Big red box

I don’t know. Maybe it’s because my partner, a 40-year photojournalist, recently chronicled the decommissioning of The Sacramento Bee building, and I provided some words to go with those photos (which you can see in the September issue of Sacramento magazine here). Maybe it’s because working for newspapers has provided me with some of my greatest colleagues and experiences, as well as some pretty awful ones. Maybe it’s because ink seeped into my veins as a kid who started her own neighborhood newspaper and later as a teenager hanging around Linotypes at a small-town paper. Even though the ink of newspapers makes me sneeze, I have a soft spot for words and photos on newsprint.

Last year as The Bee, shuttered by COVID, began taking apart the building where it had made a daily paper since 1952, it began disposing of surplus. I got excited when, in my final year as a journalism professor, advising students who had not put out a physical newspaper for three years, I learned that The Bee was giving away its old newspaper boxes—the kind that sat on corners holding newspapers. Boxes into which you’d feed quarters, lift the lid and take a copy of that day’s paper.

My City College colleague Randy, with whom I advised the Express, was also a former Bee photo guy. We decided that we’d use his vehicle to snag each of us a Bee box. The Bee wanted people to promise to paint out The Bee logos on the boxes, particularly if they planned to display them as, say, free little libraries, which is something that’s now done with old newspaper boxes. I had no plans to paint anything. I wanted a beaten-up old Bee box to sit in the urban jungle that makes up half my back yard as an artifact of journalism, not unlike the old, rotting typewriters there. I consider it a writer’s garden art.

But it was not to bee. The guy giving away the boxes who was supposed to have our names on a list didn’t contact us about pickup, and when we eventually reached him, we eventually learned that all the boxes were gone.

I was a little disappointed, but that’s how things go. I only worked for The Bee for a few years—nowhere near Randy’s or Dick’s tenure. Instead, on the last day of the decommissioning process of the building at 21st and Q, Dick and I were given the last two rolls of newsprint in the building—demos, if you will, that used to sit in the lobby when they’d sell the end rolls to people for a few bucks. Blank newsprint makes dandy wrapping paper, especially if you’re moving or need to wrap, say, dishes before boxing them. We were tickled to have the end rolls and their price tags.

Still, I wished I could have snagged a newspaper box.

Well, I got my chance on the 20th anniversary of 9-11, a somber day for sure. That’s when I learned that the Sacramento News & Review was giving away its newspaper boxes. Bring a vehicle to their parking lot and pick one up. They had a number of them that had been painted by artists, but by the time I arranged with my friend Timi Poeppelman to drive me over in her SUV, those were mostly gone.

Not to worry—they had plenty of their original, bright red boxes with Sacramento News & Review stickers on them, too. And that’s what I wanted for the urban jungle.

Timi and the SN&R box

Timi confessed on the drive to the SN&R that she’d been feeling guilty because she knew I wanted a Bee box… and she had snagged two of them. One for her and one she took to some kids in Oakland, where they turned the box into a little free library. She hopes to turn hers into a library, too, which will require painting it.

“I should’ve helped you get one then,” she said. But honestly, we were both busy teaching, and Timi is the person who made it possible for me to teach online for two and a half semesters. She coached me on the Canvas platform that colleges use for everything from assignments to tests to class discussions. She taught me how to teach on Zoom. And she was always available for my panicked phone calls when something didn’t work correctly—usually me. I literally could not have done my job without her. (Thanks again, Timi!)

“No, no,” I said. “This is even better.”

And it is. The Snooze (and I have long used that name for the SN&R with great affection) and I became good friends after I became a full-time journalism prof, missing newspapers. I’d become professional acquaintances with its founding editor, Melinda Welsh, when I was the editor of Sacramento magazine in the early 1990s. After I started teaching at Sacramento City College, I volunteered to work a few hours a couple of times a week at the SN&R with some of her editors. They were smart, competent young women, learning the ropes of journalism, and I loved working with the two Rachels and one Laura. They all went on to bigger papers and fine careers, and I served as backup copy editor to Laura, who was no slouch herself.

Melinda and I have remained friends all these years, sharing writing and having occasional lunches. I’ve long loved the Snooze and have had I-don’t-know-how-many journalism students intern and eventually work there.

So Timi and I found a red SN&R box in pretty good shape and loaded it into the back of her SUV. Before I could offer to buy her lunch or a coffee, she said all she wanted in return was a matcha, so we went to our neighborhood Temple Coffee Roasters. Her husband Rick joined us there, and after tea, coffee and conversation, we rode back to my house where Timi and Rick carried the red newspaper box down my driveway, into the backyard and plopped it in the urban jungle. (Thanks, you two!)

The next day I cleaned it out (why people think newspaper boxes are trash cans is beyond me) and hosed it off, delighted with this bit of newspaper history in my yard.

I hate that the SN&R is no longer printing copies you can pick up from those boxes for free, and that it’s easier to access The Bee online, too. But I’m happy that one of my former students is currently writing for the SN&R online (go, Casey!), and that, despite its many trials—including a vastly reduced staff—Bee journalists work diligently to produce good journalism. It’s not what it used to be; few newspapers are.

Dick and I consider ourselves lucky to have worked in print journalism as long as we did. I’m proud to have coached thousands of student journalists, many of whom worked or are working in the field today. There’s still a need for good, carefully reported news and quality visual journalism. Much of it is no longer produced in the great quantities it was on newsprint, delivered to people’s homes or distributed in boxes like the one in my backyard.

But I’ll look at the newspaper box and think of my former colleagues who toiled in newsrooms and had their stories and photos printed on newsprint and give thanks for them all. I’m proud to have been one of them.

Timi and Rick after moving the SN&R box to my backyard.

About janishaag

Writer, writing coach, editor
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3 Responses to Big red box

  1. Dick Tracy says:

    Love this one…I hope you might know how I can contact old Out & About editor Glen Brank. He showed up at my hospital room in Sacramento when I was mortally ill and injected humor into an otherwise dreadful period of my life. How’d he know I was there? My note of appreciation is long overdue. I loved working with him.

  2. Dick Tracy says:

    What’s happened to the SN&R ?? I see their former HQ is now a community library. I remember when they were first opening in Sacto and the editor-to-be dropped in to talk to Bee hierarchy and talked to the klutz who ran around with Farve so much. The fledgling editor told the Bee guy, “I doubt if we’ll take away more than 2% of your advertising” and the reply was: “”Two percent is two percent.” THEN the exec said, “I don’t know if you’re aware the newsroom is looking for a guy with your qualifications….and we pay more than what you’ll be making?” The editor, to his credit, said “Thank you” but stuck to his commitment. FRANK WHITTAKER. Now I remember. What a klutz!

  3. Connie Raub says:

    How fun to have that red box as a part of your “urban jungle” back yard area! Nice reminder and tribute to your past life! Have fun! ~Connie

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