Bonus Episode: The 4th Estate. If you're reading the Chron and you see an intro that's just so off-the-wall that it makes your head spin and say "who wrote this?" be aware that Steve Rubenstein probably is the answer. Steve's a longtime columnist and reporter at San Francisco's flagship paper. He plays harmonica and guitar, and he found that by simply pushing one pedal down and then the other, and repeating, he was able to cross the United States of America on a bicycle. He covered the Patty Hearst trial as a cub reporter and had a unique method of filing his stories.
Musical theme by Joel Katz, Seaside Recording, Maui
Technical support: Bryan Matheson, Skyline Studios, Oakland
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Attorney at Law
Steve Rubenstein – Podcast Transcript
[00:00:00] Louis Goodman: Today, we're doing something a little different on Love Thy Lawyer. We're going to talk to someone who's not a lawyer. I'm going to be talking to someone who was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. I hope you'll find it Interesting.
Louis Goodman: He's worked at the San Francisco Chronicle as a reporter and columnist since 1976.
Before that he worked with the Los Angeles Herald examiner. He covered the Patty Hearst trial and he's riden his bicycle from coast to coast. Steve Rubinstein. Welcome to Love Thy Lawyer.
Steve Rubenstein: It's an honor to be with you. I do love lawyers, especially when they don't send me a bill when I talk to them, which I assume is the case today.
Louis Goodman: No bill for today, but just today only
Louis Goodman: Where do you work right now?
Steve Rubenstein: I'm on the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle, working out of my bedroom right now.
Louis Goodman: You've been there for a while.
[00:01:00] Steve Rubenstein: Yes. I've been there since 1976.
Louis Goodman: It seems everybody's working out of their bedroom these days,
Steve Rubenstein: Closer to the coffee machine.
Louis Goodman: Can you tell us what kind of reporting that there are, different types of reporting?
Steve Rubenstein: I'm what they call a general assignment reporter, which right now, which means I am a generalist and I wait for assignments. There are reporters that cover specific the beats, such as education, such as schools but, I'm waiting for assignments on a breaking news and I like it better that way. I don't really know in the morning when I'm going to be doing on a particular day.
Louis Goodman: How does that editorial assignment process work?
Steve Rubenstein: Well, an editor digs up something that they think might be in your wheelhouse and passes it on to you and you go out and try and find stuff out.
It's just a process of trying to find stuff out and asking questions. Lawyers ask questions that they know the answers to and reporters ask questions that they don't know the answers to. That's the primary difference between your racket and my racket, Louie.
Louis Goodman: Speaking of rackets. You've also been involved in the teaching rackets.
Steve Rubenstein: I did, I took a few years off from the San Francisco Chronicle to teach kindergarten. And I found that, sitting on the floor with 20 kindergarten students was very much like sitting in the middle of a newsroom with a hundred reporters. The ambiance was about the same and the level of concentration was about the same.
Louis Goodman: When you taught kindergarten, did you ever bring your guitar?
Steve Rubenstein: I did. I subjected, kindergarten students to much the same stuff as I subject readers to. So the Chronicle says you’re not supposed to end a [00:03:00] sentence with a preposition, Louie. which I okay.
Louis Goodman: And that your music helps anything.
Louis Goodman: You've also taught at the college level at what they call an adjunct at San Francisco State University.
Steve Rubenstein: Adjunct means you don't get very much money for doing what you ought to get more money for doing. I ended in another sentence with a preposition Louie.
Louis Goodman: What did you teach?
Steve Rubenstein: I taught introductory journalism and feature writing. I enjoyed it very much. I enjoyed giving back to students. I remembered the college classes that I took in journalism and I enjoyed giving back and completing the circle as much as I could. Of course, I took classes from professors who knew what they were doing, as opposed to [00:04:00] the classes that, the professor that my students were taking classes from.
There's another preposition.
Louis Goodman: What exactly is feature writing?
Steve Rubenstein: Well you have a little bit more flexibility in how you tell a story in a traditional news story. You want to get the who, what, where, when, why and how in the first sentence. And they're generally shorter, more succinct than a feature story, which has you have a little bit more flexibility in the telling. You still observe the same conventions of the journalism conventions. And in other words, you can't make stuff up. That's the main convention. You can't make stuff up, but within the journalism, a feature rate feature story format, you have, you can start a feature a little bit more, slowly more engagingly. You have a [00:05:00] little bit more flexibility with your choice of language?
I suppose, I don't really know. I've never made a study of what it is that I do. I have a hard enough time doing what it is that I do.
And I'm not a very, I like reading great journalism stories of the past and trying to make my stories. They inspire me to try and be as good myself. I work at the Chronicle, which has a great history.
Of award-winning brilliant Pulitzer prize winning reporters. I have worked alongside some of the greatest names in journalism, and I've been honored to be friends with them. Some names that will have that may have skipped your listeners memory. But when I started at the paper, the legendary columnist Herb Caen was very much, I saw him every day, names like Art Hoppe, and John Wasserman and Charles McCabe and Stanton, Dellaplane [00:06:00] and, Jerry Nachman, some of the great, great names of Bay Area journalism.
Were all wrapped up in the same rubber band with me. And hitting the doorstep at the same moment or this rain puddle at the same moment every morning. And it was a great honor then, and it continues to be great honor to have my stuff up here in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Louis Goodman: Steve, I've known you for about 25 years, but well, before I ever met you, I started reading your columns in the San Francisco Chronicle with a great deal of amusement. And I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about your experience as a columnist.
Steve Rubenstein: Well, column writing is a little bit different than straight news reporting. In most daily columns, I wrote a column that appeared four days a week for most of the time that I wrote it.
And it was, I've often said, like taking a final exam every morning in a subject that you [00:07:00] had not studied. And it broke some of the convention reporting, which was, do not write in the first person. Often a column is written in the first person. You still try to keep the focus on the subject matter.
Louis Goodman: Where are you from originally Steve?
Steve Rubenstein: I grew up, well, what growing up I did, I did in Los Angeles. and I went to, I attended college.
Louis Goodman: Where'd you go to high school?
Steve Rubenstein: I went to Hamilton High School in West Los Angeles. The same school that Karen Bass graduated from and I went to the University of California at Berkeley.
Louis Goodman: And then you went to college at Cal Berkeley. Is that right? Is that where you studied journalism, among a zillion other things?
Steve Rubenstein: For a while I was a premed student, [00:08:00] And then, but I enjoyed working for the college paper at the same time that I was cutting up rats in the zoology lab.
And I thought that I would be better in a newspaper. I was intrigued by the idea of being a doctor, but I thought I would be a pretty lousy medical student and I was enjoying the newspaper. I worked on the college paper and I said, well, let's just give this a try.
Louis Goodman: After you graduated from UC Berkeley, what was your first news job?
Steve Rubenstein: Well, I freelanced for some magazines and then I got a job. I got hired by the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, which was the afternoon newspaper in Los Angeles at the time. The number two newspaper after the Los Angeles Times, at least number two in circulation. And I was, I think the youngest guy on staff when they hired me in 1974.
[00:09:00] Louis Goodman: Is that when you covered the Patty Hearst trial?
Steve Rubenstein: They sent me to San Francisco to cover the bank robbery trial of Patty Hearst, who was of course the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, the great publisher and Hearst castle builder. I was in San Francisco for better part of two months while that trial was taking place at the federal building in downtown San Francisco.
Louis Goodman: What was that like? Can you describe what you saw and heard while you were covering the trial?
Steve Rubenstein: That's pretty much my first trial. Sort of like getting thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool without any swimming lessons.
I was fascinated. I followed every word. I was, of course, watching some of the most celebrated lawyers at the time in action. Ms. Hearst was represented by [00:10:00] a fellow named F. Lee Bailey who was fairly seasoned. Well, I'm not going to try and describe the career of Mr. Bailey, but it was fascinating to watch him cross examine witnesses. I wrote my stories on a manual typewriter with a ribbon with carbon paper. And this was of course in the pre-computer days. And the newspaper decided that the most economical way for me to get my stories from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles, was not by reading them over the phone to somebody taking down dictation in the Los Angeles office, which was the most efficient way of doing it.
But which would of course involve the long distance, pricey, call at the time, there were such things as pricing going just with the phone call. So instead of doing this over the telephone, but Los Angeles Herald Examiner instructed me to type the [00:11:00] story out, go down to the Greyhound bus station on Friday night, which was the overnight bus to Los Angeles, putting my story in an envelope handed to the bus driver or the baggage guy. And it would be delivered on Saturday morning to the Greyhound bus station, which was a couple of blocks away from the Herald Examiner office. This saved the Herald Examiner, a couple of bucks on the price of the phone call.
So I was covering the Patty Hearst Trial on a manual typewriter with carbon paper. On newsprint newspaper that was handed to a bus driver that was driven to Los Angeles in the middle of the night. I don't think they do that anymore.
Louis Goodman: I guess a lot has changed since then. I mean, it's really amazing how
Steve Rubenstein: much has changed. It hasn't changed the who, what, where, when, why and how that hasn't changed.
Technology has changed profoundly, my manual typewriter, which I used[00:12:00] all the time to write letters to friends, out of a sense of nostalgia, of course, is a nostalgic item, but the, the act of news gathering the act of trying to find out today what you didn't know yesterday, or the act of trying to find out this minute, what you didn't know a couple of minutes ago that has not changed and won't change and is the reason I enjoy the work.
Louis Goodman: If a young person was thinking about a career choice, would you recommend journalism to that individual at this time?
Steve Rubenstein: It has changed profoundly and the economics of the job has changed profoundly of course, the great, huge staffs of the great, huge metropolitan newspapers have dwindled. And the number of newspapers have dwindled and the huge advertising revenue brought in by print advertising, which was a great moneymaker for the newspapers of the United States. That's practically disappeared. Some of your listeners may remember the huge [00:13:00] classified advertising sections that paid a lot of the bills around newspapers.
Those went away almost overnight. Thanks to an outfit called Craigslist. Nobody takes out a classified advertisement anymore to sell a car or a bicycle or a guitar. A lot of the revenue streams for newspapers went away. And as a result, reporter salaries.
Louis Goodman: How has doing the actual work of being a journalist met or differed from your expectations.
Well, you try not to have too many preconceived notions in this business. I have enjoyed it every day. And I think one of the reasons I've enjoyed it every day is by not expecting anything other than what I get that particular day. My notion of trying to find things out and enjoying putting words together, those have been met.
[00:14:00] Louis Goodman: What, if anything, would you change about the way the news system works?
Steve Rubenstein: Who would I change or what would I change about the,I don't think I would change anything. I enjoy my colleagues, I enjoy the people that are calling the shots. I try to understand them, even when I have a disagreement with them. I don't know what I would change.
Louis Goodman: Do you think it's fair and accurate?
Steve Rubenstein: Yes. I think that newspapers and journalism have always been the traditional whipping boys of people that have been in power. Nobody's ever liked us. I started at my career in journalism, during the presidency of Richard Nixon, who had troubles getting along with the people who did what I did for a living.
And he called us all sorts of names. Yeah. And [00:15:00] I'm wrapping up my newspaper days working under somebody else who went through an impeachment inquiry. My paper career seems to be bracketed by presidents who have had impeachment inquiry.
Louis Goodman: Have you had any mentors in the news business, people that you really admired?
Steve Rubenstein: I have admired my colleagues at the San Francisco Chronicle greatly. If I could throw out a bunch of names to you, that wouldn't mean anything to your listeners. I admired greatly such columnist as Art Hoppe very much. He was a columnist at the Chronicle and a great reporter before that general assignment reporter. Before that and a mediocre tennis player that I was on the other side of the net, other side of the net from on occasion, I liked Art very much.
I liked a reporter named Kevin Wallace greatly, who was there when my early days. Walking into the San [00:16:00] Francisco Chronicle, as a young reporter was sort of like walking into a room with all your favorite English teachers. You could learn something from any one of them. And any reporter on any given day had the ability to write something that would knock your socks off and they still do.
Louis Goodman: What sort of travel experience and recreational pursuits do you have?
Steve Rubenstein: Well, I'm a confirmed bicyclist and a confirmed harmonica player. And sometimes I do both at the same time. And I think one of the greatest scams I ever pulled at the San Francisco Chronicle was somehow persuading them that a cross country bicycle ride, that I did in 2006 was and could be counted as work. They let me write stories about crossing the country on a bicycle much to my surprise. I had asked them for the time off and they said, well, why don't you write stories about this thing that you're going to be doing on the bicycle? And I said, well, if I do that, then it's not time off.
[00:17:00] And the editor said, well, go ahead and do a story and stay on staff, on salary for two months to ride your bicycle. Boy, what a deal.
Louis Goodman: If you came into some real money, say a few billion dollars, what, if anything, do you think you would do differently?
Steve Rubenstein: Absolutely nothing. I think that money is a great nuisance. Most of the time it's important to have enough of it. It's also important not to have too much of it because I think having way too much of it, it's just as much a problem with having way too little of it. And it warps your judgment. I like doing what I'm doing. one reason I never bought a lottery ticket, other than the mathematics, is that I wouldn't know what to do with any more than what I've got right now.
Louis Goodman: If you had a magic wand, that was one thing in the world in the news [00:18:00] world, or otherwise, what would you change if you could change one thing,
Steve Rubenstein: Make people answer the phone on the first ring.
Louis Goodman: Steve Rubinstein. Thank you so much for joining me today on Love Thy Lawyer. It's been a privilege to talk to you in this forum.
And even though we're friends and we talk to each other all the time, this has been a real experience for me.
Steve Rubenstein: Thanks so much. I've enjoyed it. I hope we stay friends after this thing hits the air. I do Love Thy Lawyer, even though we're not supposed to use words like
“thy” and I am greatly honored to share my thoughts.
Louis Goodman: That's it for today's edition of Love Thy Lawyer. Thanks so much to our representative of the fourth estate, Steve Rubenstein, of the San Francisco Chronicle, and thanks as always to Joel Katz for music, Bryan Matheson for technical support and Tracey Harvey. I'm Louis Goodman. [00:19:00] .