Her Ex

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed on KCRW.

It's probably hard for many of you to imagine this. But Los Angeles used to be a real newspaper town.

Before television and the Internet, there were newsrooms downtown full of feisty scribes in fedoras who scrapped and battled for scoops.

They'd put out several editions of their papers every day. Then pull a bottle of whiskey from their bottom drawers and brag about beating the pants off the Mirror or the Evening Express.

I mean, who do you think came up with those made-for-headline nicknames on scandalous crimes like...The Black Dahlia? It wasn't the police.

Last night, I listened in as a theater full of latter-day reporters and editors tried to agree who among them dubbed the Night Stalker. It was one of the last big LA serial murder headlines that stuck.

Richard Ramirez -– the Night Stalker -- terrorized the city in the mid 1980s. He was a maniac who killed 14 times before being nabbed. Sometimes he'd break in, other times he would accost his victims as they drove.

Police called him The Valley Intruder. Some headline writers tried The Midnight Stalker. But in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, he was the Night Stalker. And that's the name that caught on.

The Her Ex was the last of the big number two papers in downtown LA. It had started in 1903 as the Examiner -- a tool of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, of Citizen Kane and Spanish American War fame.

The Hearst Company closed down the Her Ex in 1989, two decades after a nasty strike cost the paper its best reporters. And guaranteed it would never rival the Times in circulation or clout.

The final incarnation of the Herald was part throw back. And partly ahead of its day.

The Herald mixed bright reporters and editors with tabloid tendencies. It had gossip columns about Hollywood and about politics. It could be snarky.

In some ways, the Herald was a precursor of blogs. It wouldn't always get the whole story, but it would often break the part that people were talking about.

And of course, Herald editors liked nothing more than beating the LA Times. They enjoyed tweaking the bigger paper's nose -- and even came up with a very blog-like way to refer to the competition. The Whale.

At last night's reunion, credit for The Whale line was unanimously bestowed on Jim Bellows, the paper's former editor.

He was the journalism muse for many of the alumni who attended. The reason they adopted Los Angeles.

Bellows came as the legendary editor who had gathered writers like Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin at the New York Herald Tribune. He revived interest in the Herald Examiner when the paper appeared to be dying.

Bellows had that knack for convincing young talented writers to work for a lot less money than they could earn at the Times –- where many went later when they decided to settle down and raise families and needed a better salary.

Last night's affair was convened mostly to honor Bellows, who has been in poor health.

His legacy still runs deep in Los Angeles media. Graduates of the Herald Examiner include the editor in charge of the LA Daily News, the closest thing left to a print alternative to the Times, if only a shell of what the Her Ex used to be.

KCRW's own Joe Morgenstern is another alumnus –- he wrote a column for a few years and got up at the reunion to tell some stories. The LA Times was represented by more than a dozen former Herald journalists.

Ray Richmond, a columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, gave the evening the right perspective.

When he worked at the Herald, everybody couldn't wait to get somewhere better. But now, with memories fading – and newspapers with them – the Her Ex sounds like the greatest paper there ever was.

The truth? Well, it lies somewhere in between.

For KCRW this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.