Labor of love
One editor’s take on working for the Paradise Post
It was 6:30 in the morning, and I was on my way to Feather River Hospital to see Paradise Post co-owner Lowell Blankfort.
I wasn’t going to offer sympathy. In fact, it was likely I was on my way to get chewed out.
The day before, Blankfort, then in his early 70s, had flown in to review our paper, as he did four times a year. He had developed an irregular heart rhythm that sent him to the emergency room right from the airport.
As I walked up to the hospital, I thought, “This is ridiculous. No hospital is going to let me into an intensive-care unit for a business meeting.”
But the nurse, with the face of John Madden and the shoulders of an NFL linebacker, was obviously expecting me.
“Oh, yes, Mr. Blankfort,” she said. “Right this way.”
I found Blankfort sitting up, dressed in his pajamas. “Move that table over here,” he barked at the nurse. “And bring her a chair. She’ll have some coffee too.”
As soon as she left, Blankfort took a sip of his coffee and said, “Now let’s just hope your editing was good enough so that it doesn’t finish me off.”
Without Blankfort and his partner, Rowland Rebele, the paper might have been a sleepy, sloppy small-town bulletin with a couple of ads in it.
But they wanted a newspaper that would kick ass.
When that didn’t happen, they kicked mine.
In my first six months at the paper, I took on GOP Sen. Jim Nielsen. Along with the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, I broke stories on Nielsen’s business conflicts. When I called for comment, his press secretary laughed at me and hung up.
Some of our Republican readers attacked me in blistering letters, all published prominently on our editorial page.
I was rewarded with a new beat: Town Hall. When I walked into my first Paradise Economic Development Commission meeting, one of the directors stood up and yelled at me to get out.
The head of a town steering committee called me to tell me she had worked out a publicity campaign with the previous Town Hall reporter and didn’t want me on the beat.
Rebele once found me stomping around the newsroom, furious after someone had stood up at a public meeting and called me “dumb as a Post.”
“Journalists have no friends and recognize no enemies,” he said, obviously annoyed by my pique. “Report it in your story and go on.”
I once told Blankfort we should adopt a mission statement I had read somewhere: “The purpose of a newspaper is to tell the truth, fear God, and make money.”
“I don’t especially fear God,” Blankfort said.
Most businesses go out of their way to keep from offending people. After all, the customer is always right.
But Blankfort and Rebele understood the difference between newspapers and department stores. While Blankfort generally handled the editorial decisions and Rebele the business, they agreed that, over time, a newspaper that tells the truth is likely to offend just about everybody.
Angry readers canceled their subscriptions, imagining that they could crush us with their disapproval. They were wrong, and many of them quietly resumed taking the paper within a few months.
Indignant advertisers sometimes pulled their ads, and sometimes that hurt. But most of them came back.
Our customers were not the individual readers, or groups of readers. Nor were they the individual advertisers who sometimes tried to stop us from writing stories they didn’t like.
We reported and wrote for a 52-year-old woman with some college education who opened her paper on Saturday morning with a cup of coffee. Blankfort had invented her, based on our demographic surveys.
Because she was a consumer, she needed to know about local scams and national scandals.
Because she was a grandmother, she needed to know if the guy next door was a child molester.
She had a right to know what her town spent on employees’ salaries, economic development and cleaning supplies.
She should be warned of unscrupulous politicians, dubious charities, impending tax hikes.
Of course, the town manager, the corrupt senator, the wife of the child molester and the scam artist weren’t going to like it. They were going to call us names, threaten to sue, withhold information, lie to us, cry to us, threaten to run us off Lookout Point.
But we kept our eye on the nameless woman as if she were our only customer, because without her, and thousands of others like her, no one would read the paper. Even more important, no one would see the ads.
Blankfort and Rebele never seemed to assimilate our new “political correctness.”
They loved good jokes, dirty or otherwise.
Once an overly sensitive male photographer complained about a page of male-bashing jokes he had found on the lunch-room table. At that time all the newspaper department heads were female, and we took pains to quash the alleged “male hostility” immediately.
But the photographer had already mailed a copy of the jokes to Blankfort.
In our next conversation, Blankfort said, “Hey, somebody on your staff sent me a bunch of jokes. Tell him thanks a lot. I really enjoyed them.”
Blankfort, who wrote for The Wall Street Journal while in his 20s, was never intimidated by the larger resources and greater glory of daily metros. He had great respect for The New York Times, for example, but most papers were lousy, and he didn’t mind saying so.
Papers with owners who keep one eye on the ads and one on the circulation often don’t care how bad the product is. Blankfort and Rebele cared about every detail, even the way we listed calendar events.
They had integrity. Blankfort liked to say that the purpose of a newspaper was to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. We did plenty of both.
I can’t think of anyone they were afraid to take on, anyone who had an ox we couldn’t—or shouldn’t—gore. His story suggestions were sometimes so controversial that I would put them off, hoping he would forget them. (He didn’t.) At his urging, we hammered the Paradise schools, insisting they should send more students to college and score higher on national exams.
When advertisers were canceling their ads, saying we had been too hard on Councilman Dan Wentland for his building permit indiscretions, Blankfort was blasting me, saying we hadn’t been hard enough. We even went after Bill Clinton, castigating him for not meeting with his newly found half-brother, Leon Ritzenthaler of Paradise. I put on courage like an athlete puts on muscle, from lots of workouts and with a great deal of pain.
Our reporters went on to great places, not always with Blankfort’s blessing. For instance, when I told him that former Post reporter James Vlahos had taken a job with USA Today, he nearly choked. “Well, that’s a big step down from the Paradise Post,” he said.
When Blankfort was sitting across the table from me in his pajamas back in the mid-1990s, I thought he would be chewing me out on his deathbed. Or mine. It doesn’t look like that will happen.
Blankfort quickly recovered from whatever was ailing him, and I left the paper in June, six months before it was sold. Maybe he has other things he would rather be doing on his death bed. I know I do.
I used to think the most enviable thing about Blankfort was that he was rich enough to tell the world to go to hell and get away with it.
But I was wrong. The thing I envy most about him was that he was able to tell the world to go to hell and get paid for doing it. In the end, he was able to get his chief competitor to pay him big bucks just to leave town.
It just doesn’t get any sweeter than that.
Linda Meilink (pictured below) was editor of the Paradise Post from 1993–2002.