So long, Synthesis

Chico bids farewell to the weekly entertainment tab

Karen Potter, COO of SynMedia, says she’s sad to see the Synthesis go.

Karen Potter, COO of SynMedia, says she’s sad to see the Synthesis go.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

It’s the end of an era. For 21 years, Chicoans have come to expect their weekly Synthesis newspaper to arrive with their Monday morning coffee. They’ve turned to it for music interviews, bar calendars and commentary from their favorite columnists. And let’s not forget the feature stories and on-the-town photos.

The Synthesis fills a special place in many a local’s heart. But, in a time when print media is struggling everywhere, it’s calling it quits. The final issue will hit stands March 30.

“Synthesis has always been this really interesting amalgamation of the voices of our community, something that constantly changed as our culture changed, and as different writers and editors added or removed their perspectives,” said Amy Sandoval, current editor/publisher, by email this week. “We always tried to be a reflection of what mattered to our readership, especially trying to build up Chico’s arts and entertainment scene, but also exploring local and broader social issues in a way that no one else was.”

For many, especially college students coming to Chico for the first time and hoping to get plugged in to the local music or entertainment scene, the Synthesis served as a launching pad.

“I remember when I moved to Chico in 1998, the Synthesis was probably the coolest thing I had ever seen,” said former Synthesis columnist Daniel Taylor. “Being from a small town I didn’t know shit about cool music or pop culture or really anything at all, so to have something that was a sort of primer for hanging out and being cool was pretty important at that point in my life …. So when I had the chance to start writing for them I was pretty excited.”

Unfortunately for the Synthesis, like many print publications in the Internet age, circulation began to drop, with the readership slowly shifting from incoming college students to aging hipsters. In recent years, however, the print publication was being picked up by a diminishing number of new readers, said Karen Potter, chief operating officer of SynMedia, which oversees not only the Synthesis newspaper but also several social media, marketing and design operations. She said they definitely felt the drop in circulation on campus, which used to be the publication’s target audience.

“We were seeing the print [copies] getting picked up less and less, but print costs kept going up and up,” Potter said.

“It’s a print publication in 2015. It’s got the health profile of a 115-year-old chain smoker with one good leg, blurred vision, a half of a kidney and a gluten problem,” said founder/owner Bill Fishkin, via email from San Francisco. “A slight drop in temperature or someone slamming a door too hard causes an unsurprising chain of events to occur thereafter.”

Many people will remember the Synthesis for certain columnists or personalities that filled its pages. Among them were Fishkin himself, who wrote a weekly column from the very beginning in 1994 until 2008, when he decided to step back and devote more time to some of SynMedia’s other enterprises. This week, in Fishkin’s first column since 2008, he says goodbye and gives a short history of the paper, starting with its humble beginnings in his Fourth Avenue apartment.

“Virtually no one thought this would last,” he writes.

In the next two weeks, several former editors and memorable writers will return to reminisce, Potter said. One of them, Taylor, penned the popular “Hot Flashes” column.

“For more than seven years I got to be the most narcissistic piece of shit on the planet and it was awesome,” Taylor wrote in an email to the CN&R. “Generally I had carte blanche to say whatever the hell I wanted, often much to my own detriment. That, to me, was the genius of what we had at the Synthesis, at least for a while, was the unfettered freedom to screw up. And we did, plenty of times. But we also did so many things that I, personally, am proud of.”

Another longtime staffer, former managing editor Ryan Prado, likewise remembers the Synthesis as being quite cool.

“I never took the weekly as a hard-nosed newsmagazine; that’s what CN&R was for,” Prado said via email. “We knew that. At least I did. We were the younger arbiters of the cool or the ridiculous, and we flew a bit by the seat of our pants, which could often come back to bite us in the ass. I wouldn’t have changed a thing about that part of it. It was one of the most fun and rewarding jobs I’ve ever had, and prepared me greatly for my continued writing/journalism career.”

That was part of the beauty of working at the Synthesis, where creativity and personal voice reigned.

“I think one thing with our paper is we definitely tried to give our writers the freedom to share whatever voice they wanted. A little more freedom than yours,” Potter said. “There will be a hole there.”

“The environment was a combination of adrenaline and artistry mixed with a dash of booze and occasional jackassery,” Fishkin said. “Well, probably not entirely occasional. Let’s just say that it was 98 percent fun.”

The Synthesis certainly was not immune to controversy over the years. One incident that stands out is the paper running an ad for Normal Street Bar around Cesar Chavez Day that members of the Latino community charged was racist. However, even after losing some significant advertising revenue as a result, the publication survived.

Beyond saying goodbye to a 21-year-old institution in Chico, many of the folks who made the Synthesis tick will simply shift their focus to other aspects of SynMedia. In addition to social media and marketing arms, Fishkin has started mobile app Neighbrhds, which aims to bring communities together, as well as Theia Interactive, which offers virtual home walkthroughs.

“The paper was really down to a skeleton crew. No one was surprised at the outcome,” he said. Most of the paper’s content came from freelance writers. Sandoval, however, is out of a job.

“I’m saddened to hear it’s shutting down, but I also feel like in my nascent perusals of the paper in the last few years, the majority of the spirit of it had vanished,” Prado said. “Synthesis should be remembered as an entertainment weekly that launched the journalism, photography, graphic design, etc., careers of a whole host of super-talented people …”