By Chelsey Dulaney
Most people remember Dick Turpin as a pioneer of real estate reporting; a jovial, welcoming editor; a vestige of old-school journalism.
Tales of his savvy abound: He did, after all, transform The Los Angeles Times’ real estate section from an advertising insert to a massive weekly editorial section, sometimes 50 to 60 pages long — and in doing so, changed what real estate sections looked like at newspapers across the country.
The Times’ Sunday section was named the best in the country three times under his leadership and was consistently ranked in the top five by the National Association of Real Estate Editors.
But what most people won’t tell you is that Turpin was also something of a fashion icon.
When Turpin was real estate editor at The Times — a position he held for 22 years — the men’s fashion trend of the time was to wear a long-sleeved shirt and tie to work. In the Los Angeles heat, this ensemble could be oppressive.
“He boldly decided to wear a tie with a short-sleeved shirt,” said Lauren Beale, who worked as a real estate reporter under Turpin from 1980 to 1983. “By showing up to work like that, other men thought, ‘Oh I could do that.’”
He wasn’t always “Turpin,” as most of his reporters and co-workers came to know him. Born in Turkey in 1919 as Dick Tarpinian, he changed his last name early in his journalism career.
After serving in the Marines during World War II, Turpin worked as the city editor at the Burbank Daily Review before he was hired by The Los Angeles Times in 1948 as a reporter-photographer.
He would spend 41 years — the rest of his career — at The Times, where he worked as a reporter, education editor and, finally, as real estate editor.
When he took the position in 1967, Turpin had no background in real estate journalism. But he brought with him a range of accolades, among them a Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for local reporting.
He was tasked with taking the section, essentially an advertorial, from the advertising department and infusing it with independent coverage by publisher Otis Chandler, who was leading a transformation of his own.
Chandler served as The Times’ publisher from 1960 to 1980 and oversaw its expansion from a business-to-business publication to a consumer-focused newspaper with broad coverage areas.
“It was a natural following,” said Beale, who writes The Times’ celebrity real estate column today. “Let’s have editorial independence because we can. Let’s offer different subjects that people are interested in.”
On Turpin’s real estate desk, these old and new perspectives came together.
Turpin had a staff of seven — unheard of for a real estate section at that time — and together they produced a massive weekly section. The section was mostly comprised of press releases sent in by local real estate agents and groups, but also showcased feature-length cover stories.
It made perfect business sense: an independent editorial section allowed The Times to charge a premium for ads while also giving increasingly-savvy readers more content to engage with.
“That section got so big, at one point, we had a 64-page section — and that’s broadsheet,” Beale said. “It was pretty remarkable. It was a heyday for selling real estate ads.”
On the other side of the country, Lew Sichelman was the real estate editor of the Washington Daily News and later, The Washington Star. He, too, took part in this shift in real estate journalism.
“I don’t think it was a conscious shift by newspapers,” said Sichelman, who now writes a real estate column for United Feature Syndicate. “I think it was the guys who were in the trenches — Turpin, me — we all started turning it back into what newspapers were at that time.”
Evelyn De Wolfe, 91, worked on Turpin’s real estate section for 12 years and became its unofficial architecture expert.
“We were always getting recognition,” she said. “I think one of the reasons, quite frankly, is because he invited his staff to generate ideas. I think that’s the big secret. Sometimes he’d say ‘Come on in here, I want to ask you your opinion,’ which is rare among editors.”
Turpin retired in 1989 and in 2008, The Times’ real estate section folded. He died in December 2010 at the age of 91.
De Wolfe remembers the time she spent working under Turpin as the golden years of journalism.
“We were very close and enjoyed journalism so much, especially in those days,” she said. “We didn’t have cell phones or anything else. We just had our typewriters and boy, we better get it in by deadline.”