40 years of the CN&R: 1977-1980
The rebel years (aka, the hippie days)
No matter how many years have passed since the last time the Chico News & Review told its story for one of these anniversary spreads, the first four years of the paper’s history typically get the most attention. For good reason. The oft-told tale of the staff of the Wildcat newspaper breaking from Chico State and going independent makes for a pretty kick-ass origin story. And it’s not only about the birth of this weekly newspaper (actually, it came out Tuesdays and Thursdays for the first two years), it’s also a story of the birth of liberalism in Chico. Indeed, the progressive streak that runs through the newspaper you’re holding in your hands today (or perhaps reading online) has a direct line to the fiercely independent hippies and other rebels of those first four years who ran the paper as a collective as long as they could.
One of the Wildcats and a CN&R co-founder and original arts editor/writer (1977-79), and then part-time freelancer (1986-89). McKinnon is a recently retired Butte College English instructor living in Paradise who can’t be missed on stage as the towering frontman for Celtic ensemble Ha’Penny Bridge
The historical events that precipitated the birthing of the CN&R were pretty tumultuous and rooted in the campus community’s conservative long-simmering resentment about the Wildcat’s sudden transformation in 1972 from being a mouthpiece for fraternity-sorority-athletics interests into a liberal-minded, activist-advocacy newspaper.
The new Wildcat staff, organized by its editor, Michael Hahn, added off-campus, community-based issues to its coverage, and in 1975-76 decided not to publish or accept advertising revenue from any companies that we considered to be damaging or dangerous to the well-being of the planet, including cigarette ads (that would change later under the “for-profit” regime) and Coors. The bomb went off when we refused to run Gallo ads.
One of the Wildcats and a CN&R co-founder, Speer is technically retired yet still writes for the paper. From its inception through 1980, Speer was the de facto editor before leaving and returning to work as associate editor (1981-1991), then editor-in-chief (1991-1996); followed by a couple decades of coming and going in various capacities: senior editor (2000-2005), news editor (2007-2009), editor-in-chief (2009-2013), contributor (2013-present).
Members of the state university board of trustees were upset that the Wildcat refused to accept ads from Gallo wines in solidarity with striking Gallo farm workers and decided to require the campus president, Stanford Cazier, to exercise more control over the paper and compel it to accept the ads. Wildcat staff members resisted, telling the president he’d have a First Amendment fight on his hands.
He was in no mood for that, having had Kendall Hall occupied for two months in 1975-76 by students protesting the arming of campus police. Wildcat staff, who had recently withstood an effort by the Associated Students directors to abolish the paper, saw an opening and approached the president with an offer: If you help us go off campus, you will no longer be held responsible for a leftist student newspaper that irritated a lot of people, on campus and off. He agreed and told the Associated Students directors that he supported the move off-campus. The A.S. resisted for a while but eventually agreed to a negotiated arrangement.
Robert Speer, [photographer] Mark Thalman and I negotiated the terms of an agreement with administrators over a grueling period of days until we got exactly what we and the staff wanted: independence and a financial safety net via seed-funding payments from the university to include coverage of campus news and activities. Quite frankly, we kicked royal ass in the negotiations and sent their team out of the room more than once to huddle on their next negotiating ploy. We knew that they and the opposition believed that we would fail as a business, especially with our commitment to rely on advertising revenue to pay our staff and overhead. Of course, history proved them to be very wrong.
One of the Wildcats, Weir was a reporter, news editor and finally managing editor at the student paper during the transition year to the News & Review. She returned in 1980-81 to work as a news reporter before moving on to do travel writing, mainly for Chico’s Moon Publications. Currently, she writes and hosts the “Up the Road” travel show on KCHO 91.7 FM.
The core issue for me, before and after independence—the big vision—was the need for a second newspaper in Chico. People who weren’t here before the CN&R made its debut would be shocked by the way Chico was back then, in many ways just another valley town where the good ol’ boys called the shots and everyone else kept their mouths shut.
And that, to me, is the CN&R’s success. It exists. It’s here. And just being here has made all the difference.
Over the summer of 1977 we located a suite of offices over the SBX bookstore at Third and Normal, and did a lot of remodeling to get it ready. When we were done, the university’s moving guys helped us convey our furniture (which the university gave us) to the new location.
One of the things that helped us was that our suppliers (mainly our printer, the Red Bluff Daily News, and our supplier of photo chemicals and paper) were out of town and didn’t know we’d separated from the university, so they were happy to continue our financial arrangement, which involved purchases on credit. If we’d had to pay cash, we would have been in trouble. Another plus was that our contract with the A.S. brought in $10,000 a year for two years, on condition that we devote a half-page a week to profiling a student organization. That, along with the money we made from ad sales, kept us going.
We took our name and our ad-revenue-based concept from the Santa Barbara News & Review and continued our operational structure as a collective. We were all bosses, so to speak, and we were all accountable to the paper’s financial and professional well-being. Despite the naysayers who had no faith in our chances for success and the snotty dismissiveness of the old-school journalism department at Chico State, we knew that we were a very talented and creative group who had crafted our writing, advertising, graphic arts and business skills from our years together at the Wildcat.
Nonetheless, those were difficult, long days at the beginning because we all wore numerous hats.
One of my typical days: arrive in the morning to write, edit and handle miscellaneous newspaper duties; if it was my turn in the rotation, I would spend the afternoon getting work-ups from the ads that were going to run, get an estimate from the other editors about their column inch totals, and then do the work-up of the entire paper, including photos and graphics; then, in the evening and through the night, I would be doing layout of the paper with other staff members, coordinating the camera for line shots and proofs; then, if it was also my turn in the rotation, I would drive the camera proofs to Red Bluff, where we printed the paper, wait for that to happen, load the papers into our van, and drive it home by 9 or 10 in the morning for distribution.
One of the Wildcats, early CN&R writer (1979-1981) and on-and-off contributor for the CN&R for its first 20 years. Currently, Jeys lives in Paradise and works as a legal writer.
A sweatshop. Literally. The cooling systems always failed when they were needed most. Such is life. Producing the “Goin’ Chico” behemoth, for instance, required toiling across multiple successive 18-hour days, at the height of the summer; it was like The Bridge On The River Kwai. But the work was mostly fun, and rewarding, and so were the people, so it was worthwhile, even if the bridge did blow up in the end.
The Wildcat historically had brought in enough advertising revenue to cover 90 percent of its costs. We figured we could come up with that other 10 percent. The A.S. money helped. We were a collective; ongoing decision-making was in the hands of a steering committee, but policy was set by the staff as a whole, with every employee having one vote and making the same pay, $350 a month.
Contributing music and arts writer at CN&R during the early years (1977-82), Berkow is a longtime local musician and bandleader. Currently, he’s an English and journalism instructor at Shasta College and television producer best known locally for producing a couple of PBS live music series: “Sierra Center Stage” and “Music Gone Public.”
This is a very clear memory: In the very early days, the News & Review would have staff meetings in the old Malvina’s pizza joint on Broadway. They would get several pitchers of beer, pull a couple of the big tables together, and have very loud debates about things like what was going to be on the cover of the next issue. Anybody in the restaurant could eavesdrop in on the conversations.
I remember once, there was a heated exchange about pay: The reporters felt it was unfair that advertising sales people could earn a commission, and could possibly get paid more for working harder, while reporters had a fixed income. The reporters very clearly felt a “more socialist” approach would be fair, where “all workers earned the same.”
We pinched every penny at the paper, and during lean revenue times, actually took pay cuts so that we could stay open. But we believed in the paper and its vision, and we knew that our advocacy journalism was what the Chico area needed.
It must be said that [early writer/editor] Gary Fowler was brave. His father, Jim, ran McClelland Air Conditioning, an outfit intimately associated with area developers. Gary had earlier worked for the company, and knew those people, too. Yet when he served as editor of the CN&R, the paper was on non-stop jihad against those very developers. They would recurrently get on the phone and scream into Jim’s earhole; Gary would later relate to us these frenzies: “Jim! You got to do something about that boy!” I don’t know if his father ever pressured Gary to go easy, but I know that Gary never did. He stepped on nothing. He was a good man.
Most of my friends hoped the paper would keep the town from being taken over by greedy developers and right-wing conservative politicians. And the paper was quite influential in helping local politicians such as Jane Dolan, David Guzzetti, Karl Ory and others win significant elections. The paper also supported several critical referendums that slowed down runaway development.
My friends in the music and arts scene were also thrilled that the weekly newspaper was vigorously supporting live music and the arts—and don’t forget: It was free. That was a big deal back in the days before the Internet.
The daily paper would never write about arts back in those days—and, of course, the Chico E-R also supported the right-wing developer types. In general, the business community was skeptical of that wild “hippie/commie” paper and dismissed it as irrelevant. It’s ironic that today, the CN&R is much more influential than the Enterprise-Record, which is almost bankrupt.
Butte County supervisor from 1979-2011, and the driving force behind establishing the county’s Greenline.
I grew up in Chico, a one-paper town. The move of the then- Wildcat [from] a campus-only newspaper to independence and a new community newspaper changed the information environment in Chico immediately, for the good.
The Chico News & Review provides readers with in-depth and interesting stories of substance. These stories give context and history and allow the reader to understand how issues evolve and, hopefully, resolve.
Jane Dolan’s election to the Board of Supervisors and the county’s passage of the Greenline, to prevent urban development on prime ag land, could also be counted as CN&R legacies that grew out of the Wildcat days.
In 1978, when I challenged an incumbent county supervisor for voting to develop agricultural land and for supporting a proposed PG&E coal plant, the News & Review did story after story about those key issues, which helped me get elected, and we stopped the coal plant. [The paper] further helped create knowledge and support for the Greenline to protect ag land on a 3-to-2 vote on the Board of Supervisors, which prevails today.
The Chico City Council elections of 1980 said it all, in my book. All four candidates who won were the candidates that we endorsed. It was a progressive sweep, representing a clear council majority. A Chico first.
We were stunned. We never expected that. We all ran down to the City Council chambers to look at the vote tallies, because we couldn’t believe it. I imagine that the old guard at the E-R and elsewhere in town were even more shocked. In one night their world had crumbled—or so it seemed. In reality, change had been coming for quite some time.
The paper started out as a revolt against the establishment (including the administration at California State) and that attitude was strong motivation during the paper’s early days, when everybody was just barely making enough to survive.
That culture led to some courageous and clever reporting—but, the same attitude almost led to the paper’s demise.
In 1979, however, we had a financial crisis that we survived only because the staff decided to hire Jeff vonKaenel as its general manager. Jeff lent the paper some money to get it out of immediate financial trouble and also committed to increasing revenues sufficiently to guarantee the paper’s survival. Jeff and his wife, Deborah, are the best thing that’s ever happened to the CN&R.
News & Review president/CEO (Chico, Sacramento and Reno), vonKaenel started as sales manager in Chico in June 1980.
I had been working at an alternative newspaper in Santa Barbara that was a paid newspaper with only a small circulation. I did not think that model could work. So I left. I was excited about the staff in Chico. And liked Chico. I believed that we could make a great paper here.
The paper’s strength was the connection between the paper and the community. The major problem was that it was going out of business. Many of the staff had not been paid in months. The paper owed money to the IRS and to printers up and down the state. We had only a small window of time to turn it around.