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The Sacramento Union rests in peace at Shields

September 17, 2000
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

The last resting place of the Sacramento Union newspaper, 1851-1994, is Shields Library at UC Davis, in the special collections department.

The 10 glass display cases that form a horseshoe in the Shields' foyer currently are exhibiting examples of the last remains of the newspaper that, wags said, was dying of the same heart attack for 20 years.

It finally succumbed in January of 1994. The last edition of the paper is included in the exhibit.

But it's not a ghoulish collection of artifacts at all. Newspapers represent history's first draft, the events of the day that are either going to become more and more important with time or fade into obscurity.

Seen in that light, how can the life cycle of a newspaper be regarded as anything but fascinating?

In June, the special collections department acquired the Sacramento Union archives from the Danel and Reboin families, owners of the Herald Printing Co. The collection consisted of 38 filing cabinets, 10 pallets of bound newspapers, boxes, and the bronze bust of Mark Twain that had been on display at The Union lobby, 301 Capitol Mall.

Unfortunately, these archives represent only a small part, the last 28 years, of the paper's 143-year history. But the exhibit reaches back a little farther to include historic original front pages reflecting news about the San Francisco earthquake and fire, the start of World War II, Charles Lindbergh's successful flight across the Atlantic, and the Apollo 11 moon launch in 1969.

(A sidebar on the front page describes the Apollo 11 astronaut-wives' potluck luncheon with the menu lovingly detailed. It seems the women took part in a lunch and "gabfest" while their husbands went about the serious business of exploring space.)

The Union had its star reporter, too. That was Mark Twain, who worked at the Union in 1866 - but none of the newspapers with his stories or original Twain manuscripts are part of the archives. A modern reprint of the letters Twain wrote on Union-financed trip from San Francisco to the Sandwich Islands (later known as the Hawaiian Islands) is included in the display. Twain wrote four letters a month at $20 each.

"I was there for four or five months and returned to find myself about the best known man on the Pacific Coast," he wrote.

Also included in the Union archives is the photo morgue arranged by date beginning in 1966. There are lots of shots of then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, plus negatives of the Hell's Angels at the Capitol in 1967 and a rally against the Supreme Court's Bakke (reverse discrimination) decision at the park across from McGeorge Law School in 1978.

"Despite a limited staff," the exhibit notes, "the Union developed a reputation for investigative journalism in the 1970s."

Notable among these stories are clips about the 1982 acquittal of a Korean immigrant named Chol Soo Lee who won the right to a second trial after an investigation by Sacramento Union writers discovered the prosecution's suppression of evidence that pointed to innocence.

And in the display is a bound copy of a Union series on state nursing homes written in 1972-73, used as research by the state Legislature's Committee on Aging.

"Newspapers are a business of profits and losses," continues the exhibit notes describing a display of national advertising statistics. "The Sacramento Union competed with the Sacramento Bee for subscribers and advertisers - a competition they had clearly lost by the 1960s.

"As losses mounted, owners sought ways to streamline operations to move the paper into profitability."

A 1992 editorial business plan recommended hiring more reporters. Incredibly, the Union had only five full-time reporters that year. At its peak, the newspaper had 17 local reporters, less than a quarter of the Bee's local staff.

Numerous market surveys were done to focus the paper's efforts to stay afloat, but it was a lost cause. One later study showed that the Sunday Union was read by 26 percent of those in the Sacramento area while the Bee readership was double that, even though in many instances the Union received favorable evaluations compared to the Bee.

"Campaigns were mounted to inspire new advertisers, bring in new subscribers and keep subscribers from canceling. They were not enough." The last issue of the paper was published Friday/Saturday, January 14-15, 1994.

The headline said it all: "We're history."

For more information on the newspapers in the collection, contact Shields Library archivist John Skarstad at: [ CLICK HERE FOR E-MAIL ADDRESS ]

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books at discounted prices [ Click Here ]

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