Changing of the guard

Speer gives way to Daugherty as CN&R’s editor-in-chief

Retiring CN&R Editor Robert Speer with a framed cover of the very first issue of the newspaper.

Retiring CN&R Editor Robert Speer with a framed cover of the very first issue of the newspaper.

Photo By Maury Ledoyen

The task of putting out a weekly community paper, even under the best circumstances, can sometimes be described as herculean. For this reason, CN&R Editor Robert Speer affectionately refers to each issue as “the weekly miracle.”

As Speer steps down from the position as the CN&R’s editor this week—making room for current Managing Editor Melissa Daugherty—he has participated in the production of an estimated 1,500 issues of this weekly miracle in more than 30 years of service.

Prior to landing in Chico, Speer—who originally hails from Fresno—said he moved around a lot as a child and continued to do so after graduating from Fresno State University. He worked as a social worker and elementary-school teacher, and was a graduate film student at UCLA before accompanying his then-girlfriend here in 1972.

Speer said he found in Chico not only a comfortable place to live, but also “a community worth working and fighting for.

“There was a lot to protect here, a lot that was good, and I didn’t want to see it sold out to ‘greed-heads’ and people who wanted to exploit it,” he said. “There was a growing progressive community emerging, but it had no voice.”

Speer initially became involved locally by helping found Chico’s first free health clinic and a group called the April Committee, which was the first organized effort to get progressives elected to the Chico City Council, which it succeeded in doing in 1973. Through his work with the latter organization, he was asked to write a series of articles for the Chico State newspaper, The Wildcat.

“That’s when I realized I had more fun working for the paper,” Speer said, “so when the campaign was over I kept writing for them.” He became The Wildcat’s news editor in 1974, earning $70 a month during the school year, less than he made collecting the $25 a week paid by unemployment during the summer. For much of this time, Speer lived in a cabin in Butte Creek Canyon, riding to town on a motor scooter and hitchhiking when it broke down.

Meanwhile, he and a ragtag band of idealistic young colleagues at The Wildcat were evolving the paper into a community publication rather than an exclusively campus-focused one. Increasing conflict with the administration led Speer and two others to negotiate a deal for autonomy; they moved the paper off campus, and on Aug. 30, 1977, the Chico News & Review was born.

The paper was initially run as a collective, with everyone having an equal say and making $350 a month.

“There was just this amazing camaraderie,” said Art Director Tina Flynn, who worked briefly at The Wildcat and joined the CN&R full time in 1978, where she has remained since. “I often think it couldn’t be duplicated with this generation, because of the willingness everyone had and the sacrifices everyone made to get along and make things work.”

Speer in the mid-1980s, still in mountain-man mode.

CN&R file photo

Flynn also remembers long nights that turned into mornings as the crew worked to make the miracle happen. So does Speer: “We’d work all night laying out the paper in an office above what became the Normal St. Bar,” he said. “We’d finally put it to bed while watching the sun rise over St. John’s Episcopal Church.”

Jeff vonKaenel and Deborah Redmond took over as publisher and production manager of the CN&R in 1980, eventually starting sister papers in Sacramento and Reno. VonKaenel said that, though the CN&R has evolved, much of the initial spirit—of which he calls Speer “the architect”—remains.

“The News & Review’s and Chico Community Publishing’s DNA really was formed by Bob and his vision to have a community paper that represents many voices, a sense of fairness and a sense of potential for what a community can become,” vonKaenel said.

This is not Speer’s first retirement or extended leave of absence, and he has served the paper in various capacities over the years including as arts editor, associate editor, and multiple stints in the chief’s seat, and as an interim editor of the Sacramento News & Review. During his times away from the organization, he edited a weekly in Boise, Idaho, worked at Butte College, and briefly pursued a career as a screenwriter (one script he co-penned with Alex Lasker, Seeds of Tragedy, aired on the then-fledgling Fox Network in 1991).

As Daugherty takes the helm, she said she is committed to continuing this tradition of storytelling: “The goal is to keep that voice, but have it backed up with really solid and extensive reporting.”

Daugherty started at the CN&R as a special-projects editor in 2007, eventually became news editor and has served as managing editor since last year. Prior to that, she earned a degree in journalism from Chico State and cut her teeth as a reporter at the Chico Enterprise-Record. She describes herself approaching journalism from an “old-school” perspective grounded in hard news and investigative journalism.

Daugherty also doesn’t make much of the fact that she’s the paper’s first female editor-in-chief.

“It’s something I consider an honor, but other than that, it’s just an interesting fact,” she said. “The biggest difference I see is that there won’t be a mustache in the column when I write it.”

Daugherty said the greatest lessons she’s learned from Speer are to always be fair and to aspire to high standards in writing, reporting and editing, and explained she holds her own and others’ work up to what she calls “the Bob test.” She also said she’s happy to know Speer is nearby for advice during the transition time.

“It’s important to me knowing he’s still there, he’s still going to write and be an active part of the community; it gives me some comfort.”

Speer said he’s excited to see where Daugherty takes the newspaper. “She’s smart, talented, very capable, and will bring a whole new perspective to the position,” he said.

Speer’s retirement plans include writing stories for the CN&R that he hasn’t had the time or energy to pursue while serving as editor, freelancing, dedicating more time to his Buddhist practice and his family—wife Denise Fleming and their teenage son, Liam (two adult children live elsewhere)—and doing long-deferred maintenance on their house.

“Most of all, I’m going to enjoy having the day relatively free to do with as I wish. I haven’t had that for a very long time.”