40 years of the CN&R: the 1980s-1990s

Back in the heyday

George Thurlow and Jeff vonKaenel with the six California Newspaper Association awards the CN&R won in 1986.

George Thurlow and Jeff vonKaenel with the six California Newspaper Association awards the CN&R won in 1986.

File photo by Mark Thalman

As the 1970s wound down, the CN&R was going broke. No-frills salesman Jeff vonKaenel came to the paper in 1980 and soon after so too did his wife, woman-of-many-hats Deborah Redmond, and editor George Thurlow, from Santa Barbara, to help right the ship. And despite a split with the editorial staff at the time, they did. With co-founder Robert Speer returning, the CN&R grew rapidly, both in size and circulation in the ’80s.

In 1989, vonKaenel left for Sacramento to start the SN&R, and in 1991, Thurlow returned to Santa Barbara, and despite a much more volatile economic climate in the 1990s, a succession of editors—Speer, Joe Martin and Tom Gascoyne—guided the newspaper through another decade of success, with a cast of colorful characters covering big issues and a flourishing music and arts scene.

Deborah Redmond

Director of Nuts and Bolts for News & Review (Chico, Sacramento and Reno). Redmond started at the CN&R Jan. 1, 1981, before moving on to the SN&R, working along the way as typesetter, graphic designer, production manager, art director and systems manager.

Jeff and I had been working at the Santa Barbara News & Review, a collectively owned alternative weekly. When we arrived, the staff was working very hard for no money to keep the paper alive. Their hard work and dedication was inspiring. However, there were many problems. The writers were using typewriters. Deadlines weren’t enforced and the production team worked all night to produce the paper.

And there was no money. We had to borrow money to pay the print bill.

Peter Berkow

The newspaper was always on the edge … literally and figuratively. Some of the writing was borderline libelous, though Bob Speer did his best to reign in writers like Kevin Jeys, who was Chico’s answer to Hunter S. Thompson. Kevin’s articles were usually brilliant, funny and dangerous. There were some really solid journalists there, including Joe Kane, Ken Conner, Mark McKinnon, Gary Fowler and Kim Weir, and of course Speer himself.

Later, I realized that vonKaenel and Thurlow pretty much saved the paper. Without them, it would have been bankrupt very quickly. I later became friends with both Jeff and George. I have the greatest respect for them now.

George Thurlow

Robert Speer was there for the birth of the CN&R in 1977 and is still kicking around post-retirement as a frequent contributor. This is a shot of him back in his associate editor days during the 1980s.

File photo by Mark Thalman

CN&R editor-in-chief 1981-91. Thurlow went on to work as publisher of the Santa Barbara Independent (1994-2006). Currently, he’s assistant vice chancellor for alumni affairs at UC Santa Barbara.

When I came in ’81, the transitions had already occurred. There was no editorial staff when I arrived. I hired Robert Speer as the associate editor and he was instrumental in helping to shape the paper in the ’80s and ’90s, as well as its original birth.

Robert Speer

Credit Ronald Reagan [for the paper’s financial growth in the 1980s]. As president, he began pouring money into the defense industry, much of which was located in California. That greatly increased state revenues, some of which went into expanding higher education. The number of students at Chico State (read: youthful consumers) grew significantly. They came here eager to buy bicycles, stereos, clothes, etc. This was before the big-box stores began to dominate the local economy, so most of the providers were locally owned. That’s still true for bikes, but not stereo equipment, computers, etc. In the ’80s, however, stores such as Golden Ear and Sounds by Dave were doing brisk business, and their advertising vehicle of choice was the increasingly popular CN&R.

As the paper’s business improved, so did the product. Through most of the ’80s the editorial staff numbered seven to eight people (George Thurlow, Tom Johnson, Bob Stout, Claudine Campbell, Danielle Toussaint, Mark Thalman, myself and Tori Beckham), and we were regularly putting out 80-page papers (Goin’ Chico was often more than 100 pages).

George Thurlow

The issues while I was editor focused on land use and the environment. With Bob’s leadership, we were influential in setting the tone in the arts. We were also very focused on local politics at a time when conservatives still held sway over the county and the city was always a back-and-forth proposition. We hounded our Republican congressmembers and our state reps. The paper broke a lot of stories, but in my mind the stories I felt best about were Tom Johnson’s lengthy special issue profiling the area servicemen who died in Vietnam; a piece detailing the corruption of Sen. Jim Nielsen; and a piece I did on how cocaine profits had poured into Chico and were financing businesses there.

Others wrote better pieces; those are the ones I remember.

Robert Speer

Herb Caen, the immensely popular columnist for the SF Chronicle, once made a joke about how Chico was the kind of town where you’d find Velveeta in the gourmet section. Chicoans, instead of being put off by his joke, began sending him other examples of the town’s rusticity, all in good humor. The Velveeta meme became “the joke that wouldn’t die.” Eventually, Caen accepted an invitation to visit Chico, where he was wined and dined like royalty and had a wonderful time. Wildcat staff writer Joe Kane’s girlfriend’s parents were friends of Caen’s and helped arrange it so Joe and she could tag along during his visit. Caen ended up writing a delightful column in praise of Chico and Joe wrote a terrific gonzo-style story that won him an internship at Rolling Stone in NYC that led to a job there and onward to other success, including his brilliant books, Running the Amazon and Savages.

Tina Flynn

Peter Berkow was a fixture in Chico in the 1970s and 1980s, both as a contributing writer and a popular local musician (the latter of which he remains to this day).

CN&R managing art director, Flynn has been with the paper continuously since 1978, longer than anyone.

When we went to the first [Association of Alternative Newsweeklies] conference that we knew about … we were amazed that there were other communities doing what we were doing. We thought we had invented this idea of an alternative newsweekly. It was surprising but gratifying, because there was an automatic kinship.

Jeff vonKaenel

[In the 1980s], we went from somewhere around 9,000 circulation up to around 40,000. We went from $250,000, where we were losing, to probably somewhere around $1.3 million and making money. So, we went from a paper that had some really good stories but was inconsistent to winning the award for Best Weekly in the state by the California Newspaper Publishers Association, [despite] being a town as small as Chico.

Mike Ramsey

Butte Country District Attorney since 1987.

The beauty of the CN&R is its mission to do a deep dive into local issues and politics—and to provide a “different” perspective from the more conservative local media.

The CN&R has bumped me a few times (how dare they!), but overall I feel they have asked and listened fairly about local criminal justice issues and they have generally tried not to just spout the “knee-jerk liberal” view of crime. I much prefer local journalists and opinion writers who have actually gotten out into the community and have a better feel for the local citizens and their views than someone who has parachuted in and tells us how we should act and feel.

Robert Speer

Came on as editor-in-chief in ’91.

Its influence steadily grew. Chico was more liberal than people had realized, which is why the City Council was dominated by liberals through most of the ’80s. The CN&R had a big role in this.

A typical after-work (or during work?) scene at CN&R offices during the 1990s, with (from left) Diana White, Don Button, Stacy Alexander, Donnell Alexander and Charles Mohnike.

David Guzzetti

One-time mayor and City Council member and longtime local restaurateur.

Journalistically and editorially, the CN&R hits head-on our political scene at all levels. Its balanced voice stands as an in-depth alternative to the daily paper. The CN&R covers the community’s triumphs and victories as well as our failures and struggles. In the print media, no one in the community covers more extensively our civil and equal rights issues as well as our environmental and health issues. Its coverage of the arts, its reviews and calendar of events are such an asset to all of us.

George Thurlow

During this time, the CN&R went from alternative to community newspaper with progressive views. It became an important read in the community. Its financial health helped launch the Sacramento News & Review.

Jeff vonKaenel

I am very grateful to George. We were college roommates and we worked together at the Santa Barbara News & Review. With the exception of convincing Deborah to go out with me, convincing George to move to Chico was my most successful sales achievement. The George Thurlow/Bob Speer team was great. We put out wonderful papers.

Robert Speer

My vision wasn’t significantly different from George’s or the staff’s. Things changed with the recession of ’92 and the influx of big-box stores; page size dropped, so we had to make do with less. When staffers moved on, their positions weren’t always filled.

Despite the belt-tightening, we put out some terrific issues. I hired Elizabeth Kieszkowski, who was a super arts editor and created one of the most memorable characters ever to find a home at the CN&R, the arts columnist Bitter Betty. I also hired Tom Gascoyne, a bulldog of a reporter who went on to become editor when Joe [Martin] left [in 1999]. And I’m proud to say I took a chance on Donnell Alexander, a young and relatively inexperienced African-America writer then working as the education reporter for the Hanford Sentinel. He turned out to be one of the best hires I made, but the Bay Guardian poached him away after just two years. He went on to write for the LA Weekly and ESPN The Magazine as well as write two critically praised memoirs.

Charles Mohnike

The Mother Hips led the way during Chico’s fertile music scene during the 1990s.

Longtime local musician who worked at the CN&R as writer, calendar editor and copy editor in the early 1990s.

The pay was barely enough for a starving-student existence, but at the time the paper did “trade” with its advertisers, meaning there were several local restaurants where we could eat free. I also learned that as calendar editor—who chose which events were highlighted each week—there was no shortage of people who wanted to buy me drinks at the bars. Of course, my steely journalist’s objectivity prevented me from allowing that to influence my editorial decisions. Usually. Sometimes.

Jason Cassidy

CN&R arts editor and sometimes calendar editor (2003-present) and event producer (2010-present), and local-band dude from back in the day.

I picked up the CN&R in the 1990s to read Bitter Betty. Her snarky arts and culture (and often scathingly political) columns were so full of energy and insight—not to mention great satire in the voice of a high-society beatnik, “darlings”—and she made the local music and arts scene feel so alive, which is something I’ve tried to emulate with Arts DEVO.

In fact, the CN&R was such a critical resource at a time that was—at least in this long-time observer’s eyes—the zenith of the music and arts scene in Chico. The ’90s were just insane with adventurous theater and great music of all genres, and most importantly, consistent venues—Burro Room/Juanita’s, LaSalles, Whispering Clam, The Blue Room (both for music in the “Wood Room” and theater in the main space), Cafe Sienna, Brick Works, Stormy’s. And in those pre-Internet days, all the buzz about what was happening was generated by the CN&R’s active and engaged stable of writers: Kevin Jeys, Larry Tripp, Shawna Gore, Geoff Earl, Troy Brookins and of course Bitter Betty herself, Elizabeth Kieszkowski.

Tom Gascoyne

CN&R staff writer (early ’90s), news editor (1995-1999), editor-in-chief (1999-2006), contributor (2009-2012), news editor (2012-2015).

The big stories in the 1990s were mostly about residential growth, contaminated properties (Humboldt Dump) and out-of-control student partying during Pioneer Days (which was killed and then brought back to life as Rancho Chico Days in the 2000s), Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day.

The City Council was fairly liberal with even the most conservative Mary Andrews not nearly as right-wing as today’s conservative members. Tom Lando was the city manager and very good at his job.

For the most part, it was developers vs. environmentalists battling over growth. Pretty much the same thing in the 2000s (and now).

Peter Berkow

I truly believe this: Chico is a much better town due to the good journalism practiced by the News & Review. In 1989, I received grants from McGraw-Hill publishing and PBS to create a couple of textbooks and a 15-program PBS series called “News Writing” … and I traveled to cities in 20 states interviewing reporters and editors. I studied the relationship between communities and the quality of journalism practiced in their local newspapers in each town. So, I have some real evidence to back up this statement: The towns without independent weekly newspapers were suffering. The towns with great alternative papers like the CN&R had a chance to elect and maintain a progressive city government—and there was usually a lively arts scene, because it was supported by the alternative weekly. It was essentially the same pattern in every town.