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The Problem With Journalism

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Rats Invade West Side! When Murdoch Came to San Antonio

Express-News rack posters

I was cleaning a trunk when BAM! I came across these reminders of the six years I toiled in a Rupert Murdoch paper.  They’re called rack cards and were placed atop the news rack to entice you to buy one. And who could pass up the chance to read about Willie’s life-saving music?  Or nude Mormon sex slaves? You wouldn’t find that in the New York Times.

Murdoch made The San Antonio Express and The News part of his far-flung empire a year or so  before I was hired in late 1974. These were simpler times, children. San Antonio had three dailies with separate staffs & news philosophies. The Express, where I worked, had delusions of grandeur. We thought of ourselves as the paper of record. As a result, it was dull and lifeless compared to its rowdy sister,  the News, an afternoon paper that took to Murdoch’s garish color schemes and gazillion-point headlines without shame. The other paper in town was another afternoon daily, The San Antonio Light, whom we  hated.

The News got all of Murdoch’s attention. While the Express staff continued to cover City Council meetings and deadly dull Chamber speakers, Murdoch sent in consultants from his Australian papers to jazz  up the News. Overnight, a faltering mediocre afternoon paper into a drunken floozie of a flirt. Headlines didn’t shout, they SCREAMED!! Sometimes that had some passing connection to the story beneath, but it wasn’t mandatory. Photos ran bigger. News stories ran shorter. The News began running photos of scantily clad women on Page 3. Shootings, mayhem, sexual peccadilloes and wire copy of the weird and disgusting became that day’s  news.

Which brings us back to the rack cards. They were usually Fire Engine Yellow with huge sanserif headlines that took on their own bizarre poetry. Click on the link for four examples I managed to safe. Sadly, I didn’t get one of my favorites: Man Bites Off Own Fingers, Eats Them.

My Express colleagues felt superior to our tawdry sister. We mocked their hyperventilating style and took comfort in knowing we were real journalists. And ate out our hearts that they had so much fun doing what they did.

Years later, after I went to work for the Dallas Morning News, the regional journalism equivalent to hitting the trifecta,  people rarely asked me about my new work, once they learned I’d worked for a Murdoch paper.

‘What was it like?’ they’d ask. And I’d always tell them. Sometimes, it bore some semblance to the truth. But it wasn’t mandatory.


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