Sep 2, 2016 ยท 7 minutes

The weekly test of emergency earthquake sirens blared through San Francisco this Tuesday at exactly the moment that the bell of SS Peter and Paul Catholic Church at 666 Filbert Street tolled for Warren Hinckle III.

The once flamboyant and world-shaking journalist was lifted into a hearse for a final tour of his favorite North Beach watering holes, trailed by a brass band, and a coterie of hoary veterans from San Francisco’s weird 20th Century. Curious onlookers brandished smartphones at the spectacle, out of habit.

Ageless former mayor Willie Brown greeted fellow-mourners from underneath the noses of three huge chestnut horses bearing a police color guard. A crowd of hundreds thronged around him in the street, many wearing black eyepatches in homage to Hinckle. Willie Brown’s eyepatch was golden.

The crowd followed Hinckle as far as the Gino and Carlo Cocktail Lounge on Green Street, where two rows of folding tables set in the alleyway and three twenty-foot-tall Doggie Diner heads on a flat trailer marked the spot of Warren Hinckle’s wake. The band shortly lowered its horns and ducked inside to join the rest in divey shadows. It was five p.m. in Greenland.

Drinks were free from noon well into night, and worked their usual magic. The bar flies were overrun by a mixed bag of former combatants, Veterans of Forgotten Wars. Old guard Catholics mingled with aged New Left radicals. Current and former city supervisors, ruthless political operators softened by time, ink-stained wretches, droopy erstwhile dandies, the dead man’s friends and creditors all joined in the great rehashing of bawdy stories.

Only one thing was missing to complete a tribute to the life of a legendary yellow journalist: a call to action.

In 1961, Hinckle ran for city supervisor, aged 21, with the slogan “Save What’s Left of San Francisco.” He lost. By Tuesday, what’s left of Hinckle’s San Francisco had all but conceded defeat as well.

As one grizzled newspaperman told me over his beer, with a wagging head, “we all knew the Internet was going to eat our lunch, but nobody expected everything to change so fast.”

Fortunately, I’d spent the previous day inoculating myself against the creep of fatalism, in the basement of the University of San Francisco library, among the crisp, yellow mounds of old USF Foghorn newspapers, where Hinckle held his first editorial post. Among the delicate broadsheets, I found a column written by an 18-year-old Hinckle. It was a defense of the “kids these days” as maligned by the University’s Jesuits. “It’s not the “kids these days,” but rather the “days these days” that deserve the blame,” Hinckle wrote, and appended the following reworking of the Kipling poem, “If”:

“If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you/…THEN MAYBE YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND THE SITUATION.”

* * * *

“What good of freedom of the press if there isn’t one?”

--Howard Gossage, according to Warren Hinckle

In the mythology of the ancient Mediterraneans, the psychopomps were spirits which guided freshly departed souls into the afterlife, often taking the form of a flock of birds attending the houses of the dying, taking wing at the moment of death.

Earlier this month, the psychopomps inhabited our screen machines to escort the ghost of Gawker on its journey to the other side, twittering a sad song of its murder at the hands of a vindictive rich person and a jury of its peers.

So it goes.

The harsh backlights of the screens seem to have melted the birds’ brains, however, and when last seen they’d lost the ghost in transit and set upon each other in a pecking melee. Sad!

On the upside, the event of a crowd-sourced autopsy for a dead publication has given rise to a lot of talk about the sanctity of the First Amendment, and a performative restatement of the first principles of The Press by its current practitioners. As the blood and feathers clear, perhaps these notions will stay up in the air. More likely, they’ll be ground under the fearful wheel of the news cycle from which there is no escape. But that’s no reason not to try.

So wait just a fucking minute birdies! Here is another soul to ferry! And just in time to keep this conversation alive!

Warren Hickle III. Writer, editor, reckless empresario. Rascal, scoundrel, drunk. Perverse force of unrestrained journalism.

TL; DR version: Would-be media barons should do themselves the favor of denying the temptation to create the next Gawker, and focus instead on creating the next Ramparts.

Warren Hinckle was Ramparts magazine, according to no less eminent a source than Jessica Mitford, who served as a contributing editor at Ramparts, herself too little remembered for our own good. It doesn’t have to be that way.

For every Silicon Valley billionaire pursuing factual immortality, there are thousands like Hinckle who’ve already found it through the intercession of the printing press. Consult your local bookseller for a hint of the flavor of eternal presence.

The wild saga of Ramparts’ rise and demise was told once and for all by Hinckle in his 1973 memoir “If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade.” A less embellished version can be found in Peter Richardson’s 2009 “A Bomb in Every Issue.” The digitized Ramparts archives are online. It’s a bolstering story, readily available.

In lieu of yet another misty-eyed look back, let’s consider the heretical notion that Ramparts might have some timely answers for the vexing situation of journalism in 2016, namely that it can’t seem to find a way to float on its own revenues, no matter how viciously it lances its customers eyeballs with ads.

When Hinckle climbed onto Ramparts in the early ‘60s, the common wisdom was that television was in the process of eviscerating print. Less common was the cautionary wisdom of Howard Gossage, renegade ad-man and another Ramparts contributor, who called advertising “journalism’s original sin” and insisted that ad-reliance spelled doom.

Ramparts had this problem solved. There was never a question of a balanced budget.

Hinckle realized early that magazines, like wineries and orphanages, can provide certain millionaires with a sense of purpose far dearer to them than their money. The key is in finding the right millionaires, and it helps to have higher principles. Hinckle’s succession of millionaire backers included a metals importer and various heirs but they were whipped into belief in a Sissyphean imperative.

Ramparts benefitted from the involvement of an older generation of mentors like Gossage and Mitford. 

Despite flouting the conventions of advertising, Ramparts didn’t skimp on design, marketing and publicity considerations. Its strategy was to “fight slick with slick,” and it won many battles. This, along with the attendant travel, bar and room service bills, was made possible by temporary surpluses of millionaires’ money. Lesson: Look Sharp!

In “If You Have A Lemon,” Hinckle claims that his goal at Ramparts was to alter the conversations at bars, where he did most of his serious work. Know Your Audience!

Ramparts took on the biggest, knottiest stories and attacked them with what Hinckle termed “labor intensive group journalism.” Also zeal, wit and swagger.The issues haven’t changed much: overreaching intelligence services at home and abroad, American military adventure, inequality, poverty, berzerk technology, prisons, political corruption, police brutality and the media itself. They followed stories where they lead, bluffed and conspired to get there first, and won confidence from would-be whistle-blowers in the national woodwork. And punched up all the way.

It may seem like this could never happen again. Why not?

As Hinckle said, “Impossible is not a fact. It’s just an opinion.”

* * * *

Gino and Carlo’s is an unreconstructed holdout of an earlier San Francisco, nestled in North Beach, an enclave and last refuge of fading local character. Elsewhere in San Francisco, slick young cadres attach bayonets for an assault on the global future, fueled by pour-over coffee, gym endorphins and a vast money funnel built on advertising watched over by the holy trinity of Innovation, Disruption and World-Changing Spirit.

These alternate San Franciscos cross to avoid passing each other in the street. Hinckle’s life was memorialized by obituaries in the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Nation – three publications Hinckle frequently scooper in the pages of Ramparts in its ‘60s heyday. But in the proliferate maze of Internet media, his death was met with uncomprehending silence, outside of Richardson's obituary in former Rampart editor Robert Scheer's TruthDig.

That itself is an opportunity. The "kids these days" are primed to receive the Innovative, Disruptive, World-Changing gospel of a Menlo Park Catholic monthly which pivoted to become a formidible muckraking force that vexed the powerful and the journalism world, led by a tenacious one-eyed visionary who was considered a son-of-a-bitch by his closest friends. Ramparts is like Kool Aid for the cult of Steve Jobs.

Maybe Joan Didion wasn’t the first to point out that California suffers from an endemic collective memory loss, but nobody remembers who said it before. Fortunately, like youth, the condition is curable.