David Perlman was born in 1918 — a decade before the discovery of penicillin and the Big Bang Theory.
And, for the majority of his career, he covered scientific progress in the 20th century and beyond, writing thousands of articles about everything from the beginning of the space age to the computer age.
The 98-year-old science editor is retiring from The San Francisco Chronicle after nearly seven decades at the newspaper, a decision he said had been coming for a while.
“I first began thinking about it a year ago and then, what the hell — it was too much fun still working, and I could still write good stories,” Perlman told Poynter. “So it was, I think, a couple of months ago, something like that, that I realized it’s really time to stop.”
By the time Perlman leaves The Chronicle in August, he’ll be about one year shy of 100 years old. He’ll have won numerous science journalism awards — with a few even named after him — and led a couple different science writing organizations. And, almost 80 years after graduating from journalism school, Perlman said he wouldn’t have done anything differently.
“I’m a newspaperman, and that I would never change,” he said.
Poynter caught up with Perlman to talk about his long career at The Chronicle, what he thinks about the current state of science journalism, and his advice for aspiring reporters. This Q-and-A has been shortened for clarity.
You’re retiring from The San Francisco Chronicle after nearly seven decades at the newspaper. You spent basically the entirety of your career there.
I spent about four or five years right after World War II (at another newspaper). I was in the Army, and I got out, and when the war was over I was still in Europe, so I got a job at what was then the European edition of The New York Herald Tribune.
I worked there for several years and didn’t come back to The Chronicle until 1951. I had been a reporter at The Chronicle before the war — fresh out of journalism school — and then came back in ’51. I had been away for almost 10 years, I guess.
Where did you go to journalism school?
I was Columbia College (at Columbia University) class of 1939 and the J-school class of ’40.
How did you see The Chronicle change during the time you were there?
Then, in the first place, of course it was all print — there was nothing digital about it. The second place, we produced the story. I had a great typewriter, and if I went out of town on a story, I had an old Olivetti portable (typewriter), and we had telephones where we dictated stories to some rewrite person in the newsroom.
The type was set by linotype, the presses were down in the basement of the Chronicle building here on 5th and Mission (streets).
It was like every other print newspaper because there wasn’t any other (option). The hottest electronic stuff was a radio, I guess, and of course there were radio news programs. But this was before television. In the late ’40s, television was just coming into its own and there wasn’t any real competition. It was a printed newspaper, as all newspapers and news organizations were in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s until the internet came along and things changed rapidly — and still are changing.
How have you seen the newspaper change in terms of the things it covers?
Most newspapers, including The Chronicle, are focusing more on their circulation area, trying to serve — as we do here at The Chronicle — serve our readers whose local needs, regional needs need to be filled by what we can offer. Of course we provide our Chronicle readers with world and national news, but our staff here in the newsroom is primarily covering the events and the trends and the politics and the environmental issues that affect us here in the Bay Area.
When did you first know that you were interested in science writing?
That’s a long story. It was about 1957, and I broke my ankle skiing, and was laid up for quite a while. A friend of mine, actually our kids’ pediatrician, brought me a book called “The Nature of the Universe.”
It was by … a famous British astronomer. It described what he called a Steady State Theory, and I said to my friend the pediatrician, “What are you bringing me this astronomy book for? I don’t care about stuff like that.” And he said, “It’s just fascinating, you must read it.” Well, I did, while I was in the hospital, and I read and I said, “Oh my God. That’s really interesting.” And then, of course, it was competing at that time with what later became the dominant theory of the universe — the Big Bang Theory.
In any event, I said, “Well that’s pretty curious. If that’s what astronomers do, I ought to find out what they’re like.” So I went up to the Lick Observatory here in the Bay Area, on Mt. Hamilton above San Jose, and I met an astronomer there. His name was Dr. George Herbig — I remember that name, even.
He said he was interested in stars that are being born in the Orion Nebula. I thought, “My God, that’s so romantic.” It was kind of an epiphany, the idea that a star gets born. I wrote a little story about it and started looking at other scientists to see what they do for a living. One thing led to another, and I became a science writer, because (The Chronicle) didn’t have one at the time.
Everything I’ve written about since then has been a learning experience, and that’s the pleasure of being a reporter — especially on a newspaper like this one, which encourages reporters young or old to find areas of fascination and pursue them.
Do you think your service in World War II affected the way you cover stories or approach journalism?
Not at all, and that’s not necessarily typical of other reporters in that age bracket. I just had office jobs in the Army. I did get into the infantry but never fired a shot in anger.
A lot of newspapers in recent years have cut their science desks in order to save money. What do you think about that, and how do you think science coverage has changed as a result?
I think it’s absolutely obscene. Newspapers, whether online or in print, are a major factor in the ongoing education and awareness of the public, and specifically of a younger generation. And whether it’s online or in print, the idea of failing to cover advances in science … it creates a generation with a major disability in what they can think about and understand.
A perfect example of that is the controversy over climate change, global warming and all that that implies. The failure of people to understand that this is real science, and it’s just as scientifically valid as an issue today as is the fact that we’re going to have an eclipse of the sun on Aug. 21. That’s not a theory — that’s going to happen.
And the climate is going to change more, and more and more. The resistance to an understanding of that I can understand … which is largely generated by people whose economic interests are threatened by the fact that what’s causing the changing climate is, in fact, the increasing emissions of greenhouse gases.
So I think newspapers have abdicated their responsibility by diminishing the amount of science coverage. There were once, I don’t know, 50 or 75 science pages, science sections in newspapers across the country. Now there’s The New York Times on Tuesday. Very, very few other newspapers have anything approaching that.
Going back to the start, what did you think your career in journalism would look like, how did it turn out and how do you feel about that?
Well, when I was still in journalism school, most of the time I wanted to run around with a press card stuck in my hat and cover murders. I’ve covered a few of them, but not very many. So when you’re 21 years old, you think a little differently about your career than when you do later on. I had all the usual romantic ideas of would-be newspapermen. On the other hand, my career certainly has turned differently than I would have ever expected, but it’s been a wonderful one. And here at The Chronicle, our editors, publishers have let me do the kind of stuff I want to do.
Why did you stay at The Chronicle so long?
Because I had the opportunity to do the kinds of stories I want to do, and I love San Francisco. My wife came from San Francisco, one of (our kids) was born here — the other two were born in Paris back in the day when I was working on The Herald Tribune. This is my town, and this is my area. I don’t see any reason to change; I didn’t want to live anywhere else. I guess that’s as good a reason as any.
But mainly it’s because … I’ve been all over the world. I’ve been in Antarctica, the South Pole, the north slope of Alaska, China, Israel, Europe — God knows where. I’ve just been everywhere covering the kinds of stories that I specialize in.
If you had to start your career today, would you do anything differently?
I’d have to say no, because if I started my career knowing what I know, I’d do the same thing. … I mean, how many people get to go watch a dig in Ethiopia to uncover the remains of a prehuman called Ardipithecus … and watch paleoanthropologists digging up fossils in the desert? That’s the kind of stuff I can’t imagine doing if I weren’t a science reporter here in San Francisco.
What advice would you have for young people who are starting careers in science journalism today?
I would offer the same advice to any would-be reporter: Ground yourself in a basic liberal arts education. I would superimpose upon that the need to understand the current tech world and learn to use the tools of tech, and I think most college kids today know far more about that than I do.
Then, if you have time during your years in school, start taking a few science courses — not to probe too deeply, but at least to have an understanding of some of the areas of science: anthropology, astronomy, physics, biology. If you’re interested in science, if that’s what turns you on, that’s where you ought to background yourself as much as you can. And then, I’d have to say from my own experience, you can learn an awful lot by talking to scientists. And most of them are willing to share their excitement and their interests.