to cover for the reporters we normally had there. They operated out of the pressroom in the basement of the courthouse, much like the one in the Hecht-MacArthur play “The Front Page.” Two daily newspapers, several weeklies, two TV stations and two radio stations worked from that room at one time.
It was a cramped room filled with 50-year-old desks and even older typewriters. People in the county brought by press releases and notices of press conferences all the time. Judges, prosecutors, politicians, and law enforcement types came down to shoot the breeze on a regular basis. It was a happening place, especially in the early 1970s when we had a rash of sensational mass murders in Santa Cruz County.
And it isn’t there any more. Hasn’t been for a while. I remembered that as I walked past the former location on the way to the elevators. The number of media outlets has shrunk dramatically, and those that remain aren’t about to have a reporter sitting at the courthouse all day.
After finishing my business at the Recorder’s office, I walked through the parking lot to my car. Something seemed different, but I couldn’t immediately put my finger on it. Then it dawned on me.
Parking Like Commoners
Close to the section of the courthouse where the courtrooms are, there used to be about a dozen spaces reserved for press parking. Back in the day, most of them were occupied. Now that space has been turned into two-hour visitor parking, just like the rest of the lot. On the rare occasions a reporter gets to the courthouse any more, I suppose he or she has to park like a commoner.
If this were but a sign of the decline of conventional media, it might be tolerable. But it also represents the decline of attention to local government by institutions that had the resources and credibility to look into the workings of government and keep its practitioners reasonably honest. The prospect of being shamed by two newspapers with a combined circulation of 40,000 in a county of slightly over 200,000 probably had a more salutary effect on the level of public probity than we’ll ever know.
Old media had its flaws, and plenty of them, but no other institution monitored the public business the way it did. Its time has come, I suppose, and if something newer and better were coming along to replace it, I wouldn’t feel so bad. The problem, and it’s a big one for a democracy, is that I don’t see anything comparable taking its place.