Wednesday, April 8, 2015
Pa Watsonville, Homespun Commentator
Long before Twitter, there was Pa Watsonville. And his close relations Tulare Tim, Cuzzin Conejo, and Shasta Sam. They were constructs of the newspaper group I used to work for back in the days when newspapers were more dominant forces in their communities.
The group (it was always “group,” never “chain”) was John P. Scripps newspapers, which, at the time, owned seven daily newspapers and a number of weeklies concentrated on the West Coast. None of them were in major markets, and the largest probably topped out at a circulation of 40,000.
Pa Watsonville, who was well established when I came to work for the newspaper in that town in 1972, was part of what I came to perceive as the group’s attempt to encourage editors to be folksy and informal. Five days a week the paper’s editorial page featured a full-out editorial, but on Saturdays the space was given over to Pa Watsonville, as it was to the previously mentioned characters in other towns.
Commentary for Short Attention Spans
Each week, Pa Watsonville would toss out six to ten short opinions in that space, each one signed “Pa Watsonville.” They ranged from a word of praise for someone who had done a good job to a skewer for someone who hadn’t. True, there was no 140-character limit, but because they were short, they were much better read than the editorials.
The idea was to be punchy, pungent, and tellingly funny whenever possible. The editor would generally write them down as they came to him (it was always a him) during the week and struggle to come up with a few to fill the space on Friday morning.
Writing those pieces wasn’t easy and demanded a certain amount of skill. For all the talk about sound bites, the fact is that a lot of TV and radio commentators get by on out-bellowing the other people on the show. Print is a cooler medium, and you can’t do that. A good item had to be succinct, include enough context to help out those who hadn’t read the news story (a high percentage of readers, I’m sure), and end with a flourish.
A Knack for the Thrust
During the two decades I worked at the paper, I was one of four people from my cohort to serve as editor. A couple of them, I think, wrote better editorials than I did, but I’d like to believe I did a better job than any of the others (and they all did good jobs) at Pa Watsonville.
If correct in that belief, I’d have to attribute it to my wool-gathering mind. I’ve always had the writer’s mentality that views the world through a lens that focuses on every experience and bit of information as possible material for further use. It enabled me to make juxtapositions others wouldn’t have and that worked well in that sort of short, hard-hitting commentary. It constituted a knack for the thrust, if you will.
I could no doubt dig up some examples, but I doubt they’d wear well with age. Like Johnny Carson’s monologues on the old Tonight Show, they were rooted in a specific time and place. The context would surely be missing, and, owing to how the internet has changed our way of viewing things, so might other elements of the craft. But if the jokes didn’t last, they were good while they lasted, and coming up with them was fun while it lasted. No regrets here.