A new beginning in journalism
I had to learn a “new” language


In August 1975, I found my way to San Diego by hitch-hiking, a practice not uncommon in those times, and one I used frequently in the following years. International Student Counsellor Winnie Chase introduced me to a few other recent arrivals from South Africa, and I decamped into a room in a typical shared student dwelling a few blocks from campus.
Sometime during the first semester, I moved into a quasi-frat house with three roommates, Larry, Chris and Brad, on Campanile Drive, a block from the main entrance to SDSU. It was so convenient for the student lifestyle we all embraced.
I bought a 50cc motorized scooter that was my sole transportation for the next year, but a set of wheels was mandatory in the sprawling town.
The journalism program at SDSU is one of the best in the CSU system, but having already had 18 months as a successful professional, I found it elementary and easy. In time, however, I came to appreciate the circumstance that allowed me to transition from a conservative, oppressed colonial society to the seemingly freewheeling, uninhibited and culturally diverse one in which I now found myself.
One to the most unexpected transitions was learning a new language. Journalism requires precise use of words, and to my occasional dismay I discovered that American usage is quite at odds with that of the British Empire. When I asked once in class for a “rubber,” I was greeted with guffaws until someone understood through my hand gestures that what I really needed was an “eraser.” Making that error in print would be unforgivable.
Having been exposed to the story of the
“Great Trek” repeatedly in history class throughout school, I really had to quickly study up on American history, just to avoid embarrassing erroneous allusions in my news and feature stories.
I had to also become familiar with the structure of American government at all levels, since so much reporting concerned it. The politics was an enigma at first: the entire left-right spectrum in the U.S. was seemingly way over to the left of the ultra-conservative, Calvinist, authoritarian milieu I had recently left behind. In South Africa I comfortably self-identified as a left-wing progressive, but found in my new home my political inclinations landed me comfortably in the 1970s Republican Party, then headed by the benign Jerry Ford, before the Reagan era began the metamorphous of the GOP into the radical right-wing monster it has become today.
Despite the hectic swirl of party life for which SDSU was well known, I quickly became a staff member, first as a reporter and then editor, on the
Daily Aztec student newspaper.
It was truly an unintentionally efficient way to learn the new skills I needed to function as a journalist in American society; the practice of the craft was significantly different from what I had just been taught in South Africa.

One of my early successes was to take journalistic advantage of events happening in South Africa in 1976 that brought the country and its politics to the attention of many Americans for the first time. It was not uncommon that when someone asked at that time about my accent, and I replied it was South African, the response would be something like: “Is that near Kenya?”
No one had a clue if I said I was from “Cape Town,” and once I explained where it is they frequently asked if there were lions and tigers (duh!) roaming around the streets. Few had any idea that I grew up in a First World, modern, urban environment – or even that anything like that existed on the “dark continent.” The world was, indeed, a much bigger place then.
In June 1976, the sprawling black township of Soweto – a nightmarish artificial creation of Apartheid policies – erupted in violence. Three months later, my analysis of the events, “South African blacks demand their birthright,” was published by the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Obviously, I was still well informed, and being fresh off the boat, considered somewhat of an authority on South African developments, with clippings of my published stories to prove it. This was the first of several analysis pieces I wrote that were published in the San Diego professional press.
Read some of them here.
My teachers and student colleagues on The Daily Aztec were duly impressed.

The Daily Aztec, where I served as news editor my last semester, was printed in the surfing hamlet of Encinitas, about 20 miles up the coast, at the plant of a twice-weekly paper, the Encinitas Coast Dispatch. After spending many Wednesday evenings there supervising production of The Daily Aztec, I came to know the editorial staff, so I was well positioned when the time came for me to look for a professional position upon graduation.
I landed my first job in American journalism at the bi-weekly Encinitas Coast Dispatch, using the “practical experience” clause in my F-1 student visa to extend it for about 18 months.
I moved to the neighborhood, renting an apartment with an ocean view in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, the only time I ever lived in a place with a view of the Pacific.
In about six months, I was hired as a reporter for the much larger, daily, Oceanside Blade-Tribune newspaper (now the
North County Times) a few miles north.

Soon after I started at the paper, a disastrous airplane crash gave me the opportunity to establish my cred (again) as an intrepid reporter. On Sept. 25, 1978,
PSA Flight 182 collided with a small Cessna over San Diego’s North Park suburb, and dived to the ground, killing 144 people in California’s worst air disaster.
I was dispatched forthwith, my destination the school gym where the bodies were awaiting identification, some 35 miles south. I sped there down the I-5, but perhaps should not have been in such a hurry. As I entered the gym, I came close to gagging on the stench; most of the bodies were unrecognizable burnt remains, body parts but few cadavers still intact. One who has smelled dead, burnt flesh will never forget the indescribable odor.
I filed my story and fled.

Later, my beat became local government and politics, including the County of San Diego.
The newsroom was the first I worked in that had cold type. Instead of Underwood typewriters and hot lead type, its newfangled and not-yet-reliable networked computers spewed out miles of single-column type on photographically sensitive strips that were then sliced and diced by the production crew and pasted up on newspaper sized boards, lithographed and etched onto new photosensitive offset printing plates. It was cutting edge technology.
Apart from it being so advanced, the reason the technology was so notable was its imperfections. It created one of the earliest (but most hilarious) gaffes of my public life as a journalist. On May 1, 1978 (my 26th birthday) the Blade-Tribune published a story I had written the previous evening about the ‘doctor’ of Gonzo Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, who had appeared at U.C. San Diego. (
Read the story here)
My writing style for this story blended attributed quotations with Thompson’s unattributed dialogue, a technique to allow the speaker to talk directly to the reader without the author’s interference. The last few paragraphs are a sequence of unattributed quotes from Thompson’s Q&A with the audience.
The same day the story appeared in the paper, I was assigned to cover a Town Hall meeting by then candidate for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors Paul Eckert, a conservative blowhard representing an equally conservative North County district.
The story about Eckert ran the following day, but the high-tech computer system had seamlessly appended to it the last few paragraphs of the Thompson story. So the readers found out that candidate Eckert “had come here tonight for coke money.”
A less likely cokehead never existed, and everyone knew it. Despite the best efforts of my boss Bill Misset, the short press run was almost over, the newspapers on the trucks, before someone yelled, “Stop the presses!”
The gaffe was so uniquely amusing Associated Press wrote a story about it that was distributed throughout the country on the national wire.