The 35th anniversary that The Argonaut celebrates this week brings to mind nearly half-a-lifetime of memories, rendered all the more poignant by the tragic premature death in May this year of the newspaper’s founder, editor and publisher, my dear friend David Asper Johnson.
I met Dave nearly 35 years ago. I was the founder in 1968 of an avant-garde literary magazine called Beyond Baroque, which by early 1972 was also a cultural center located on what was then West Washington (now Abbot Kinney) Boulevard in Venice, and had just become the nonprofit Beyond Baroque Foundation, now in the Old Venice City Hall.
To support myself I ran a small printing business, and when I saw an early issue of the twice-monthly Argonaut, I wanted to place an ad in it for that business.
Only a post office box was listed as an address for The Argonaut, so I telephoned. Eventually I spoke with the newspaper’s publisher himself, and he insisted he would come to pick up my ad. It soon became obvious that The Argonaut was published out of Dave Johnson’s residence in Playa del Rey, and that his public office was his tiny but sporty yellow Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia.
As we sat in his car office talking, one editor to another, he offered me a job proofreading The Argonaut every two weeks and I jumped at the chance to earn a little money.
Dave had just rented a tiny commercial apartment space at 301 Washington St. (now Washington Boulevard), next to the Grand Canal in Venice, and a couple of days later he took me to see where I would be working. The only furnishings were a four-by-eight-foot sheet of plywood on two trestles — the layout board — but a garage sale around the corner yielded a few dollars worth of broken-down furniture that we carried back to the office that spring morning in 1972.
I was the first regular Argonaut employee, and Dave, a journalist, not a businessman, taught me all I know about journalism.
In those first months, Dave wrote everything in the paper, typeset it and did the paste-up, which was pretty crude.
The production technology was very primitive. Dave would go someplace out in The Valley, where he rented use of a typewriter-like contraption made by a Singer Sewing Machine subsidiary. It produced long paper “galleys” of copy that vaguely resembled newspaper type.
Dave would paste these galleys up on cardboard layout sheets, and I would proof-read them. He would then make another trip to The Valley to re-type the lines that had errors, and we would paste these over the mistakes. Some last-minute corrections were even made with a pen, to avoid another trip to The Valley.
Eventually he’d take the whole mess to the printer, who photographed the pages and made them into offset printing plates, and the next morning very early we’d drive around Marina del Rey putting the fresh newspapers into yellow wooden boxes on the docks Dave had had made to serve as newspaper racks and to Marina del Rey apartment buildings.
Some of the papers went out by bulk mail to local residences in Playa del Rey and eventually a hired distributor took over, and Westchester and Venice were added.
“Cold type” — using typewriter-like devices to produce copy that looked like printing — was about to be supplanted by the now-obsolete “phototypesetting” and I heard about the first “stand-alone” phototypesetter, the CompuWriter One. I dragged Dave to a demonstration of the machine in some dingy hotel room downtown, and he bought one on-the-spot, probably the first one in Los Angeles, which made its debut in The Argonaut July 13th, 1972.
From then on, the paper started to look a little more professional, because we had on-site control of the typesetting.
The CompuWriter was a marvel of ingenuity — and pitfalls. It had a one-line display where you actually could see what you were typing and correct it if necessary, but once you reached the end of the line, what you had typed disappeared into a three-foot-square circuit board of overheating transistors and capacitors and melting solder, while a wheel on which a transparent film strip bearing images of the type started to whirl, and a light flashed, projecting the image of each individual letter onto photographic paper that fed into a cassette, a line at a time, provided you had done everything right.
Every so often, you removed the cassette, if you hadn’t forgotten to put it in, and if the paper hadn’t run out or jammed, you fed it through a chemical developing processor, and if this didn’t chew the copy up and the chemicals were fresh enough, the typeset galley came out, ready to be hung up to dry and eventually pasted up.
I became a typesetter as well as proofreader, and started working more hours.
About the same time I came on the scene, Dave engaged Tom Moran to write a column on Venice. Later that first year, Sally Davison was writing a column called “The Watchful Eye Reporter” about Playa del Rey and airport expansion, which continued for many years.
Dave hired Darien Murray, who became the first hired reporter and we started publishing weekly. Darien worked off and on for The Argonaut and also published The Dinghy, a boating magazine, until her death a few years ago.
Greg Wenger supplied photographs, and page one often had a Wenger photo of a sailboat.
To beef up the early classified section, I’m pretty sure Dave went around and copied stuff off Laundromat bulletin boards.
Eventually The Argonaut moved to a high-rise at 400 Washington St. (now Washington Boulevard), I was named associate publisher (even though I worked only mornings, starting at 5:30 a.m., the first ten years or so, and had a direct phone line to Beyond Baroque so I could tend to business there from my Argonaut desk).
Dave and his then-ad director Richard Frank formed a partnership to start The Beach Reporter in Manhattan Beach, but Dave eventually withdrew from the partnership. Dave started The Ocean Front Weekly in Venice and Ocean Park with Tom Victory, but that later ceased publication.
Carol Hector joined us 27 years ago and soon became production director, just before Dave bought Beach Cities Newspapers, four publications based in Hermosa Beach, where we moved the main office. We modernized these newspapers and eventually folded them, except The El Segundo Herald, which he sold to the El Segundo Chamber of Commerce for $1, as I recall.
We then moved the main operation back to the Marina area and were no longer spread out from Santa Monica to Redondo Beach, the long treks along the coast were over and we could concentrate on making The Argonaut even better.
The rest is history, as they say.
What we have always done best is The Argonaut and, in my view, its ongoing success in a world of ever-dwindling newspaper readers has been the direct result of Dave Johnson’s vision, his dedication to community service, his unwavering journalistic and business integrity, and the employees in whom he has instilled these values.
Dave knew for some time that his days were numbered, and in choosing Carol Hector as his successor, he tried to provide a transition and leadership that would assure continuation of a true rarity in this 21st century world — a locally-owned independent newspaper devoted to serving the community.
[George Drury Smith, currently working part time as senior copy editor, was for many years the associate publisher of The Argonaut.]