A history in stories

Quick looks at some of the CN&R’s most compelling issues

Further reading: Some of these stories are available here as PDF documents (just click on the hyperlinked dates). They were scanned and therefore are not of the highest quality. We hope you enjoy reading them anyway.

In its 30 years, the CN&R has published more than 1,500 issues, so picking out the best cover stories is impossible. There are too many great ones.

Having said that, here are some that stood out when we recently took a long look back, rifling through old bound volumes until the tag “ink-stained wretches” was fully appropriate.

Taken together, they give a sense of where the paper has been and what it has attempted to do. For long-time readers, they will be a reminder of years gone by and the stories that characterized them. New readers may enjoy this peek into the past.

We stopped our backward look in 2003. We’re still too close to the stories written since then to know whether they belong in such a retrospective. Check in with us 10 years from now, when we celebrate our 40th.

Aug. 30, 1977
It was a drought year. Fires were raging in the Sierra. In its very first issue, the CN&R asked what was causing the fires—and then answered the question: too many years of fire suppression and a lack of controlled burning. It was a novel concept then. It’s still a problem today.

Feb. 7, 1978
With the issue, reporter Bryce Conrad took on a subject other media were largely ignoring: PG&E’s proposal to build a huge coal-fired power plant just 10 miles south of Chico. By raising awareness of the amount of pollution the plant would release, the paper helped to kill it.

Nov. 14, 1978
Joe Kane’s sparkling first-person account of famed Chronicle columnist Herb Caen’s first visit to Chico—after years of poking fun at it—won him an internship at Rolling Stone magazine in New York City. He went on to write two best-selling nonfiction books, Running the Amazon and Savages, and contribute to The New Yorker.

May 15, 1981
Danny Pollock’s inside look at Red Warthan and his Oroville band of neo-Nazis was as controversial as it was unsettling. Some people objected to the swastika on the cover and giving the Nazi wing nuts any attention; others said it was an important exposé. A few years later Warthan was convicted of killing one of his acolytes and sentenced to life in prison, where he died.

March 10, 1983
K. Patrick Conner’s vivid tale of a series of murders among members of a shadowy drug underworld was an early entry in what became a CN&R stock-in-trade: sharply written true-life crime tales. Conner is now Sunday metro editor at the San Francisco Chronicle.

April 28, 1983
For this in-depth investigative piece, K. Patrick Conner joined forces with Editor George Thurlow to examine a failed natural-gas-drilling tax-shelter scheme that cost several prominent Chico investors thousands of dollars and led to charges of fraud and suppression of the story by the Chico Enterprise-Record. One of the principals in the company was a City Council candidate the paper had endorsed.

April 17, 1986
This special multi-story issue was an overview of religion in Chico. Offered “as a small contribution to the religious pluralism that has characterized this nation since its inception,” it featured articles on local “born-again” Christians, Mormons, Mennonites, Muslims and Christian Scientists, as well as a roundtable on the role of Christianity in the community and an interview with a Buddhist professor.

Jan. 8, 1987
When George Thurlow learned that a couple murdered execution-style in their plush foothills home east of Sacramento were originally from Chico and that the man had been a local cocaine kingpin, he realized that the violence had been bred here. His report shone such a bright light on the local drug industry that threats were made to his family’s safety. Following his 10-year tenure at the CN&R, Thurlow became publisher of the Santa Barbara Independent.

Jan. 22, 1987
Over the years the CN&R published a number of multi-story special issues on such major geographic features as the Sacramento River, Mount Shasta and Lassen Park. This early spread on Bidwell Park took a close look at its many wonders, examined the challenges it faced, and introduced some of the people working to protect it.

April 30, 1987
Contributing Editor Danielle Toussaint’s coverage of the south-of-campus riots that led Chico State to end Pioneer Days earned her a first-place award for spot news coverage from the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Vivid photos (by intern Taylor Flynn) of drunken crowds, couches blazing in the street, and cops knocking heads added to her report.

May 19, 1988
George Thurlow’s exhaustive multi-part examination of the methamphetamine underground was highly praised for its depiction of the dangers of the drug, but it was also criticized for including a graphic illustration of how the drug is manufactured—one he obtained from a library.

May 26, 1988
Contributing Editor Tom Johnson, a Vietnam War vet, spent months pulling together this special 16-page, ad-free special issue, titled “Boys of the Valley,” on the 66 area soldiers killed in the war. He located the families of all of them, obtained photos and wrote short but vivid profiles of each man. It remains to this day one of the most remarkable accounts the CN&R has ever published.

March 1, 1990
This special, multi-story issue on the foster-care system, titled “The Kids Society Forgot,” was an effort to illuminate the lives of the 700 Butte County children who’d been taken away from their parents. A team of reporters spent a month interviewing people involved in the system, from foster parents and case workers to the children themselves. What the CN&R found was a system that, in too many cases, did a “sorry job of raising the very children [it] intended to save.”

Jan. 30, 1992
This special report on black people in Chico benefited greatly from the contributions of Donnell Alexander, a young African-American writer who worked for the CN&R from 1991-93. His take on what it was like being black in Chico rang true like a bell, and his description of the divide between blacks at the university and those in the black community at large shone light on an unrecognized but significant phenomenon.

July 9, 1992
Just a year after the United States drove Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm, George Thurlow investigated an ever-widening scandal involving an alleged ripoff of $2 billion in taxpayer subsidies, the use of kickbacks to help Iraq arm itself in its 1980-88 war against Iran, and the possible coverup of illegal actions on the part of the first Bush administration. The story reached to the highest levels of the administration.

May 19, 1994
Who judges the judges? It’s a question that almost never gets asked, so the CN&R decided to do something about it. Contributing Editor Danielle Toussaint sent out surveys to the county’s attorneys, asking them how knowledgeable, compassionate, fair, smart and efficient the judges were. To the jurists’ credit, all but one judge got good to excellent marks.

Oct. 26, 1995
When the city of Chico bought 1,380 acres of land on the south side of Big Chico Creek to add to Upper Bidwell Park, citizens rejoiced. Almost nobody thought that expanding the park was a bad idea. But when Richard Ek took a closer look at the purchase, he discovered that the city had been flummoxed by the sellers and had overpaid by as much as $1 million. The revelations in his story, “The Bidwell Bungle,” didn’t make anyone happy.

April 12, 2001
Tom Gascoyne wrote dozens of superb cover stories in the many years he worked for the CN&R, seven of them as editor, and this eulogy of his friend Jonathan Studebaker was one of the best. Studebaker was widely known in Chico for his ebullience and involvement in the community despite suffering from brittle-bone disease, and when he died many people mourned. Gascoyne’s story spoke for all of them.

April 19, 2001
When Jack Nickerson Jr., a worker cleaning out an empty gas tank in south Chico, was killed when it exploded, regular CN&R contributor Leslie Layton looked more closely at the incident. What she discovered was that negligence—on the part of government agencies that failed to provide supervision and the company doing the cleaning—was a major factor in the man’s death.

July 26, 2001
When Chico native Amanda Detmer went off to Hollywood and began appearing in major motion pictures, CN&R Arts Coordinator Chris Baldwin wrote this sparkling profile of a small-town gal realizing her big-time acting dreams.

Feb. 27, 2003
Just days before the United States invaded Iraq, Senior Editor Robert Speer compiled this informative backgrounder—in the style of the “Dummies” books—on the Iraq war and the arguments for and against it. The article warned that it might take “many years and cost hundreds of billions of dollars” to build a new nation in Iraq. And it pointed out the danger of hubris, reminding President Bush of the biblical injunction: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”