In any newsroom the clerks play an important role in helping to fill newsholes, gather information and keep a hectic, chaotic office functional. Clerks file obits, keep the police blotter, input weather reports, sort mail, and (in pre-internet days) input letters to the editor. They work for low pay and often deal with scorn or benign indifference from the rest of the staff. At a small paper, few in the newsroom take as much crap as the clerks.
So is it any wonder that during my three years at the Daily Californian in El Cajon, Calif., we had a hell of a time keeping good clerks on staff?
It got so bad at one point that our editor, Vince Kern, took to hiring clerks from a temp service. And the first clerk placed with us by the temp agency was Isaac Cubillos. Isaac was a revelation. For a time, he was the best clerk we ever had. He dressed professionally and with flair; he was punctual and efficient. He was conscientious and devoted to his work. Hell, he even made the coffee every morning.
It wasn’t long before Vince decided that he needed to hire Isaac away from the temp agency.
It wasn’t long after that, however, that some of us started to get a feeling that all wasn’t as it seemed. Isaac started taking longer lunches. A few tasks went undone from time to time. Once in a while we didn’t get messages. Then one afternoon when he wasn’t at his desk, I answered his phone: “Yes, I’m calling for your editor, Isaac Cubillos,” the caller said. “Um, well, Isaac isn’t our editor, but I’ll take a message.” The caller was some PR agent, a reasonable enough call for the clerk to get, and for the PR agent to be confused about his title.
But then we reporters started talking. That caller wasn’t the first nor the last to refer to Isaac as the editor. (We would learn later that Isaac was telling PR agents he was editor and receiving free tickets to concerts and plays and other events.)
Vince laughed about it, but we wondered what was going on. We knew next to nothing about Isaac’s true background. He was obviously educated, intelligent and cultured. Why was he clerking? None of us could figure it out.
Then Isaac did a good deed for a reader, and that proved to be his undoing. The reader wrote a letter to the editor, which Isaac dutifully typed into the system, and the op-ed editor published. It praised Isaac by name for his help with some trivial matter.
Not surprisingly, law enforcement detectives read our paper, and within 24 hours of that letter hitting print, two detectives arrived in our front lobby.
Isaac, it turns out, was wanted in some San Diego fraud case. Isaac wound up doing about 18 months in jail, but his short time at the Daily Californian changed his life. He was bitten by the journalism bug. In jail, he studied journalism and ran the prison newspaper.
Upon his release, he landed a staff writer job with a Spanish-language paper in Chula Vista. He did some fairly good pieces there, even winning some investigative journalism awards.
But that isn’t the end of the story. As proof that life is forever filled with irony, I found out while in El Cajon this past Monday what Isaac is doing these days. Would you believe me if I told you that he is now EDITOR of The Californian, the weekly paper that succeeded our old employer?
Fiction has become reality.
I can’t make this shit up, honest.
Of course, not a lot people would believe, probably, that journalism could reform a man, but all evidence suggests that at least in the case of Isaac, it worked. Maybe there is a lesson in that. Or maybe it’s just an aberration.
BTW: The Californian should mention on it’s “About Us” page that East County Online was founded in 1995 as one of the first three weekly papers in the nation with a web site. Furthermore, I wouldn’t mind at all if it noted that the founder was Howard Owens and Steve Saint. I mean, if you’re going to give the history of the company, why not give it all?