Eye of the storm

How we became the focus of unwanted media attention

Illustration By Steve Ferchaud

This week’s News & Review carries the now-infamous Goin’ Chico issue that ruffled more than a few feathers and angered Chico State University officials and students (present and former) and put us in the uncomfortable spotlight of the media.

Goin’ Chico is a special issue published each year as a guide to new students who plan to attend either Chico State or Butte College, highlighting the town and the schools.

We’ve been doing it for years in cooperation with Chico State. In the past, copies were sent directly to the home addresses of potential incoming students. More recently, the school dropped that practice when other local publications tried to climb aboard the gravy train.

Instead, the school, through its Summer Orientation staff, agreed to insert about 5,000 copies of the issue into special packets handed out during the June and July freshmen orientations.

This year’s edition of Goin’ Chico was much like those of the past, touching on local government, service organizations, school and town history and important people to know. In the past, we’ve been keenly aware of the touchy nature of the school’s party image and have steered clear of promoting that culture.

We figure the local weekly called The Synthesis pretty much has cornered the market on all things alcohol-related. So we leave it alone. In fact, a few years ago the cover of our Goin’ Chico featured a college-aged couple sitting at a restaurant table holding what could have interpreted as being mixed drinks. We, at a considerable cost, altered the cover at the school’s request.

There is one story in this year’s otherwise-typical Goin’ Chico that brought us a storm of controversy no one here fully anticipated. Writer Josh Indar’s “The Party Rules” is a scathing, satirical and sardonic indictment of the party atmosphere that has long haunted this town—at least since 1987 when Playboy randomly dubbed Chico State the No. 1 party school in the nation.

In a way, we’ve never recovered. When I initially read Indar’s piece, I winced. It was not typical Goin’ Chico fare, which generally leans more to where to find the biggest burrito or who the mayor is.

But with the recent fraternity deaths and generally bad behavior from certain students and what we saw as the lack of strong response from school leaders, as editor I decided the piece should run. It spares no one—not the students, the frats and sororities, the town itself, the media nor the school administration.

“Sometimes it takes strong medicine,” I reasoned.

I expected some community response after the piece was published—but at first, nothing happened and I thought that was it.

Our printer, the Paradise Post, had delivered 5,000 issues to the school and stacked them in a room on the third floor of the O’Connell Technology Center, where they were to sit until stuffed into the orientation packets.

About 200 copies were placed on a rack in the Bell Memorial Union in the hallway outside the multi-purpose room on the second floor.

A couple of days later, I got a call from Joe Wills, the university’s public relations person. In my experience, Wills has been a pretty straight shooter. As soon as I heard his voice on the phone, I knew why he had called.

Wills, a former journalist, said he understood what the article was intended to convey but suggested the piece should have run in a different venue or had some sort of warning to the reader. We talked awhile longer and I transferred his call to Indar and they discussed the piece and whether it was appropriate.

After a couple of weeks with no further response, I thought the storm had come and gone and we’d weathered it pretty well.

On June 8 or 9, I received a letter from Thomas Whitcher, the newly elected Associated Students president.

Whitcher said he was disappointed by some of the stories in the Goin’ Chico, a publication he viewed “as a tool to help [students] get to know Chico and what makes it such a great place.”

“However,” he continued, “after reading the latest issue of Goin’ Chico it seems that the intention of the publication has strayed from my established experiences.”

Interestingly, Whitcher interpreted the story as contributing to the “party-school mindset.”

And university President Paul Zingg told me via e-mail, “The issue in question glorified an alcohol culture that the University is trying hard to change.” Zingg opted not to comment on the matter for this story.

Whitcher’s request was OK’d by Bob Hannigan, dean of student enrollment. The papers would remain locked in the O’Connell building. Someone emptied the issues from the rack in the BMU and tossed the rack into a closet, though who did so remains unclear.

Hannigan said the school was simply not going to actively distribute the papers. So we did, paying $100 for a table in the BMU and—after being chastised by a couple of A.S. employees for “actively soliciting” the paper—sat and watched as parents and students strolled by the table.

At this point, some of the advertisers learned that the issue was not getting distributed as they were led to believe it would and started making noises about not paying for their ads. Lee Craft, the CN&R’s general manager, struck a deal with the school—if he substituted a student-welcome from Zingg in 3,000 issues, would the school distribute them? The school agreed and the deal was made.

As a result, we were roundly criticized for folding to the demands of the school and cow-towing to our advertisers’ complaints. (One particularly strong critic called me an “advertising whore.") Those of us in the editorial department agreed to this compromise because it meant only 3,000 out of a total of 50,000, or about 6 percent, of the issues would contain the replacement. Plus, the original version would still be available on the racks on campus.

Also, what we have inserted with the 45,000 copies of this week’s issue of the CN&R this week is the original version of Goin’ Chico, including the scandalous “The Party Rules.”