Final Deadline

David Burgin is legendary as a rough-and-tumble newspaper editor. But the legend is full of astonishing contradictions, and its last chapter may include the outcome of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by one of his proteges at the Oakland Tribune.

When the ANG bought the paper from Robert Maynard, however, the company moved the editorial offices from the landmark Tribune Tower to a squat building in Jack London Square. That building quickly became the House of Bad Judgment.

David Burgin can't breathe; if someone doesn't help quick, he'll choke to death. He was standing in the Tribune newsroom, gobbling down an apple, when suddenly, a sizable chunk of the fruit lodged in his throat. Tribune copy editor Jack Kneese tries to help Burgin. But he's too short to get a firm grip. Someone calls an ambulance.

Burgin has another idea.
"Someone big ... someone big," he gasps. "Get me the big guy." He's referring to Dan Reed, a Tribune reporter and a bear of a man. Reed is summoned from a meeting. Grabbing Burgin just so, he pumps and pumps until the fruit chunk is freed. As the crisis abates, some are surely relieved. Others are not -- or at least that's what Burgin's thinking. Flush-faced, he looks around at the assembled reporters and says, "Now don't any of you hold this against Dan."

Burgin knows his reputation: mercurial screamer who berates and bullies at least as much as he builds up his reporters. Someone upon whom some reporters might wish asphyxiation.

Along his 33-year journalistic march, Burgin has left as much scorched earth as he has flower beds. He is reviled and ridiculed, renowned and respected.

How Burgin feels about his legacy, now firmly etched, is another matter. "Most of that is bullshit. I never yelled at anyone that didn't have it coming to them," he says, but follows with this acknowledgement:

"Is there a better way of doing things? Probably."
Later, he grows reflective -- and a bit sad -- when his reputation is raised as a topic. "I wish I had gone another route. I wish someone had handed me the New York Times, where I could sit in an office and steer the tiller. But every job I've had is a turnaround job. I've had to turn around this or that [paper]. When you make change, you make enemies."

If he is uncomfortable about what he leaves behind, Burgin can take solace in this reality: If the worst fate is to be forgotten, C. David Burgin has effectively dodged perdition. If he is not quite famous, he is memorable. His self-destructive, manic elan keeps people talking and writing about him. In short, he's a great story.

And just about everyone's got a Burgin story. Former staffers, flung from coast to coast, remain on a Burgin-watch infobahn. "When you've worked for Dave Burgin, anytime he does something, it gets faxed or e-mailed," says Mike Boslet, a metro desk layout editor at the Washington Post who worked for Burgin at the Orlando Sentinel.

But the person most attentive to Burgin lore is Burgin himself. He has garnished himself with eccentricities. He still uses a loud typewriter that can be heard across the Oakland newsroom. Clackety, clack. Dave is writing another memo. Maybe this one will announce that he will "set his hair on fire if things don't change," like the one he dashed off at the Orlando Sentinel in the mid-'80s.

But most of all, the editor wants it known that he is or was someone, that he has done great things.

When a cover story on New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd ran in the Washington Journalism Review in October 1992, the author credited editorial legend -- and Burgin mentor -- Jim Bellows with discovering the writer. Burgin was enraged. He dashed off a letter to WJR in which he claimed credit for the Dowd discovery.

His frustration with being passed over is evident.
"They should be building monuments to me and Dean [Singleton]," he says. "But I guess they won't"

This is not throwaway sarcasm. That no one is quoting him, or erecting monuments to him, seems to drive Burgin crazy. When he talks about the old days -- of chasing stories and breaking news and turning papers around -- one gets the sense that he is desperately seeking redemption, trying to scribble a coda on his career that is acceptable, dignified. But his lasting mark may end up being the hospice care he's provided Singleton papers for the last 10 years.

Asked why he is leaving the Tribune, he spits out a stream of bile. "I don't want to do it anymore," he says. "I'm tired of it. You pay for it in ways that are debilitating and demoralizing. The story here is about dysfunctional newsrooms."

Burgin took his first job in journalism in 1963 at the New York Herald Tribune as "New Journalism" was being created daily by Tom Wolfe and others. His deskmate was Charlie Portis, who later wrote True Grit.

From there, he went to the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C., in 1966, where he covered Capitol Hill. "My fondest memory was learning the patience it took to be on the Hill a long time and get what those guys [older reporters] got," he says. "I was covering it for a news service, and I was up against guys like Jack Germond (now of McLaughlin Group fame) and David Broder (of the Washington Post). They always seemed to be there 20 minutes before I was."

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