Who says there’s no job security in media? Everyone says that, because it’s true. But there are inspirational exceptions. Meet 94-year-old San Francisco Chronicle science reporter David Perlman, who cranked out 111 articles last year and continues to work full-time at the paper. He still loves his beat and his desk is in a sunny corner of the Chronicle newsroom, so there’s no reason to quit working now.
After all, he said over a burger at a South of Market dive near Chronicle headquarters, “I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do all my life, be a reporter.”
He “majored in the Spectator,” the Columbia student paper, and began his career in 1938 with a summer job covering the cops beat in upstate New York. He was a copy boy at the Chronicle before World War II, and after his Army service in Europe stayed abroad as a reporter for the Herald Tribune. By 1951 he was back in San Francisco, reporting everything from local business news to the obscenity trial over Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” but he got the science bug when a skiing accident left him bedridden with a book by British astronomer Fred Hoyle called The Nature of the Universe. Once Perlman could walk and work again, he was hanging around Bay Area observatories and laboratories, teaching himself how to cover science.
Decades later, Perlman published one of the very first news reports on a mysterious new combination of pneumonia and Kaposi’s sarcoma affecting gay men in California, and would go on to report and write hundreds of articles about the epidemic.
He had been promoted to city editor in 1978, just before Harvey Milk’s assassination and the mass suicides at San Francisco cult leader Jim Jones’ camp in Guyana. But reporting was too much fun, so Perlman went back on the science beat and has been there ever since.
People usually don’t have anything nice written about them while they’re still alive. Perlman is now the oldest daily newspaper reporter still working, so he has lived to see this latest nice feature about himself, in the Los Angeles Times. On the occasion of his 90th year, both the New York Times and the American Journalism Review published articles about Perlman’s long career.
Unlike younger journalists, who generally sit in front of a computer re-blogging stuff from other blogs that blockquoted other blog posts, Perlman likes to go get stories in person. In recent years, he has stayed up all night at JPL to watch our robots land on Mars and accompanied the team of paleoanthropologists who discovered the fossilized remains of the 4.4-million-year-old human ancestor Ardipithecus ramidus in Ethiopia. His most recent feature, from Friday’s paper, found him in the home of an Alameda marine biologist with bedrooms full of giant aquariums for the breeding of a rare octopus.
Perlman’s got not one but two perfect origin stories for his life as a newspaperman:
My mother had a friend who was a reporter on the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and every year he used to give us free tickets to the Ringling Brothers Circus. I must have been about 10 or 11, and I thought that was the most fantastic thing in the world—to be a reporter and get free circus tickets! Then I saw the stage performance of the play “The Front Page.” And that was when I knew that I wanted to be a newspaper reporter just like those guys.